An epic and relevant tale

by | Sep 25, 2017 | Book Reviews

Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism
Peter Adams
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan
Press, 2014, 230 pages
ISBN: 978-0-472-07205-7

Peter Adams is a former journalist who teaches English at Old Dominion University. His study recounts the story of American Jewry in the 19th century and its history of immigration and integration into mainstream American society. The author relies extensively on archival research, substantiating his chosen trajectory with numerous illuminating quotes from a rich variety of seminal newspapers of that period, such as the New York Times, Philadelphia Ledger, Washington Chronicle, Cincinnati Daily, Harper’s Monthly, and Vanity Fair, to mention just some of the most well-known publications. In addition to these primary journalistic sources, Adams also draws from a wide range of secondary literature that explores various aspects of this scholarly itinerary.

In order to provide a clearer picture of its multifaceted panorama, a short synopsis of the book’s various chapters follows.

The first four chapters explore America as the Jewish “Promised Land,” its first crisis caused by General Ulysses Grant’s expulsion of Jews from his military territory, Lincoln as a supporter of the “Israelites” and the Civil War triggering a wave of anti-Semitism, due to the common prejudice that Jewish merchants were profiting in various ways from this national conflict.

The next four chapters deal with the Jewish participation in the rapidly expanding cotton industry, the Confederate ideology, Southern Jewry, and the increasing advice and encouragement by Jewish community leaders to their co-religionists to “Americanize as Fast as You Can.” This slogan targeted especially the swelling masses of Eastern European Jews, who were sometimes perceived by the already well-established German Jewry as uneducated and old-fashioned and thus a possible embarrassment if not an impediment in their own social success and political empowerment.

The final four chapters trace the growing influence of the Jewish vote, the progressive prosperity of the Jewish community, the rise of some of their members into the world of finance and politics, but also their renewed discrimination during the Gilded Age, and—mutatis mutandis—the dramatically escalating violence against Jews in Eastern Europe towards the end of the 19th century and their mass migration into the New World: “Between 1904 and 1908 alone, a total of 672,000 Eastern European Jews disembarked on American shores.” That number incidentally already exceeds the total German-Jewish population at the beginning of the Third Reich.

The concluding chapter, “A Judaism for the American Century,” highlights topics such as the government consideration of Jewish settlements in autonomous regions, in other words “Jewish reservations,” the “Galveston Plan,” that intended to divert large numbers of Eastern European Jews away from New York and towards Texas which turned out to be a plan with modest success, Zionism as a movement torn between “oriental aberration,” and ultimate salvation from the Final Solution of the Holocaust, and ultimately the religious re-organization of Judaism as “Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.”

The study is complemented by more than 20 visuals, including various cartoons from satirical journals as well as photos of influential American politicians and important representatives from various Jewish communities. Extensive notes, an exhaustive bibliography including a long list of over 30 newspapers and periodicals and a detailed index of names and topics conclude this erudite and eloquent study. Despite its academic rigor, it is very reader friendly, telling an epic tale in all its complexity with a sparkling clarity. It can be highly recommended to anyone interested in Jewish culture, American history, and their common national destiny—and after the recent events in Charlottesville —more than ever.

Frederick A. Lubich, PhD is professsor of German at Old Dominon University.

This book was also reviewed in Jewish News in the January 12, 2015 issue.