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Reviewed by:
  • Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism by Peter Adams
  • Shari Rabin (bio)
Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism by Peter Adams. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2014. x + 207 pp.

In the acknowledgments of Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism, Peter Adams cites Jonathan Sarna’s When Grant Expelled the Jews (2012) as a “competing study” that nonetheless strengthened his own project. These two books, in combination with Gary Zola’s recent work on Lincoln and the Jews, point to renewed interest in the early political history of Jews in the United States, a welcome development in understanding its full breadth and deep roots.

Adams cites as his topic “the major events during this period [1840–1900], both in the United States and places far from American shores, that spurred the Jewish community to Americanize every facet of life, unify their fractious congregations, and engage more forcefully in partisan politics” (1). He traces shifting but persistent anti-Semitic images in American culture and describes Jewish responses to cases in which they bubbled over into anti-Semitic acts and policies. Included are antebellum international crises like the 1840 Damascus blood libel; the Swiss treaty of the 1850s, in which the applicability to American citizens of anti-Jewish policies abroad was at stake; and the 1859 Mortara Affair, as well as Civil War era controversies surrounding Jewish chaplains and Grant’s Order Number 11. The heart of the book lies in the political machinations of Jews after the Civil War, particularly in the elections and administrations of President Grant. Jewish activity in the elections of 1864, 1868, and 1872 are covered, as are the ironies of the 1870s, when Jews succeeded in defeating anti-Jewish limits on political office, Sunday closing laws, and an amendment declaring the United States a Christian nation only to experience social anti-Semitism as typified by the Seligman Affair. The book ends with rising political action on behalf of Eastern European Jews, ranging from the Galveston Plan, which sought to resettle them in the American West, to efforts to intervene with the Russian tsar on their behalf. Throughout, Adams traces religious developments and conflicts, including synagogue reforms and the rise of denominationalism, which alternately hindered and aided political action. [End Page 267]

Adams explicitly distinguishes his study from Sarna’s as interested in longer-term acculturation and the role of Reform Judaism. And yet on these analytical points Adams’s account is less convincing. His narrative of acculturation is teleological, presuming that it was inevitable and relatively uncontested. For instance, according to Adams, the Civil War “forced Jews to shed their European ways of life,” and afterwards, Jews were “unequivocal” that “the only proper course was to assimilate” (74–75). These are awfully large claims, especially given that Adams’s primary materials are limited to elite letters and press sources, albeit ones that are very well chosen and curated.

This imprecision extends to Adam’s use of terminology. “Americanization,” “assimilation,” and “acculturation” appear interchangeably and go undefined, as do “Judeophobia” and “anti-Semitism,” even though they are the biggest agents of change in his story. Furthermore, in his treatment of Reform Judaism, it is difficult to see where Adams’s own language begins and that of his subjects ends. Reform, he writes, “was fully consonant with American ideas of progress and a scientific world-view” (5). Orthodoxy is unflatteringly described as “concerned with the minutiae of ritual and observances,” and Isaac Mayer Wise’s reluctance to address the Civil War is described as “almost ludicrous neutrality” that “ran contrary to the prevailing Reform current” (78, 26). To this reader, at least, it is unclear whether these are meant as scholarly appraisals or paraphrases of historical rhetoric.

Some of this imprecision may be the cost of stylistic concerns, and it should be noted that Adams, a journalist by training, has not produced a scholarly monograph. Rather, this is an ably constructed and well-written synthesis that uses–but does not argue with–relevant historical literature. He offers a good overview of the major Jewish political concerns of the nineteenth century, which should be better known to American Jewish...


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pp. 267-268
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