Mes­sian­ism, Secre­cy and Mys­ti­cism: A New Inter­pre­ta­tion of Ear­ly Amer­i­can Jew­ish Life

Lau­ra Arnold Leibman
  • Review
By – December 11, 2012

The stan­dard nar­ra­tive of Jew­ish his­to­ry pro­ceeds from the assump­tion that as­similation is an inex­orable process that, once set in motion, leads to com­plete absorp­tion of indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties. Draw­ing on the work of Avi­va Ben-Ur and Jonathan Sar­na, Leib­man chal­lenges the idea that the his­to­ry of America’s Jews is one of migra­tion and assim­i­la­tion, rather than ongo­ing reli­gious inno­va­tion and revi­tal­iza­tion.” Indeed, the cur­rent state of Jew­ish life, both in the U.S. and glob­al­ly, illus­trates such inno­va­tion and revi­tal­iza­tion (along­side assim­i­la­tion), since an untold num­ber of peo­ple of all ages have returned to tra­di­tion­al prac­tices, and in some cas­es, scrupu­lous adher­ence to Jew­ish law.

The book draws on a diverse set of sources and exam­ples — ser­mons, graves, mik­vahs, mem­ber­ship in orga­ni­za­tions like the Masons. Leib­man describes the philo­soph­i­cal and com­mu­nal dimen­sions of Jew­ish life among the con­ver­sos, who were the first Jew­ish immi­grants to much of the East­ern Seaboard, parts of South Amer­i­ca, and to the Caribbean as far west as Paraguay.

The migra­tion of con­ver­sos began a cen­tu­ry after their expul­sion from Spain and pro­ceed­ed in sev­er­al waves. Main­ly engaged in trade, they cre­at­ed strong transna­tion­al net­works, much of it based on the tri­an­gle trade involv­ing spices and slaves, molasses and tex­tiles. Strong social and famil­ial ties bridged the dis­tances between the New World and major glob­al cities of the time like Lon­don and Ams­ter­dam and ports like New­port and Recife. The lev­el of Juda­ic knowl­edge with­in this pop­u­la­tion var­ied but the secre­cy that was nec­es­sary for sur­vival in Spain and Por­tu­gal, com­bined with a strong belief in the im­manence of a mes­sian­ic era, were impor­tant qual­i­ties that shaped a com­mu­nal life based on reli­gious prac­tices. In these far-flung areas, Jew­ish immi­grants built com­mu­nal insti­tu­tions like mik­vahs, syn­a­gogues, and ceme­ter­ies. Draw­ing on rudi­men­ta­ry knowl­edge transmit­ted by a mimet­ic tra­di­tion, they were also influ­enced by trav­el­ling rab­binic schol­ars who col­lect­ed funds for insti­tu­tions in Israel but were also high­ly com­mit­ted to the revitaliza­tion of Jew­ish tra­di­tions among the con­ver­sos. Leib­man exam­ines ser­mons and text as well as grave­stones to doc­u­ment the pow­er­ful influ­ence of mys­ti­cism and mes­sian­ic beliefs as well as care­ful adher­ence to mitzvot like kashrut and mik­va. Yet, at the same time, the bound­aries between Jew and non-Jew were often high­ly per­me­able, espe­cial­ly in parts of the Caribbean.

Leib­man has assem­bled a broad array of schol­ar­ly mate­r­i­al to pro­vide an impor­tant and com­plex por­trait of a seg­ment of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty whose com­mit­ment sur­vived harsh per­se­cu­tion and con­sid­er­able sac­ri­fice. Her work is a wor­thy addi­tion to our under­standing of the com­plex nature of Jew­ish life involv­ing not only assim­i­la­tion, but, as she notes, inno­va­tion and revi­tal­iza­tion as well.

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.

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