Amer­i­can Jew­ry: Tran­scend­ing the Euro­pean Experience

Chris­t­ian Wiese and Cor­nelia Wilhelm
  • Review
By – April 26, 2017

Schol­ar­ship on the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty has tra­di­tion­al­ly assumed that Europe was the dom­i­nant source of its cul­ture and insti­tu­tions. This one-way process meant that Amer­i­can Jew mod­i­fied Euro­pean ideas and prac­tices in light of Amer­i­can values.

This vol­ume rep­re­sents an impor­tant shift in the par­a­digm of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life, a turn to a transna­tion­al con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion, where the direc­tion of influ­ence is more com­plex. This process has two key fea­tures. First, Amer­i­can Judaism had a diverse set of influ­ences, not just Euro­pean. Sec­ond, the uni­di­rec­tion­al mod­el over­looks the trans­mis­sion of ideas and insti­tu­tions from Amer­i­ca to Europe.

The first sev­er­al arti­cles in this col­lec­tion remind the read­er that even before the 23 refugees from Recife land­ed in New York, there was a rich Jew­ish life through­out the Caribbean. In a reprint­ed arti­cle enti­tled The Myth of Europe in America’s Judaism,” Susan­nah Hes­chel traces the ear­ly prac­tices of the first Sephardic immi­grants to their expe­ri­ences as Mar­ra­nos. They wor­shipped in pri­vate– the first syn­a­gogue was not built on the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent until the 1730’s” (p. 32) – and had learned to nego­ti­ate with unjust author­i­ty, which equipped them to chal­lenge Peter Stuyvesant’s efforts to expel them and, accord­ing to Eli Faber’s arti­cle on their quest for civic equal­i­ty, nego­ti­ate ways to obtain full cit­i­zen­ship rights dur­ing the colo­nial peri­od when it was cir­cum­scribed by British law.

A sec­ond wave of immi­gra­tion led to a sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­al and demo­graph­ic shift, as the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion was dom­i­nat­ed by Ger­man speak­ing migrants from West­ern and Cen­tral Europe. This group increased the num­ber of syn­a­gogues, most­ly Reform, where Ger­man con­tin­ued to be the dom­i­nant lan­guage until the 1870’s and 1880’s. As this com­mu­ni­ty matured, a Late 19th Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ish Awak­en­ing,” accord­ing to Jonathan Sar­na, led to the cre­ation of an insti­tu­tion­al infra­struc­ture that pro­mot­ed seri­ous schol­ar­ship, pub­lish­ing, news­pa­pers, Rab­binic train­ing, and nation­al orga­ni­za­tions of congregations.

Sev­er­al arti­cles point out that the process of accul­tur­a­tion was com­plex. The con­tin­ued use of Ger­man as the lan­guage of most syn­a­gogues was final­ly chal­lenged by a sec­ond wave of Reform Rab­bis like Ger­hard Deutsch who claimed that If there­fore the Jew wants to be con­sid­ered a gen­uine Amer­i­can he has to speak Eng­lish.” In a rethink­ing of an 1983 pub­li­ca­tion which cat­e­go­rized Ortho­dox Rab­binic lead­ers into accom­moda­tors and resisters, Jef­frey Gurock tack­les a com­plex ques­tion and pro­vides a more nuanced analy­sis, not­ing that some resisters” respond­ed to the enor­mous cur­rents pro­mot­ing accul­tur­a­tion by adapt­ing and mod­i­fy­ing some of their legal posi­tions and con­gre­ga­tion­al prac­tices yet remain­ing true to their traditions.

Sev­er­al inter­est­ing exam­ples illus­trate the two-way process of cul­tur­al influ­ence. B’nai B’rith, the first major sec­u­lar Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished in the U.S. (1843), set an impor­tant prece­dent in Jew­ish life­by pro­mot­ing a space for active par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­mu­nal life that exclud­ed for­mal reli­gious prac­tice. This unique and sem­i­nal orga­ni­za­tion was adopt­ed in Berlin forty years lat­er. A sec­ond arti­cle, Export­ing Yid­dish Social­ism: New York’s Role in the Russ­ian-Jew­ish Work­ers’ Move­ment,” points out that in the con­text of seri­ous cen­sor­ship in Rus­sia, the dis­sem­i­na­tion of Social­ist and oth­er rad­i­cal ideas involved export­ing Yid­dish news­pa­pers and pam­phlets from New York and Lon­don to Aus­tria-Hun­gary, Ger­many, and Switzer­land and smug­gling them into major cen­ters of Jew­ish rad­i­cal­ism like Vil­na and Min­sk dur­ing the ear­ly 1890’s.

The edi­tors of this vol­ume are to be com­mend­ed for col­lect­ing a diverse set of arti­cles that chal­lenge the read­er to rethink con­ven­tion­al wis­dom about Jew­ish life and cul­ture, not­ing its diverse transna­tion­al sources and the two-way trans­mis­sion of ideas and prac­tices between Europe and America. 

Relat­ed Reads:

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions