Forward Thinking

Why Jonathan Sarna Is My Best Source

By Paul Berger

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Brandeis University

We often think of historians as dry academics walled off in their ivory towers.

But the level of concern about the health of historian Jonathan Sarna, who is hospitalized in critical condition after collapsing, shows that Sarna is something special.

Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, is not just a deeply knowledgeable and engaging historian. He connects with people — students, historians, laypeople and, dare I say it, journalists.

As my colleague Josh Nathan-Kazis pointed out in a conversation this afternoon: “He’s a historian who steps out of the bounds of the academy and makes himself accessible to answer questions and engages in the world. Professors who do that are rare and valuable.”

I learned firsthand of Sarna’s value during my first months at the Forward, in 2011, when I started investigating a story about George Washington’s lost 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island.

Sarna was the inspiration for that story after I heard him mention the letter’s importance — and the fact that it appeared to be lost — at a Limmud conference in Britain. Sarna was also my guide throughout the story’s reporting, directing me to source materials and to other important documents of the day.

Since then, whenever I have had occasion to delve into American Jewish history, Sarna has become the first person that I turn to for sources, citations, guidance and inspiration.

Sarna is more than a walking encyclopedia of the American Jewish experience. He is a part of what makes American Jewish history vibrant and vital.

That’s why so many people wish him well right now.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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