Judaism’s Modernization in America The Jewish way of life has been affected in a tremendous way by the people of the United States of America. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there were only 2500 Jews in America.
For forty years beginning in 1840, 250,000 Jews (primarily from Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia) entered this country. Anti-Semitism and economic woes in Eastern Europe went from bad to worse after the pogroms of 1881-1882. Almost three million Eastern European Jews left between 1881 and 1914, two million (85%) of which decided to come to America, where they thought “the streets were paved with gold.” They were wrong.
Because of this intercontinental migration, the social characterization of Jews in America changed drastically. Before the move, the largest group in the early eighteenth century were the Sephardic Jews. They lived in the coastal cities as merchants, artisans, and shippers. The Jews who predominately spoke German came to America over 100 years later, and quickly spread out over the land.
Starting as peddlers, they moved up to business positions in the south, midwest, and on the west coast. New York City had 85,000 Jews by 1880, most of which had German roots. At this time in American history, the government accepted many people from many different backgrounds to allow for a diverse population; this act of opening our borders probably is the origin of the descriptive phrase “the melting pot of the world.” These German Jews rapidly assimilated themselves and their faith.
Reform Judaism arrived here after the Civil War due to the advent of European Reform rabbis. Jewish seminaries, associations, and institutions, such as Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, were founded in the 1880s. America was experimenting with industry on a huge scale at the time the Eastern European Jews that arrived. Their social history combined with the American Industrial Age produced an extremely diverse and distinct American Jewry by the end of the intercontinental migration, which coincided with the start of the Great World War (World War I).
Almost two out of every three new immigrants called the big northeast municipalities (such as the Lower East Side of New York) their new home. They would take any job available to support the family, and they worked in many different jobs which were as physically demanding as they were diverse. The garment district in New York today was made from the meticulousness, the sweat, and the determination of the Jews. Low pay, long hours, and disgusting working conditions characterized the average working day.
Labor unions fought for these workers’ rights and eventually won. There are stories of men in the Lower East Side of New York who started to sell rags from a cart, and slowly moved up the ladder in time to run a small clothing shop. Like other Jews in America at this time, they sacrificed the Sabbath to work during it, but it was for the good and the support of his family. The 1890s saw the birth of many Jewish-oriented charities were organized to raising funds for medical and social services, such as Jewish hospitals and Jewish homes for the aged.
The American Jewish Committee was formed in 1906 to attempt to influence the American government to aid persecuted Jewish communities overseas. B’nai B’rith, a Jewish fraternal society, was set up in 1843 by German Jews in America; in 1913 it instituted the Anti-Defamation League to combat anti-Semitism. Today the ADL combats not just anti-Semitism, but also racism and other discriminants. Furthermore, The B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation has put together Hillel Houses at major college campus throughout the country to ensure that Jewish college students get an adequate religious experience.
Anti-Semitism in America did not become widespread until the turn of the century. Anti-Semitism follows Jews around; it is not part of a community unless Jews live with them in that community and the gentiles don’t want them there. Jews were informally ostracized from clubs and resorts, and were denied entrance to colleges and other institutes of higher learning. Moreover, it was a common practice to not employ Jews in particular professions and basic industries.
Between World War I and World War II the United States placed limits on the number of Jews allowed in per year. Zionism, the movement formed by Jews to get themselves to a land that they can call their own, had a definite impact on American Jewry during Zionism’s times of development and execution. American Zionism was affected by German and East European Jews coming to America..
Although the small membership of the American Zionist movement was almost completely East European at first, many of its leaders came from the older German group. By 1915, Zionism began to attract prominent American-born figures, such as Louis D. Brandeis, who is most famous as being the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court. Brandeis and his associates added a distinctly American note into Zionism, rejecting the belief that the diaspora was a form of exile, and also that Zionism tried to address the dangerous problem of dual loyalty for patriotic Jewish Americans.
For Brandeis, American and Zionist ideals reinforced each other. The occurrences of intermarriage (a Jew marrying a gentile) was not only extremely rare in the first generation of American Jews, it was also unheard of and rarely talked about. Today, love commonly crosses the borders of religion; intermarriages are common. Although divorce is allowed by the Jewish religion, it also happened once in a blue moon in those times.
In America today, every other marriage ends in a divorce. The parents tried to push their children for them to have a better life (i.e., material wealth), a better job, and a better education than they themselves did.
The primary reason for this is so the parents would know that their children could adequately support them in old age. Today, “the curve has changed.” This happens on a much lower rate, and the chances that it happens again (on the same scale the first generation of American Jews) is slim; today’s economy is but one reason of many why this will happen. Back then, only the husband worked and the “universal middle-class expectation” of the wife was to stay at home and tend for the children.
If the wife had to work — even part time during seasonal times of the year — then it shamed the family into thinking that the husband was not a good provider. Today it is not uncommon for both parents to work, and usually neither parent is ashamed that both work to (simply) support the family; usually they are both employed such that the family can enjoy a higher standard of living. Furthermore, the advent of women’s liberation has made it possible for more women to go out into the work force. Keeping Kosher is yet another issue that has changed over the generations of American Jews.
My mother and father, both Jews, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and my mother’s family always kept kosher. Today, as a Jew, I have never kept kosher in my life, with the exception of certain holidays, and when my rabbi was watching me. Finally, the last issue which is a part of the Jewish-American generation gap is the Yiddish language. Parents spoke Yiddish often, but not to the children.
They only spoke it to each other if they did not want the kids to understand what they were talking about (i.e., marriage problems). However, because the parents did not choose to have their kids learn Yiddish, they may have contributed to the generation gap.
Today, Yiddish is dying rapidly. Yiddish theater in New York is but one of a few remaining areas in America that still speak the language. Today, as a Jew, I have never heard a Yiddish sentence — only a few words here and there, like “schlemiel” and “zoftig” — and even then I am still unsure of their true meaning in the times when it was spoken freely. Scholars have predicted the extinction of the language by 2040 AD, or 5800 on the Jewish calendar.
America has also been an influence on new kinds of Judaism. Mordecai Kaplan founded the Jewish Reconstructionist movement in America in the early 1900s. In 1917 he led a shul which incorporated a broad realm of cultural and recreational activities. Five years later, he formed the Society of the Advancement of Judaism, which believed that worship was only one of many issues a congregation should address.
His book Judaism as a Civilization called for a “reconstruction” of Jewish life. The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation (now the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot) issued new liturgical texts in the 1940s and 1950s, and it opened the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College in Philadelphia in 1968. It is an evolving and organic kind of Judaism, which is constantly adapting itself to the needs of the community and the society it serves. Judaism today, largely because of the American hustle-and-bustle contemporary lifestyle, is just a religion instead of a way of life.
We are now in a period of time where many options are presented on how to be Jewish — going to shul, observing the holidays, sending your children to learn about the Jewish ways of life, belonging to temples and Jewish organizations (i.e., Havurah, an attempt to revive Judaism in small social groups) — instead of what was only one way to be Jewish. No central idea holds it together.
There’s really no one common way to be Jewish anymore.