Jewish Communities in Antebellum America

The journey of Jews in American history is a multifaceted, layered, and rich collection of experiences and individuals. Perhaps the most well known period of immigration, the late 1800s through the first decades of the nineteenth century, saw a wave of Jewish immigrants, many of them from Eastern Europe. This period is widely studied and debated within scholarship, and is key in understanding the Jewish experience in America, even in the twenty-first century. However, another wave of Jewish immigration which occurred during the antebellum period may tell us much more about Jewish community and tradition as it relates to Jews in the present-day.
In my research, I explored four different pieces of scholarship that deal with this specific moment in in the Jewish experience in the United states. Though unique in their execution of their particular subject matter, the historians behind these works paint a cohesive portrait of community,family,and identity.Thrust into a predominantly Protestant, Christian society, where the pressure of assimilation and antisemitism, American Jews created new traditions and cultural identities. Beyond the scope of culture and religious dogma they were able, even in small number, create a presence in business and other ventures that would nonetheless give them influence in American cities.The following will demonstrate the direction of recent scholarship of this particular period and shed light on the Jewish experience before the Civil War.
The first piece in my exploration was written by Harvard research fellow, Rowena Olegario and was featured in the Business History Review in the 1999 Summer issue. This was a unique essay because it dealt with Jewish influence on business throughout the nineteenth century, while also giving insight into the tight-knit, and often secretive Jewish communities in American urban centers. Her main argument is that Jews had an important impact on the nineteenth century American economy, while also maintaining less-than-transparent business transactions. In relating to the wider story of Jews in the United States, the author attributes the preservation of religious and cultural traditions that the isolation and marginalization of Jews in their European homelands led to isolated communities in the United States, thus continuing ancient traditions(Olegario,5). Olegario contends that in a still largely agricultural economy, Jews often migrated to larger cities, where their presence was often resented by city fathers and the upper class(Olegario,4). She than goes on to state that though their migration rates from 1840 to 1880 were quite small, Jews were nonetheless visible in the communities in which they chose to build their new lives, especially in the business sector(Olegario,5).
Jews seemed to be very aware of the public’s perception of them, and the stereotypes that they faced at every turn. Olegario states that antisemitism was more a product of larger cities than towns or western settlements. In many cities they were admitted to popular social groups and secret organizations such as the odd fellows and freemasons(Olegario,27). Beginning in the 1840s, a group of Jewish men had started an exclusively Jewish organization, the B’nai B’rith, built upon the rituals of American organizations, this was one way in which Jews created community in the United States.
Another condition of Jewish seemingly smooth assimilation into American society was the fact that Rabbis and organized religious bodies were a later addition to the Jewish experience (Olegario,27). In fact, the more secularized Jewish communities were less threatening to the Protestant status quo than other religious and cultural groups such as Roman Catholics, whose strict church social structure and ritual led Protestants to be more weary(Olegario,27-28). This is quite telling, since scholars often discuss the anti semitism,missionizing, and stereotypes attributed to Jews and that scholarship of struggle has been so pervasive especially following World War II.
A second piece deals with the changing scholarship of Jewish history, and includes a study of how historians are approaching the subject of Antebellum Jewish life. The author, Jonathan Sarna, writes his piece with the aim of informing scholars about the current state of Jewish historical scholarship and includes within his introduction a quantified graphic of how the number of articles written on the subject of Jewish American history has risen from just 175 publications in 1965 to 515 publications in 1989, a year before his piece was written (Sarna,1). In dealing with the antebellum period, Sarna contends that the 1840s and subsequent decades saw the most development within Jewish communities, due to a rise in immigration. Jew immigrated from all over Europe, but the greatest numbers during this period were from Germany, which prompted many historians to call this the “German Period”(Sarna,5).
In studying this timeframe, Sarna states that the most pressing questions facing historians is how Jews viewed themselves and their communities. Many historians, Sarna contends, have chosen to focus on the German aspect of this relationship of a people to their religion and culture(Sarna,6). Exploration into German-Jewish immigrants daily lives have shown that many participated in the wider Germanic community, thus showing a strong connection to their homeland, while still maintaining ties to their ethnic and religious traditions(Sarna,6). Another aspect of this time period that is important in recent scholarship concerning Jews in America is how they dealt with antisemitism and missionizing attempts. One conclusion that historians have come to is that Jews, even when they were assimilated into American society felt that they were also denied an equal standing among their fellow, Christian citizens (Sarna,6). Beyond cultural acceptance, religion is also undoubtedly one of the most important studies of recent academics. Sarna states in his work that scholars were beginning to delve deeper into the Synagogue, its place in the community and the importance of ritual and myth in Jewish religious practice(Sarna,7-8).
A third piece,written by historian Bobbie Malone, deals with a specific group and place, but nonetheless shows the continuity of scholarship concerning this period of Jewish-American history. Featured in the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Society Malone focusses this narrative on the Jews of uptown New Orleans, particularly the Congregation of the Gates of Prayer. By studying the minutes of this Synagogue, historians have made strides in understanding and interpreting the lives of Jews in a large, urban center. This particular congregation was founded in the 1820s by a wealthy Jewish businessman from New York who upon his visit was compelled to establish a synagogue because he could find no matzo for his passover celebration(Malone,5). The fact that the minutes of the Gates of Prayer were first written in German show that German Jews were settling in the southern cities as much as in the northern ones(Malone,8). It also shows that scholarship continues to focus on the “German Period” mentioned by Jonathan Sarna in the article previously discussed.
Their new lives in a new country was also molded by their experience in a predominantly Protestant nation. Many sought to just gain the economic means to survive and establish businesses. Because of this, Malone contends, many Jews during this period were not entirely concerned with Jewish law(Malone,12). As a result, reform Judaism began to grow in popularity. A reaction to increased conflict between American and Jewish cultural norms, Reform Judaism was less stringent and allowed Jews to function more seamlessly in their day to day lives in the United States(Malone,12-13). In this was, scholarship can focus on this fact as it relates to present-day reform Judaism and the part in plays in the lives of Jewish-Americans.
The fourth article dealing with this particular scholarship deals with a unique experience amongst Jewish immigrants in America in the nineteenth century. In “Between Vision and Reality:reassessing Jewish agricultural projects in nineteenth century America”, author Tobias Brinkmann, a professor and historian of Jewish studies, demonstrates how Jews formed communities and created ties that would allow them to be successful in their new homeland. In his piece, Brinkmann tells the story found in much scholarship of the time and subject. Jews, though making up a relatively small group immigrated to the United States. Once they arrived,many resorted to becoming peddlers, a fact that made many established American Jews nervous over how their people would be viewed by other Americans. It was because of this that the idea of a settlement for peddlers to be formed in the west was first proposed. The settlement, which was to be founded in Chicago, would go on to form the basis of what would be the larger Jewish community in the Chicago area(Brinkmann,4).
William Renau is credited with forming this community in the early 1840s,this area would soon be called Schaumberg,and today makes up part of Chicago’s suburban center. One of the main driving factors in the formation of this and other communities like it was the emancipation of Jews in Central Europe, another argument that can figure strongly in present-day scholarship(Brinkmann,310). Brinkmann also contends that another motive for these communities was a desire to knock stereotypes that were pervading American cities(Brinkmann,311). It demonstrates how Jews, more than anyone were aware of just how important it was to assimilate in many ways to be able to “make it” in America. Though many of these communities proved to be failures, the ideas and message they demonstrate cannot be overlooked. The creation of these settlements shows a clear attempt by Jews to empower each other in a time where their entire world was evolving. Agricultural settlements are just another example of the creation of bonds of community that are still so important to Jewish-Americans today.
How the Jewish story is interpreted in America is evolving even in the last decades, as evidenced in the scholarship above. As history and the humanities as a whole come to a crossroads, the way we interpret and do history is also constantly changing. In a time of academic crisis, historians are trying to make sense of recent developments and are trying to pay close attention to stories or narratives that perhaps were never fully explored or given full attention. Like womens or black history, I feel Jewish history has been seen as a neglected history, or one that leaves much out in favor of studying one event or aspect of Jewish cultural or religious practice. What these four essays demonstrate is that the Jewish-American identity is something that is not so simple to understand;in fact is as abstract and complex as any idea of social, cultural, or religious identity is.
Recent scholarship, more than anything perhaps, has shed light on how Jews viewed themselves within their wider communities, and even amongst their own families or congregations. Their story is filled with both struggle and progress, as their world changed from Orthodox European communities to more secularized reform ones in America. For scholars, I believe that is important to understand how Jews viewed themselves, and I think that this could be the direction further inquiries into this particular subject take.
The nineteenth century was a time defined by the changing tides of society, industry, and demography. America was moving from an agricultural to a more industrial economic system. Cities were growing up from small towns,and immigrants were taking their own piece of these communities and making history in their new land. Jews were coming from Central Europe, a region still marred by ethnic prejudice and ancient anti semitic feelings. Though they faced prejudice in the United States, it was there that they were able to form their own unique community bonds, own successful businesses, and participate in organizations that in Europe would more likely than not be closed to them. This moment in history shaped how Jews live and share their cultural and religious heritage today, in a country where their numbers are greater and their lives more visible than in the 1840s or 1850s. That being said, I think that the scholarship concerning this time period can still evolve and uncover more about this people steeped in rich history and looking towards the future.

Brinkmann, Tobias. “Between Vision and reality:reassessing Jewish Agricultural Colony Projects in Nineteenth Century America”.Jewish History,21 no.¾(2007):305-324.
Malone,Bobbie. “New Orleans Uptown Jewish Immigrants the Community of the Congregation Gates of Prayer,1850-1860”. Louisiana History:the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Society,32 no.3(1991):239-278.
Olegario, Rowena. “That Mysterious People” Jewish Merchants, Transparency, and Community in Mid-nineteenth Century America”. The Business History Review,73 no. 2(1999):161-189.
Sarna, Jonathan D. “American Jewish History”. Modern Judaism,10 vol.3 (1990):343-365.

One thought on “Jewish Communities in Antebellum America

  • March 7, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    Typically it’s not necessary to include a scholar’s institutional affiliation or the venue/press where a piece was published, unless it’s directly relevant to an argument of some kind (i.e., The Journal of Bad Things only publishes anti-semitic work, as exemplified by X, Y and Z).

    You’ve got some sentences that are hard to follow, such as: “In relating to the wider story of Jews in the United States, the author attributes the preservation of religious and cultural traditions that the isolation and marginalization of Jews in their European homelands led to isolated communities in the United States, thus continuing ancient traditions.” Everything after “that the isolation” reads as a dependent clause, but “led to isolated” chops it up as an independent clause, which makes the whole thing read very strangely. Simplify some of these complicated sentences for better clarity.

    Be careful to distinguish your voice from the voice of authors you analyze (both secondary and primary). In the section on Olegario, it’s at times unclear what your argument about Olegario is vs. what her argument about the historical period is. A historiography paper examines scholarship as though it were a historical document, in order to get at the underlying concerns of the scholars being analyzed. Read for scholars’ motivations and the questions underlying their arguments, rather than the argument itself. You begin to hint at this kind of analysis, as at the end of your paragraph on Olegario, Catholics and Protestants, but this should be the focus rather than a retelling of each scholars’ argument.

    Proofread carefully: Organizations like the Odd Fellows and the Freemasons are proper nouns and should be capitalized. You also frequently have words that run together with no space between. Wary, not weary.

    The Sarna piece doesn’t fit very nicely with the rest of the pieces you’ve chosen, since the Sarna piece is itself historiography rather than historical scholarship. Historiography looks at general trends in a given field which somehow hangs together, in most cases because the works study the same period/topic and ask the same questions. The Sarna piece, if you’re going to include that, needs to be approached from the same framework as the others, i.e., what does that piece say about the study of antebellum Jewish history, whereas right now you mostly summarize his argument about the state of the field.

    You place a lot of emphasis on the similarities between your pieces, and you show some very good connections between them (especially with Malone and Sarna). But how and why do they differ? There wouldn’t be a need for all this spilled ink if everyone agreed. What do the different focuses in these pieces, be it type of source used, approach to synagogue/community/immigration, focus on class, etc, say about each author’s priorities in how they approach similar topics? Why is there such a range of approach to the study of a relatively small group in a relatively small period of time?

    A historiography paper needs to answer the “so what” question—how and why do these details of each individual study tell us about the larger shape of the field? What’s the one question all these pieces have in common, and why do they diverge? Why does their approach to their individual topics matter to the broader shape of Jewish history? You hint at this in a lot of places towards the end of each topic and in the conclusion, but pull these questions out more explicitly and use them to connect your sections further. You have a good point in the conclusion about how Jews viewed themselves, but it comes rather out of the blue without much incorporation earlier in the paper. Be sure to give yourself time to revise and work points like these back into the body and intro so that the reader can see how everything is connected.

    Scholarship is not about uncovering, it’s about making an argument based on limited evidence. So if the field moves forward not by discovering new things, but by looking at the things we have in new ways, what new ways are your scholars here looking at things? You have a tension in your own argument about scholarship on how Jews were viewed vs how Jews viewed themselves in this period—is that a progression in the field, a critique of some scholars by others, a division in the kinds of questions scholars are asking?

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