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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay:

The American Jewish Experience through the Nineteenth Century: Immigration and Acculturation
Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden
Brandeis University
©National Humanities Center
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Works cited

American Jewish history commenced in 1492 with the expulsion of Jews from Spain. This action set off a period of intense Jewish migration. Seeking to escape the clutches of the Holy Inquisition, some Jews in the sixteenth century sought refuge in the young Calvinist republic of The Netherlands. A century later, hundreds of their descendants crossed the ocean to settle in the new Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil, where Jewish communal life became possible for the first time in the New World. When Portugal recaptured this colony in 1654, its Jews scattered. Refugees spread through the Dutch Caribbean, beginning fresh Jewish communities. A boatload of about 23 Jews sailed into the remote Dutch port of New Amsterdam and requested permission to remain. This marked the beginning of Jewish communal life in North America.

Colonial Jews never exceeded one tenth of one percent of the American population, yet they established patterns of Jewish communal life that persisted for generations.

  1. First, most Jews lived in cosmopolitan port cities like New York and Newport where opportunities for commerce and trade abounded, and people of diverse backgrounds and faiths lived side by side.
  2. Second, many early American Jewish leaders and institutions were Sephardic, meaning that their origins traced to the Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula. Sephardic Jews maintained cultural hegemony in Jewish life into the early nineteenth century, although by then Ashkenazi Jews, meaning Jews who traced their origins to Germany, had long been more numerous.
  3. Third, Jews organized into synagogue-communities. Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport each had one synagogue that assumed responsibility for the religious and communal needs of all local Jews.

The American Revolution marked a turning point not only in American Jewish history, but in modern Jewish history generally. Never before had a major nation committed itself so definitively to the principles of freedom and democracy in general and to religious freedom in particular. Jews and members of other minority religions could dissent from the religious views of the majority without fear of persecution. Jews still had to fight for their rights on the state level, and they continued to face various forms of prejudice nationwide. However, many Jews benefited materially from the Revolution and interacted freely with their non-Jewish neighbors. Having shed blood for their country side by side with their Christian fellows, Jews as a group felt far more secure than they had in colonial days. They asserted their rights openly and, if challenged, defended themselves both vigorously and self-confidently.

In the nineteenth century, American Jews, seeking to strengthen Judaism against its numerous Christian competitors in the marketplace of American religions, introduced various religious innovations, some of them borrowed from their neighbors. Young Jews in Charleston, dissatisfied with the "apathy and neglect" they saw manifested toward their religion, somewhat influenced by the spread of Unitarianism, fearful of Christian missionary activities that had begun to be directed toward local Jews, and, above all, passionately concerned about Jewish survival in a free society, created the breakaway "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit." This was America's first Reform congregation, with an abbreviated service, vernacular prayers, and regular sermons. Traditional congregations also "Protestantized" some of their practices, introducing regular English sermons and more decorous modes of worship.

Meanwhile, communal leaders, led by the Traditionalist Jewish religious leader of Philadelphia, Isaac Leeser, emulated and adapted Protestant benevolent and education techniques--Sunday schools, hospitals, the religious press, charitable societies, and the like--in order to strengthen Judaism in the face of pressures upon Jews to convert. Among other things, Leeser produced an Anglo-Jewish translation of the Bible, founded a Jewish publication society, and edited a Jewish periodical, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, which attempted in its pages to unite the diverse voices of the American Jewish community. He also rallied his community to respond to incidents of anti-Jewish persecution around the world.

Even though Ashkenazic Jews outnumbered Sephardic Jews as early as 1720, the first German Jewish immigrants joined Sephardic synagogues rather than founding their own institutions. As poverty, persecution, and political disillusionment swept through Central Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, German and Polish Jewish immigration to America swelled. Distinctly German-speaking Jewish institutions multiplied. Jews also moved beyond the Eastern seaboard at this time, seeking opportunities in the frontier communities of the Midwest, South, and West.

In the 1840s, in contrast to the early American model of synagogues run by a hazan (cantor) or lay leadership, immigrant rabbis began to assume the pulpits of American synagogues. Some sought to promote Orthodoxy, while others merged the ideology of German Jewish Reform with the practices of American Protestant denominations and created a new American version of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, a leader of American Reform Judaism, sought to develop a Minhag-America (American liturgical custom) that would unite Jews around moderate Reform Judaism. The founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873) and Hebrew Union College (1875) in Cincinnati sought to actualize his vision. But even as rabbis hoped to unite the community, the greatest legacy of the so-called "German period" is actually Jewish religious diversity. By the Civil War, every American Jewish congregation had at least two synagogues, and major ones had four or more.
Orthodox Jew and U.S. Navy engineer
Possibly brothers, an Orthodox Jew and a U.S. Navy engineer pose in New York City during the Civil War.
Courtesy of Robert Marcus

The Civil War divided Jews much as it did the nation as a whole. There were Jews in the North and Jews in the South, Jews who supported slavery and Jews who condemned it, Jews who fought for the Union and Jews who fought for the Confederacy. If in many respects the Civil War affected Jews much as it did other Americans, there were nevertheless three features of the struggle that affected Jews uniquely.

  1. First, wartime tensions led to an upsurge of racial and religious prejudice in America, and Jews, both in the North and in the South, proved to be convenient scapegoats. Even famous Americans slipped into anti-Semitic stereotypes when they meant to condemn one Jew alone.
  2. Second, Jews in the North (not in this case the South) had to fight for their right to have a Jewish army chaplain--no easy task, since by law an army chaplain had to be a "regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination." Although President Lincoln himself urged that this law be amended, it took heavy Jewish lobbying and over a year of hard work until the amendment to the law was passed.
  3. Third, and most shocking of all to Jews, they had to face the most sweeping anti-Jewish official order in all of American history--General Order No. 11, published on December 17, 1862, that expelled all Jews from General Grant's military department. An irate and highly prejudiced response to wartime smuggling and speculating, crimes engaged in by Jews and non-Jews alike, it met with forceful Jewish protests. Within eighteen days, thanks to President Lincoln, the order was revoked.

In the 1880s, the profile of Jewish immigration to the United States was profoundly changed by the pogroms directed against the Jews of Russia, leading to an infusion of young Eastern European Jews who were religiously traditional and spoke Yiddish [the historical language of Ashkenazic Jews; a dialect of High German that includes some Hebrew elements]. Swept into a new and alien culture, cut off from loved ones left behind, and in many cases forced to violate religious tenets once held dear, immigrants frequently spent lifetimes trying to reconcile what they had left behind with what they had gained. Many cursed Columbus and wondered aloud if their travail was justified. A few returned to Europe. But in the wake of the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and subsequent persecutions in Russia and elsewhere, the promise of American life shined ever brighter. By 1924, close to two million Eastern European Jews had immigrated to America's shores.

Initially many native and German-born Jews in America looked down on these newcomers as social inferiors and felt ambivalent toward them. They saw themselves outnumbered, feared that
Greeting card for Rosh Hashanah
Greeting card for Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year], ca. 1900
Translation of the Hebrew:
"And You will cast all of their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19)

Courtesy Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives
immigration was provoking antisemitism, and worried that the East Europeans would never assimilate. Yet, bad as feelings sometimes became, most of these Jews continued to work long and hard on behalf of the East Europeans. The latter, meanwhile, strongly identified with American society and labored to Americanize. In the twentieth century, when issues such as immigration restriction and bills aimed at abrogating America's commercial treaty with Russia arose, German Jews and Eastern European Jews stood shoulder to shoulder; they planned strategy together. Bonds of kinship, in the end, proved far stronger than petty in-group squabbles.

Guiding Student Discussion

Notwithstanding the small size of the Jewish community in early America, it is important to emphasize to students that American Jews of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like their counterparts in the larger society, established patterns that subsequent generations carefully followed. American Judaism, at this time, became both voluntaristic and pluralistic. In America a Jew's faith was not registered with the state, as it was in most of Europe, and observance depended upon the individual. In a sense, there came to be as many Judaisms as there were Jews. Like so many of their Protestant counterparts, Jews resisted the hierarchical religious authority structures of Europe. No nationwide "chief rabbi" emerged and no religious organization wielded unchallenged authority. Instead, a spectrum of Jewish religious movements competed for adherents, each insisting that its strategy alone provided hope for American Judaism's survival. Ultimately, of course, each strategy sought to balance between American norms and values and the sometimes conflicting demands of Jewish tradition--a balancing act familiar to any number of minority groups in the United States.

While Protestant practices inevitably influenced the direction of American Jewish religious life, Jews monitored Protestant missionary efforts with caution. Activities that Protestants viewed as benevolent (like offering money and free education to the Jewish poor) seemed provocative to Jews, almost inducements to convert. Jews also took affront at the distinctions that some Protestants drew between the "mythical Jews" that they learned about in church and the "Jews next door" who seemed altogether different. Educators can effectively use these themes to discuss intergroup relations, stereotypes, and the tensions between majority and minority in the American experience.

The story of Jewish immigration to America can be incorporated into broader discussions concerning immigration and the promise of American life. Students should understand the manifold challenges that immigrants faced as they sought to pursue freedom and opportunity while still seeking to retain their cultural identity. They should also explore the ambivalence so commonly felt toward immigrants, even by those who themselves descended from similar roots and shared the immigrants' heritage and faith.

Historians Debate

A central question in American Jewish history concerns the relative influence of Old and New World patterns on American Jews, a debate that echoes the longstanding controversy over whether or not America itself is historically unique. In terms of the Reform Movement in Judaism, some scholars thus view it as mostly an offshoot of German Reform Judaism, while others are more impressed by its distinctively American qualities. Similarly, some view nineteenth-century American Jewish history as a whole as an "encounter with emancipation," thereby defining it in terms of a central paradigm in European Jewish history--the struggle of Jews to gain full civil rights in Europe in the late 1800s. Other scholars are more impressed by the differences between the European and American Jewish situations. American Jewry, they insist, was "post-emancipation" from the start.

A different kind of question concerns the nature of nineteenth-century Jewish immigration to the United States. Earlier historians spoke of three immigration waves--the Sephardic period, the German period, and the East European period. More recent scholars have challenged this periodization. Not only are there vast overlaps between the different periods (East European Jews found their way to America even in colonial days), but we now know that Jewish immigration was much more variegated and complex than once believed, involving Jews from many different lands. In the mid nineteenth century, for example, there were more Polish-Jewish immigrants to America than German ones. At least one historian advocates dropping the earlier periodization altogether to focus on the full century of Jewish immigration, beginning in 1820, that transformed American Jewry from a tiny community of some 3,000 Jews to a community that was more than one thousand times larger--indeed, the largest Jewish community in the world.

For other key issues in American Jewish history, as well as an extensive bibliography, see Jonathan D. Sarna, ed., The American Jewish Experience: A Reader (2d ed., 1997). Primary sources may be found in Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the American World: A Source Book (1996) and Morris U. Schappes, A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875 (3rd ed., 1971). The most thorough scholarly treatment of colonial American Jewry is Jacob Rader Marcus's The Colonial American Jew (1970). For a recent briefer treatment, see Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820 (1992). On the Revolutionary period, Samuel Rezneck's Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution (1975) provides a helpful narrative, and Jonathan D. Sarna, Benny Kraut, and Samuel K. Joseph, eds., Jews and the Founding of the American Republic (1985) contains the major documents. For a good overview of the early national period, see the first volume of Jacob Racer Marcus, United States Jewry, 1776-1985 (1989). Biographies of leading American Jews of this period include Jonathan D. Sarna, Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (1981), Gary P. Zola, Isaac Harby of Charleston, 1788-1829: Jewish Reformer and Intellectual (1994), and Lance Sussman, Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism (1995).

The key questions concerning Central European Jewish immigration revolve around religion and identity. Avraham Barkai's Branching Out (1994) and Naomi W. Cohen's Encounter with Emancipation: The German Jews in the United States, 1830-1914 (1984) describe continuities and discontinuities between the American and German Jewish experiences, while Leon Jick, The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870 (1976) traces the development of American Judaism as a process of indigenous religious innovation. Hasia Diner in A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880 (1992) offers a broader portrayal of this period, paying attention to Alsatian and Polish Jews, as well as to issues of gender. The key volume on the Civil War is Bertram W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War (2d. ed., 1970).

Because most of the contemporary American Jewish community descends from Eastern European Jewish immigrants, much of the literature of American Jewish history documents their story. Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers (1976) synthesizes much of what was known to that time. More recently, Susan Glenn's Daughters of the Shtetl (1990) captures the challenges that faced Jewish immigrant girls, particularly in the labor movement. Jonathan D. Sarna, People Walk on Their Heads: Moses Weinberger's "Jews and Judaism in New York" (1981) makes available an Orthodox rabbi's perspective on America from 1887. Finally, Daniel Soyer, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 (1997) focuses on the immigrants themselves and how they "exercised a high degree of agency in their growing identification with American society."

Links to online resources
List of works cited in the essay

Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. In addition to his publications cited in this essay, he is the co-editor of Minority Faiths and the Protestant Mainstream (University of Illinois Press, 1997) and The Jews of Boston (1995). He edits Brandeis Studies in American Jewish History, Culture and Life with the University Press of New England, and co-edits the American Jewish Civilization Series at Wayne State University Press. He is currently writing a new history of American Judaism to be published by Yale University Press.

Jonathan Golden is a research and teaching assistant with Professor Sarna at Brandeis University and also a teaching assistant with Professor Jay Harris at Harvard University. He holds an M.A. in Jewish education from Hebrew College in Boston. He recently co-authored an article with Professor Sarna on noteworthy events in Judaism in 1998 for the 1999 World Book Year Book.

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Roman Catholics and Immigration in 19th Century America |
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