- “Let Us Endeavor to Count Them Up”:The Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Jewish Demography
In the caption for Figure 2, on page 439, it should be dated 1880, not 1800. The online version has been updated.
Writing in 1852 in his monthly journal, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, Isaac Leeser asked his readers, “will not our friends … favor us with such statistics as may be accessible to them? It is surely worth the trouble to prepare at once correct materials for a future history of American Israelites.”1 For Leeser, and for other nineteenth-century Americans, statistics did not mean the mathematical interpretation of numerical data per se, but rather was a catchall term indicating the collection of descriptive demographic, geographic, and historical facts.2 Beginning in the 1840s, Jewish leaders undertook this work of compilation in earnest in the hopes of reigning in or at the very least classifying the seeming chaos of American Jewish life. As Leeser had complained in 1848:
We all move along in a very narrow orbit; and even statistical knowledge is not accessible to an inquirer. We know nothing of the number of seat-holders in the various Synagogues, that of children fit for education; the progress in prosperity, religiousness, enlightenment observable among us; the new settlements, the nature of the emigrants arriving in this land; and in brief, no data whatever, on which to found a general movement, or to concert a plan for the advancement of the public good.3
As the century wore on, Jewish leaders sought and received extensive descriptions of local communities through the press and they increasingly developed standardized, quantitative means of procuring information about where Jews were and how many there were throughout the expanding United States. [End Page 419]
This article traces the history of American Jewish “statistics,” not to evaluate their accuracy, but to argue that such administrative pursuits were among the most significant and lasting Jewish responses to American life in the nineteenth century.4 The collection of demographic data was a significant practice undertaken by Isaac Leeser, Isaac Mayer Wise, and others, and yet it has been ignored by scholars, who tend to be more interested in their spirited debates about religious reform. Their religious concerns were not limited to the synagogue, however, nor were they neatly cordoned off from social life, economics, or science. While not exactly a matter of worship, halakhah (Jewish law), or theology, statistics reflected and reinforced particular beliefs about religious identity and community among men of deep Jewish commitment. Attending to this interest in statistics shows that the nineteenth century, rather than being an era of assimilation or Reform, was one of mobility, marked by diverse efforts to control its myriad effects. Furthermore, it shows that while leaders like Wise and Leeser were important, they always worked in conjunction with—and in reaction to—ordinary Jews throughout the land.5
Recent scholarship has explored Jewish engagement with the social sciences in later periods and in other national contexts. At various points during the nineteenth century, Jews utilized the fields of Wissenschaft des Judentums (science of Judaism), economics, sociology, and psychology as ways to interpret and reform the majority cultures in which they lived. These disciplines offered a shared, public language that Jews could use to argue for emancipation in Europe, to explain themselves to American neighbors, or to create a more favorable and inclusive conception of the human experience.6 The case of statistics shows that Jews used the [End Page 420] social sciences earlier in the United States than previously recognized and in more expansive ways. While population counts could be used to argue for inclusion in American society, Jews never constituted more than a tiny percentage of the national population. Instead, statistics were primarily used as a means of imposing internal order and consistency.7
While the biblical book of Numbers opens with a census of the Israelites, other Jewish texts expressly prohibit counting Jews directly. The Talmud recounts the words of R. Eleazar: “Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition.”8 Those who governed Jews have rarely heeded such warnings, however, especially in the modern era. In some places...