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  • “Different Blood Flows in Our Veins”: Race and Jewish Self-Definition in Late Nineteenth Century America

In the modern world Jews have been preoccupied with finding proper terms to describe their Jewishness. During the centuries when they were isolated from social contact with gentiles they had little reason to reflect on the nature of Jewish identity. But as Jews integrated into the societies of Europe and America, questions concerning their group status arose with greater frequency. Without the “ghetto” walls to define them they had to rely on their own power of articulation to clarify who they were and how they were different from their non-Jewish neighbors. While Jews responded to these challenges in different ways, one thing is certain: Jewishness no longer remained an all-encompassing way of life as it had been in premodern days. Instead, it became only one component of the identity of modern Jews, and Jewish loyalties were emphasized or obscured under the pull of other vital commitments. Whether Jews described themselves as a nation, a race, or merely a religious group depended upon the opportunities and pressures presented by their participation in the wider world. 1

The present essay examines how American Jews employed the language of race in defining Jewishness during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. By “race” nineteenth-century Jews meant something different from “ethnicity” in its present usage. Their conception of Jewish distinctiveness was one rooted not only in cultural particularity but in biology, shared ancestry and blood. Such overt racial discourse has usually been treated by modern Jewish historians as the province of anti-Semites; few studies have explored the ways that Jews themselves used [End Page 29] racial language as a positive form of self-expression. 2 But American Jews drew comfort from a racial self-definition during the late nineteenth century because it gave them a sense of stability at a time when many familiar markers of Jewish identity were eroding. In addition, despite its strong biological thrust, the racial definition of Jewishness did not impede Jews’ identification with American society and institutions. Racial categories were well accepted in America, and the often respectable ranking Jews received made them feel comfortable expressing their communal bonds in terms of race. Race, then, fit the needs of Jews to define themselves in a changing social landscape, allowing for emotional security and a degree of communal assertiveness while also conforming to American conventions.

The Setting: Shifting Social Boundaries

The social conditions which promoted the use of race in defining Jewishness in America did not emerge until the 1870s. Before that decade American Jews preferred a self-description which furthered their unimpeded acculturation into American life. During the nineteenth century American Jews—largely immigrants from Central Europe—enjoyed a level of inclusion in society unparalleled in Jewish history. While Jews in many European countries had obtained the same rights as other citizens, their exclusion from certain national institutions often prevented them from being seen as authentic Germans, Frenchmen or Englishmen. By contrast, America had no royal family, no established church, no landed aristocracy; its national culture was more fluid, diverse, and open to new influences. Under these circumstances Jews felt themselves to be an integral part of American society and adopted American ways with zeal. They changed their habits of dress, their language, their dietary and leisure practices, and even their mode of worship to conform to American styles. They described themselves as a religious community because they felt such a description would ease their adaptation to a country that respected religious diversity. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a champion of Americanization and the emerging spokesman for the [End Page 30] country’s Jews, expressed this sentiment in 1859: “We are Jews in the synagogue and Americans everywhere.” 3

If Jews were anxious for Americanization, they did not pursue it with a rigidly ideological consistency. As Hasia Diner had explained, in the minds of average Jews, ‘“American’ and ‘Jewish,’ ‘modern’ and ‘traditional,’ ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ did not represent antithetical forces.” While publicly Jews stressed their identity as a religious group, they continued to spend their leisure hours with other Jews, marry other Jews, and express...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 29-55
Launched on MUSE
1997-03-01
Open Access
N
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