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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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,
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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.
|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
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
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.
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."
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
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
Address comments or questions to Professor Sarna and Mr. Golden through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."