American Judaism Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In early September, 1654, twenty-three Jewish refugees, expelled from Recife, Brazil, by the Portuguese, arrived at the port of New Amsterdam. They were not the first Jews to reach North America but the first to settle there. Despite fierce opposition from Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the colony of New Netherland, the Dutch West India Company granted them the right to live, travel, and trade in the colony, provided they took care of their own poor and prevented them from becoming a burden to the company or community.

To mark the 350th anniversary of the earliest settlement of Jews within the boundaries of the United States, Sarna has written the first comprehensive history of Jews in America since Oscar Handlin's Adventure in Freedom celebrated the 300th anniversary in 1954. Unlike Handlin, who subtitled his book Three Centuries of Jewish Life in America, Sarna does not attempt a broad coverage of the Jewish experience in America. He focuses on religion—American Judaism is a history of the Jewish religion in America. Sarna's central concern is the adaptation of Judaism to a land of freedom, which not only permitted but encouraged deviation from the religious practices Jews brought with them to the new land.

During the colonial period, Jews struggled to create religious institutions. By 1655, New York Jews had purchased land for a burial ground; before the end of the century they had established a synagogue where they used the Portuguese language and followed rituals remembered from Europe. Most Jews lived in port cities, and by the eve of the American Revolution, synagogues existed in the five main ports of Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. None had rabbis, which were a rarity in America before the 1940's. Ideally, each synagogue was identical to the city's Jewish community, able to speak for the community and to control the behavior of its members.

Democratic trends in the young republic, Sarna notes, challenged that ideal. Unlike European practice, where states recognized and empowered central Jewish authorities, individuals in free America decided for themselves. Synagogues could not regulate the behavior of members or prevent intermarriages. The idea that a synagogue and the city's Jewish community were identities could not be maintained as those seeking more congenial religious practices started their own congregations. In New York City there were two synagogues by 1825, four by 1835, ten by1845, and more than twenty in 1855. Judaism had become democratic, free, diverse, and competitive. No synagogue could any longer support communitywide functions; new charitable and fraternal societies—such as the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1832 and B’nai B’rith in 1843—were founded to carry out tasks previously served by synagogues.

Sarna describes how diversity was enhanced by the arrival by the mid-1870's of some 150,000 Jews from Central Europe, the great majority from Bavaria, western Prussia, and Posen, bringing with them Reform Judaism as practiced in Germany. The growing network of canals and railroads permitted Jews to spread over the continent, first as peddlers, then in retail trade, but isolation made it hard to sustain Jewish life. English became increasingly the language of the synagogue. The majority of American Jews did not read Hebrew but used English translations of the Bible by Jewish scholars to avoid Christian interpretations. However, Jews found current Protestant ideas of self-determination and free will congenial. As Reform synagogues, searching for cultural refinement, introduced the use of organs during services, those rejecting the shocking innovation began to refer to themselves as orthodox. Attempts to set up a central authority to speak for Jews, whether a council or a chief rabbi, failed in the face of American diversity and freedom.

Religious diversity and dissention increased with the arrival from 1881 to 1914 of two million East European Jews. Fleeing persecution and intending to stay, they brought women and children with them; Jewish reverse migration was about 7 percent, compared to 32 percent for non-Jews. Like their predecessors, East European Jews tried to reproduce remembered religious patterns, but Sarna makes it clear they actually created something totally unlike Jewish life in Europe.

In the larger cities, newcomers tended to live near others who had come from the same city or region. They joined together for mutual aid...

(The entire section is 1828 words.)