Gary Zola will be talking about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln next weekend, but the American historical figure who really gets him excited is Jacob Rader Marcus.

Don’t feel bad if that name doesn’t ring a bell. Marcus made his name not in the fields of battle and politics, but in the considerably more arcane realm of American Jewish history, a field that he often is credited with inventing as a scholarly pursuit.

When he first met Dr. Marcus, Dr. Zola was a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Dr. Marcus then was 83, a professor of history at HUC, head of its American Jewish Archives and acknowledged as the dean of American Jewish historians.

“He was an unbelievable human being,” Dr. Zola said. “He had the mind of a computer. He had the ability to remember facts and figures and dates. In my entire 17 years of studying with him — he lived to 100 — I never asked him a question that he did not know the answer to.”

But it wasn’t just Dr. Marcus’ mastery of facts that made young Gary Zola a devotee.

“His ability to tell stories, to teach Jewish history through case studies, to make a generalization and illustrate it with a fabulous example was an inspiration. It was like catnip. I couldn’t get enough of it from him.

“I was very fascinated by the American nation and its history, and once Dr. Marcus introduced me to the contributions that Jews made to the nation I was hooked.

Dr. Zola wrote his rabbinical school thesis under Dr. Marcus. After he was ordained, he took an administrative job on campus, and then he started studying for a doctorate under Dr. Marcus.

All the rest was history. Now Dr. Zola serves as Dr. Marcus’s successor as executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

In that capacity, Dr. Zola has to raise money for an institute devoted to American Jewish history. So why does any of this — the archive’s 16,000 manuscript collections, the 25,000 images in its photograph collection, the 10,000 audio and video recordings, the digitized synagogue bulletins (including that of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth) — actually matter?

“Dr. Marcus put it this way: A people that has no cognizance of its past can have little hope for its future.

“The past does not repeat itself. but the past is a record of human behavior and human response to challenge. When you study it, you realize that though the details of the challenges and the nuances and actual characteristics of the problems you face contemporaneously may be very different from those in the past, knowing how they responded in a whole variety of ways serves to strengthen one’s own ability to face, to cope with the realities of the present.”

But history is not just a practical topic for research.

“For many Jewish historians, history is in a way a form of theology. One finds in Jewish history the presence of the transcendent in life, that which surmounts the ordinary. Many of us, myself included, find our identity as Jews, that which inspires us to identify with and see our place within that chain of tradition, comes from a knowledge of the glories of our past.”

Not that historians explore only the glories.

Dr. Zola’s first published paper, written when he was a graduate student, told the story of Reform Judaism’s “pioneer Zionist,” Rabbi Max Heller. “He was ordained in the 1884, in the second class of Hebrew Union College,” Dr. Zola said. “That made him a classical Reform Jew.”

Reform Judaism of that era did not welcome Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision. Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American Reform Judaism and the founder of HUC, lambasted Zionism in 1897 as “a dance of madness.”

“That’s why there was a broad, unenthusiastic response to Zionism in the first decades of the 20th century by Reform rabbis,” Dr. Zola said.

Gary Zola

Gary Zola

Broad — but, as Dr. Zola explored, not unanimous.

“Rabbi Max Heller was the rabbi in New Orleans. Within six months after Rabbi Wise died in 1900, Rabbi Heller wrote a big, long article about Zionism in a national Jewish newspaper titled ‘Our Salvation.’

“He declared himself to be a political Zionist like Herzl. I argue that he was the first graduate of HUC to do so. He was very active as a Zionist, though a devout Reform Jew in every way.”

For his dissertation and first book, Dr. Zola explored another figure in the south — this time in Charleston, in the early 19th century. Isaac Harby, who was a teacher, playwright, newspaper editor, literary critic, and journalist, and was “the leading figure, the intellectual force, behind the very first organized attempt to reform Judaism in the United States,” Dr. Zola said.

That attempt began in 1824, he said. This was just 14 years after the first stirrings of Reform Judaism in Germany.

“One of the arguments I make in my book is that it is wrong to say that Reform starts in Germany and then continues in America. In fact, the impulse for reform appears almost concomitantly in the United States and in Europe.”

Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim had been founded in 1749, one of the first five American synagogues.

Seventy-five years later, 50 congregants drafted a petition calling for a number of reforms in the synagogue. “They think the worship service is ridiculous because people are standing around mumbling things they don’t understand,” Dr. Zola said.

“They make it explicit that young people are alienated from Judaism. They don’t speak Hebrew, they can’t read Hebrew.”

When the synagogue’s board rejected their petition, they formed “the Reformed Society of Israelites, and created their own prayer book. It’s the third oldest Reform prayer book in all of modern Judaism. They meet regularly for worship services for about three years, and then they peter out.

“But their impact is not lost. Because six or seven years after they stop meeting regularly, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim burns to the ground. There is no insurance. The Jews of Charleston want to rebuild their beautiful synagogue, and to do that they need every Jew in the city to help out — and they agree to consider some of the reform ideas. That creates a level of compromise that ultimately will transform Beth Elohim from a strictly Spanish Portuguese ritual into a bastion of Reform Judaism.”

Dr. Zola said this story, from nearly two centuries ago, is an example of the relevance of history. “The founders of the Reform Society were upset because their children were alienated from worship services. The same basic problem faces us today,” he said.

Making that sort of research possible “is where the American Jewish archives comes in. It’s the largest freestanding research center dedicated solely to the study of North American Jewry.

“These primary sources are the bricks out of which you reconstruct the story of the past,” he said.

In 2014, Dr. Zola published “We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History.”

The book focuses “on why Jews became so enamored with Lincoln. I try to show what happened to win the Jewish community over as a group, especially in the North, and how Lincoln remains a force in Jewish life in America even up to the present.

“Jews tried hard to Judaize Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln in return became a vehicle for Americanizing the Jews. There are American heroes who have earned the admiration of the Jewish community — Franklin Roosevelt or George Washington or John Kennedy, for example — but there is only one American icon who Jews have consistently identified as one of our own, as if he were Jewish.

“The title, ‘We call him Rabbi Abraham,’ comes from a document I found, a eulogy in April 1865 by Louis Brandeis’ uncle in Louisville.

“He says, ‘Brothers, most of you know joculously we call him Rabbi Abraham.’ Then he goes on to say that there is not a Jew in the United States who more aptly fits and emulates the character and personality of our father Abraham than Abraham Lincoln.”

Dr. Zola’s present project takes him back to his scholarly roots: He is preparing Dr. Marcus’ World War I diary for publication.

In 1917, Marcus took a leave of absence from the HUC rabbinical program to join the war.

“Because he was educated, he became a stenographer, working in an office and taking dictation.

“As a 20-year-old, you see the foundations of the 80-year-old Marcus. He was extremely insightful. He was passionately committed to excellence. You can see his keen eye for personality.

“He talks a lot about Judaism. He’s despondent about how many of his fellow soldiers exhibit anti-Semitism. They talk about Jews in front of him in a way that is hurtful. He doesn’t understand. He writes in one passage, ‘We are all fighting the same cause.’”


Who: Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

What: Rabbi Selig Salkowitz Distinguished Speaker Program at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood

When: Friday night, November 11, at Temple Avodat Shalom and Shabbat morning, November 12, at Temple Israel