The first Christian settlers in the New World had a healthy respect for Jewish culture. The first two presidents of Harvard University, founded in 1636, taught Hebrew. Hebrew, in fact, was taught at all American universities founded before the Revolution.
For more than 10 years, Shalom Goldman has explored this early American interest in Hebraism. "Every year or so, I would publish a paper on it," said Goldman, associate professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern studies. "Then I realized there must be a big story, I just didn't see it yet."
That big story has finally manifested in Goldman's new book, God's Sacred Tongue: Hebrew & the American Imagination (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Despite the title reference, Goldman said his fourth book actually is a story of Christian-Jewish interaction.
"I'm trying to understand and explain how Christians understood Judaism, both as a religion and as a cultural tradition," Goldman said. "I'm not that focused on how they understood or related to Jews as people. I'm more interested in the intellectual aspect."
The special relationship between American Christians--primarily Protestants--and Jews has its roots with the first European settlers who came to the continent in the 17th century. Goldman said English clergy held the belief that Hebrew was the first language (hence "God's Sacred Tongue"), and that early Americans felt a Biblical tie to Jewish culture.
"The English especially believed they were fleeing a kind of pharaoh, George III, and they were coming to a promised land," Goldman said. "So they had this image of the new world as a place that was on the model of the Biblical place. They understood that this was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy."
Fresh off the presses, God's Sacred Tongue already has generated a good bit of buzz. Earlier this month Goldman was a guest on WABE's "Between the Lines." On Tuesday, April 20, he will speak at a chapel tea in Cannon Chapel, and on May 2 Goldman will talk about his book at Ahavath Achim, an Atlanta synagogue. The Washington Post also included the title in a list of recently released books with religious themes.
The book's release in 2004 is no accident. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the first Jews' arrival in North America--in 1654 a group of 23 Dutch Jews landed in what is now New York. Goldman said the Jewish community in this country was negligible at the time of the American Revolution (1,500 Jews among 3 million inhabitants) and that it didn't become significant until 1880, when America's Jewish population began to swell from 100,000 to more than 3 million by 1920.
"The subtext of the book is the relationship between Jews and Christians in the United States, which is a unique relationship in world history," Goldman said. "I think most scholars would agree that in modernity Jews feel most comfortable in this country. Much of that, as I claim in the book, has to do with the religious tolerance in America, which grows out of its diversity of religions. That is, America has religious tolerance because it had no choice."
God's Sacred Tongue unwinds through a series of portraits. Beginning in the 1600s and continuing through the 20th century, Goldman uncovers a diverse array of Christian intellectuals whose interests crossed religious barriers to encompass Judaism.
"I tried to pick the best stories," Goldman said. "I wanted to make this book appeal to academicians as well as to the so-called 'intelligent, skeptical reader.' I don't know yet if I've been successful."
\ One thing is for sure: The title of chapter 10, "American Hebraist and Proto-Zionist Professor George Bush," should encourage some reading. Nearly 15 years ago, Goldman came across Professor Bush while flipping through a list of Christian scholars of Hebrew. Bush, a 19th century distant cousin of the current president (a letter from the White House when George H. W. Bush was president confirmed it), was a professor of Hebrew and oriental literature at New York University for 12 years before the Civil War.
Bush's writings were ahead of their time. One book he wrote called for the Jews' return to Palestine. Bush also wrote what Goldman said was the first American book about Islam-- The Life of Mohammed , published in 1830--and it wasn't very complimentary. All Christian books about Islam were of a similar thread at that time, Goldman said.
"This is a man whose descendants were going to be presidents, and he was writing books that speak directly to things that are going on today," Goldman said.
Goldman concludes with an epilogue that ties the writings and beliefs of the past with contemporary political and social climates in both the United States and the Middle East. Goldman's current work is along the same lines--taking relevant Middle Eastern history and fast-forwarding it to today. In between appearances to promote his new book, this summer he will be planning a freshman seminar in Middle Eastern studies called "Ancient Iraq: History and Mythology," which will explore American interest in Mesopotamia.