views updated May 09 2018









According to the Torah, the history of the Jewish people begins with a call to the patriarch Abraham to abandon his ancestors idol worship and to Get thee out from thy country unto the land that I will show thee (Gen. 22:1). Jewish history and identity, as recounted within the peoples own tradition, thus begin with a command, a renunciation, and a departure. The Torah also recounts the earliest Jewish generations experience of exile in Egypt, followed by the miraculous deliverance, return, and reconquest of that divinely promised land. However, current archaeological consensus is unable to agree on confirmation of key moments in the biblical account.

The name Jew and its various cognates (e.g., French Juif, German Jude, Arabic yahud ) all stem from the name Judah, the ancient kingdom that shared the name of one of the twelve sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob. Other names for the group are Hebrew (generally referring to the ancient period, but also the name of the main ethnic language) and Israel (a name of Jacob in the Bible and also the name of the second ancient Jewish kingdom).


Jews are known simultaneously for their lasting devotion to their homeland (Israel, Zion, Palestine, or simply the Land) between the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and for their long endurance in conditions of diaspora or exile. The main historical exiles of ancient Jewry followed the destruction in 586 BCE, by the Babylonians, of the ritual center in Jerusalem known today as the First Temple, and then the destruction in 70 CE, by the Romans, of the Second Temple. However, Jewish diaspora the existence of stable and persistent Jewish communities outside the historical homelandlong predates the loss of the ritual center and of Jewish sovereignty. The ancient Jewish community of Alexandria, with its rich Hellenic culture and regular remission of tribute to Jerusalem, is only the most dramatic example of such a pre-exilic diaspora.

Babylonia quickly became a key and powerful center of ancient Jewish life, throughout the entire Second Temple period and beyond. In the wake of the Roman exile, groups of religious leaders collectively known to current scholarship as the Rabbis devoted generations to the elaboration and transmission of the Oral Torah, eventually redacted into the texts known as the Mishnah, and in the commentaries on the Mishnah known respectively as the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud. Rabbinic Judaism was a minority formation in its earliest centuries (outnumbered by what is broadly known as Hellenic Judaism and by other rival formations, eventually including its only surviving rival, known as Karaite Judaism). Despite continuing sentimental attachment to the ancient homeland, the Babylonian Talmud retained far more central authority than its Jerusalem rival. The Rabbinic models of scriptural interpretation, legal adaptation, and substitution of prayer for Temple ritual came to serve as the fundamental template for Jewish communal life throughout various diasporas until the modern period.


The notion of chosenness is understood in Jewish tradition in terms of obligation and reward. The Book of Deuteronomy recounts the Hebrew nations reaffirmation of Gods original covenant with Abraham; the people will keep Gods statutes and commandments and ordinances, and God will in turn keep them as His own treasure (am segula ) (Deut. 26:1618). Various examples of the literary genre of commentary known as midrash recount Gods prior offer of the Torah to other nations, each of which is unable to accept one of its major premises and thus refuses to enter into the divine covenant.

Though this deity is sometimes referred to as the God of our ancestors or the God of Israel, the biblical narrativeand especially the Prophetic writingsreflect the conviction that, as the creator of all being and of all humanity, this divinitys sphere of power and interest is not limited to one nation or territory. Moreover, in sharp contrast to some other national epics, the origin of the people in human history is separated from the original creation of the earth and its creatures. Accordingly, Jewish tradition and rhetoric view the non-Jewish other through a range of metaphorical frameworks: as cousins, descended through a mythic genealogy from the common human ancestors Adam and Eve; as instruments of a divine plan centrally dependent on the covenant and on the Jews always inadequate performance thereof; and occasionally as creatures equally precious in the sight of God: Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, saith the Lord? (Amos 9:7).

At the ideological plane, diaspora Jewish life has been played out in this continuing and productive tension between ethnocentrism and universalism. The synagogue, wherever it is, becomes a form of mikdash meat, a miniature substitute for the lost Temple in Jerusalem. The study of the forms of Temple worship and recitation of the order of sacrifices both recall ancient sovereignty and give form to dreams of messianic restoration. The study of sacred texts transcends mere recitation through a chain of commentaries that both preserve understandings and distort them to make the authorities fit new circumstances. The Rabbinic academies (yeshivot ) of ancient Babylonia come to serve as models for the new academies in eastern Europe devoted to the defense and reinvention of Talmud study in response to modern forms of knowledge and inquiry.

Practicethe meticulous and highly rationalized observance of positive commandments and prohibitionsis central to the conduct of a traditionally Jewish life. Laws of separation and purity (such as dietary limitations, bans on the mixing of certain species in agriculture, and menstrual taboos) both help to order the social world and sustain the larger lifeworld separation distinguishing Jews from non-Jews. During the period of Jewish sovereignty, many of these laws served to underscore the special sacredness of the land itself. In diaspora, their function in preventing the dissolution of the Jews as a kin and ideological group become more salient.

Jewish law and custom are all highly androcentric, though not univocally so. They are heteronormative, though they do not reflect the gender structures of the post-Enlightenment European bourgeoisie, from the perspective of which the Rabbinic ideal of the quiet, studious, tent-dwelling Jacob may even seem effeminate (see Boyarin 2004). Men under traditional Jewish law exclusively enjoy various rights and powers, such as serving as witnesses, as members of prayer quorums, and as the initiators of divorce. Apologetic accounts stress the key role of women in the family, but at various points women in Jewish communities have also held important economic roles, and the Talmud also makes clear the rights of women as property holders and contracting parties in ancient Babylonia.

Since the Prophetic response to the nations demoralization in the wake of the first and second exiles, the messianic promise of ultimate redemption and restorationsometimes accompanied by visions of universal peace and well-beinghas been a core tenet of Jewish belief, ritual, and culture. Messianism has also been a central motivating theme of the powerful and continuing tradition of Jewish mysticism, which has sometimes coexisted with and sometimes contended with Rabbinic textualism. Some leading scholars have argued that Jewish messianism is distinctly characterized by the expectation of the advent of the messiah as a historical and public event, over and against ideologies of individual redemption.


Since earliest times, and including periods of state sovereignty, the Jewish collective has often found itself either a client of or in conflict with larger powers. Much Prophetic discourse turns on the geopolitical dilemma of choosing between loyalty to the rival empires of Assyria and Egypt. The biblical narrative of enslavement and deliverance turns on an image of the Egyptians as heartless and unworthy emperors. The destruction of the Second Temple resulted in large part from Jewish resistance to incorporation within the Roman provincial administrative system. Christianity was an outgrowth of certain messianic trends among Jews, and there has been growing scholarly acknowledgment in recent years not only of the significance of Jesus Jewishness, but the continued Jewishness of many of the first Christians, including Paul. Yet Christianity became radically distinguished from, and powerfully opposed to, Judaism and Jewishness once it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Similarly, Islam arose in Arabia in a social milieu where Jews were a prominent part of the mix, yet the rejection of Muhammads (c. 570632) message by the local Jewish community gave rise to strains in Islam that are at best ambivalent toward Jews and at worst overtly hostile.


Jewish communities eventually spread (or were established by conversion) throughout the circum-Mediterranean region, Central Asia, and eastern and western Europe. With the exception of sub-Saharan Africa and much of East Asia (there were smaller Jewish communities for centuries in India and China), Jews were thus found throughout the Old World. Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, Jews played prominent roles in the world system of trade and communication that stretched from the Atlantic coast of Europe through the Mediterranean and into Asia, and for centuries, Jewish communities were concentrated in Islamic lands, ranging from Iberia through North Africa and the Middle East. Yet that world system was unstable, and Crusader anti-Muslim zeal sometimes spilled over into murderous anti-Jewish violence.

During the High Middle Ages, in a complex process tied to the formation of nascent nation-states, long-established Jewish communities were forced out of various parts of western Europe; many of their number migrated to regions in eastern Europe that were then being colonized by Christian nobility, peasants, and clergy. More than a century of forced conversions and persecutions culminated in the expulsion of Jews from Iberia at the end of the fifteenth century. While this ended centuries of fruitful and conflicted multireligious contact that had produced Jewish luminaries such as Moses Maimonides (11351204), Abraham Ibn Ezra (10921167), and Solomon Ibn Gabirol (c. 10211058), it also gave rise to new, flourishing, and influential communities across the Ottoman Empire, known as Sephardim and speaking the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino. However, a dramatic rise in the Jewish population of eastern Europe during the nineteenth century radically shifted the center of gravity of Jewish communities in the modern period.


Modern European nationalism, the rise of democratic citizenship, and Enlightenment ideologies of individual autonomy and of freedom of conscience all presented both dangers and opportunities for Jews and Jewishness. Distinctive legal statusboth limitations and protectionsfor Jews began to crumble. In western Europe, the National Assembly during the French Revolution of 1789 heralded the abolition of autonomous Jewish communities with the famous phrase, To the Jews as a nation, nothing; to Jews as individuals, everything. In modernizing Germany, Jews were prominent in literature, science, and the arts, though they continued to suffer social and institutional discrimination. In the Russian Empire, the prisonhouse of nations, Jewish communities faced a bewildering and inconsistent sequence and array of liberalizing gestures, increasing restrictions on settlement and occupations, and forced assimilation in the guise of modernization. Individual Jews and Jewish movements (notably the Jewish Workers Bund in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania) were prominent in socialist and revolutionary efforts to overthrow the czarist regime. Jews were full participants in colonial, democratic, and capitalist ventures in the New World, and the United States became a center of Jewish population and creativity.

Perhaps fueled by the dramatic encounter between traditional Jewish communities and the new bourgeois sphere, thinkers of Jewish origin such as Karl Marx (18181883), Sigmund Freud (18561939), and Émile Durkheim (18581917) were pioneers in the reflexive articulation of modernitys self-understanding, while Jewish writers, scientists, and musicians likewise made disproportionate contributions to modern culture. The haskalah or Jewish enlightenment stimulated a new, secular Hebrew literature, as well as a modern Yiddish literature, much of which has stood the test of generations as a commentary both on the limitations of tradition and on the frequently empty pretensions of the new.

Yet Jewishness and the Jews were frequently seen as a problem for Western modernity, whether because their potential loyalty and capacity for absorption as fellow citizens of secular nation-states was in question, or because the organizing logic of those nation-states rested in unacknowledged ways on assumptions of their constituents shared Christian heritage. One reaction was the crystallization of Zionism as the Jews own modern nationalist movement, which eventually took material form in the effort to convince Jews to migrate to Palestine and to create the infrastructure for Jewish state sovereignty there to be renewed after nearly two millennia. Zionism bears in turn a complex relation to traditional Jewishness, rejecting as neurotic substitutions much of the diasporic forms of Jewish life, while mobilizing the memory and longing for the lost homeland that have nourished Jewish sensibilities in exile.

Political engagement by Jews in liberal and socialist struggles throughout the West helped fuel the modern anti-Semitic movement. Anti-Semitism was itself a reactionary response to the rapid pace of social and economic change, paradoxically bolstered by modern theories of biologically determined and hence immutable racial characteristics. During the 1930s, a time when Western economy and society were simultaneously resisting workers revolution and reeling from catastrophic disruption to the capitalist economy, Jews were irrationally but opportunistically tarred as the bête noire of the imagined Aryan race. The consequent call to eliminate the Jews, originally a demand for expulsion, was transformed in the course of World War II (19391945) into an active program of genocide. There were an estimated 18,000,000 Jews at the beginning of that war; by its end, a third of them had been slaughtered.


The map of the Jewish world has been dramatically reshaped in past centuries, as a result of genocide, assimilation, migration, nation-building, and renewal. The Jews of the world are far less widely dispersed than they once were, and much has been lost. The State of Israel explicitly defines itself as a Jewish state, yet along with a significant Arab minority, its population includes numbers of immigrants whose Jewish status according to religious law has been hotly debated. Moreover, Israel and its Jewish population continue to face vital issues of cultural and political integration into the Middle East.

Along with Israel, the United States holds by far the worlds largest Jewish population, and American Jews are generally considered well integrated. Markers of Jewish identity and culture are readily present and celebrated in media and popular culture. Those concerned with Jewish continuity worry about high rates of intermarriage among moderately affiliated Jews. There is an extraordinary range of options for expression of religious Judaism, for the explicit linkage of Jewishness to other nonmajoritarian identities, and for the preservation and reinvention of secular Jewish culture. Meanwhile, traditionalist religious communities have enjoyed a resurgence, experiencing high birthrates and close to universal retention of young people within their communities.

Outside of Israel and the United States, France retains the largest Jewish population, largely comprising North African immigrants and their descendants. French Jewry today stands as a test case for the continued viability of Jewish and indeed of minority communities more generally in contemporary western Europe, and some see its future as clouded by the appearance of a new anti-Semitism there. Significant Jewish populations also are found in the countries of the former Soviet Union, in Canada, in the United Kingdom, and in Argentina.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Assimilation; Christianity; Enlightenment; Ethnocentrism; Gender; Genocide; Heteronormativity; Holocaust, The; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Jewish Diaspora; Judaism; Migration; Modernism; Modernization; Nation of Islam; Nationalism and Nationality; Religion; Reparations; Supreme Being; Zionism


Biale, David, ed. 2002. Cultures of the Jews: A New History. New York: Schocken.

Boyarin, Daniel. 2004. Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gerber, Jane. 1992. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. New York: Free Press.

Gilman, Sander. 1986. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gruen, Erich. 2002. Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. 1995. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Deborah Dash, and S. Ilan Troen, eds. 2001. Divergent Jewish Cultures: Israel and America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Scholem, Gershom. 1971. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken.

Urbach, Efraim. 1979. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. 2nd ed. Trans. Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Weinreich, Max. 1980. History of the Yiddish Language. Trans. Shlomo Noble, with Joshua Fishman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonathan Boyarin


views updated Jun 08 2018


The half-century between 1870 and 1920 was the most dynamic period in history for the growth and development of American Jewry. By that time Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews had already established a solid population base in the United States, the Sephardim originally from Spain and Portugal, the Ashkenazim, or "German Jews" as popularly designated, then mostly from central Europe.

In 1880, as the promise of America was being fulfilled for many Jewish entrepreneurs and professionals already in the United States, the period of mass Jewish immigration from eastern Europe was soon to commence. Since 1791 a vast number of Jews from much of this region between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea had been confined to the Pale of Jewish Settlement under Russian control. From 1880 on for most of nearly forty-five years, almost unbearable poverty sustained by burdensome Russian restrictions and anti-Semitic pogroms drove these East European Jews from their homelands and across the Atlantic by the tens of thousands annually, seeking a better life. Not all of them found one, but many did, and of them all, few returned.

Many of these Ashkenazic East European immigrants tried to follow the scriptural laws, Talmudic rules, and ancient traditions familiar to them from birth. But adverse circumstances usually made such steadfastness difficult, and families were soon divided by generation regarding their adherence to the Hebraic laws and rituals. Generally the older immigrants were more faithful, the younger more interested in "making it" and becoming Americanized.

Similarly the older generation found it difficult to learn and use English, whereas the younger, especially children in the public schools, shifted to English from their native Yiddish much more quickly and easily, often becoming teachers of their parents, an anomalous and discomfiting reversal for the elders. Abraham Cahan's (1860–1951) most famous novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), describes an emotional conflict between mother and daughter that develops in their home over this issue and helps drive them apart. From wherever in eastern Europe the Jews emigrated, they spoke Yiddish, a form of High German printed in Hebrew letters; it is a colloquial tongue rich in imagery and heavily mixed with Hebrew words and variants from the diverse countries and areas these Jews originally had called home. The culture they brought with them from eastern Europe, called yidishkayt, is based heavily on the language itself, and it evolved with the Jewish way of life in the shtetlach of the homeland, combining the religious and the secular, although with the passing of years in America it was increasingly secularized. Most Jewish men had as boys learned Hebrew to read scripture and Yiddish for daily usage; most women who could read—and many could not—understood Yiddish only. Instead of Yiddish, Jews from the Near East spoke Ladino, a Judaeo-Spanish tongue, or some form of Arabic.

Because life was so different in America, means were devised relatively early in the nineteenth century to liberalize Judaism from European rabbinical dictates yet allow Jews to remain faithful in the New World if they wished, as most did at least to some degree. Within Reform Judaism, established in the United States in the 1840s, the extent of liberalization varied. Among the prominent theorists behind Reform were Isaac Mayer Wise, Samuel Adler (whose son, Felix, founded the Ethical Culture movement in the 1870s), David Einhorn, and the more restrained Isaac Leeser. Late in the century, Conservative Judaism was instituted to provide a middle ground between the rigorous practice of Orthodoxy and the decidedly assimilative policies of Reform, but it did not take root until early in the twentieth century under the leadership of Solomon Schechter.


Before 1880 relatively few Jews entered the United States annually, so the difficulties they faced were usually limited; by then about 280,000 Jews lived in the country. The next year, however, would witness the beginning of a dramatic increase in numbers at the reception area in New York City's Castle Garden. Between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I, over two million Jews entered the United States. Moses Rischin has estimated that during this period a third of East European Jewry left home; some 90 percent of them sailed to the United States, and the vast majority of those settled at least temporarily in New York. By 1915 approximately 3.5 million Jews lived in the United States.

Part of the reason for this new influx may be found in Cahan's historical novel of 1905, The White Terror and the Red, in which he graphically describes a dreadful anti-Semitic pogrom in Russia. The novel is set in the early 1880s, around the time that Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, but Cahan had been motivated to begin writing it immediately on learning of the massacre that occurred in Kishinev during Easter Week 1903, leaving forty-nine Jews dead and hundreds more wounded.

Although such violent pogroms as this helped influence the Russian and Polish Jews to flee, escape from their hopeless poverty provided an even stronger motive. Aboard ships from Germany and England they sailed in steerage and after a harrowing voyage of ten days to two weeks arrived at Castle Garden through 1892 and Ellis Island afterward. Although immigrants were treated decently at the crowded processing stations, their experiences nevertheless were often distressing, even frightening because, knowing little or no English, most could not understand what was happening to them. Moreover, names were often changed in processing because they were incomprehensible as pronounced to the officials.

Most of the incoming Jews who remained in New York settled in one of the city's ghettos, mainly in the tenement district of the Lower East Side, not far from Castle Garden. In 1900 the population density of that area's tenth ward was approximately seven hundred per acre—one of the highest in the world—yet the death rate was the lowest in the city. By 1910 the population of the Lower East Side was over half a million, but by then inhabitants were moving either to ghettos elsewhere in the city or to other parts of the country.

The heavy influx of immigrants caused a dramatic increase in urban populations across the United States. In 1878 New York had a population of sixty thousand Jews, and in 1907 it was ten times that number. According to Lee Shai Weissbach, the Jewish population of other cities in the United States underwent similar or greater dynamic growth.

Not all Americans were happy with these changing Jewish demographics, including the Jews already established in the United States. Those whose businesses and professions had thrived after the Civil War eagerly sought respectability in their new homeland, that is, favorable recognition from Gentile society; not wishing to appear different as Jews, they yearned to be true Americans themselves. If these "uptown Jews" were uncomfortable with all the devout "greenhorns" (newcomers) pressing into "downtown" tenements, however, they did not turn away from their landsleit (landsman) in need but contributed heavily toward assisting them. From the time the first Jews arrived in the United States, they insisted that they would provide for their own and not leave their poor to be cared for by public charities.

On the other hand, most of the resentment toward the immigrants was attributable not to Jews but to Gentiles willing to accommodate the Sephardic and German Jews who sought to assimilate but not the hordes of destitute East Europeans living in squalor in Lower East Side tenements.


The tenement buildings were newly designed in 1879 to replace earlier types. The more recent structures of six or seven stories were called dumbbell tenements, with every floor holding four apartments of three or four rooms each. Shaped like dumbbells, the contiguous buildings narrowed at the center to provide for wholly inadequate airshafts between them, allowing no other space for light and ventilation. Moses Rischin describes these buildings in which every room often housed several people and served as both living and working quarters. Couples or families renting an apartment for $10 to $20 per month typically let one room to a boarder; under the worst economic circumstances, two boarders alternately used the same bed at different hours of the day and night. The excruciating summer heat drove the occupants outside to sleep on fire escapes and roofs; in winter the air inside was fetid and heavy with fumes emanating from heating units.

Outside the tenements, pushcarts and horse wagons maneuvered amid crowds of peddlers, while shoppers, hagglers, and children ferrying large bundles of piece-work, among others going about their business, jammed such noisy, bustling East Side thoroughfares as Hester and Delancey Streets. Rischin's The Promised City, Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers (1976), Howe and Kenneth Libo's How We Lived (1979), and Stanley Feldstein's The Land That I Show You (1978) as well as Jacob Riis's early groundbreaking exposé How the Other Half Lives (1890) exhibit eye-opening photographs of the overcrowded, noisome conditions under which immigrants struggled for life in the tenement districts during these decades. Moreover, as bad as the New York tenements were, those in Chicago were allegedly worse.

Not all immigrant husbands could cope with either the constant pressure or the burdensome responsibility of keeping their families alive under such circumstances. Consequently the number of husbands deserting wives and children was high, especially in the cities. According to Arthur Hertzberg, as many as 25 percent of Jewish fathers deserted their wives during the years of mass immigration, some never sending them money in Europe for tickets to America and others abandoning them in the United States after fruitlessly attempting to earn enough to stay together. In 1911 a National Desertion Bureau was established when urban Jewish charities that could not cover the cost independently joined forces to assist deserted families.


Not all the immigrant Jews settled in the cities. Others—although many fewer—traveled into rural New England, the South, the Midwest, and the far Northwest. Am Olam (Eternal People) groups that developed in major Russian cities promoted agricultural colonies among the emigrating Jews that led them to attempt to establish farm communities in the Dakotas, Oregon, and elsewhere in rural and wilderness areas of the United States (as well as Palestine). Few of these communities endured because not many Jews in Europe had acquired farming experience; those in the Pale could not own land at all.

Because Jews who settled in the United States after 1880 had emigrated largely from shtetlach and other restrictive communities in eastern Europe, the ways they knew of earning a living were extremely limited. Like earlier Jewish immigrants who had "made it" in business and finance by beginning as peddlers and small shop owners in different parts of the country, many East Europeans also began with backpacks and pushcarts. Countless others knew how to sew, and those who did not quickly learned. This endeavor eased when Singer sewing machines were brought into Russia in the 1870s; prospective immigrants who became accomplished on them found work soon after entering the United States.

Sewing was fundamental to the East Side Jews, who generally worked under the sweatshop system, a method already in effect when they arrived. As Ronald Sanders and Irving Howe describe the system, typically a contractor agreed to provide a set number of suits or cloaks to a merchant at a certain price. By then the merchant had purchased the requisite amount of cloth and cut it into sections for the contractor to distribute among workers he or she had hired, each of whom had a specific task to perform. Manufacturing ready-made clothes was seasonal work, and workers had little chance to earn sufficient money during the off-seasons, so when jobs were available, six-day work weeks often required seventy-two to eighty-four hours of labor.

On the Lower East Side during these years thousands of sweatshops were in existence simultaneously, but most were small operations employing but a handful of people. By 1880, even before their heyday, about half the Jewish businesses in the United States were in some aspect of the garment trade, and Arthur Hertzberg estimates that Jews already controlled as much as three-fourths of the American clothing industry. Extending this point, Irving Howe states that altogether the production of the sweatshops was so great that by 1900 some 90 percent of the garment industry was under Jewish control, and by then the east Europeans were squeezing out the Germans, who had previously dominated the industry.

In addition to businesses, the professions attracted a disproportionate number of Jewish immigrants. Among the most distinguished American jurists during this period, for example, were Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Louis Marshall, all three of whom contributed significantly to the nation's legal as well as Jewish history; both Brandeis and Cardozo became Supreme Court justices. Moreover, as Hertzberg indicates, by 1910 about a quarter of the students in American medical schools were Jewish (p. 200).

With the good came the bad. Arnold Rothstein (1882–1928), born of East European parents in New York, became the notorious gambler who masterminded the infamous Black Sox scandal and gained a fortune by bribing leading players on the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series in 1919. A stylish, well-groomed wheeler-dealer among the politicians of Tammany Hall, he allegedly bribed his way to success through police stations and courtrooms alike. Although F. Scott Fitzgerald based Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby (1925) on Rothstein, he transformed the dapper gambler from a brilliant gangster into a repulsive anti-Semitic Jewish stereotype.

On the Lower East Side many less-conspicuous Jewish figures were loose with the law as well, typically thwarting it by chicanery and manipulation rather than violence. Prostitution too was difficult to control in that section partly because it was on the edge of the red-light district and partly because it was supported by dance halls that abounded in the area to provide entertainment for men and women alike. In Yekl, A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), Cahan describes a dance hall but implies nothing about prostitution. Juvenile delinquency was also commonplace; parents tried to control their offspring, but peer pressure often overcame their influence. Children were no longer under the religious restrictions of the shtetlach, traditional discipline in the home had deteriorated, youngsters spoke better English than their parents, and much of their time was spent on the streets. If their fathers had deserted them, they had no place else to go.


In the miasmic atmosphere of the ghettos, advocates of socialist theory and practice—which by no means always corresponded—were prominent, especially from the 1880s until after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The east European Jews brought socialism from the old country, where those who expressed radical ideas toward reform were either harassed or subject to arrest and imprisonment, depending on their assumed degree of implication with the revolutionaries. Abraham Cahan, who arrived in America from Russia in 1882, became one of the strongest and most effective spokespersons for socialism on the East Side, partly by speaking to the workers in Yiddish rather than one of their native European languages but mostly through his strong voice in the Yiddish press. After editing and writing for the Socialist Labor Party's weekly, Arbeter tsaytung, through the mid-1890s, Cahan in 1897 founded the Jewish daily Forverts, popularly known as the Forward, which ultimately became the most widely read, distributed, and influential Yiddish newspaper in the world. One cannot overstate the importance of the Forward to Jewish economic and social progress during that crucial period in American Jewish history.

But the Forward was only one of many Yiddish newspapers published on the East Side; each of the leftist dailies and weeklies propagated its own brand of socialism, often more theoretical than practical, and each had its own coterie of adherents. The more theoretical socialists attempted to promote economic as well as social equality by ending all forms of labor exploitation, an impossibility in democratic America, where workers could vote freely and reap the benefits of their labor. In contrast, the more liberal papers recommended adapting socialist theories to suit the needs of Jews living in a different world from the tsarist autocracy.

With socialists of every stripe came others—Jewish anarchists, communists, Am Olam adherents, and Zionists among them—all with various commitments and degrees of loyalty. The Chicago Haymarket riot in 1886 began with an authorized protest by angered workers and anarchists and ended when someone unknown threw a bomb amidst a group of police, who then opened fire on the crowd. Several people were killed or wounded; eight of those at the protest were arrested and tried by a heavily biased court; four were executed and, according to Hertzberg, regarded as martyrs by Jewish socialists and radical workers.

Zionists showed little strength in the United States until the unanticipated support they gained from Louis Brandeis in 1914 rapidly increased their influence among American Jews, particularly those from eastern Europe. Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Movement, was organized two years earlier by Henrietta Szold, and it has since played a major role in American Zionism. Each group of advocates and theorists attempted to propagate its own social philosophy and practice through lectures, rallies, protests, and the Yiddish press.

Attempts to establish unions in the ghettos focused particularly on the clothing trade. In 1909 and 1910 large strikes in the clothing industry occurred in Chicago as well as New York. Of course Jews were not the only workers in that industry, which drew heavily for labor from other immigrant groups and neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan. Many young Italian and Jewish women died together, for example, in the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 that shocked the nation. Those on the upper floors were trapped in their workrooms behind locked doors and were among the 146 workers who burned or jumped to their deaths within only a few minutes. Such catastrophes as this exacerbated the misery of the working people and their families on the East Side in particular, and strikes became both larger and more effective. Among the most prominent labor leaders of the period were Cahan; Samuel Gompers, longtime president of the American Federation of Labor; Joseph Barondess, dubbed "King of the Cloak-Makers"; David Dubinsky, the enduring leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; Morris Hillquit (né Hilkowitz), who helped establish the United Hebrew Trades with Cahan in 1888; and Meyer London, a Jewish labor lawyer elected to Congress in 1914. Their political leanings were always to the left.

Reducing anti-Semitism in the United States, always a major issue for Jewish leaders, was particularly evident during the years of mass immigration. Antipathy toward Jews gained strength with the increasing numbers of immigrants. In 1913 Leo Frank, a young Jewish plant manager in Atlanta, was framed and convicted for killing a woman in the factory; without proof that he had committed the crime, a lynch mob hanged him in 1915 as he awaited the result of his appeal in jail. Moreover, that infamous treatise The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery by the Russian police early in the century, was translated and published in the United States in 1919. Purporting to be a secret plan by international Jewry to take over the world, this ludicrous document, promoted by Henry Ford, gained tremendous influence soon after its publication in English. Among the organizations founded early in the twentieth century in support of Jewish civil rights are the American Jewish Committee (1906) and B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League (1913).


In The Promised City, Moses Rischin reviews in some detail the surprising success rate of Jewish immigrant children in the East Side public schools. The average absentee rate of 8 percent was attributable almost entirely to illness, he says, and the pupils, eager to learn, were responsive and quickly Americanized. Rischin also points out that by the end of the century most children in the public schools of New York City were those of east European immigrants. Myra Kelly (1876–1910), an Irish teacher on the East Side at the end of the century, was so enthusiastic over her experiences with her Jewish pupils that she published numerous stories based on those she knew; her most popular collection was Little Citizens: The Humours of School Life (1904).

Several Jewish organizations assisted in the support of vocational schools, including technical training and English instruction for both girls and boys. As the numbers of incoming children increased toward the end of the century and beyond, the "uptown" Jews of the older, more established German-Jewish community contributed more heavily to the education and welfare of East Europeans in the tenement districts "downtown." The Hebrew Free School Association, the Young Men's Hebrew Association, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and various other agencies were instrumental in helping to provide education for the immigrants, children and adults alike. In 1895 Lillian Wald established the Nurses (Henry Street) Settlement on the Lower East Side to offer nursing services and educate the immigrants about good health and hygiene. Other, more comprehensive charities such as the B'nai B'rith also helped to make education for these children possible among their broader commitments. Hebrew Union College was first established in Cincinnati in 1875 under the leadership of Isaac Mayer Wise; Gratz College, the first specifically for Jewish teachers, dates to 1897, and Dropsie College, the first postgraduate school for Jewish studies, was founded ten years later.

Education went two ways on the Lower East Side: not only were most immigrant Jews eager to learn about American manners and practices, but many Americans were equally interested in the ghetto, that "exotic" district to which the foreign Jews had immigrated. Because American journalists other than Jews did not know Yiddish, those who wished to write about the East Side sought someone there to guide them. Abraham Cahan had been hired by Lincoln Steffens, a philo-Semite (one who admires, praises, and often makes it a point to associate with Jews) (see Howe, p. 398) recently appointed city editor for the New York Commercial Advertiser, to report on the East Side. One outstanding result of Cahan's warm association with Hutchins Hapgood (1869–1944), also on the staff, was The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902), a collection of articles on East Side life by Hapgood with superb charcoal drawings by Jacob Epstein. Jacob Riis (1849–1914), widely known as the author and photographer of How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Children of the Poor (1892), was then reporting for the New York Sun.

As the Gentile journalists publicized immigrant life for outsiders, the Yiddish press brought omnifarious information as well as fiction and poetry to American Jews wherever copies were available. Although the Forward was the most enduring of the Yiddish papers, other Yiddish dailies, weeklies, and monthlies were chiefly political, but some emphasized Jewish achievements, and still others appealed to conservative Jewish readers from a religious perspective. Apart from news and commentaries in the Jewish press, a variety of other features appeared, including tawdry, sentimental, melodramatic, and sensational fiction written quickly and strictly for commercial purposes.


An outstanding novel of the period is Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, which details the life of a hypocritical Russian immigrant from his childhood in a shtetl studying to become a Hebrew scholar through his middle age in New York as a multimillionaire industrialist. As Cahan presents immigrant life in fiction from a male perspective, Anzia Yezierska (1885?–1970) reveals it from the viewpoint of a woman. Her first story, "The Fat of the Land," appeared in 1915 and her first collection, Hungry Hearts, in 1920; her work was so well received that it brought her to Hollywood, a dramatic change from her childhood and adolescence amid poverty as a Polish immigrant from the Pale. On arriving in America she lived on the East Side under the Old World exploitative behavior of her father, who expected women to work and serve him without question as he studied Talmud at home. So Yezierska fled and gained self-fulfillment trying to create a bridge of mutual understanding between the American people and the immigrants. Because much of Yezierska's fiction is autobiographical, it is comparable with Mary Antin's (1881–1949) popular autobiography The Promised Land (1912), in which she reveals the changes that occurred in her life as a Russian Jew who becomes secularized on leaving her family in Boston to gain what she believes is a new nationalistic religion as an American. Another noted female author early in the century was Fanny Hurst (1889–1968), who brought out two collections of stories before 1920, Just around the Corner (1914) and Humoresque (1919), that show the Jewish immigrants becoming assimilated into American life.

Two other Jewish fiction writers of New York from the period are Herman Bernstein (1876–1935) and James Oppenheim (1882–1932). Bernstein's stories collected in In the Gates of Israel (1902) are somewhat contrived and sentimental, but they expose the alienation felt by immigrants amid conflicting values of the Old World and the New; Bernstein was also founding editor of the Yiddish daily Tog in 1914. Oppenheim first wrote a series of realistic stories about a character named Dr. Rast, a physician on the East Side (1909), that reveals his profound sympathy with the destitute immigrants. Two years later he brought out a novel, The Nine-Tenths, that strongly supports the labor movement and draws on two recent historical incidents, the massive strike among garment workers in 1909 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911. Sholem Aleichem (1856–1916) came to New York from Russia in 1906 but never overcame his misery over what he considered the coarseness of the eastern European immigrants.

Relatively few notable Jewish fictionists existed outside of New York. In the 1890s Emma Wolf (1865–1932) in San Francisco brought out several novels on middle-class Jewish life on the West Coast, among them Other Things Being Equal (1892) and Heirs of Yesterday (1900). After 1900 Elias Tobenkin (1882–1963) published Witte Arrives (1916), which portrays an enterprising, educated youth reared by Russian immigrant parents in rural Wisconsin; unhappy there with no possibility of finding a meaningful life, he leaves and gains fulfillment first in Chicago, then New York. A year after Witte Arrives appeared, Sidney L. Nyburg (1880–1957) brought out The Chosen People, set in contemporary Baltimore. This realistic fiction places many of the serious problems confronting Jewish communities in New York into a smaller arena. Liberal versus conservative, uptown Jews versus downtown Jews, owners versus workers are the crucial conflicts that confront a young rabbi trying to become a moral leader amidst a wealthy community unprepared to make essential changes.

Undoubtedly the best-known poem by a Jewish poet of the period is "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a Sephardic Jew living in New York. Asked to provide a manuscript to help pay for the base of the Statue of Liberty, she wrote her famed sonnet in November 1883; it is now implanted in the pedestal of the statue. Until the early 1880s Lazarus wrote traditional poetry on classical subjects, but when awakened to her Jewish commitment, she devoted herself to it.

Many other Jewish poets also were active, publishing their own collections as well as individual poems in the Yiddish press. Because nearly all their important work was in Yiddish, however, until it was translated they were virtually unknown to non-Yiddish-speaking readers. In the 1880s and 1890s a group called Sweatshop Poets devoted their poetry to the cause of labor on the East Side; perhaps the best known are Morris Winchevsky, David Edelstadt, and especially Morris Rosenfeld. Later more individualistic poets emerged, including such popular writers as Mani Leib, Moshe Leib Halpern, Reuben Iceland, and Zisha Landau. In A Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988), Ruth R. Wisse portrays Leib and Halpern, immigrants from eastern Europe, and discusses their work in the context of trends and patterns in Yiddish poetry of the period. As young poets they became part of a group called Di Yunge (Youth), which formed under the leadership of David Ignatow. Di Yunge separated art from the wretchedness they knew of East Side life by seeking to write as individuals and to emphasize internal truths over external actualities.

Written by Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew from New York, "The New Colossus" is probably the most universally recognized poem by an American poet. She drafted it in November 1883 when asked to submit a manuscript for auction to help acquire funds to provide a base for the Statue of Liberty, a recent gift to the United States from France. The poem received immediate acclaim and was eventually engraved on a plaque mounted within the pedestal.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Lazarus, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, 2:202–203.

The Yiddish theater and the song, dance, and comic routines of early vaudeville also became popular during these years. The Yiddish theater was an art form all its own. Its first performance in New York was Abraham Goldfaden's (1840–1908) operetta The Sorceress, staged in August 1882 on the Lower East Side. Originally a Yiddish songwriter in Russia and Romania, Goldfaden demanded little from his audience in order to generate popular appeal. In contrast, Jacob Gordin (1853–1909) tried to educate his audience. He was the first to attempt to bring realism and serious drama to the Yiddish stage. Two of the principal early actors were Boris Thomashevsky, who achieved great popularity as a star of melodrama, and Jacob Adler, reputedly among the best actors on stage. Late in the 1910s and early 1920s, as David S. Lifson ably traces in The Yiddish Theatre in America (1965), a successful effort was finally made to bring art—serious drama treated seriously—into the Yiddish theater under the influence of the actor Maurice Schwartz, who founded the Yiddish Art Theater in 1918.

Stories abound of the uproarious liberties Yiddish dramatists and actors alike took with Shakespeare's plays—notably Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear—in the early years. Much of the pleasure, laughter, and weeping over these productions was attributable to ad-libbing by the performers and to changes made in situation and setting to accommodate the interests and limitations of Jewish audiences at the time. People familiar with a play before it began still never knew what to expect from one performance to the next, and sometimes audience members became so engaged that they shouted at the performers to encourage or instruct them. In World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe mentions theatergoers so overjoyed with a performance of Hamlet that they called for the author.

Another form of entertainment reigned over the Catskills as Jewish immigrants in New York saved enough to vacation in the mountains for a few days or a week during the summer. By 1890 East European workers began to escape temporarily from the stifling ghettos and enjoy short stays in the cooler mountain air. Aging farmhouses were purchased by entrepreneurs and converted into boardinghouses; after 1900 more lavish hotels and resorts were created. As Cahan illustrates when David Levinsky spends a weekend at the luxurious Rigi Kulm House, overeating and overdressing were the rule for evenings of dining and dancing. Although the Catskills were at their peak for Jewish summer vacationers after 1920, Cahan shows that entertainers were already appearing in the hotels earlier.

A list of names alone of the singers, dancers, and comedians with roots in Jewish neighborhoods of New York early in the last century, especially the East Side, conveys an idea of their importance in the development of American popular culture in the decades that followed. Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, the Ritz Brothers, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker ("Last of the Red-Hot Mamas"), Jack Benny, Milton Berle, the Marx Brothers, and George Burns are only a few of those named by Irving Howe who went on to become American stars in the media during the first half of the century and after. The fathers of George Gershwin, Eddie Cantor, and Harold Arlen were cantors in the synagogue, and Irving Berlin was already writing popular songs before 1910.

Prominent Jews in the visual arts also emerged from immigrant backgrounds in urban America. For example, Jacob Epstein, William Gropper, Ben Shahn, and Leonard Baskin all excelled in the graphic arts, while Moses and Raphael Soyer, Adolf Gottlieb, and later Mark Rothko achieved reputations as outstanding painters. Several of these artists either taught or studied at the Jewish Educational Alliance, which evolved when three Jewish charities of New York combined in 1893, and it continued to serve for decades after.

All told, American Jewry in the early twenty-first century cannot be understood without considering the five decades between 1870 and 1920. As well as a period of literary realism and naturalism in America, this was a dynamic age of maturation for the millions of Jewish immigrants caught between two worlds before winning the struggle to achieve their own identity as both Jews and Americans.

See alsoAnarchism; Assimilation; Immigration; Labor; Poverty; The Rise of David Levinsky; Socialism


Primary Works

Bernheimer, Charles S., ed. The Russian Jew in the United States: Studies of Social Conditions in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, with a Description of Rural Communities. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1905.

Hapgood, Hutchins. The Spirit of the Ghetto. 1902. Edited by Moses Rischin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

Lazarus, Emma. The Poems of Emma Lazarus. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1888.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Scribners, 1890.

Secondary Works

Birmingham, Stephen. The Grandees: America's Sephardic Elite. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Chyet, Stanley F., ed. "Forgotten Fiction: American Jewish Life, 1890–1920." American Jewish Archives 37, no. 1 (1985).

Feldstein, Stanley. The Land That I Show You: Three Centuries of Jewish Life in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.

Fishman, Priscilla, ed. The Jews of the United States: The New York Times Library of Jewish Knowledge. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times, 1973.

Fried, Lewis, ed. Handbook of American-Jewish Literature: An Analytical Guide to Topics, Themes, and Sources. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

Harap, Louis. Creative Awakening: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1900–1940s. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Harap, Louis. The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immigration. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974.

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter. New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Howe, Irving, and Kenneth Libo. How We Lived: A Documentary History of Immigrant Jews in America, 1880–1930. New York: Richard Marek, 1979.

Lifson, David S. The Yiddish Theatre in America. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965.

Marovitz, Sanford E. Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne/Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996.

Rischin, Moses. The Promised City: New York's Jews, 1870–1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Sanders, Ronald. Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Emigration. New York: Holt, 1988.

Taub, Michael. "Yiddish Newspapers in America: A Selective Overview (on the Occasion of the 105 Anniversary of the Yiddish Forwerts)." Yiddish 13, nos. 2–3 (2003): 111–119.

Weissbach, Lee Shai. "The Jewish Communities of the United States on the Eve of Mass Migration: Some Comments on Geography and Bibliography." American Jewish History 58, no. 1 (1988): 79–108.

Wisse, Ruth R. A Little Love in Big Manhattan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Sanford E. Marovitz


views updated May 21 2018



The history of the Jews in Europe since 1914 is centrally dominated by the Nazi Holocaust of 1933 to 1945, and especially by the "Final Solution," Adolf Hitler's attempt, between 1941 and 1945, literally to exterminate all of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. As well, the historical evolution of European Jewry was shaped in major ways by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia of 1917, and by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the impact of this event on the self-perception and identity of Jews around the world. Many internal trends—religious, socioeconomic, and political—also figured strongly in the transformation of the Jewish people in Europe in this period.

A number of factors set the Jews apart from nearly all other peoples in Europe and, indeed, elsewhere. For nearly two millennia Jews lacked a homeland of their own, always living as a separate community among the nations where they lived. Religious Jews always looked to Palestine, their ancient homeland from which they had been driven into worldwide exile by the Romans; from the mid-nineteenth century, many secular and some religious Jews favored the re-creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, a movement known as "Zionism." Nearly everywhere they lived, Jews attracted a good deal of hostility, often expressed in violent fashion. Anti-Semitism—hostility to Jews—was traditionally based in religious prejudice but, from the mid-nineteenth century, was reoriented in the form of ethnic and racial hostility to Jews, who were increasingly seen by anti-Semites as a malign and hostile ethnic community in their host nation. Jews themselves were also deeply divided. Most Jews in eastern Europe still spoke Yiddish, a dialect of German written in Hebrew letters, although the Zionist movement was in the process of reviving Hebrew (a Semitic rather than an Indo-European language) as the "authentic" language of the Jews. Millions of Jews had, through immigration, become acculturated to their homelands, and regarded themselves as English, French, German, or some other nationality, and were, by 1914, often indistinguishable from any of their fellow citizens. Jews spanned the political spectrum, although they were often seen as typically on the left. In eastern Europe, many Jews practiced the strictly Orthodox form of Judaism, although many forms of "modern Orthodoxy" or non-Orthodoxy were also practiced, especially in western Europe.


On paper, World War I produced considerable gains for the large Jewish populations of eastern and central Europe. Tsarist Russia, the main oppressor of Jewry before 1914, was swept away during the war, as were the multinational empires of central Europe where considerable anti-Semitism existed. Officially, their successor states were all democracies, and were all committed in their constitutions to granting equality for their minorities, including the Jews. The communist ideology of the Soviet Union attacked organized religion and the traditional economic role of the Jews, but also outlawed anti-Semitism and regarded the Jews as a distinctive nationality.

The reality proved to be quite different. Interwar eastern and central Europe saw a continuing decline in the political and economic status of the Jews, especially after 1929, while in 1933 Germany gave supreme power to the most fanatical and murderous anti-Semite in history.

Throughout eastern and central Europe, most of the post-1918 successor regimes were impoverished and increasingly hallmarked by ultranationalistic hostility to their Jewish minority (and to other ethnic minorities). The dream presented in 1918 by Wilsonian liberal idealism soon proved utterly chimerical.

By far the largest Jewish population in interwar Europe was found in Poland, whose Jewish population numbered about 2.9 million in 1921, 3.1 million in 1931, and about 3.3 million in 1939. While most lived in cities, even the largest Jewish urban centers were surprisingly small—there were about 353,000 Jews in Warsaw, the largest center, in 1931, and about 202,000 in Lodz, the second largest. Many Jews continued to live in shtetls, small Jewish towns or villages. Most Jews were engaged in commerce as small tradespeople, or in manufacturing, especially in the clothing trade. There was only a tiny Jewish professional class but a very large, often impoverished, working class. Apart from Galicia (where many Jews spoke German), about 90 percent of Poland's Jews spoke Yiddish.

Initially, the new Polish government was fairly friendly to its Jews, but it became increasingly and openly anti-Semitic, especially after about 1929. Jews were almost entirely excluded from government employment, even in the school system. During the 1930s, a plethora of extreme right-wing movements, many openly anti-Semitic, arose, and there emerged an endemic problem of constant anti-Semitic violence by right-wing thugs. Jews at university lectures were often forced to sit in so-called ghetto benches, segregated from Gentiles. Nevertheless, face-to-face relations between Jews and Poles were often good, and Poland was virtually the only eastern European country in the 1930s not to enact legislation to reduce Jewish participation in the economy or the professions. To Polish nationalists, the problem was that there were simply too many Jews in Poland, an unassimilable mass with an entirely different language, religion, and culture from the Polish majority. Many Polish nationalists therefore supported the Zionist movement, the aims of which included the emigration of large numbers of Jews from Poland. Only the emergence of Nazi Germany—whose racial ideology saw Poles as scarcely better than the Jews—as the main threat to Polish independence in the late 1930s brought the two groups together, on the eve of the destruction of most of Polish Jewry.

The Polish Jewish community responded to its situation by producing a range of political parties with radically differing ideologies, and it must be stressed that Polish Jewry (and, indeed, world Jewry) was extraordinarily disunified during the interwar years and had no consensual view on its endemic problems. There were three main ideological groupings among interwar Polish Jewry, whose views were totally distinctive. Probably the largest of these groupings was the Bund, the Jewish socialist party founded in 1897. The Bund sought an alliance between the Jewish and Polish working classes and was committed to Marxism, although it opposed Soviet communism. It advocated a secular, Yiddish-based culture in Poland and strenuously opposed the Zionist solution of mass migration to Palestine. Second in size were probably the Zionists, themselves divided into many rival factions with differing ideologies. Zionism viewed anti-Semitism as a constant feature of European society, caused by the "abnormal" social structure of Jewry, and sought to create a "normal" Jewish society in Palestine, founded in a Hebrew-based culture. The moderate mainstream advocated the gradual growth of a viable Jewish community there, while a right-wing faction headed by Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Revisionists, sought immediate large-scale Jewish settlement and independence. Another major faction in Zionism, Mizrachi, sought to create a largely religiously based society in Jewish Palestine. The third major grouping in Polish Jewish life was Agudas Israel, the strictly Orthodox party, which represented Poland's traditionally Orthodox community. Socially conservative, it (unlike Mizrachi) was also opposed to the creation of an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land, viewing its creation by secular politicians as sacrilegious. Polish Jewry was often said to be divided between advocates of "hereness" (doikeyt) and "thereness," that is, between those wishing to oppose anti-Semitism and poverty in Poland, and those advocating emigration.

While not as large or ideologically fractured as Polish Jewry, nearly all the other Jewish communities of eastern and central Europe met very similar problems. Hungary's 450,000 Jews were relatively assimilated and westernized, especially in Budapest, and were often prosperous. In the 1930s their situation rapidly deteriorated, as Admiral Miklós Horthy's right-wing regime increasingly came under Nazi influence. A series of laws enacted in 1938 and 1939 sought to place severe limits on the participation of Jews in managerial positions and the professions. Many on the Hungarian right never forgave the Jews for forming so prominent a part of the Marxist regime of Béla Kun, which had briefly come to power in 1919. Similar attempts to limit Jewish economic power and Jews' role in the professions during the 1930s, in the context of a Europe-wide rise in anti-Semitism, occurred in Romania, where 750,000 Jews lived; in Lithuania, where there were 160,000 Jews; and elsewhere. In this region, perhaps only democratic Czechoslovakia (with 350,000 Jews) was largely immune from these trends, especially what is now the Czech Republic. The almost universal deterioration of the condition of Jews in interwar central and eastern Europe was caused by traditional anti-Semitism greatly enhanced by the Great Depression, which in turn was enormously magnified by the support given by local fascists to Nazi Germany and the apparent success of the Hitler regime. As well, the closing of immigration barriers, especially to the United States from 1921 to 1924, meant that impoverished Jews (and Gentiles) could seldom emigrate, greatly increasing tensions.

By 1939, virtually all of central and eastern Europe was in the hands of fascist regimes friendly to Nazi Germany and bitterly hostile to Jews. In addition, between mid-1939 and the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, vast tracts of eastern Europe, including eastern Poland and the Baltic states, were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union as a consequence of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (1939). There, the Jewish populations were compulsorily Stalinized, entailing a large measure of what would now be termed cultural genocide. Nevertheless, right-wing anti-Semitism was also outlawed, and full employment raised living standards for the poorest Jews. Overall, however, the highly unsatisfactory situation of eastern and central European Jewry showed no signs of being ameliorated when the Nazi conquest of most of Europe brought about the mass murder of Europe's Jews.


The situation of Jews in the democratic states of western Europe—Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium—was obviously better than that of Jews elsewhere in Europe. Assimilationist trends had been greatly enhanced by the participation of hundreds of thousands of Jews in World War I (as had occurred throughout Europe) and by the lack of vast numbers of alien-seeming strictly Orthodox Jews or Jewish revolutionaries. Britain, with 300,000 Jews, victorious in the war and with a prosperous middle class, largely eschewed extremism. The local fascist movement, the British Union of Fascists, headed by Sir Oswald Mosley, enjoyed only limited popular support. There was, in fact, little overt anti-Semitism in interwar Britain, and newsreels of Hitler's demented rantings genuinely appalled the British "establishment." In 1917 the British Cabinet, motivated by philo-Semitic as well as strategic factors, issued the Balfour Declaration, promising the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, which it was in the process of conquering from the Turks. During the interwar period, many of the leaders of the international Zionist movement were located in Britain, especially Chaim Weizmann, the head of the mainstream World Zionist Organization, who was an academic in Manchester. Nevertheless, many aspects of British policy toward the Jews have been questioned by historians, especially the pro-Arab stance the British government increasingly assumed toward Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the much-debated issue of whether more could have been done to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Anglo-Jewry was also itself deeply divided, with many of its assimilated leaders opposing more than a token commitment to Zionism.

France, with about 280,000 Jews, was host to a largely assimilated community. Its most prominent Jewish politician, Léon Blum (1872–1950), was premier of France from 1936 to 1937 and in 1938 was head of the "Popular Front" socialist government, which introduced many social reforms. Nevertheless, France was still deeply divided between those who accepted the legacy of the 1789 Revolution and those who rejected it. It had many more anti-Semites than Britain, centered in Action Française, an extreme right-wing authoritarian movement. The Vichy regime, which ruled as a Nazi puppet government for four years after the fall of France in June 1940, was marked by extreme anti-Semitism, although most French Jews managed to survive the Holocaust. Other western European democracies also experienced rising anti-Semitism, although, paradoxically, the Netherlands, which had a long history of toleration for its Jews, saw 80 percent of its Jewish population deported and murdered by the Nazis during the war, a higher percentage than elsewhere in western Europe.


Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers' Party, the Nazis, came to power in January 1933 in coalition with other right-wing parties whose leaders wrongly assumed that they could keep the worst excesses of the Nazis under control. Within a year or so Hitler had made himself the absolute dictator of Germany, assuming the title of Führer (leader) on the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in August 1934. Hitler's rule brought about an anti-Semitism as thorough and, eventually, as murderous, as any in history. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that there was (in Karl Schleunes's phrase) a "twisted road to Auschwitz," and that the actual genocide of the Jews did not begin for more than eight years after the Nazis came to power. While Germany had always had a potent element of anti-Semitism, its Jewish community of 500,000 certainly did not feel itself living in a nation of pervasive anti-Semitism. The constitution of the Weimar Republic, which existed from 1918 until 1933, had removed all barriers to the full participation of Jews in German life, and the Weimar period was something of a golden age of Jewish achievement in science and cultural life. Hitler's anti-Semitism, which eventually brought about the murder of millions of Jews not merely in Germany but throughout Europe, was also categorically more extreme than any form of anti-Semitism in modern history. Jews figured in Hitler's worldview as a demonic force, a vast, all-powerful international conspiracy everywhere working to control the world and undermine Germany and its "Aryans." Historians simply cannot fully explain insanity of this kind and have also been baffled as to how a civilized nation came to embrace a madman with a demented ideology, resulting in millions of ordinary Germans losing their lives in the war of conquest that Hitler unleashed.

It is customary to point to three major turning points in the deterioration of the Jewish position in Nazi Germany. First, shortly after Hitler came to power, most Jews were removed from the German civil service and from the universities. This began the exodus of Germany's renowned Jewish scholars and scientists such as Albert Einstein to the English-speaking world, to the immense advantage of the latter. Second, in September 1935 the so-called Nuremberg Laws were enacted. These defined who was legally considered to be a Jew (broadly, anyone with two or more Jewish grandparents), excluded Jews from German citizenship, and prohibited all extramarital relations between Jews and non-Jews. The process also began of systematically removing Jews from the German economy and the professions. The most decisive prewar turning point came in early November 1938 with the so-called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Following the shooting of a German official in Paris by a Jewish youth, the Nazis unleashed an orgy of anti-Semitic violence throughout Germany, in which nearly two hundred synagogues (previously untouched) were set on fire and hundreds of Jewish shops burned and looted. At least ninety Jews were killed and thousands taken to concentration camps (that is, to prison camps such as Dachau in Germany used by the Nazis to hold their political opponents; these were not the same as the wartime extermination camps such as Auschwitz, where millions were deliberately murdered, which were in Poland). Germany's Jews rightly took Kristallnacht as a signal that no future existed for them in Nazi Germany, and tens of thousands emigrated as quickly as they could. (Previously, emigration was surprisingly limited.) Probably no more than 185,000 Jews (out of the 500,000 there in 1933) remained in Germany in its 1933 boundaries by the outbreak of the war.

Between March 1938 and the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Austria and the Sudetenland (comprising a large portion of what is now the Czech Republic) were annexed by Germany, adding about 320,000 additional Jews to Hitler's anti-Semitic realm. About two-thirds of Austrian Jewry managed to emigrate in the short period after March 1938 and the outbreak of the war, as well as about 26,000 Czech Jews.


The period between September 1939 and the end of 1941 saw Nazi Germany secure hegemony throughout almost the whole of continental Europe, ruling directly, or through puppet or allied governments, virtually the entire continent from the Pyrenees to the gates of Moscow. As a result, millions of Jews fell into Hitler's hands or lived in regimes under his thumb, probably eight or nine million Jews in all. This situation was quite different from that of the 1930s, when the Nazis ruled only in Germany and had no direct control over Jews elsewhere. In contrast, by the end of 1941, nearly every center of Jewish life in Europe had become subject to the will of Hitler and the Nazis.

By May 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered, at least five million Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis, the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history and the defining event in European Jewish life in modern times. The Holocaust, as it is generally known (it is also widely known by the term the Nazis gave it, the "Final Solution," that is, of the "Jewish question in Europe," and it is also known as the Shoah, the Hebrew term for "catastrophe"), has become one of the best-known events in modern history and certainly the most infamous. Nevertheless, historians have endlessly debated almost all aspects of the Holocaust, many of which remain controversial and contested.

Because so much has been written on the Holocaust, only a brief summary of its main events will be given here. Between the start of the war and the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, most Jews in Poland were herded into sealed ghettos, where tens of thousands died of disease and malnutrition. Almost everywhere else in Europe subject to Nazi influence, the situation of the Jews also deteriorated still further, Jews becoming subject to an ever-increasing flood of anti-Semitic legislation in countries ranging from France to Romania. At this stage, it appears that the Nazis intended to deport all of Europe's Jews to Madagascar. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, however, the Nazis, working through the SS and its accomplices, began a campaign of the mass murder of Jews (and other groups such as the Gypsies), initially restricting these killings to adult males but, by late 1941, encompassing all Jews who fell into Nazi hands in the USSR. The mass killings of Jews, generally in fields and pits at the edges of towns and cities, were carried out by the SS Einsatzgruppen, generally by machine-gunnings. The number of Jews who perished at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen has been estimated at between 600,000 and 1.3 million. From early 1942, Hitler and the Nazis embarked on a program of the total annihilation of Jewry in Europe, killing Jews in vast numbers by transporting them to gas chambers at six extermination camps in Poland, of which Treblinka, Belzec, and, above all, Auschwitz in southern Poland were the largest and most infamous. Certainly 2.5 million or more Jews—as well as tens of thousands of Gypsies, Poles, Russians, and others—were murdered in these six camps, among them an estimated 960,000 at Auschwitz. The Nazi SS, headed by Heinrich Himmler, was chiefly responsible for carrying out the Holocaust. Jews perished in other ways as well: in German concentration camps such as Buchenwald, in slave labor camps, and in pogroms carried out independently by regimes allied to Nazi Germany such as in Croatia and Romania.

As noted, many aspects of the Holocaust remain contentious. For instance, there is no consensus understanding of Hitler's role in directing the Holocaust, although he must certainly have instigated it and ordered the diversion of considerable resources necessary to carry it out in wartime. Nor is there an agreed understanding of when the decision to kill literally all of Europe's Jews was undertaken, although a consensus has emerged among historians writing since about 1990 that this decision was not made until some months after the invasion of the Soviet Union, or possibly later. (It was previously believed that the so-called Wannsee Conference of January 1942, held by senior Nazis in suburban Berlin, was crucial to this decision, but most historians now discount its key importance.) Jews often resisted, and, in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April to May 1943, put up a heroic struggle. Nevertheless, terrorized and lacking military leadership or armaments, successful resistance proved impossible.

As a general rule, the closer one comes to the Polish-Russian heartland of eastern European Jewry, the more comprehensive the slaughter became. In general the survival rate of Jews in western Europe (apart from the Netherlands) and the Balkans was higher. There, anti-Semitic fascist regimes often drew the line at genocide and offered some measure of protection to their Jews, although only the liberation of Europe in 1944 and 1945 allowed the survival of any Jews at all. That any Jews survived World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe was ultimately due to the success of the Allied armies at destroying the Nazi regime.

European Jewry was so decimated by the Holocaust that it has arguably never recovered and arguably never will. At the end of World War II, large Jewish communities remained only in the Soviet Union in areas not conquered by the Nazis; in Romania and Bulgaria; in Budapest; and in France and Belgium. Probably 80 to 90 percent of Polish Jewry, the largest in Europe, perished in the Holocaust, as well as the bulk of the Jewish population in most other continental European states. After 1945, European Jewry ceased to play a leadership role in the Jewish world, which was increasingly bifurcated between American Jewry and the State of Israel, founded in 1948, with an entirely new set of contexts and conflicts.


Although much reduced in size by the granting of independence to Poland and other states, in the 1920s the Jewish population of the Soviet Union totaled about 2.6 million. Jews formed a disproportionate component of the leadership elite of the new Soviet regime, with figures such as Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) considered to be powerful and highly visible members of the new government. The large number of Jews in the Bolshevik government was seized upon by right-wingers and anti-Semites as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy, and was one of the main factors in Hitler's ideology. Nevertheless, the new government showed itself to be anything but friendly to the interests of most Jews. It vigorously persecuted Orthodox Judaism, closed down most synagogues, confiscated Jewish property, and suppressed Zionists and Bundists. To be sure, the new regime also improved the situation of Jews in some ways. All forms of institutionalized anti-Semitism, ubiquitous under the tsars, now vanished, and many opportunities opened for Jews for the first time. To be "Jewish" was legally regarded as being a member of a distinctive nationality such as "Ukrainian," and some forms of Yiddish cultural life were allowed to continue. There was considerable growth in the Jewish populations of Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities as Jews took advantage of opportunities in these locales. The negative trends in the Soviet treatment of Jews were greatly accentuated under the rule of Joseph Stalin (c. 1928–1953), who emerged as the Soviet Union's all-powerful ruler. Under Stalin, the Jewish proportion of the Soviet leadership elite declined sharply, although Jews continued to be overrepresented in managerial positions. Along with millions of others, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews certainly perished in Stalin's purges. By 1941, thanks to its annexation of large parts of eastern Europe as a result of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the Jewish population of the USSR had risen to over five million.

The Holocaust and the tremendous losses suffered by the Soviet army during World War II meant that, in its post-1945 boundaries, the Jewish population of the Soviet Union totaled about 2.3 million in the 1950s. In the last years of his rule, Stalin's paranoid anti-Semitism, always present, increased markedly, and there was severe repression of most remaining Jewish institutions and activists during the so-called Black Years, from 1946 to 1953. While the Soviet Union had supported the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Stalin turned sharply against pro-Zionist Jews, considering them disloyal. There is some evidence that Stalin wished to deport large numbers of Jews from Moscow and Leningrad to Siberia when he suddenly died in March 1953.

The years after Stalin's death saw a softening of the condition of Jews under Nikita Khrushchev, but then another worsening of their condition under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev (1964–1982), a period that came to be marked by open anti-Semitism in such areas as the admission of Jews to universities. Many Soviet Jews rediscovered their roots and wished to emigrate to Israel or to the West. The USSR consistently favored the Arabs in the Middle Eastern conflict, especially after 1967, and most Jews who expressed a wish to emigrate to Israel lost their jobs. These "refuseniks" (as they were known in the West) attracted worldwide support during the 1970s and 1980s. The fight against Soviet anti-Semitism became a rallying point for Western Jews, liberals, and conservatives.

Although 250,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate in the early 1970s thanks to an agreement made by U.S. President Richard Nixon, real relief for Soviet Jewry had to await Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the mid-1980s and the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991. The new Russian Federation and other successor states to the USSR adopted liberal constitutions and permitted unlimited emigration. In the decade or so after 1991, over one million Jews left the former Soviet Union, making for a much-reduced Jewish presence, although those remaining were now free to practice their religion and culture for the first time in generations.

The course of Jewish life in the Soviet Union's Eastern European satellites followed much the same course as in the USSR. The Communist regimes that seized power at the end of World War II often contained disproportionate numbers of Jewish Communists, who were almost all removed from power during the Black Years. Some, such as Rudolf Slánský, the former secretary general of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, were executed for being "Zionists." Most of the remaining Jewish populations of countries such as Romania fled to Israel in the years after 1948, or following the abortive revolutions such as in Hungary in 1956. Only tiny numbers of Jews remained when a free Jewish life became possible in the 1990s.


The remnant of European Jewry that managed to survive the Holocaust was more numerous in some parts of Europe than in others. About 500,000 Jews survived in Romania and Bulgaria, 200,000 in Hungary, 200,000 in France, and up to 400,000 of Poland's 3.3 million Jews. In 1945 and 1946 many survivors, especially Poles, streamed into displaced persons camps in western Germany, temporarily increasing Germany's Jewish population to 250,000. The creation of the State of Israel altered the Jewish problematic in a fundamental way, giving the Jews an independent national existence they had lacked since Roman times. About 500,000 European Jews, chiefly from Poland and the Balkans, migrated to Israel during the first few years of its existence. Further waves followed, as well as considerable emigration to the English-speaking world. As a result, by 2004 Europe's Jewish population was only a fraction of what it had been even during the immediate postwar stage. The largest Jewish communities in Europe in 2004 were in France (700,000), the former states of the USSR (500,000), Britain (350,000), and Germany (120,000). In contrast to the general trend, considerable Jewish immigration to France from North Africa occurred during the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as from Russia to Germany after 1990.

Knowledge of the unparalleled horrors of the Nazi period discredited old-style racist anti-Semitism in western Europe, and was increasingly made illegal. The period from about 1950 until the 1970s in fact saw something of the near-universal championing of the Jews in western Europe, which peaked at the time of the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arabs in 1967, when Israel's very existence appeared threatened.

The period since about 1970, however, has seen the growth of a new form of hostility to the Jews, virulent anti-Zionism that is intensely critical of Israel's actions toward the Palestinians and, in its extreme form, opposed to Israel's existence. This anti-Zionism has been strongly associated with the political far left, as well as with the ever-increasing Muslim presence in Europe. It is also closely associated with virulent anti-Americanism and was obviously linked with it during such events as the Iraq War launched in 2003.

On the other hand, life for individual Jews and for Europe's Jewish communities was not marked by endemic anti-Semitism. In 2004 the leader of the British Conservative Party and the premier of Russia were Jews, as had been a recent premier of France and a head of the European Parliament. Paradoxically, while in some respects Jewish life in Europe had become freer than ever before in history, there were fewer Jews there to enjoy this freedom, and a pervasive sense that all was still not well.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Holocaust; Israel; Minority Rights; Nazism; Zionism.


Browning, Christopher R. The Origins of the Final Solution. Lincoln, Nebr., 2004. Authoritative account of the period from 1939 to 1942.

Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews. Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939. London, 1997. Much-praised account of what Nazi rule meant for Germany's Jews.

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3rd ed. 3 vols. New Haven, Conn., 2003. The most comprehensive account of the Holocaust.

Kochan, Lionel, ed. The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917. 3rd ed. Oxford, U.K., 1978. A wide-ranging collection of essays by experts.

Levin, Nora. The Jews in the Soviet Union since 1917: Paradox of Survival. 2 vols. London, 1990. Comprehensive account of Soviet Jewish life.

Lindemann, Albert S. Esau's Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Very comprehensive, controversial history of modern anti-Semitism.

Marcus, Joseph. Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919–1939. Berlin, 1983. Sophisticated account of Polish Jewish life; very valuable.

Mendelsohn, Ezra. The Jews of East Central Europe between the World Wars. Bloomington, Ind., 1983. Truly outstanding account of interwar European Jewry.

Rubinstein, Hilary L., Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Abraham J. Edelheit, and W. D. Rubinstein. The Jews in the Modern World. London, 2002. Comprehensive textbook on Jewish history since 1750.

Rubinstein, W. D. A History of the Jews in the English-Speaking World: Great Britain. Basingstoke, U.K., 1996. Focuses on the post-1850 period and Britain's relative lack of anti-Semitism.

Ruppin, Arthur. The Jewish Fate and Future. Translated by E. W. Dickes. London, 1940. Immensely valuable demographic and socioeconomic account of world Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust.

Schechtman, Joseph B. The Vladimir Jabotinsky Story. 2vols. New York, 1956–1961. Reprint, as The Life and Times of Vladimar Jabotinsky, with a foreword by Menachem Begin. Silver Spring, Md., 1986. Excellent biography of Zionist leader; describes interwar Poland well.

Schleunes, Karl A. The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: The Nazi Policy towards German Jews. Urbana, Ill., 1970. Examines the many changes in Nazi policy toward the Jews.

Vital, David. A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939. Oxford, U.K., 1999. Lengthy general account covering all of Europe.

Webber, Jonathan, ed. Jewish Identities in the New Europe. London, 1994. Essays on contemporary European Jewry.

William D. Rubinstein


views updated May 18 2018


ETHNONYMS: Ashkenazim, Hebrews, Sephardim


Identification. The Jews of North America are a relatively assimilated ethnic group in the United States and Canada. The name "Jew" is an Anglicized version of the Hebrew word yehudi, meaning "Hebrew, the language of the kingdom of Judah," and originally referred to the members of the tribe of Judah, one of twelve tribes of Israel in the Middle East about four thousand years ago. Jewish self-identity rests on a number of factors including a unique set of religious beliefs and practices, ancestry from Jewish peoples, a shared understanding of the Holocaust, and a belief in Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Location. Jews in North America live primarily in cities or adjacent suburbs. Although urban Jewish ghettos no longer exist, a pattern of residential isolation persists, with many city neighborhoods or suburban communities defined as "Jewish" because of the large number of Jews who reside there and the Jewish institutions such as synagogues, community centers, and kosher food stores located there. Sixty percent of Jews live on the East Coast of the United States and about 20 percent on the West Coast, with relatively few, save those in major cities, in the South and Midwest. In Canada, the same pattern holds, with two-thirds of the Jewish population living in or near Toronto or Montreal.

Demography. In 1986 the Jewish population in North America was about 6.3 million, with 5.9 million in the United States and 305,000 in Canada. Thus, North American Jews constitute about 43 percent of the 14.5 million Jews in the world. By way of comparison, in Europe there are 4.1 million Jews, in Asia 3.3 million, in South America 600,000, in Africa 159,000, and in Oceania 72,000. The United States has the largest Jewish population in the world and Canada the seventh largest. In North America, the majority of Jews live in twelve large cities, with 1.9 million in the metropolitan New York City region (over 30 percent of U.S. Jews), 500,000 in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Philadelphia, 250,000 each in Miami and Chicago, over 100,000 each in Boston, Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Toronto, and over 50,000 each in Baltimore and San Francisco. In Canada, the other Jewish population centers are Winnipeg, 15,000, and Vancouver, 14,000. The Jewish population has been relatively stable for the past decade, despite a relatively low birth rate, offset somewhat by recent emigrations of Jews from the Soviet Union and Israel to the United States and Canada.

Linguistic Affiliation. The overwhelming majority of North American Jews use English as their primary or only Domestic language, or French in the French-speaking provinces of Canada, with about 20 percent of Canadian Jews bilingual in the two languages. Recent immigrants from Europe and the Middle East often speak the language of their homeland, those from the Soviet Union speaking Russian, those from Syria speaking Arabic, and those from Israel speaking Hebrew. Hasidic Jews use Yiddish, written with Hebrew characters, and some Jews of central and eastern European ancestry speak Yiddish at home. Yiddish, the traditional language of Jews of Eastern Europe, shares common medieval roots with High German and contains Slavic loan-words, although it is usually written with Hebrew characters and from right to left as is Hebrew. A number of Yiddish words have become part of the U.S. English lexicon, including blintze, chutzpah, goy, kibitz, landsman, mensh, nebbish, shlemiel, shlock, shnook, and shmooz.

Hebrew is the religious language for Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, with prayerbooks written in and prayers chanted in Hebrew. Hebrew is a branch of the Canaanite group of Semitic languages. Reform Jews use English in their religious services.

History and Cultural Relations

The immigration history of Jews to the U.S. and Canada differs as does the nature of cultural relations between Jews and other groups in those nations.

United States. The first Jews in North America23 Sephardic Jews from South Americaarrived in New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1654. Since then Jews have continued to immigrate to North America, with the bulk arriving in three periods: 1830-1880, 1881-1924, and 1935-1941. Prior to 1830 most Jews in North America were Sephardic (see "Social Organization" below) and numbered about six thousand in 1830. From 1830 to 1880 the Jewish population increased to 250,000, most of whom were Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Germany, as part of a larger movement of Germans to North America. Not only did these immigrants, largely young, rural or small-town peoples escaping religious persecution, swell the Jewish population, but they also spread across the continent establishing Communities in dozens of cities. The second period of migration from 1880-1924 closed with a Jewish population of over 4 million in the United States, mostly urban and mostly on the East Coast. This time the immigrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from eastern and central European countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and especially western Russia. These Immigrants were the forebears of about 80 percent of Jews in North America today. Restrictive immigration laws in the United States and the depression slowed immigration, but beginning in the mid-1930s until the late 1940s, some 200,000 Jews fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe and extermination in concentration camps arrived in the United States. The 1900-1950 period was also a time of upward (socially and economically) and outward (from the cities to the suburbs) mobility for the eastern European Jews. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews have arrived in the United States mainly from the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and most recently from Israel. One key feature of Jewish immigration is that most of the immigrants stayed, with only one in fourteen returning to their homelands as compared to about one in three returns for most other ethnic groups.

Despite overt discrimination in education and employment in the past and organized anti-Semitism in some sectors of American society, laws have generally guaranteed Jews Religious freedom and relations with other ethnic and religious groups have been generally peaceful if not friendly. Political ties to the African-American community are no longer as strong as they once were. Current tensions with the African-Americans reflect, in part, Jewish concerns over African-American support for the Palestinians in the Middle East and African-American concerns over Jewish ties to South Africa and lack of Jewish support for affirmative action programs. Jews generally distinguish themselves from all non-Jews who are classified and referred to as goyim, commonly understood to mean "non-Jew." Some scholars suggest that Jews in the United States today are more apt to stress the secular aspects of Jewishness, such as the use of Yiddish words, as opposed to the religious aspects such as following Jewish law regarding dietary restrictions.

Canada. In contrast to the immigration history in the United States, the majority of Jewish immigrants to Canada arrived after 1945, with about 40 percent of the current Canadian Jewish population composed of recent arrivals as compared to about 20 percent for the United States. In 1900 there were 15,000 Jews in Canada, but by 1915 the population had grown to 100,000 through mass emigrations from eastern Europe. Few Jews immigrated to Canada in the years before World War II, and about 200,000 have arrived since then. These include Jews fleeing war-torn Europe, Hungarian Jews escaping from Hungary in 1956, French-speaking Jews coming from North Africa, and, most recently, about 22,000 arriving from Israel and 8,000 from the Soviet Union.

Largely because Canada is a bicultural nation with distinct French- and English-speaking populations and because of greater acceptance of cultural diversity, Jews in Canada, like other ethnic groups, are relatively less assimilated than their counterparts in the United States. While this has led to a more visible emphasis on religious elements of Jewishness and the survival of European customs, it has also placed Jews outside the two mainstream Canadian religious traditions of Catholicism and Protestantism. This position as a third Religion and other factors have sometimes subjected Jews to laws interfering with traditional religious practices. Laws introduced after World War II removed most of these restrictions. Today, Canadian Jews are slowly becoming more like U.S. Jews, with the use of European customs and languages disappearing.


Jews are now largely integrated into the U.S. and Canadian economic systems. Although they work in most trades and professions, they are overrepresented (as a percentage of the population) in several, including ownership of small and middle-sized businesses, the communication and entertainment industries, public service, and professions such as Medicine, dentistry, law, accounting, teaching, and scientific Research. Past and present discrimination has been cited by some as the cause of the relatively few Jews found in the upper echelons of the banking industry and large corporations in general. Civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s has outlawed old laws and private covenants that restricted Jewish ownership of land or membership in private associations. The traditional Jewish division of labor with men working outside the home and women working in the home has given way to many women having professional employment.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage and Family. Jewish marriage and kinship practices conform to those of mainstream North American Culture: monogamous marriage, nuclear families, bilateral Descent, and Eskimo-type kinship terms. Surnames are patrilineal, although there is a trend toward women keeping their own surnames at marriage or hyphenating their husbands' surnames and their own. The importance of family continuity is emphasized by the custom of naming children after deceased relatives. Although marriage with non-Jews (goyim) was proscribed and sanctioned by ostracism in the past, the intermarriage rate today is increasing as among North Americans in general. Though Jewish families have fewer children, they are often described as child-oriented, with family resources freely expended on education for both boys and girls. Jewish identity is traced matrilineally. That is, if one's mother is a Jew, then that person is Jewish according to Jewish law and entitled to all the rights and privileges that status brings, including the right to emigrate to and settle in Israel as citizens.

Socialization. As with most Americans and Canadians, early socialization takes place in the home. Jewish parents are indulgent and permissive and rarely use physical punishment. Socialization as a Jew takes place in the home through story-telling and participation in Jewish rituals, and through attendance at Hebrew school in the afternoon or evening and participation in Jewish youth groups at the synagogue or community center. Orthodox Jews often run their own Grammar and high schools, whereas most non-Orthodox Jews attend public or private secular schools. Acquisition of knowledge and the open discussion of ideas are important values and activities for Jews, and many attend college and professional schools.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony for a boy at age thirteen is an important rite of passage as it marks him as an adult member of the community for religious purposes, and the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for a Reform or Conservative girl at age twelve or thirteen serves the same purpose. In the past the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was much more elaborate and spiritual in focus; today both ceremonies have become important social as well as religious events for many Jews.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Today, Jews are highly integrated into the North American class system, with Jews found in the upper, middle, and working classes. Upward social mobility is an important value, and has been achieved for about three generations largely through education. Although Jews are often thought to be concentrated in the upper-middle and lower-upper classes, there is still a sizable number in the working class and some elderly Jews live below the poverty line. Vestiges of discrimination remain and Jews are still excluded from some social organizations open to non-Jews. In communities with large Jewish populations, exclusively or largely Jewish social organizations such as community centers, the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations

(YMHA, YWHA), B'nai B'rith, and Hadassah are important. And in some communities the synagogue (shul ) plays an Important social and recreational role. Many Jews are also involved in or contribute to national or international organizations that support Jewish causes such as the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, the United Jewish Appeal, and the United Jewish Welfare Fund.

Internally, Jews have no formal social or political Organization, although they can be and are often divided into Subgroups on the basis of three overlapping criteria: degree of Religiousness, place of one's own or one's ancestor's birth, and Ashkenazic or Sephardic ancestry. Degree of religiousness is reflected in the labels Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism. Orthodox Jews generally follow and resist changes in traditional religious beliefs and practices, which they base on the halakhah, the Jewish literature that covers ethical, Religious, civil, and criminal matters. Conservative Judaism comprises a combination of thought reflecting different Philosophical, ethical, and spiritual schools. In general, Conservatives stress change from within, Zionism, and an ingathering of all Jews. Because of the diversity of opinion, Conservative religious practices run a wide gamut, although most are less traditional than those of Orthodoxy. Reform Judaism, as the name suggests, reflects a modification of Orthodoxy in light of contemporary life and thought. Thus, Reform Jews do not believe that Jewish law is divinely revealed and eschew many practices central to Orthodoxy such as eating only kosher foods, wearing a skull-cap (yarmulke ) when praying, and using Hebrew in prayer. The differences among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews go well beyond religion and are manifested in many day-to-day activities and events and the degree to which members of each are assimilated into North American society. Other categories of Jews based on degree of religiousness include Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, Reconstructionalists, and "Civil" Jews.

As mentioned above, Jews arrived in North America in waves, largely from European nations and these places of ancestry are used to delineate one Jew or group of Jews from another. Thus, for example, one speaks of German Jews, Russian Jews, Polish Jews, Syrian Jews, and so on, or in a more general sense, eastern, central, or southern European Jews. These distinctions are no longer especially important, although German Jews are still looked upon as wealthier and of higher status than other Jews.

The final major distinction is between Jews of Ashkenazic (Ashkenazim) or Sephardic (Sephardim, Sfardim) ancestry. Ashkenazim Jews are those descended from the Ashkenazic Jews of eastern and central Europe and Currently make up about 90 percent of North American Jews. Sephardim are descended from the Sephardic Jews who lived in southern Europe from about the seventh to the fifteenth Century when they were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Most of the exiles settled in the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond a difference in place of ancestry, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews differed and in some ways continue to differ in language (Yiddish or European Languages versus Judeo-Spanish or Middle Eastern languages), the pronunciation and spelling of Hebrew, liturgy, and surnames. But members of both groups freely acknowledge that members of the other group are Jews, although some Ashkenazim were less accepting of Sephardim in the past. Although North American Judaism is dominated by Ashkenazim because of their large numbers, there are important Sephardic communities in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, Montreal, Rochester, and Indianapolis.

These communities derive from a migration occurring from 1900 to 1925 when Sephardic Jews left areas that are now Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, and other territories of the Ottoman Empire.

Finally, mention should be made of other Jewish groups such as Karaites (Qaraites), Israeli, and Russian Jews who have recently immigrated to North America from their Respective countries, and Black Jews who have formed their own sects (though by Jewish-defined criteria most of these sects are not considered Jews). These groups, who sometimes follow an ultra-Orthodox life-style or a life-style different from that of assimilated Jews, also sometimes choose to live in relatively isolated urban communities and form their own synagogues. The recent emigrants from Israel are looked upon by some with puzzlement, as they seem to be rejecting the aliyyah, or ascent to the land of Israel, a marker of Jewish identity if not a goal for many Jews.

Political Organization. Although North American Judaism has no overarching political structure similar to that of Roman Catholicism or the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues are aligned with central organizationsthe Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, the United Synagogue of America (Conservative), and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform). Although in the past the synagogue played an important organizational and leadership role, it no longer does so for most Jews. Similarly, the rabbi, the spiritual and moral leader of the synagogue congregation, now rarely plays a leadership role in the community, based solely on his status as the rabbi.

Jews have been seen (often by anti-Semitic commentators) as aligned with liberal or radical political philosophies including socialism, communism, unionization, and the New Deal and tended to vote heavily in favor of candidates of the Democratic party in the United States; in the past decade or two, a marked trend toward conservatism and identification with the Republican party has been noted among a minority of Jews. Jews, despite being only about 2 percent of the Population, are an important voting bloc because large numbers vote and because they make up a sizable percentage of the population in some large states such as New York and Florida and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Jews run for and have been elected to numerous local and state offices.

Social Control and Conflict. Integrated as they are into U.S. and Canadian society, Jews generally resolve legal conflicts with Jews or non-Jews through the legal system. Legal remedies available through Jewish agencies are rarely used. Among the Orthodox there is recourse to some religiously sanctioned social control such as Orthodox divorce. Although overt discrimination against Jews is waning in North America, there is a long tradition of anti-Semitism, reflected in limited access to certain professions and residential isolation. Within the Jewish communities in both nations, there are long traditions of supporting Jewish causes and institutions through charitable donations to and work for synagogues, schools, community centers, social welfare agencies, and the state of Israel.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Judaism is the oldest monotheistic Religion to survive to modern times. To Jews, God is the Supreme Being, the Creator of the Universe, and ultimate Judge of Human Affairs. Some importance is also given to particular prophets and angels. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar (based on the movement of the moon around the earth) and has 354 days, 12 months of 29 or 30 days each with extra days added so that the lunar calendar conforms to the solar (Gregorian) calendar, and seven days in a week. The Hebrew calendar is based on the date 3761 b.c.e., the year traditional Jewish scholars believed the world began. Thus, the years 5748-5749 are the equivalent of 1989 in the Gregorian calendar. Jewish weekly synagogue attendance is relatively low at about 20 percent compared to other religions. Because of the wide divergence of religious belief and practice (Orthodox/Conservative/Reform, Ashkenazic/Sephardic, and so on), no single all-encompassing system of Jewish belief and practice can be described.

Religious Practitioners. There is no hierarchy of religious leaders. The rabbi (master, teacher) is the spiritual leader of the synagogue congregation. Today, the role and status of the rabbi is roughly the same as that of a Protestant minister or Catholic priest and involves pastoral, social, educational, and interfaith responsibilities. Reform Jews and Reconstructionalists permit women to be ordained as rabbis. Cantors are also important, leading the congregation in the chanting of prayers (prayers are chanted, not recited) and in training boys for the Bar Mitzvah.

Ceremonies. Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the High Holy Days, usually fall in September. Pesach (Passover), Shavout (Festival of Weeks), and Succot (Feast of the Ingathering) were originally harvest festivals involving pilgrimages to the Temple. Passover today marks the escape of the Hebrews from ancient Egypt about 3,500 years ago and is widely celebrated. Minor holy days or festivals include Hanukkah (dedication Feast of Lights), Purim (Festival of Lots), and Tisha B'Av (Ninth Day of Av). Although of less importance today, Rosh Hodesh (Beginning of a New Moon) is still noted and marked by special prayers. Shabbat (the Sabbath) is the only Holy Day mentioned in the Ten Commandments and is celebrated from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday each week of the year. The Sabbath is a day of rest and reflection. In addition to these Holy Days and festivals, all major life-cycle eventsbirth, age of religious majority, marriage, and deathare marked by prayer and ritual observances.

Death and Afterlife. Jewish law requires that the deceased be buried within twenty-four hours of death. Some Reform Jews allow cremation. For close relatives there is a seven-day mourning period (shivah) involving prayer and restrictions on the activities of the mourner. Regular prayer in memory of the deceased follows at set intervals following the mourning period. Jewish beliefs concerning the soul and afterlife are vague and vary from one group to another.

See alsoHasidim, and entries on Jews in the Europe and Middle East, Soviet Union and China, and South Asia volumes


Cohen, Steven (1983). American Modernity and Jewish Identity. New York: Tavistock.

Goren, Arthur A. (1980). "Jews." In Harvard Encycopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom, 571-598. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press.

Gross, David C. (1981). The Jewish Peoples Almanac. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Rosenberg, Stuart E. (1970-1971). The Jewish Community in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Rosenberg, Stuart E. (1985). The New Jewish Identity in America. New York: Hippocrene Books.

Tillem, Ivan L., comp. and ed. (1987). The 1987-88 Jewish Almanac. New York: Pacific Press.

Weinfeld, M., W. Shaffir, and I. Coder, eds. (1981). The Canadian Jewish Mosaic. Toronto: John Wiley.



views updated May 29 2018


European Jews led an uneasy life during the Renaissance. Religious and cultural barriers—and often physical and legal ones as well—stood between them and their Christian neighbors. Authorities in various places made Jews live in specific areas, forced them to convert to Christianity, or drove them out of cities and nations. Nevertheless, Jews made significant contributions to Renaissance life and culture.


Contact with Christians influenced the Jewish religion during the Renaissance. Rabbis, who had traditionally served as experts in Jewish law, began to take on roles like those of priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly, synagogues ceased to be solely places of prayer and developed into centers of social life.

During the 1500s and 1600s the confraternity movement began to spread among Jews in Italy. Confraternities were groups of laypeople* who gathered together for religious, social, and charitable purposes. The oldest Jewish confraternity in Italy was the burial society known as the Gemilut Hasadim. This group originally served to prepare bodies for the grave and to bury the dead. By the mid-1500s, however, its focus had shifted to preparing the soul before death. If a member was ill for three days, officials of the confraternity would visit him and encourage him to confess his sins to God. This new concern with confession reflects a similar trend among Catholics in the mid-1500s.

Another key influence on Jewish religious life at this time was a messianic movement that began in the late 1400s. The central belief of this movement was that the end of the world was at hand. Messianic Jews believed that a Messiah, a hero sent by God, would soon arrive on earth to punish the Gentiles (non-Jews), restore the dead to life, and establish a perfect kingdom of peace and prosperity, free from evil.

Messianic ideas often grew out of the Kabbalah, a mystical* Jewish religious system that involves reading encoded messages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The ideas of Kabbalah influenced messianic figures such as Shelomo Molcho, a Portuguese New Christian (a descendant of Jews who had become Christians). Although Molcho later converted to Judaism, Christian ideas of the Messiah may have shaped his beliefs. Molcho had several divine visions that he published in a book in 1529. Over the next two years he correctly predicted a flood of the Tiber River in Italy and an earthquake in Portugal. Molcho even met with Pope Clement VII. However, he was eventually burned at the stake after refusing to return to Christianity. Molcho became a legendary religious figure among later generations of Jews.

Renaissance Jews also differed among themselves in religious beliefs and practices. In northern Italy, for example, Jewish women took great care to perform the ritual bath required after their menstrual periods. However, Jews in this region paid little attention to the traditional prohibition against drinking wine made by Gentiles. In southern Italy, by contrast, Jews cared less about the ritual bath but took great pains to avoid Gentile wine. Many factors contributed to local differences of this kind. In eastern regions, for instance, coffee had long made it possible for people to stay up for the midnight ceremony called Tikkun Hazot. The ritual did not become popular in Italy, however, until coffee arrived there in the late 1600s.


The position of Jews in Renaissance society was full of contradictions. Christian society discriminated against them, yet it could not manage without them, as they filled vital roles in the economy. The church tried to persuade—or force—them to convert to Christianity, yet those who did so were often suspected of being false to their adopted church. Many Jews gained influence at the courts of Christian leaders, but these powerful Jews tended to become targets of resentment. Even within the Jewish community, social roles were often unclear.

Jewish Communities in Italy. Jewish communities in medieval* and Renaissance Europe had their own distinct character. Many were very small, containing only one or two families. Even where larger numbers of Jews lived together in one place, they never really controlled their own government. Kings, nobles, popes, and town councils interfered constantly in the affairs of the Jews.

The oldest Jewish community in Europe was in Rome, which had been home to Jews since ancient times. In other Italian cities, Jewish settlements did not form until the mid to late 1500s. By 1600, almost 60 percent of Italy's Jews lived in the Papal States*, mostly in the cities of Rome, Ancona, and Ferrara.

Outside of Italy, Jews faced immense difficulties in establishing their own communities. None existed in France or England. In Germany, Christians frequently attacked Jewish settlements or forced their residents to flee. Jews in the Netherlands lived under cover as Christians until the 1600s, when they began to form openly Jewish communities. Spain, Naples, and Sicily drove all Jews out of their territories in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Portugal forced its Jews to convert to Christianity in 1497.

Jews also had problems forming true communities because they lacked a sense of political organization. Jews conceived of the community as a court of law headed by a scholar. However, from the 1100s on, they debated the question of who had the right to participate in making the law. Some scholars believed the entire community should discuss and decide on laws, while others thought elected representatives should perform this function. Some argued that everyone in the community had to agree to a law, while others claimed the majority should rule. Jewish legal scholars never clearly settled these issues. The decisions of communal councils were often disputed or challenged by members of the community who did not accept the council's right to rule.

Jews also disagreed over whether religious or secular* figures should make the laws. Jewish law, or halakah, did not distinguish between religious and secular realms. It gave rabbis the job of interpreting the law. In Italy, however, the leaders of Jewish communities tended to be secular figures. Few rabbis ever achieved positions of political power. Synagogues, which were places of religion, served as the centers of Jewish social and political life. However, fraternal groups such as the Gemilut Hasadim—which were mostly secular—controlled many social functions and jealously guarded their power in these spheres.

Outsiders had as much difficulty as the Jews themselves in defining the nature of the Jewish community. They did not seem to know for sure whether Jewish communities had any authority over their own affairs or were simply cultural groups. In most places, Jews existed within the legal framework of the larger society. The Jews of Rome, for example, had received a set of legal privileges from the pope that allowed them to collect taxes and to be treated as citizens of Rome. Although this status placed Jews under the protection of Roman law, it also required all Jewish institutions to meet the strict legal standards of Christian Rome.

Jews at Court. In the late 1500s, Jews began to play an important role in the courts of Europe. As rulers started to form more absolutist* states, they sought to build strong centralized armies and governing bodies. This task required large sums of money, and rulers turned to private business owners to assist them.

Jewish traders were ideally suited to fill this need. Their connections in international trade enabled them to supply food, clothing, and weapons for soldiers. They could also provide luxury items, such as jewels, for the court. In addition, rulers often employed Jews to mint coins, collect taxes, and even conduct secret diplomatic missions. After the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), court Jews played a vital role in most of the small states that made up the Holy Roman Empire*. As outsiders who possessed great political influence, court Jews often faced resentment and anti-Semitism*. Despite this opposition, they remained key figures in European state government until the early 1800s.

Jews and the Catholic Church. During the Middle Ages, Catholic authorities had allowed Jews to live among Christians if they accepted some limits on their activities. This approach changed during the Renaissance. Christian leaders and legal scholars adopted policies that separated Jews from Christians physically, or else forced them to abandon Judaism.

The first signs of these new policies appeared just before 1500, as Spain drove all Jews out of its territories and Portugal forced its Jews to convert. However, these forced conversions failed to satisfy government and church officials, who believed that the converts were practicing Judaism in secret. This suspicion led authorities in Spain and Portugal to establish inquisitions, special courts to investigate charges of heresy*—which focused mostly on New Christians.

Another source of friction between Jews and Catholics was usury, the practice of lending money and charging interest. The church banned this practice among Christians but allowed it among Jews. In the 1500s, members of the Franciscan religious order began preaching against usury and other "polluting" activities by Jews. People began to call loudly for the separation of Jews and Christians. Some Christians made wild accusations against Jews, including a charge that Jews in the north Italian city of Trent had killed a Christian child and used his blood in their rituals. This claim led to the destruction of Trent's Jewish community in 1475 and sparked violence in other Italian cities.

Although the Catholic Church wished to convert Jews, church leaders could not agree on the best way to achieve that goal. Some favored a moderate approach that emphasized persuasive preaching. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit religious order, adopted this approach and set out ground rules for successful conversions. Others suggested that imposing financial penalties on Jews would force them to convert. Still others argued for compelling Jews to live in specific neighborhoods, or ghettos, to keep them from "infecting" the Christian community. This separation made it easier to restrict Jewish activities.

One of the most shocking episodes of this time occurred in the Italian city of Ancona, part of the Papal States. The city contained a community of New Christians who had fled Portugal and returned to Judaism. In 1534 Pope Paul III gave them permission to live openly in Ancona as Jews. However, Pope Paul IV reversed this policy, and in 1556 the Roman Inquisition burned 25 Jews at the stake. Many Italian Jews did convert to Christianity as a result of this terror, and many Jews in smaller communities fled to Jewish settlements in larger towns and cities.

In the end, practical considerations prevented Christians from completely excluding Jews from society. As late as the 1570s, cities in northern Italy were offering contracts to Jewish bankers and lenders to encourage them to settle there. In Rome, shutting down Jewish social and cultural life would have bankrupted many Jews and greatly burdened the papal* treasury. The popes gradually reduced the pressure on Jews to convert, and relations between the Catholic Church and Jewish communities returned to their former state.

The Role of Women. Like their Christian counterparts, Jewish women lived in a male-centered society that placed heavy restrictions on their lives. However, Jewish law gave Jewish women rights that many Christian women lacked. They could own property, sign contracts, and represent themselves in court. These legal and financial privileges gave them a measure of influence in community affairs.

Some Jewish women in Italy managed to obtain training as scribes* and printers, and a few gained a measure of fame as writers. Others took part with rabbis in discussions of Jewish law and participated in healing and birthing practices. One unnamed Jewish woman in Italy expressed pride in her womanhood by saying a prayer of thanks each day that God "had made me a woman and not a man." Her phrasing reversed the traditional words of the blessing in which a man expresses his gratitude for not being born a woman.

Among Jews who had converted (at least outwardly) to Christianity, a few women accumulated considerable wealth and power as the heads of their families. Benvenida Abravanel, a Portuguese New Christian, ran a loan-banking business in Italy and served Florence's powerful Medici family. In 1533, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sought to expel all Jews from Naples, she played a key role in convincing him to put off the plan for eight more years.

Another New Christian, Doña Gracia Nasi, managed her family's extensive financial and cultural affairs after the deaths of her husband and his brother. Fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition, Nasi traveled across Europe to the Ottoman Empire*. There she became one of several Jewish women to gain influence at the court of the Ottoman sultan. She set up her own court and a yeshiva, or Jewish religious school. In 1555, when the pope allowed 25 New Christians to be burned to death in the city of Ancona, Nasi organized a boycott against the city.

Most Jewish women, however, did not hold this kind of power. Rabbis tended to oppose educating women beyond what was necessary to run a household. When a Jewish woman achieved unusual success, it often led to protest from the men in the community. Jewish women were even criticized for being too religious. One rabbi argued that women who devoted themselves excessively to God ignored their chief duty to their husbands and families. Rabbis further supported the power of Jewish men within the home by making it extremely difficult for wives to leave unhappy or even abusive marriages.


Jews made significant contributions to scholarship and the arts during the Renaissance. However, their achievements in these areas clearly reflected the influence of the Christian and secular culture that surrounded them.

The Visual Arts. Jewish art in the Renaissance was largely limited to religious objects, such as texts and decorations for the synagogue. Many scholars argue that the Jews never focused on the visual arts because of their strict interpretation of the Second Commandment, which forbade them to make "graven images." The robust visual culture of Renaissance Italy made Italian Jews more inclined to be flexible about this rule. Even so, art never occupied a prominent place in Jewish society, and no individual Jewish artist achieved great fame. Scholars can only positively identify a few pieces as the work of Jewish artists. In addition, some of the most noted Jewish artists converted to Christianity to receive commissions and public recognition.

Manuscript illumination* was probably the most popular form of art among Italian Jews in the 1300s and 1400s. The earliest illuminated Hebrew texts are Bibles from the late 1200s, which feature decorations in the margins. In the 1300s scenes of Jewish daily life began to appear in treatises* on Jewish law. These painted scenes, called miniatures, became even more elaborate in the 1400s. One manuscript from around 1470 features two full-page pictures based on the final chapters of the biblical story of Job. The figure of Job himself may have been modeled on the patron* who sponsored the work.

Even after the development of printing, Jewish artists continued to produce illuminated manuscripts. These included new types of documents such as Esther scrolls, used to celebrate the holiday of Purim, and marriage contracts, called ketubbot. These large scrolls featured biblical scenes and symbolic images. Jewish families competed to produce elaborate ketubbot, hiring the best craftsmen available to create the colorful drawings.

Artistic production thrived in Jewish ghettos. Their physical separation and their status as outcasts from Christian society led Jews to produce art as a way of reinforcing their cultural identity. One major symbol of Jewish culture was the synagogue itself. Most of these buildings were plain on the outside, but their interiors followed the splendid architectural styles of the time. Synagogues typically featured highly decorated ritual objects such as the ark, or cabinet, for the Torah scrolls and the bimah, the platform from which the Torah was read. The Torah scrolls themselves often had a "dressing" of expensive cloth, and the ark might feature a curtain embroidered with biblical scenes and symbols.

Music. Before the Renaissance, Jews had little music aside from the prayers chanted in synagogues. Many rabbis preached that all Jews should be in perpetual mourning for the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. They condemned secular music, musical instruments, and the use of music as a source of entertainment. They did not look on synagogue chants as music, but as a form of recitation. The traditional melodies of these chants, supposedly given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, were considered sacred and unchangeable. The Hebrew language also made the development of written music difficult because it read from right to left. A workable system of notes for Jewish "art music" for two or more voices did not appear until the 1620s.

One form of traditional Jewish music, the hymn, did exist during the Middle Ages. Unlike prayer chants, hymns were melodic and generally had a fixed rhythm. Composing new melodies for hymns was a common practice. A Jewish text from the 1200s urged readers to "seek for melodies and when you pray employ a melody which will be beautiful and soft in your eyes." Synagogues typically employed a cantor to sing hymns during services. As cantors grew in importance, synagogues introduced new songs to allow them to display their skills. In the 1500s, some synagogues began hiring assistant singers to support the cantor—generally a boy with a high voice and an adult bass. The three-part harmonies these singers produced marked the beginnings of Jewish art music.

During the Renaissance, music became more popular among Jews as a means of celebrating joyous events, such as weddings and certain holidays. At the same time, many Jewish musicians found work in European courts, where they learned the latest styles of Christian music. Although most rabbis tended to discourage the imitation of Christian ways, a few began taking a looser approach to music, introducing multipart singing into the synagogue. Some Jews justified their interest in art music by comparing it to the glorious music performed in the ancient Temple.

The first art music by Jewish composers appeared in Italy in the late 1500s before spreading to Amsterdam and southern France. Few works still remain, and most collections by Jewish composers of the time are incomplete. The best-known early Jewish composer was Salamone Rossi, who is credited with writing the first secular Jewish art music songs. He is the only Jewish Renaissance composer whose complete works have survived. Rossi also composed the only known works of Jewish instrumental music from the period.

Printing. The development of printing had a great impact on Jewish life. Printed books led to the appearance of new types of writing, reading, and learning. Printers developed a Hebrew typeface soon after the invention of the printing press, and by 1500 some 200 works had been printed in Hebrew.

Italy was the center of Hebrew publishing in the 1500s. Daniel Bomberg, Italy's leading printer of Hebrew books, set up a press in Venice in 1516. His designs for Hebrew books set the standard that is still in use today. In the 1540s other Jewish printers appeared in Italy, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. By the 1600s, however, the center of Hebrew printing had moved to Amsterdam.

Christians played a significant role in early Hebrew printing. The Christian printers who invested in Hebrew presses were attracted mainly by profit, but they also had intellectual and theological* interests in Jewish texts. They often employed Jews or Jewish converts as editors and proofreaders, and their workshops became meeting places for humanist* Jews and Christians.

The books published by early Hebrew presses reshaped many aspects of Jewish social life. The most common Hebrew texts in print included prayer books, legal codes, and treatises on the Talmud (the scholarly commentary on Jewish law). Such works helped lay the foundation for a unified legal system in the Jewish world. Books of Jewish customs also helped form a common vision of Jewish life and tradition.

Hebrew presses also printed versions of major Jewish religious texts, such as the Talmud and the Zohar, the central work of the Kabbalah. Before printing, knowledge of the Kabbalah had been guarded and limited to a select group of individuals. Printing made this secret knowledge available to a much wider audience. As a result, the Kabbalah assumed a much more important role in the spiritual life of Jewish communities. Printed editions of the Talmud mainly affected scholars, giving them a standard version of the text to study.

Christian authorities in many places exercised control over Hebrew printing. Their chief goal was to prevent blasphemy* and anti-Christian statements in Jewish literature. In the 1550s the pope ordered the burning of copies of the Talmud as part of his struggle against heresy in print. The church later changed its policy to checking the content of books before their publication.

Scholarship. Like Jewish art and music, Jewish scholarship reflected the influence of the surrounding Christian culture. During the Middle Ages, some Jewish philosophers had engaged in debate with Christian thinkers, while others feared that such discussions would weaken Jewish identity. The humanist movement of the Renaissance increased the contact between Jewish and Christian scholars. Christian humanists sought out Jewish teachers to help them understand the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures. These Jewish scholars not only taught their Christian students Hebrew but also tried to convince them that the Bible contained all forms of human and divine knowledge. They argued for the superiority of the Jewish culture, claiming that even the ancient Greek philosophers would have drawn ideas from the Bible or from discussions with Jewish prophets. This view appealed to humanists, who had a keen interest in discovering the original sources of human wisdom.

Both Jewish and Christian scholars of the Middle Ages had based much of their thinking on the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Many Renaissance humanists, however, focused more on the teachings of Plato. Jewish scholars tried to use Plato's ideas to reinterpret Jewish writings such as the Kabbalah. They aimed to show that the Jewish intellectual tradition was far more ancient than that of the Christian world. Some Jewish scholars, however, condemned these efforts to spread knowledge of the Kabbalah among Christians.

Another strong Jewish intellectual tradition was based on the writings of the Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1126–1198). Averroes's comments on the works of Aristotle had influenced thinkers throughout the Middle Ages. Jewish scholar Elijah Delmedigo made Averroes's ideas the focus of a belief system based on reason, as opposed to the mysticism of the Kabbalah. Another follower of Averroes, Judah Messer Leon, attempted to read the Hebrew Scriptures as a literary text, using the rules of rhetoric* laid down by Aristotle. His work reflected an ongoing debate in the Jewish community about the value of rhetoric in teaching.

Yohanan Alemanno of Florence attempted to merge the Hebrew Scriptures and the Kabbalah into a complete system of thought. Studying under Christian humanist Marsilio Ficino, he became convinced that the ideas of Plato could link the Bible and the Kabbalah with the reason of Western thought. His work reflected Ficino's idea of cosmic love as the force that had created all things and that connected all parts of the living world. Jewish scholar Judah Abranavel (also known as Leone Ebreo) picked up on these ideas, suggesting that the Kabbalah carried an ancient wisdom that could shed light even on the pagan* myths of ancient Greece and Rome. Such ideas had little lasting effect on the Jewish community, but they did influence later philosophers such as Giordano Bruno and Benedict de Spinoza.

(See alsoAnti-Semitism; Bible; Books and Manuscripts; Confraternities; Conversos; Ghetto; Illumination; Inquisition; Jewish Languages and Literature; Music, Vocal; Philosophy; Printing and Publishing; Religious Thought. )

* laypeople

those who are not members of the clergy

* mystical

based on a belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* Papal States

lands in central Italy under the authority of the pope

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* absolutist

refers to complete control by a single ruler

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* anti-Semitism

prejudice against Jews

* heresy

belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

* scribe

person who copies manuscripts

* Ottoman Empire

Islamic empire founded by Ottoman Turks in the 1300s that reached the height of its power in the 1500s; it eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* illumination

hand-painted color decorations and illustrations on the pages of a manuscript

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

Birth of the Ghetto

The modern word ghetto refers to a minority neighborhood within a city. During the Renaissance, it identified the districts in European cities set aside for Jews. The first city to establish a ghetto was Venice, which had been home to Jewish communities during the Middle Ages. In 1516, the city's leaders forced all Jewish residents to live in the section of town known as the Ghetto Nuovo. They could work outside the ghetto during the day, but they had to return to the ghetto at night. The use of the word ghetto to refer to a Jewish neighborhood later spread to other parts of Europe.

As Seen by Christians

Works by Christian artists provide some insight into the way Renaissance Christians viewed their Jewish neighbors. German art often featured anti-Semitic images. Many northern artists portrayed hated biblical figures, such as Cain and Judas, with exaggerated racial features. Italian works, by contrast, seldom showed Jews in any special way. As a result, it is difficult to identify Jewish figures in Italian paintings. However, in the few known Italian portraits of Jews from this period, the subjects often bear the round yellow badges that many Italian states required Jews to wear.

* theological

relating to theology, the study of the nature of God and of religion

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* blasphemy

act of insulting or failing to show respect for God and for holy things

* rhetoric

speaking or writing effectively

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion


views updated Jun 08 2018


JEWS. In September 1654, twenty-three Sephardic Jews sailed into New Amsterdam's harbor aboard the St. Catherine. Fleeing the collapse of Dutch colonial rule in Brazil, the Jews sought refuge in New Amsterdam. They received a cold welcome from New Amsterdam's governor, Peter Stuyvesant, a Calvinist who viewed Jews as "blasphemers of the name of Christ" as well as a potential burden on his colonial coffers. Undeterred, the Jews appealed to brethren in Amsterdam to intervene on their behalf to the directors of the Dutch West India Company.

They succeeded. In 1655, the directors granted Jews permission to settle in New Amsterdam as long as they did not worship publicly, a right Jews had enjoyed in both Brazil and Amsterdam, and they assumed total responsibility for their indigent. In the colonies, economic potential often outweighed religious affiliation, and most white people enjoyed an equality of opportunity. The colonies consistently complained of labor shortages and the directors knew that Jews made good colonists: they quickly established roots in their new home, they remained loyal citizens, they developed international trade networks through contacts in Europe and the Caribbean, and wealth tended to flow along these networks. By forcing the poor Jews who arrived in 1654 to become a viable colonial population, perhaps the directors hoped that the new arrivals would stimulate needed economic growth. Beginning with New Amsterdam, Jews established communities in numerous colonial port cities, including New Port (1677), Savannah (1733), Philadelphia (1745), and Charleston (1750).

Establishing Communities

The Jews who settled in Dutch and, after 1664, British North America participated in a broad international migration that continued well into the twentieth century. They were Sephardim, part of the Iberian-Jewish diaspora created by the expulsion of all Jews from Spain and Portugal during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Soon, Ashkenazi Jews, who traced their roots to northern and central Europe, began to join the Sephardim. Generally poorer, and differing in religious ritual and Hebrew pronunciation, the Ashkenazim constituted the majority of American Jews by 1720.

Immediately upon arrival in North America, Jews established the necessities of full political and religious freedom. In 1655, the Jewish community received permission to construct a cemetery so they could bury the dead according to Jewish religious ritual. In 1656, one year after Lutherans lost their right to worship in their homes, Jews gained that exact privilege. After two years of legal wrestling, Asser Levy, one of New Amsterdam's, and later New York's, most prominent Jews, won Jews burgher rights—citizenship—in 1657. Although Jews did not receive the official right to worship publicly until the end of the seventeenth century, the nascent community worshiped in a building on Mill Street commonly known as the "Jew's Synagogue." The building, which included a mikveh, or ritual bath used primarily by women for rituals associated with family purity laws, served as colonial Jews' house of worship until 1728, when they established Shearith Israel, North America's first permanent synagogue.

Outwardly, the Jews who settled in America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could not be distinguished from their neighbors. This, as well as the low number of marriageable Jews, led to the emergence of intermarriage as a common feature of American Jewish life. Jews differed from their peers, however, in their professional activities. Whereas non-Jewish immigrants tended to work in agriculture or artisanry, Jews concentrated in commerce. Relying primarily upon family and community ties, Jews established trade networks among the colonies, with the Caribbean, and with Europe. These business arrangements provided Jews with the bonds necessary to sustain religious, cultural, economic, and familial interests. By 1730, when about 300 Jews lived in New York, only two Jews listed occupations other than commerce.

While most Jewish merchants traded in rum, hardware, spices, candles, lumber, and fur, some found the most lucrative commodity to be African slaves. Lured by the promise of substantial profit, Jewish notables from the shipping center of Newport, Rhode Island, participated in the traffic of humans. Moreover, like many of their white neighbors, Jews in both the North and the South owned slaves. In fact, the 1703 census revealed that 75 percent of Jewish households owned slaves. Because slavery functioned as the central determinant of American political, economic, and social systems, owning—or seeking to liberate—slaves existed as a central feature of American life for both Jews and non-Jews alike until the Civil War (1861–1865).

The American Revolution and subsequent ratification of the Constitution legitimized the rights and ad hoc privileges that had organized American Jewish life during the past century. The Constitution instituted the legal separation of church and state—a condition of existence quite different from Europe, where religion could determine an individual's political and legal rights.

Nineteenth Century Arrivals

Beginning in the 1820s, a new migration of Jews from Europe began, one that would continue unabated until its climax during the first decades of the twentieth century. Jews migrated westward between 1820 and 1920 in response to upheavals in European society caused by political emancipation, industrialization, and urbanization. Unlike other immigrant groups, that often returned to Europe after earning enough money to sustain a family, Jews tended to immigrate permanently.

Between 1820 and 1880, the Jewish population in America rose from 4,000 to almost 250,000. Historians usually refer to members of this first wave as "German" immigrants, but the name is incorrect. Jewish immigrants who arrived in America between 1820 and 1880 generally left from areas eventually included in unified Germany (1871) or countries deeply influenced by German culture, such as Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Moravia. Yet the pre-1880 contingent also included many Jews whose culture was decidedly Polish, from Silesia and Posen, provinces annexed by Prussia and later assumed into unified Germany, as well as Lithuania, western Russia, and Galicia. These Polish and Eastern European Jews, characterized by poverty, religious traditionalism, and the Yiddish language, more closely resembled the Jews who would begin their exodus to America in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

By the Civil War, Jews lived in over 160 communities in America. Many earned their keep by peddling, a profession that required no initial investment and functioned entirely on credit. Moreover, if successful, an itinerant peddler could earn enough to become a store owner. At a time when few retail stores existed outside the large cities, peddlers provided rural Americans and ethnic neighborhoods with their everyday necessities. Peddlers bought their supplies in large cities like New York, Chicago, or St. Louis and set out either for the hinterlands or the city streets. With their wares slung over their backs, on horse-carts, or on pushcarts, they roved from town to town or neighborhood to neighborhood selling small items like buttons, stoves, glass, needles, old clothes, and plates. Peddling resulted in the creation of extensive peddler-supplier-creditor networks in which Jews across the United States became linked in a collective endeavor to earn a living from the constant pulse of supply and demand. Indeed, this network of peddlers, general stores, and wholesalers served as the foundation for the evolution of the American department store.

Early Judaism in America

After the establishment of Shearith Israel in 1728, synagogues began to spring up wherever Jews settled, including the Touro Synagogue in Newport (1762) and Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia (1782). These first synagogues followed the traditional Sephardic rite. In 1801, resenting Sephardic control over synagogue administration and ritual, a group of Ashkenazim in Philadelphia formed the first "second" synagogue in an American Jewish community.

Because no ordained rabbi arrived in the United States until the 1840s, American Judaism developed almost entirely by improvisation. Moreover, due to their white skin color and their position outside the scope of nativist concerns with Irish Catholics, American Jewish modes of worship and religious institutions developed relatively free from outside interference. Laypeople generally led congregations and a synagogue's board determined religious ritual. Negotiating Jewish tradition, congregational demands, and desires for social acceptance, Jewish leaders oversaw a burgeoning American Judaism as chaotic and diverse as its new homeland. By the close of the 1800s, three major institutions—the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—all claimed to speak for American Jewry.

Starting in 1870, the same processes that had led earlier arrivals to immigrate to America—market capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, and growing anti-Jewish violence—set in motion a new migration from eastern Europe to America. Between 1870 and 1924, when Congress officially legislated the end of free and open immigration, the 2.5 million Jews who immigrated to the United States radically altered American Jewry's demography, social structure, cultural life, and communal order.

Adjusting to America

After crossing the Atlantic, Jewish immigrants landed at Ellis Island. There, they encountered employees of the U.S. government, who checked papers and performed rigorous medical exams, and representatives of settlement houses or the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, organizations founded in the late nineteenth century to guide immigrants through landing procedures and provide financial aid, shelter, professional training, and acculturation skills. Whether meeting a family member already established in America or arriving alone, most immigrants headed directly from Ellis Island to one of the major ethnic neighborhoods that saturated America's cities, such as Chicago's West Side, Boston's North End, downtown Philadelphia, or New York's Lower East Side.

The immigrant neighborhood bustled. A cacophony of life, work, and leisure, one square block could hold among its tenements workshops of the garment trades, synagogues, saloons, cafes, wives, children, intellectuals, political functionaries, religious students, gamblers, con artists, and prostitutes. By 1910, 540,000 Jews lived within the 1.5 square miles considered the Lower East Side, cramped into five-or six-story tenement houses. Entire families, as many as seven or eight people, lived in three-or four-room apartments. Often, they took in boarders to help pay the rent. Usually a single male, the boarder would occupy one full room in the tiny apartment, cramping the rest of the family into even smaller quarters.

In order to meet their monthly expenses, every family member earned wages. Generally poorer and more religious than their predecessors, the new arrivals made work a top priority. Unlike their predecessors, the Eastern European Jews who arrived in the decades surrounding the

turn of the century tended to be skilled laborers, primarily in the garment industry. In fact, in 1900, one out of every three Jewish immigrants labored in the garment trades, although cigar making, peddling, and butchering were also popular professions. Due to the pressure to earn money, women, working in the needle trades, and children, who labored on assembly lines or in the streets selling whatever possible, joined men in the factories, back-room sweatshops, and small street stalls.

To compensate for these tough conditions, Jews developed an array of cultural and political responses to their new environment. The Yiddish theater offered low-cost, high-quality performances of original plays, translations, comedies, and variety shows. Likewise, socialism and Zionism became the dominant secular ideologies of the immigrant neighborhood. The language of these political ideologies, Yiddish, served as a source of literary and theatrical productions. Between 1885 and 1914, over 150 Yiddish dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, and yearbooks appeared in print.

Jewish immigrants also produced institutional responses to immigration. Modeled after American fraternal orders, Jews organized landsmanschaften, societies for individuals who originated from the same town. The landsmanschaften provided various forms of financial aid such as sick and bereavement benefits, and organized small synagogues, lectures, and social opportunities. Trade unionism also provided Jews with opportunities for mutual aid and political expression. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, the most famous of the Jewish trade unions, organized in 1900 to provide support to the thousands of women working in the needle trades. The union opened a health center, experimented in cooperative housing, provided unemployment and health insurance and retirement benefits, and offered recreational and vocational programs. In 1909, the union participated in one of the largest strikes to date, known as the "Uprising of the 20,000," where women shirtwaist workers protested their poor salaries, poor working conditions, and culture of sexual abuse.

The ethnic neighborhood served primarily as a way station for new immigrants. Although it served as the first place of residence for a tremendously high percentage of immigrant Jews, its piteous living conditions encouraged immigrants to move to better neighborhoods as quickly as possible. In these areas of second settlement, public schools, interethnic contacts, and American popular culture all served as a cauldron of integration, tutoring immigrants and their children how to look, sound, and act like Americans. Indeed, by the 1930s, American Jewry became, for the first time, a largely native-born population. Thus, when the depression hit, Jews, like all Americans, suffered financial hardship, bankruptcies, and barriers to financial and educational advancement, as well as the disappointment of the expectations that accompanied general upward mobility.

Following World War II (1939–1945), in which over half a million American Jews served in the armed forces, American Jewry experienced a profound period of social and economic mobility. The Holocaust caused many American Jews to approach life with a new sense of responsibility. Now the world's largest Jewish community, American Jewry aimed for success, both as Americans and as Jews. Most important, they aimed to eradicate the distinctions that had marked earlier generations. Because of the opportunities offered by the GI Bill, Jewish men and women entered higher education in record numbers. As a result, by the end of the twentieth century most of America's 6 million Jews claimed college degrees, worked in white-collar jobs, and enjoyed comfortable lifestyles. Moreover, Judaism experienced a second period of transformation.

As America's Jews became increasingly assimilated, they diversified from the orthodoxy that had characterized the eastern European immigrants to more Americanized forms of Jewish expression. The birth of the State of Israel catalyzed the American Zionist movement. Numerous Jews participated in a wellspring of Jewish cultural expression in literature, academia, dance, and film. Others chose new religious opportunities. Some found "modern" Orthodoxy, a movement to combine traditional Judaism's strict lifestyle constraints with the realities of modern American society. Others chose the Havurah movement, which sprang up in the 1960s. Influenced by 1960s counterculture, members of havurot rejected traditional Judaism's formalism and sought to invest Jewish ritual with greater spirituality and attention to social justice. Most American Jews, however, identified as Re-form or Conservative, American Jewry's mainline religious movements.


Ashton, Dianne. Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Diner, Hasia R. A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820–1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Ewen, Elizabeth. Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890–1925. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985.

Faber, Eli. A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654–1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Glenn, Susan A. Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Goldman, Karla. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding Places for Women in American Judaism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Goren, Arthur A. New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment, 1908–1922. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Grinstein, Hyman. The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654–1860. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1945.

Gurock, Jeffrey S., and Schacter, Jacob J., A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Heinze, Andrew R. Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Jick, Leon A. The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820–1870. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England: Brandeis University Press, 1976 [1992].

Markowitz, Ruth Jacknow. My Daughter, The Teacher: Jewish Teachers in the New York City Schools. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Moore, Deborah Dash. At Home in America: Second-Generation New York Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Morawska, Ewa T. Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890–1940. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Rischin, Moses. The Promised City: New York's Jews, 1870–1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Soyer, Daniel. Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880–1939. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Svonkin, Stuart. Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Wenger, Beth S. New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Wertheimer, Jack, ed. The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England: Brandeis University Press, 1987.



views updated May 11 2018


Although they constituted a small percentage of the population prior to 1870, Jews occupied a significant place in the American imagination from the time of the founding of the New England colonies. This can largely be attributed to the centrality of Hebrew scripture to seventeenth-century Puritan colonists, an importance reflected by the choice of a translation of biblical psalms from Hebrew as the first book to be published in New England. On a more abstract and enduring level, the discourse of Puritans suggested identification between themselves and biblical Israelites. Typical of this analogy is an assertion in John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" (1630) that if fellow colonists act properly, "We shall find that the God of Israel is among us." This sense of identification recurs in subsequent literature, such as Timothy Dwight's epic poem of the American Revolution, The Conquest of Canaan (1785), which features George Washington as an American version of the biblical Joshua. Herman Melville would later observe in White-Jacket (1850) more equivocally, "we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world" (p. 506). Such symbolic resonance between biblical Jews and antebellum Americans rarely seems to have been affected by interactions with contemporary Jews.


Jews had lived in the colonies from the seventeenth century onward, yet by 1820 there were fewer than three thousand American Jews, most of whom traced their ancestry to Spain and Portugal. These Sephardic Jews would soon become a minority within the Jewish community as increasing numbers of Jews from northern and central Europe arrived despite the prevalent attitude in their native countries that the United States was a place where traditional Jewish religious customs, study, and institutions were minimal. By 1850 the American Jewish population was approximately fifty thousand, and by 1870 it approached a quarter of a million, still less than 1 percent of the overall population. American Jewish practices differed markedly from European observances as new arrivals settled in a variety of areas and established their own institutions. Many of these institutions were less religious in nature than they were community oriented, such as B'nai B'rith, or religious in a nontraditional manner, as was the case with congregations that adhered to the tenets of Reform Judaism. The range of Jewish life in the United States forms the basis of Three Years in America, 1859–1862 (1862; English translation, 1956), an account of travels in the United States by a German-Jewish writer, Israel Joseph Benjamin (1818–1864).

The American response to the Jewish presence was complex. Legal restrictions against Jews holding office and voting were maintained in a few states and Christian missionary societies devoted to proselytizing among Jews reflected a degree of intolerance. Yet in general the civil and economic rights enjoyed by Jews surpassed conditions they encountered in Europe, where state-sponsored discriminatory practices were common and organized violence against Jews recurred. Moreover, the political successes of some Jews in both the North and the South, which included election to seats in Congress, attests to a level of acceptance. Historians have argued that the relative freedoms of the United States were a major appeal to young immigrants, yet the consensus is that economic opportunity, which was often associated at the time with prospects for marriage, was the primary attraction. This explanation accounts for the continued growth of Jewish immigration even after 1870, a period of increased racial and ethnic tension throughout the nation, when restrictions against Jews expanded.

Antebellum Jews produced a range of journalistic pieces, essays, letters, and other occasional works, but few Jews devoted themselves to more sustained liter-ary projects. Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785–1851), the most prominent American Jewish personage of his era, built a reputation as a politician, diplomat, playwright, and essayist, although he is largely remembered for his unsuccessful attempt in 1825 to create a Jewish colony called Ararat near Buffalo, New York. Another notable Jewish figure whose influence was more enduring, Isaac Leeser (1806–1868), disseminated translations and textbooks on religion and in 1843 founded The Occident, an important periodical that gave voice to traditional religious attitudes. A weekly newspaper devoted to Reform Judaism, The Israelite, was established in 1854 by Isaac Mayer Wise (1819–1900), who also wrote novels, plays, and poetry. Other Jewish newspapers and periodicals of the era attest to the spread of the Jewish population from northeastern cities as far west and south as California and Florida. In addition to these publications, poetry by such Sephardic women writers as Penina Moïse (1797–1880) and the actress Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1835–1868) attained a degree of popularity, albeit not as great as that later achieved by Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), the most famous nineteenth-century American Jewish poet.


The association between Jews and biblical writings remained strong within the literature of the period. Passing references may be found in works by James Fenimore Cooper, such as The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter (1848), and others alluding to the legend that Native Americans were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israelites, a connection that had been pursued through comparative analysis of Hebrew and Indian languages by the eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards. Biblical settings were also a staple of the religious novel, a popular genre throughout the nineteenth century that presented Jews in remote, romanticized settings. The most successful writer of religious novels during this era, Joseph Holt Ingraham (1809–1860), depicted biblical Jews with some degree of sympathy, although his enormously popular The Prince of the House of David (1855) was dedicated to the hope that American Jews would convert to Christianity.

The most forceful evocation of biblical Judaism, however, may be found in abolitionist writings, which often referred to biblical episodes or reflected the ominous rhetoric of the prophetic books. For example, the staunchly abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier in "The Cities of the Plain" (1831) used a biblical tale of God's wrath to warn that "vengeance shall gather the harvest of crime!" (p. 76), and the prophetic tone permeating the closing chapter of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) likewise foretells disaster as a result of slavery. Frederick Douglass's "The Meaning of July Fourth to the Negro" (1852), which castigates Northerners for tolerating slavery, most explicitly relates the cause of abolition to the emancipation of biblical Israelites from Egypt, a thematic association found in the lyrics of some spirituals.

Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869) was in her time quite prominent, known for her support of philanthropic and educational institutions. Around 1822 she wrote in a letter to a Mrs. Hoffman about religious persecution:

It has always appeared strange to me, that intolerance should exist among Christian sects, where so little difference of doctrine is to be found—and I have always felt—that judgment belongeth to Him who ruleth, and not to his weak creatures—and therefore I have lived in universal charity with the whole world in religious matters—never the less, I love my own creed best, and am satisfied with it. The late persecutions of the Jews in Europe has greatly interested me in their fate—I wonder they do not come to America.

A Documentary History of the Jews of the United States, 1654–1875, edited by Morris U. Schappes (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 149.

Treatments of contemporary Jews tended toward the stereotypical, particularly in the popular literature of the period. Some positive images of exotic Jewish women or benevolent Jewish men may be found, but negative associations between Jews and money prevailed. The enduring influence of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which features the merciless usurer Shylock, is indicated by the fact that it was among the most frequently performed plays in the United States before 1900. George Lippard's The Quaker City (1845), a sensationalistic novel of urban corruption, alludes to Shylock with the villainous Gabriel Von Gelt. Von Gelt, whose name incorporates the Yiddish word gelt (money), is a humpbacked southern forger who speaks with a heavy accent and is introduced with the phrase, "'Jew' was written on his face clearly and distinctly" (p. 175). Depiction of the stereotypical money-mongering and physically distinct Jew would recur in Lippard's novels and elsewhere. For example, John Beauchamp Jones, author of novels about life on the frontier, would depict Jews as unscrupulous in their business dealings in The Western Merchant (1849) and in The Winkles (1855).

More positive images of contemporary Jews, however, may also be found in antebellum literature. The novelist Charles Brockden Brown presented in Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800) a wealthy young Jewish widow who is sufficiently decorous to seem a suitable mate for the virtuous title character. Brown's approving characterization lacks nuance, which is not the case for the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860), Miriam. An exotic character with Jewish ancestry who carries a burden of guilt, Miriam also conveys an awareness of moral obligation, evidence of a more highly developed consciousness than that present, according to Hawthorne, among the Jews of the Rome ghetto, who are described in subhuman terms. Hawthorne also refers to Jews occasionally in terms of the Christian legend of the Wandering Jew, a figure of guilt who appears in the short story "Ethan Brand" (1850). Ambiguity is likewise conveyed in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" (1852), a curiously elegiac poem that recalls ancient glory and "the grand dialect the Prophets spake" before concluding, "the dead nations never rise again" (pp. 61–62). All of these works suggest the authors had little if any familiarity with living Jews.

The most exceptional treatment of Jews may be found in Melville's book-length poem Clarel (1876). Based on Melville's 1856–1857 journey to the Levant, the poem portrays a young American divinity student's search for religious knowledge. Melville depicts the hardships faced by Jews living in Palestine as well as their customs, but what is most striking is the range of Jewish characters, for they do not conform to existing stereotypes. Instead both major and minor characters create a sense of Jewish humanity unique to the period. Although Clarel would remain relatively obscure, it presaged the more complex treatments of Jews that would follow in later American literature.

Uriah Phillips Levy (1792–1862), who rose to the naval rank of commodore, is perhaps best remembered for purchasing Jefferson's home and donating it to the United States, although he was especially proud of his efforts to abolish the naval practice of flogging. In 1857 he reflected on his identity and career:

My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors. In deciding to adhere to it, I have but exercised a right, guaranteed to me by the Constitutions of my native State, and of the United States—a right given to all men by their Maker—a right more precious to each of us than life itself. But, while claiming and exercising this freedom of conscience, I have never failed to acknowledge and respect the like freedom in others. I might safely defy the citation of a single act, in the whole course of my official career, injurious to the religious rights of any other person.

A Documentary History of the Jews of the United States, 1654–1875, edited by Morris U. Schappes (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 376.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; The Bible; Catholics; Immigration; Urbanization


Primary Works

Benjamin, Israel Joseph. Three Years in America, 1859–1862. 2 vols. Translated by Charles Reznikoff. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Novels: Fanshawe, The Scarlet Letter,The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun. New York: Literary Classics of America, 1983.

Lippard, George. The Quaker City; or, The Monks of MonkHall: A Romance of Philadelpha Life, Mystery, and Crime. 1845. Edited by David S. Reynolds. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport." 1850. In Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by William C. Spengemann, pp. 60–62. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the HolyLand. 1876. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1991.

Melville, Herman. Redburn, His First Voyage; White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War; Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. New York: Literary Classics of America, 1983.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. "The Cities of the Plain." 1831. In Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by William C. Spengemann, pp. 76–77. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Secondary Works

Borden, Morton. Jews, Turks, and Infidels. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Diner, Hasia R. A Time for Gathering: The SecondMigration, 1820–1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Harap, Louis. The Image of the Jew in American Literature:From Early Republic to Mass Immigration. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1974.

Marcus, Jacob Rader. United States Jewry, 1776–1985. 4 vols. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989–1993.

Mayo, Louise A. The Ambivalent Image: Nineteenth-Century America's Perception of the Jew. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.

Sarna, Jonathan D. American Judaism: A History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004.

Joseph Alkana


views updated May 21 2018


Varying patterns of immigration, as well as differing degrees of acculturation, adaptation, and assimilation, have characterized the diverse Jewish population in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ashkenazim (Jews of Central and Eastern European ancestry) currently constitute the majority of the approximately half a million Jews in the region, but the first Jews to land in the New World came from Spain and Portugal. Early arrivals have been traced back to the initial voyages of exploration undertaken by Columbus and others sailing on behalf of Spain. These voyages represented Spain's outward expansion and were a direct result of Spanish unification and of the end of the war against the Moors. They were undertaken at the height of the power of the Spanish Catholic Church, during the Inquisition.

The impact of the Inquisition cut a path across the Atlantic, for only those who could document their Catholic ancestry were sanctioned to enter these new lands. Nevertheless, conversos and suspect "New Christians" (Jewish converts to Christianity), along with a handful of Jews who managed to elude state edicts, in fact became the earliest Jewish settlers of the Americas. A tolerant environment and distance from the Inquisition's reach were major factors in the initial establishment of Jewish communities in both Spanish- and Portuguese-controlled territories and, shortly thereafter, in the Dutch-ruled possessions of Pernambuco and Bahia on the mainland and Curaçao and Suriname in the Caribbean. The experience of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese marranos (converts to Christianity who secretly maintained their Judaism), who saw themselves as "La Nación," constitutes a unique chapter in the history of Jewish settlements in the Caribbean, which began to flourish in the seventeenth century.

It is both ironic and tragic that the best sources for Jewish life in the early colonial period are dossiers that document persecution and autos-da-fé, such as the destruction of Luis de Carvajal and his family in Mexico and the trial of Francisco Maldonado de Silva in Tucumán, then under the aegis of the Viceroyalty of Peru; detailed records of the Inquisition also portray the daily life of New Christians in Brazil. Many of the New Christians were eventually assimilated into the region's mainstream population, and only occasional traces (names and isolated but telling customs) link descendants to their Jewish origins. The modified Jewish traditions still being observed by the inhabitants of Venta Prieta (Mexico), and by some inhabitants of Loja (Ecuador), attest to non-Christian roots.

While a relatively small number of Jews had already settled in Latin America and on several Caribbean islands as the independence movements unfolded (Jews were, for instance, among the supporters of Simón Bolívar), today's Jewish population must be seen in the context of nineteenth-century migration waves linked to World War I and World War II. This holds true for both Ashkenazi and for Sephardic Jews from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Official immigration plans played a role in attracting Europeans, Jews among them, to the nascent republics. Beyond these plans, however, the dominant factor in the migration of Jews to Latin America and the Caribbean, whether in the sixteenth or in the twentieth century, has been the possibility of finding a haven from persecution (oftentimes, since the 1800s, as a second choice to the United States) and access to opportunities that had been foreclosed in European towns and villages.

A notable example of a prompt and coordinated response to persecution—especially pogroms—under czarist Russia was framed by Baron Maurice de Hirsch and, under his guidance, by the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) by resettling Jews in an agricultural setting in Argentina. The experiment, lauded by Alberto Gerchunoff as an unmitigated success that delivered a new Zion for the Jews, began to falter as the descendants of the colonists opted for urban life. Contrary to patterns elsewhere, a significant segment of the Jewish immigrants to several Latin American nations became an integral part of the urban labor force. Socialist and anarchist tenets among the urban proletariat contributed to anti-Semitic outbursts and pogroms during labor struggles. In 1919, the Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) served as a powerful reminder of Argentina's painful readjustment to the changing economic order and to the reweaving of its social fabric; it was also a reminder that anti-Jewish feeling had taken root on this side of the Atlantic. Today, most of Argentina's approximately quarter million Jews—the largest Jewish community in Latin America—live in Buenos Aires, where over a third of the country's population resides, and are engaged in occupations that range from retail merchandising (one of the earliest Jewish trademarks in the city) and industry to careers in the liberal professions and scientific fields.

In addition to various official plans aimed at attracting European immigrants—plans that varied greatly among the countries that possessed them—conditions that propitiated the establishment of Jewish institutions and allowed for the development of a Jewish way of life were a significant inducement for this minority culture. Following traditional ethnic patterns of immigration, local aid societies were established along trade lines, and by city or area of origin. Religious tolerance and economic incentives, particularly in the form of industrial growth and of an accommodating climate, determined the initial inflow as well as the sustained growth of Jewish communities. In wartime, the availability of visas (or of quasi-legal permits) sufficed to direct passage into one or another country. In this regard, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic (where an agricultural experiment by German-Jewish colonists took place in Sosua), constitute paradigmatic responses to World War II refugees. Other countries soon opened their doors, albeit under quotas, to fleeing Jews.

With few exceptions, the largest Jewish centers in Latin America are in the region's major cities. Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Santiago, Mexico City, and Caracas are hubs of Jewish life, possessing established communal, religious, and educational networks that reflect the ideological and religious plurality of the community. From strictly Orthodox to secular Zionist to "lay Yiddishist" and, in recent years, to Conservative and Reform trends that replicate those of the United States, Jews have been provided in most Latin American nations with a suitable environment for all aspects of Jewish life.

As elsewhere, Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities have developed independently of each other, with the added splintering that corresponds to points of origin. In some cases, however, they have come together under representative umbrella organizations, such as Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) and other mutual aid societies. Even before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Zionism had been a mainstay of educational and communal associations. This tends to explain the rapid integration into Israeli life of first- and second-generation Latin American Jews. It is important to note, however, that economic fluctuations, political repression, and anti-Semitic outbursts and sentiments also enter into the equation that motivates immigration to Israel and, particularly since the 1970s, to other countries. Besides Tragic Week, anti-Semitism has included the "Golden Shirts" pro-Nazi elements in Mexico, the July 1994 bombing of the AMIA Building in Buenos Aires, and the ongoing circulation of anti-Semitic publications. It is also important to note that since 1948, relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors have had a direct impact on the Jewish communities (which disagreed on Middle Eastern politics) in Latin America. The 1970s United Nations statement equating Zionism with racism, for instance, generated lost tourist revenue in Mexico and its Jewish community, due to a Jewish-American boycott.

Early life in the major Latin American centers had a distinctly Yiddish flavor: newspapers and magazines—such as Die Yiddishe Zeitung and Die Presse in Argentina and Havaner Leben in Cuba—and theater and radio programs echoed the dominant presence of Ashkenazi Jews. The growth of a vibrant Spanish and Portuguese language journalism in these communities indicate the degree of integration that has occurred in the countries that are home to Latin American Jews. This sentiment is manifested in first-rate literary and cultural expressions that continue to earn critical acclaim. In the political arena, integration is also evident—except for periods of heightened anti-Semitism or of official and unofficial proscription—in the number of Jews who have joined their respective governments, as well as in the relatively high proportion of Jewish youth who in the 1970s and early 1980s actively opposed the dictatorial regimes of the Southern Cone, notably in Argentina. Radical political transformations have also produced a different mass reaction, as witnessed by the emigration of most Cuban Jews at the beginning of the revolution and a similar move by the Nicaraguan Jews at the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. These demographic shifts in turn affected several Caribbean locations as well as South Florida.

Today, most Latin American Jews belong to the middle sectors of the socioeconomic spectrum. Beyond their measurable financial security, however, and contrary to widespread popular notions, a significant number of urban Jewish families remain indigent and require communal support for their sustenance. Entry into the Latin American mainstream can also be gauged by the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation, and constitutes a reason for communal concern over the lasting presence of Jewish life in a number of smaller centers. Other indicators are equally significant to an understanding of the current status of Jews in Latin America. These include ongoing Christian-Jewish dialogues that build on the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), a shift in ethnic politics, the growing participation of Jews in longtime and reestablished democracies, the high profile of Jewish scientists and artists, the open recognition of minority contributions to the mosaic of national cultures, the expansion of moderate religious and cultural practices among younger segments of the population, and the unintended solidarity among persecuted minorities created in response to anti-Jewish terrorism and anti-Semitic acts.

See alsoArab-Latin American Relations; Israeli-Latin American Relations.


Boleslao Lewin, Los judíos bajo la inquisición en Hispanoamérica (1960).

Anita Novinsky, Cristãos novos na Bahia (1972).

Seymour B. Liebman, The Inquisitors and the Jews in the New World: Summaries of 'Procesos,' 1500–1810, and Bibliographic Guide (1975).

Comité Judío Americano, Instituto De Relaciones Humanas, Comunidades judías de Latinoamérica, 1973; 1974; 1975 (1977) [similar reports exist for other years].

Henrique Rattner, Tradicão e mudanca: a comunidade judaica em São Paulo (1977).

Martin H. Sable, Latin American Jewry: A Research Guide (1978).

Jacobo Schifter Sikora, Lowell Gudmundson, and Mario Solera Castro, El judío en Costa Rica (1979).

Robert Weisbrot, The Jews of Argentina: From the Inquisition to Perón (1979).

Judith Laikin Elkin, Jews of the Latin American Republics (1980).

Seymour B. Liebman, New World Jewry, 1493–1825: Requiem for the Forgotten (1982).

Judith Laikin Elkin and Gilbert W. Merkx, eds., The Jewish Presence in Latin America (1987).

Leonardo Senkman, comp., El antisemitismo en Argentina, 2d ed. (1989).

Haim Avni, Argentina and the Jews: A History of Jewish Immigration, translated by Gila Brand (1991).

Gunter Bohm, Los sefardíes en los dominios holandeses de América del Sur y del Caribe, 1630–1750 (1992).

Judit Bokser De Liwerant, Imágenes de un encuentro: la prescencia judía en México durante la primera mitad del siglo XX (1992).

Robert Di Antonio and Nora Glickman, eds., Tradition and Innovation: Reflections on Latin American Jewish Writing (1993).

Robert M. Levine, Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Agosín, Marjorie. Memory, Oblivion, and Jewish Culture in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Bodian, Miriam. Dying in the Law of Moses: Crypto-Jewish Martyrdom in the Iberian World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Bokser de Liwerant, Judit, and Alicia G. de Backal, eds. Encuentro y alteridad: Vida y cultura judía en América Latina. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; Jerusalem: Universidad Hebrea de Jerusalén; México, D.F.: Asociación Mexicana de Amigos de la Universidad de Tel Aviv: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1999.

Cohen, Mario E. América colonial judía. Buenos Aires: Centro de Investigación y Difusión de Cultura Sefardí, 2000.

Cortina, Guadalupe. Invenciones multitudinarias escritoras judíomexicanas contemporáneas. Newark: Juan de la Cuesta, 2000.

Elkin, Judith Laikin. The Jews of Latin America. Rev. ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1998.

Grinberg, Keila, ed. Os judeus no Brasil: Inquisição, imigração, e identidade. Rio de Janeiro: Civlização Brasileira, 2005.

Klich, Ignacio, and Jeff Lesser. Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America: Images and Realities. Portland: F. Cass, 1998.

Lesser, Jeff. Welcoming the Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Papiernik, Charles. Unbroken: From Auschwitz to Buenos Aires. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.

Ruggiero, Kristin. The Jewish Diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean: Fragments of Memory. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

                                         SaÚl Sosnowski


views updated May 18 2018


The Russian Empire acquired a Jewish population through the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795. By 1800 Russia's Jewish population numbered more than 800,000 persons. During the nineteenth century the Jews of the Russian Empire underwent a demographic explosion, with their population rising to more than five million in 1897 (a number that does not include the approximately one million persons who emigrated from the empire prior to 1914). Legislation in 1791, 1804, and 1835 required most Jews to live in the provinces acquired from Poland and the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Pale of Jewish Settlement. There were also some residence restrictions within the Pale, such as a ban on settlement in most districts of the city of Kiev, and restrictions on settlement within fifty kilometers of the foreign borders. The Temporary Laws of May 1882 forbade new Jewish settlement in rural areas of the Pale. Before 1882 the Russian state progressively permitted privileged categories of Jews (guild merchants, professionals, some army veterans, students, and master-craftsmen) to reside outside the Pale. Larger in size than France, the Pale included areas of dynamic economic growth, and its restrictions were widely evaded,

but it was nonetheless considered the single greatest legal liability on Russian Jews. The regulations of the Pale, including the May Laws, did not apply to Jews in the Kingdom of Poland, although they too were barred from settlement in the Great Russian provinces.

economic life

Jews were primarily a trade-commercial class, serving in the feudal economy as the link between the peasants and the market, and as agents of the noble landowners and leasees of the numerous monopolies on private estates. They were particularly active in the production and sale of spirits, as agents of noble and state monopolies on this trade. Individual Jewish families lived in peasant villages, while larger communities were found in market towns, the shtetl of Jewish lore.

The Jewish population increase and internal migration contributed to the growth of urban centers such as Odessa, Kiev, Vilna, Warsaw, and Lodz. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Jews moved into occupations in urban-based factory work. A small elite gained prominence as tax farmers, bankers, railway contractors, and industrial entrepreneurs. A number of Jews had successful careers in the professions, chiefly law, medicine, and journalism. Most Jews, however, lived lives of relative poverty.

religion and culture

The vernacular of Jews in the empire comprised various dialects of Yiddish, a Germanic language with a substantial admixture of Hebrew and Slavic languages. Hebrew and Aramaic were languages of prayer and study. In the all-Russian census of 1897 more than 97 percent of Jews declared Yiddish their native language, although this figure obscures the high level of multi-lingualism among East European Jewry.

The empire's Jews were, with very few exceptions, Ashkenazi-a Yiddish-speaking cultural community that shared common rituals and traditions. It was a highly literate culture that valorized learning and the study of legal and homiletic texts, the Talmud. Ashkenazi culture also included elements of the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. The main division between adherents to religious traditionalism in Eastern Europe was between the so-called Mitnagedim, (The Opponents) and the Hasidim (The Pious Ones). The latter contained many strands, each grouped around a charismatic leader, or tzaddik (righteous man). There was also a small band of maskilim, the adherents of Haskalah, which was the Jewish version of the European Enlightenment movement. They advocated religious reform and intellectual and linguistic acculturation.

In an effort to reach the non-acculturated masses, followers of the Russian Haskalah wrote literary works in Yiddish and Hebrew, helping to create standardized and modernized versions of both languages. The most notable of these writers were Abraham Mapu, Perez Smolenskin, and Reuven Braudes in modern Hebrew; Sholem Yakov Abramovich (pen name, Mendele Moykher-Sforim) in Hebrew and Yiddish; and Sholem Rabinovich (Sholem Aleichem) and Yitsak Leybush Perets in Yiddish. Avraam Goldfaden was the foremost creator of a Yiddish-language theater, although its growth was stunted by a governmental ban in 1883. The turn of the century saw the emergence of a number of outstanding Hebrew poets, most notably Khaim Nakhman Bialik and Shaul Chernikhovsky. There was a vigorous Jewish press in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and Polish.

In response to the challenges of modernity, religious movements such as Israel Lipkin Salanter's Musar Movement, which penetrated traditional study centers (yeshivas), sought ways to preserve a vigorous traditional style of life. While women were not expected to be scholars, many were literate. Both religious and secular literature aimed at a female audience was published in Yiddish.

All young males were expected to study in religious schools known as the cheder. A state initiative of 1844 created a state-sponsored Jewish school system with primary and secondary levels, offering a more modern curriculum. Total enrollment was low, but the schools served Jews as a point of entry into Russian culture and higher education. Most maskilim and acculturated Jews in the mid-nineteenth century had some connection with this school system. By the 1870s Jews in urban areas began to enter Russian schools in large numbers. Concerned that the Jews were swamping the schools, the state imposed quotas on the admission of Jews to secondary and higher education. A number of Jews became prominent artists in Russia, most notably the painter Isaac Levitan and the sculptor Mark Antokolsky.

internal government

Until 1844 the internal government of the Jews comprised the kahal (kagal in Russian), a system of autonomous local government inherited from

the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The kahal, dominated by local elites, exercised social control, selected the religious leadership (rabbis), and assessed and collected taxes under a system of collective responsibility. After 1827 the kahal also oversaw the selection of recruits for the army. A number of taxes were unique to the Jews, most notably a tax on kosher meat (korobochka ) and a tax on sabbath candles. Jews in Poland and Lithuania created a number of national bodies, the va'adim (the singular form is va'ad ), which assessed taxes on communities, negotiated with the secular authorities, and attempted to set social standards. Although similar bodies were abolished in Poland in 1764, the Russian state allowed Jews to create them on a regional basis. These included provincial kahals, and the institution of Deputies of the Jewish People, which lasted until 1825. Seen as an obstacle to Jewish integration, the kahal system was technically abolished in 1844, but virtually all of its functions endured unchanged.

Within each community existed a wide variety of societies (hevrah, plural: hevrot ) that over-saw an extensive range of devotional, educational, and charitable functions. The most important of these was the burial brotherhood, the hevrah kaddisha.

legal status

The defining characteristic of a Jew in Russian law was religious confession; a convert from Judaism to any other faith ceased legally to be a Jew. In other respects Russian law possessed numerous and contradictory provisions that applied only to Jews. In Russia's social-estate based system, almost all Jews were classed as townspeople (meshchane ) or merchants (kuptsy ), and the general regulations for these groups applied to them, but with many exceptions. Confusingly, all Jews were also placed in the social category of aliens (inorodtsy ), which included groups such as Siberian nomads, who were under the special protection of the state. A huge body of exceptional law existed for all aspects of Jewish life, including tax assessment, military recruitment, residence, and religious life. Jewish emancipation in Russia would have had to encompass the removal of all such special legislation.

the "jewish question" in russia

The guiding principles of Russia's Jewish policy were not based on traditional Russian, Orthodox Christian anti-Semitism, nor was there ever a sustained and coordinated effort to convert all Jews to Russian Orthodoxy, with the exception of conversionary pressures on Russian army recruits. Russian policy was influenced by the Enlightenment-era critique of the Jews and Judaism that saw them as a persecuted minority, but also isolated and backward, economically unproductive, and religious fanatics prone to exploit their Christian neighbors. In 1881 Russian policy was broadly aimed at the acculturation and integration of the Jews into the broader society. The anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) of 1881 and 1882 led to a reversal of this policy, inspiring efforts to segregate Jews from non-Jews through residence restrictions (the May Laws of 1882) and restricted access to secondary and higher education. Much of Russian legislation towards the Jews after 1889 lacked a firm ideological basis, and was ad hoc, responding to the political concerns of the moment.

Following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, Russian public opinion, fearful of Jewish exploitation of the peasantry, grew increasing critical of the Jews. These critical attitudes were characterized as Judeophobia. Originally based on concrete, albeit exaggerated, socioeconomic complaints (exploitation, intoxication of the peasantry), Russian Judeophobia acquired fantastic elements by the end of the century, exemplified by forgeries like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claimed to expose a Jewish plot bent on world domination. The presence of Jews in the revolutionary movement led the state to attribute political disloyalty to Jews in general. Right-wing political parties were invariably anti-Semitic, exemplified by their rallying cry, "Beat the Yids and Save Russia!"

Jews made significant contributions to all branches of the Russian revolutionary movement, including Populism, the Social Revolutionaries, and Marxist Social Democracy, which included a Jewish branch, the Bund, that concentrated on propaganda among the Jewish working class. Lev Pinsker, author of the 1882 pamphlet Auto-Emancipation!, and Ahad Ha'am were major ideologues of the early Zionist movement. East European Jews were the mainstay of Theodor Herzl's movement of political Zionism.

See also: bund, jewish; judaizers; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; pale of settlement; pogroms


Aronson, I. Michael. (1990). Troubled Waters: The Origins of the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Dubnow, S. M. (19161920). History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 3 vols. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Frankel, Jonathan. (1981). Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 18621917. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Klier, John D. (1985). Russia Gathers Her Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Question in Russia. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.

Klier, John D. (1995). Imperial Russia's Jewish Question, 18851881. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Klier, John D., and Lambroza, Shlomo, eds. (1991). Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mendelsohn, Ezra. (1970). Class Struggle in the Pale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Miron, Dan. (1996). A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Nathans, Benjamin. (2002). Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rogger, Hans. (1986). Jewish Policies and Right-Wing Politics in Imperial Russia. London and New York: Macmillan.

Stanislawski, Michael. (1983). Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 18251855. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Tobias, Henry J. (1972). The Jewish Bund in Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Zipperstein, Steven J. (1986). The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

John D. Klier


views updated May 17 2018



New Netherland. The first recorded Jews in North America came to the Dutch West India Companys settlement of New Netherland in 1654. They did not all come together but instead represented the two major immigrant streams of Jews that came to early Americathe Ashkenazim, or European Jews, and the Sephardim, or Spanish Jews. In the summer of 1654 Solomon Pietersen and Jacob Barsimson, both traders, arrived in New Amsterdam. Barsimson had sailed from Amsterdam. That same year twenty-three Sephardic Jews fled Brazil after the Portuguese defeated the Dutch there. While not exactly welcomed in New Amsterdam, they were not permitted as non-Catholics to remain in Brazil. The next year, 1655, Jewish merchants from Amsterdam arrived in New Amsterdam. In 1656 they petitioned local authorities for permission to purchase a burying place, which was granted. By 1663 the Jewish community in New Amsterdam was unraveling, mainly because New Netherland was a backwater with decreasing appeal to Jewish merchants. All told, before the English conquest of 1664 there might have been as many as fifty Jews in New Netherland although not all at the same time.

New York. By the time the English took over New Netherland in 1664 there was no Jewish community left there, but Jews trickled into New York so that by 1682 there were enough to purchase land for a cemetery. Between 1690 and 1710 Jews of Anglo-German extraction migrated to New York so that by 1692 they worshiped as the congregation Shearith Israel at a house on Beaver Street. In 1730 they built the first synagogue in North America. At the time of the American Revolution some four hundred Jews lived in New York City. Single families also settled in various New York towns, but the city remained the heart of the Jewish community.

Rhode Island. The Jews in Newport, Rhode Island, began as an offshoot of the New York group. In the 1740s some of New Yorks Jewish merchants, such as the Harts, Isaackses, and Polocks, began paying Rhode Island taxes as transients. By 1743 Moses Lopez had moved there, and five years later he was joined by his brother-in-law, Jacob R. Rivera. By 1756 the Jews had organized a synagogue. They built a school in 1763, yet the community comprised only fifteen families. The synagogue provided seating for sixty adult men. By 1761 the town even boasted a Jewish social club, yet there were never many Jews in Newport. By 1774 the community had about two hundred people.

South Carolina. The first of the British colonies to openly provide for a religious toleration that included Jews was South Carolina. Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the proprietors, and his secretary, the great philosopher John Locke, composed the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 with an eye toward drawing people, including Jewish merchants, from Barbados. Four Jewish shopkeepers were naturalized in 16971698. Jews continued to trickle in during the early eighteenth century, but there were no organized schemes for a Jewish settlement until 1737. While this fell through, Sephardic Jews from London and the West Indies arrived in Charleston in the late 1730s. They were joined in 1740 by Jews fleeing Savannah, Georgia, and rumors of Spanish invasion. In 1749 the Jewish community organized a Sephardic-rite synagogue, Beth Elohim. (It would not have a building until 1794.) On the eve of the Revolution some two hundred Jews lived in Charleston.

Georgia. The first Jews in Georgia represented the only organized migration of their people to British North America, and they arrived as part of a settlement scheme organized by the Bevis Marks Sephardic congregation in London. On 11 July 1733, 41 Jews of Sephardic, Germanic, and Italian stock landed in the new colony, only the third or fourth boatload of people to do so. These individuals brought with them the ritual objects necessary to form a congregation and organized a synagogue, Mickva Israel, in a rented room. While neither James Oglethorpe nor the Georgia trustees wanted Jews, the charter did not actually exclude them, and they proved to have skills valuable to the new colony. Samuel Nunez was a doctor who helped the colony through an epidemic its first summer. Abraham De Lyon was a vintner. More Jews arrived later in the year, and the community grew until the War of Jenkins Ear broke out in 1739, pitting England against Spain. Spaniards had been the chief cause of the Jewish New World diaspora, and Oglethorpes unsuccessful assault on Saint Augustine raised the specter of a Spanish threat to Savannah. The Jews departed, leaving only the family of Benjamin Sheftall in Savannah in 1741. Jews began trickling back into Georgia in the 1760s, after the end of the French and Indian War and the resurrection of trade. On the eve of the Revolution the Jewish population lay somewhere between 27 and 240.


Kenneth Coleman, Colonial Georgia: A History (Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1989);

Joyce D. Goodfriend, Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 16641730 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992);

James William Hagy, This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993);

Jacob R. Marcus, The Colonial American Jew: 14921776 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970);

David De Sola Pool, Portraits Etched in Stone: Early Jewish Settlers 16821831 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952).

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