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 - Judaism's Modernization In America introduction. 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.

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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.

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