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Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism

Peter Adams

Publication Year: 2014

In 1862, in the only instance of a Jewish expulsion in America, General Ulysses S. Grant banished Jewish citizens from the region under his military command. Although the order was quickly revoked by President Lincoln, it represented growing anti-Semitism in America. Convinced that assimilation was their best defense, Jews sought to Americanize by shedding distinctive dress, occupations, and religious rituals. American Jews recognized the benefit and urgency of bridging the divide between Reform and Orthodox Judaism to create a stronger alliance to face the challenges ahead. With Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign, they also realized they could no longer remain aloof from partisan politics. As they became a growing influence in American politics, both political parties courted the new Jewish vote. Once in office, Grant took notice of the persecution of Jews in Romania and Russia, and he appointed more Jews to office than any president before him. Indeed, Simon Wolf, a Washington lawyer who became one of Grant’s closest advisers, was part of a new generation of Jewish leaders to emerge in the post–Civil War era—thoroughly Americanized, politically mature, and committed to the modernized Judaism of the Reform movement. In Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism, Peter Adams recounts the history of the American Jewish Community’s assimilation efforts, organization, and political mobilization in the late 19th century, as political and cultural imperatives crafted a new, American brand of Judaism.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

The writing of this book would not have been possible without the aid and comfort of so many who lent me their resources, their ideas, and their encouragement. I am grateful to librarians Tina Weiss and Marilyn Krider of Hebrew Union College, who were generous in lending me many of the materials that...

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pp. 1-7

Writing just one year after immigrating to Albany, New York, from his native Bohemia, a young rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, expressed a boundless optimism about the future of Judaism in America. In this 1847 letter to the editors of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums in Leipzig, Wise assured those living under...

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1. Jerusalem across the Sea

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pp. 8-15

To the first Jewish settlers on America’s shores, anti-Semitism was a disease of the Old World. Small in number, America’s earliest Jewish immigrants arrived from the Iberian Peninsula and the former Spanish possession of the Netherlands. They and succeeding waves of Jewish immigrants found a welcoming nation and...

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2. The First Crisis of American Jewry

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pp. 16-25

In 1840, American Jews suddenly realized that their internal divisions and bitter infighting constituted a crippling liability. The catalyst for this realization were events in Damascus in February of that year: As many as a dozen Jews were rounded up and tortured until they confessed to the ritual murder of a Catholic...

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3. Lincoln and the “Israelites”

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pp. 26-32

The battle cry at Fort Sumter forced Jews, like all Americans, to choose a moral and political position. Whether in the Union or the Confederacy, Jews fell in line with their Christian neighbors in support of their government. Up to seven thousand Jews joined Union forces, while three thousand enlisted on the secessionist...

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4. Vulture of the Camp

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pp. 33-45

The hysteria generated by war often engenders a frightening logic of the crowd. Such reasoning of the crowd and deep-seated racial fears of an Asian enemy led to the World War II–era internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were native-born Americans. Three-quarters of a century earlier...

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5. The Hunger for Cotton

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pp. 46-53

From the Civil War’s first battle, King Cotton would play a crucial role in almost every aspect of the conflict. Cotton was a factor in economic policy, dealings with foreign powers, and military strategy for both sides. The cascade of cotton from the American South, says Civil War historian James McPherson...

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6. Exile and Other Edicts from the Battlefield

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pp. 54-65

As General Ulysses S. Grant marched his army south through Kentucky, he complained bitterly that camp followers and cotton merchants were putting their interests ahead of victory on the battlefield. Faced with a persistent enemy in occupied territory, Grant desperately tried to restrict commercial traffic...

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7. Confederate Ideology and Southern Jewry

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pp. 66-73

In contrast to the Union, the Confederate States of America assembled a government that was represented at its highest levels by a man of Jewish heritage, Judah P. Benjamin. Some historians of the period see significant differences between attitudes toward Jews in the North and the South. Jews had settled in...

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8. Americanize as Fast as You Can

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pp. 74-82

The Civil War accelerated the Jewish community’s process of becoming American in spirit and form. Conflicts of such magnitude have profound effects on society, and the pace of acculturation certainly would have been slower had peace prevailed. The war forced Jews to shed their European way of life as they made sacrifices on the battlefield and on the home front. To historian Bertram Wallace Korn...

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9. Lincoln, Grant, and the Jewish Vote

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pp. 83-97

Before the war, American Jews were reluctant to participate forcefully in U.S. political life. Orthodox leaders such as Isaac Leeser saw political activity and even officeholding as an anathema. Jews ran the risk of neglecting their religious duties “when any office is bestowed upon us,” he said. During the election...

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10. Prosperity and Discrimination in the Gilded Age

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pp. 98-109

The postwar years and the advent of the Gilded Age came at a time of transition for American Jews. The fear of generals trampling on the rights of inoffensive citizens was receding into the past. The remaining official barriers to Jewish rights came down after the war and into the 1870s. In 1868, largely through the...

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11. Toward a Progressive and Americanized Judaism

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pp. 110-122

Like the generation of immigrants who arrived in America before the Civil War, Reform Judaism was born in the German-speaking lands of Europe. One of the earliest Reform synagogues, opened its doors in Hamburg in 1818 and published its own ritual, with far less reliance on Hebrew than was the case in traditional...

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12. Violence in the Backwaters of Europe

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pp. 123-138

From the late 1860s through the early twentieth century, Jews came under increasing attack in the Russian Empire. Pogroms were nothing new, but by the middle of the nineteenth century wholesale persecution reached new heights, with Jews finding themselves deprived of their rights, starved, and murdered...

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13. A Judaism for the American Century

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pp. 139-154

The 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s saw shifting relations between the yahudim and the Russian diaspora. The established Jewish elite, the children of the Germans who came to the United States before the Civil War, may have felt some embarrassment at their less-than- cultured brethren from the East but...


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pp. 155-188


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pp. 189-202


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pp. 203-207

E-ISBN-13: 9780472029884
E-ISBN-10: 0472029886

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2014

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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Jews -- United States -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Jews -- United States -- Politics and government -- 19th century.
  • Judaism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations -- History -- 19th century.
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