Jewish Experience in Antebellum America Part 1

The creation of the Jewish Reform tradition in United States of America created a new kind of worship in the face of a modern shifting society.  The European Jewish experience to that point had been filled with hate and misery from their neighbours.  In the later half of the nineteenth century the Jews in the United States would run up against similar anti-Semite prejudice.  But in the early republic and Antebellum America, the Jews, in small but thriving communities were able to confront American ideals of freedom of religion on their own terms.  It was a period when the German Jewish communities had escaped the Ghetto and confront life under a very different set of circumstances.   

The focus of this essay will be on the reasons for the rise of the Reform movement in the United States. It will look at the early history of Jewish settlement, as well as how the larger agrarian frontier nature of America forced Jews to confront older traditions and how they coped with their removal from urban ghettos and isolated communities.  Primarily this change of condition combined with the effect of Reform movement Rabbis created the American Reform synagogues. The reason for this was not simply a reaction to Christianity or a move to secularize Jewish traditions but rather as a response by the Jewish community to the realities of faith in a land where one is a minority and yet not a confined to any location or set socio-economic condition. 

 United States of America in 1830 saw the beginning of the first mass migrations of people from overseas.  During this period people came flee persecution or famine or in some cases simply to have a better life in a new country.  Irish were a big part of this new movement as millions of people moved out of Ireland to the new world to escape the potato famine of the 1830-40s.[1]  The arrival of the poor immigrants from Ireland and German to the United States would change the dynamic of the country quite radically.  The early republic would view the Irish as a lesser race.  Worse yet the Irish worshipped the wrong form of Christianity and considered lazy troublemakers.[2]

 Along with the Irish arrived Germans, some of whom brought an entirely different type of faith to the shores of the New World.  Jews had lived in the Americas before Sephardic Jews moved from Portugal to Brazil in the 1500s.  In 1640 many of these Jews were forced out of Brazil fleeing to England, Holland and in the case of a few families to New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan.  These Sephardic Jewish settlers created their own synagogues in which the worshipped as they had done before.  When England took over the town and renamed it New York the Jewish community had already established itself as a part of the larger town. 

Sephardic Jews in the colonies and early republican period until 1830 remained the predominant form of Judaism in the United States.  They formed synagogues in Newark, New York and Philadelphia.  However, the Jewish population in the United States after the Revolutionary War was only 3,000.  In a country of nearly 3 million they did not play a large role in society in general.  In fact as the colonies started to assert their rights against the British government Hebrew was generally passing from Jewish knowledge in the Colonies.  The Jewish community appeared to be slowly assimilating into the much larger Protestant Christian society.[3]

From the end of the Napoleonic war to the beginning of the US civil war two million Germans moved into the United States.  While the march of Napoleon through central Europe had laid waste to the various regions of Germany there was a desire to escape the downward economic spiral for a better life.  In 1829 a book was published by Gottfried Duden called Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America the travel guide captured the imagination of people in rural Germany.  The book description of United States was filled with an image of country which seemed a promised land.  The Jews like their Christian neighbours found this idea of a new life in a new world fascinating.  By 1840 there would be 15,000 Jews in the United States and by 1860 there was an estimated 150,000.  Obviously the vision of a new land where one was not forced to get special papers in order to marry or excluded from all but specific jobs this New World held a lot of enticement.[4] 

As many Jews in Germany were leaving for America there were others who were trying gain insight into how to modernize their worship.  For some the attachment to Talmud and ceremony created intolerable situation as they saw.  David Friedlaender and Lazarus Bendavid and others wanted to “free” Judaism from the traditional ceremonies and Talmudic laws.  They envisioned this reform as a means to helping German Jews to enter a larger society to help them escape from anti-Semitism and legislated discrimination.[5]

Jews arriving in the United States would have dealt with smaller, but still painful, legal inequality.  Some promoted the old ideas of Jews as Christ Killers in Protestant literature.  Several of the religious schools taught this concept through books published in that era.  But in a land with no organized mandatory public education this issue would not become an issue until the 1870s. The Jews in some states they were not given the right to vote and had some restrictions placed upon them holding public office.  Most of these restrictions were finally done away in the 1820s.  This modification of society corresponded with the beginnings of the migration of German Jews.[6] 

One of the first major problems for Jews in dealing with this new land was in finding someone to be the spiritual head of the community. As Sephardic (Western Jews) tradition was replaced by the Ashkenazic (Eastern Jews) the lack of rabbis began to be a major problem.  For many Jews the lack of authority figures led to drift in the communities.  Jews already a small minority began to ignore much of the older traditions and began to merge with the larger community. For the older settlers the role of Rabbi had been replaced in some groups by a very protestant sounding “minister”.  This role was not only one to lead prayers, according to Leon A. Jick, but to also preach to the congregation.   Americanization would lesson as more German Jews arrived but in changes within the synagogue continued.

Another factor in the innovation of the American Jews was the pressure to assimilate into the larger Protestant community, in one case a New York merchant married outside his faith and none of his children were Jewish.  Often Jewish families would find that by escaping the ghettos of Germany they had lost some of their identity.  They no longer had to remain together so they often traveled across the United States growing up in isolated communities without the bulwark of the community to help them.  The Jewish identity is so solidly wrapped up in a group understanding it would have been a harsh change.[7]

As Jews started, like most Americans, to seek fortunes in the west they spread across the country.  At one point there was 10,000 Jews in San Francisco in the 1850s. However one of the most import centres of Judaism grew up in the unlikely location of Cincinnati, Ohio. As the Jews spread out across the landscape simply keeping the Sabbath became an issue.[8]

One the early jobs German Jews started at was as a Peddler.  The role was an important one in the Early Republic.  Without peddlers bringing their wares from village to village much of the trade which built up in later eras would not have been as immediately successful.  Peddling was an easy job for Jews who might not have enough English or the skills to do much else.  The majority of the early German Jews were poor rural people they had few skills other than hard work.  In doing this job much of the faith and belief which they had sought to preserve started to ebb.  Abraham Kohn an early peddler noted this struggle in his diary, “Thou alone knowest my grief when on the Sabbath’s eve, I must retire to my lodging and on Saturday morning carry my pack on my back, profaning the holy day, God’s gift to his people Israel.”[9]

This absence of sense of tradition led to many German Jews to fight against this change in their new land.  Some did this by bringing their traditions into the synagogue and strictly enforcing them.  They banned intermarriage. They fought for the traditions which they felt closely tied to in Germany.  Often this battle was a lost cause.  Even as the Synagogues across the country continued to push for restrictions for their congregations the Jews living in the country as a whole dealt with reality.  It was only a matter of time before the older traditions started to fall in the face of the hard cold truth.  There was no one with the educational background to lead their communities.  Few accepted the traditional roles because the pay was lousy and the labour intense.  Combine with this the corruption of the few officials they did have, an inability to speak either proper Hebrew or write it. Even as the congregations tried to unite in fighting the drift they seemed to note significant challenges.[10]

The Reform tradition had been in the United States prior to the 1840s.  In 1761 one member of the New York Synagogue translated the Shema prayer book into English to try and retain members who were losing the ability to read Hebrew.  Another group in Charleston created a reform synagogue which was not based on the traditions of German reformers but rather on ways to entice those falling away from the faith to bring them back. The experiment did not last long however and did not have the far reaching impact that would be felt by later German reformers in the United States.[11]  


[1] Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Pg. 7-8

[2] Kevin Kenny, The American Irish, (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd., 2000), Pg 19.

[3] Leon A. Jick, The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870, (Hanover, New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press, 1976), 8.

[4] Fred Skolnik Ed., Encyclopedia Judaica 2nd Edition, Vol 20, (Farmington Hills, IL: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 313.

[5] Heinz Moshe Graupe, The Rise of Modern Judaism: An Intellectual History of German Jewry 1650-1942, John Robinson Trans.  (New York: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1978), 165-167.

[6] Robert Rockaway and Arnon Gutfeld, “Demonic Images of the Jew in the Nineteenth Century United States,” American Jewish History, Vol. 89, (2001), 357-360.

[7] Ruth Gay, Jews in America, (New York: Basic Publishers, 1965), 24 – 25.

[8] Encyclopedia Judaica 2nd Edition, 314.

[9] The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870, 102.

[10] Karla Goldman, “The Path to Reform Judaism: An Examination of Religious Leadership in Cincinnati, 1841-55,” American Jewish History, Volume 90, Number 1, (March 2002), 35-37.

[11] Jews in America, 23 and 59-60.


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