publisher colophon


In the following chapter I make the statement that “American Jewish history is the record of the Jewish experience on American soil.” Even as there is a history of the Germans, the Irish, and the Scots in this country there is a history of American Jewry. These Children of Abraham lived in two worlds, the Jewish and the American. For 95 percent of his time the Jew is an American citizen; for the other 5 percent he is a Jew; his life in the general community, the Gentile world about him, absorbs him almost completely. Isaac M. Wise, the organizer of Reform Judaism, had this in mind when he once wrote: “The Israelites in America have no history because they have no interests apart from the people of the United States.” Though I shall not fail to deal in detail with the Jews as citizens, as an integral part of the larger American community, I am primarily interested in describing them as Jews. I stress the 5 percent, not the 95 percent. To that extent this work is strabismic.1

Jews are a small but significant group; they have had an impact on America, on its cultural, economic, political life since the day the first Jew landed on Roanoke Island in 1585. They merit a history. As yet there has been no full-bodied scientifically conceived, history of the Jew in the United States. To be sure there are many one-volume histories of the Jews or “Hebrews,” but very few are based primarily on research in the sources. As early as 1800 Gershom Seixas wrote a Hebrew oration touching on the beginnings of Jewish life on this continent. In 1861 Hazzan Jacques Judah Lyons of Shearith Israel, New York, began collecting documents preparatory to writing a history of American Jewry. Arnold Fischel, lecturer in that same Sephardic synagog, was also interested in studying the history of the Jews in this land; in 1859 he addressed the New York Historical Society on this subject. In 1888, Isaac Markens, a journalist, wrote The Hebrews in America but in 1910 when Gotthard Deutsch wrote his History of the Jews he dismissed American Jewry in a few pages; compared to the Europeans Jews, Jewry here was not important. Peter Wiernik, a Yiddish newspaper editor, published the first full length History of the Jews in America (1912). The impulse of Lyons and Fischel to write about American Jewry was probably sparked by the nationalism that flourished in the days of the Civil War; in all probability Wiernik’s book was written to help immigrant Jews from the Slavic lands identify with American Jewry, to teach them to appreciate what this land had to offer.2

For whom am I writing? For scholars and general readers who are curious and intelligent. The plan for these volumes is a simple one. The first unit seeks to justify in detail the reason for writing a multivolume work on American Jewry; the second unit treats of Jews in the early national period, 1775–1840; the third discusses the rise and dominance of the German Jews in America, 1841–1920. Concurrent with the Central European community there is another, the East European, 1852–1920, which is discussed in the fourth unit. These two groups, “Germans” and “Russians,” were distinct and separate yet all Jews, natives, Germans, Russians, Poles, Galicians, Rumanians, were inextricably united. Jews are responsible one for the other; this is Jewish tradition. Despite mutual hostility and suspicion the older émigrés had no choice but to help the newcomers and the trans-Vistula newcomers viewed the established settlers as social exemplars and dispensers of charity. Unfortunately the Jews from Rumania and the Slavic lands are treated primarily as the objects of history, not the subjects of history, though, to be sure, in the next unit the East Europeans, concurrent with the Germans, are treated as subjects of history. The vast materials dealing with the “Russians” in the United States cannot be fully exploited by any one individual. One newspaper—the largest, the Forward—had eleven local and regional editions.3

American Jewish history from 1775 to 1920 is limned in depth in these four volumes but the last unit covering the period from 1921 to 1985 is sketched briefly. I have not attempted to do a full length study of American Jewry after 1920; the available source material is enormous. The xerographic machines can be a curse as well as a blessing! However I believe that I have sensed the important trends of these years, for I have been studying American Jewish history since 1916 when I first published an article for the Wheeling, West Virginia, Jewish Community Bulletin: “America: The Spiritual Center of Jewry.” I refer to the years, 1921–1945 as those of the Emerging American Jewish Community; the post-World War II years, 1946–1985, mark the beginnings of the Golden Age of Jewry on this continent. In the years between 1775–1920 Jews were completely “American” but ethnic differences were paramount in their lives; after 1921–1925 when the immigration acts went into force, when the gates were closed to Jews, intra-Jewish ethnic hostility tended to disappear; a Jewish melting pot dissolved Europe’s disparate national loyalties; all Jewish natives now thought of themselves only as Americans; they were no longer Germans, Russians, Poles, Rumanians, Balkans.

It has just been noted that the sources for the twentieth century are insurmountable for one individual. To an extent this is true too of all the data from Revolutionary times on to 1921. A few statistics will point up this obvious fact. The National Archives houses but 1 percent of the records of the country’s government agencies; the United States authorities publish over 500,000 articles, books, and papers every year. A generation ago, a Chicago manufacturer of duplicating machinery reported that source materials accumulated at the rate of 500,000 pages a minute. No man can master more than an infinitesimal fraction even of the important documents for American Jewish history. The historian is faced with the prospect of digging a Panama Canal with a teaspoon. Nevertheless the historian copes. He ferrets out the basic trends and supporting data and succeeds like pollsters who can draw relatively reliable conclusions from a poll of a fraction of 1 percent of the population. In 1970 I addressed myself to the task of writing the history of America’s colonial Jews—about 500 families all told. It took three volumes to accomplish this task; now I propose to tell the story of 5,000,000 Jews in four volumes. It is obvious that I will have to select my material with great care, but at the same time I will have to make sure that no major event or trend has been slighted. The writing of any book on the whole of American history or on one of its ethnic groups is a daring venture.

My “style” is narrative, descriptive, but also interpretive and analytic. Illustrative data are always supplied, otherwise my conclusions would have no connotation. I wish to be faithful to experience and to fathom motives. In every forest there are trees that tower over all others; there have always been aggressive and innovative leaders in the Jewish community; I have not failed to give them their due. This history, like most general American histories, recounts the tribulations of immigrants. All newcomers who came to these shores have much in common: they struggled, they survived; yet no two ethnic groups are totally alike. There are great differences between the Irish and the Jews. Jews are different because they are Jews; they stand out like a sore thumb in Christian America where Sunday is the day of rest, where even the public schools savor of Christianity, and the municipalities erect Christmas trees.

Unlike all other general and Jewish historians I have set out deliberately to redress the balance where women are concerned. They are the majority; they cannot be ignored. Up till now they have been invisible in the various histories of American Jewry as they have been in general histories. Women have a story to tell; they were participants and shapers of all that came to be. I am not resurrecting their history since it was never alive; it must be given life. This is no easy task; there is little that has been written about them; the cult of true womanhood required that women serve, that they be seen, but not heard.

There is one source I have failed to catalog in the bibliographical Key to these volumes, my “recall.” I became cognizant of Jewish life about me as early as 1902. At that time there were but 1,200,000 Jews in this country; now there are over 5,000,000. I have grown up with this Jewish community; I have observed it for almost 80 years and have served as the head of national and local organizations. Thousands of Civil War veterans were still alive when I was a lad; in later years I was a good friend of Mrs. Tom Clay, the daughter of Benjamin Gratz (1792–1884), one of Kentucky’s first Jewish settlers. I cannot help but be aware of what I saw; I require no documentation for the obvious; all this is grist for my mill; I am a trained historian. When approached to relate his experiences, an old Jewish immigrant once said: “By myself I’m a book!” I am tempted to say the same; I have been teaching Jewish history at the Hebrew Union College since 1920.

In order to evaluate my presentation the critical reader of these volumes may well ask: what is your approach, your philosophy of history? This is a fair question. My answer is that if one is committed to a specific philosophy of history he is already biased in the choice of his data. The facts must speak for themselves; I am committed to no philosophy; I am devoted to the critical method. I matriculated in the Hebrew Union College at the age of fifteen; practically all my teachers were German Ph.D’s; they taught me the method to which I still adhere. I believe there is such a thing as objective truth; one can describe an event as it actually was. The historian always wants to know what happened and why. There may be no pure objectivity in historical writing, but I have striven for it; no one, I fear, can jump out of his skin. It may be held against me, too, that I am not devoid of prejudice. This is true; I pride myself that I am not filiopietistic; I despise anti-Semites; I like Jews; I am convinced that they are an unusually gifted lot. Despite my attempt to approach all data dispassionately I am not entirely free of romanticism; the story of Jewish survival and achievement in this land fascinates me. But, I repeat, I am no exultant revisionist; no proud hagiographer. As a historian I seek to reflect reality through the mediation of my training, experience, and critical evaluation of sources. I am not on the side of the angels, I am on the side of Darwin’s apes; I believe in the inviolability of the method which I espouse. No historian can avoid a degree of present-mindness but I have consciously striven to be past-minded; history must be studied in its own setting; it is not necessarily a prologue to the present. The American Jews must be painted as they were and judged by the standards of their times.

The professional American historian may well ask: “Do you believe in conflict or consensus?” Even the most casual student of Jewry in this land realizes that conflict is constant; yet it is patent that though the Jews have ridden off in all directions since the seventeenth century intellectually, institutionally, affectively, consensus never failed to override most disparities. In crises Jews worked together; their ultimate goals were the same and always present; they emerged triumphant; Jews were, are, one.

Jews are a historic people but only too often they are devoid of a sense of history. They failed to preserve their records. For lack of adequate sources it is frequently impossible to come to definitive conclusions. Even “full” documentation leaves doubts about human motivation. Thus the conscientious historian is constrained to dot his paragraphs with “apparently,” “probably,” “maybe,” “it would seem.” I dislike hedging but I have no choice. When I am convinced that I am right in my thinking I do not hesitate to express myself unequivocally. Conviction is the precipitate of a lifetime of research. If in the pages that follow readers miss some of their “Jewish” heroes—now securely entrenched in the pages of some popular histories—it is not an accidental omission on my part. They have been excluded because there is no proof that they were Jews. Men named Myer, Emanuel, Simons, Kauffman, are not necessarily members of the Chosen People. There are many names which Jews and Gentiles shared in common; Moses was a comon surname borne by Christians in colonial America. Critical readers will certainly discover in later volumes of this work that Reform Jewry is dealt with in greater detail than the more numerous Orthodox and Conservatives Jewries. The reason is that congregational records for these latter two denominations are sparse; the Reformers—Central Europeans with some schooling—kept and preserved their minutes and are thus more easily described by the historian.

In at least one respect this history of the Jews in the United States is a marked departure from all others. Since the middle 1700’s the majority of Jews has always lived outside of New York; this was certainly true in the 1920’s when Jews were found in nearly 10,000 cities, towns, and hamlets. There were then 1,500,000 Jews in New York, 4,000,000 in the country at large. It is imperative to build from the bottom up, not from the top down; the balance between New York and its highly visible and articulate national leaders and institutions and the more numerous Jews in the hinterland must be maintained. Most national Jewish leaders lived in New York City; before the late twentieth century there were relatively few Jews of national stature in the towns of the interior. However, there were notable exceptions in Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati, Chicago; they were influential. Though I am not enamored of the Carlyleian thesis that a country’s heroes are very important in shaping the destiny of a people there can be no question that many eminent American Jews have helped make history not only in the Jewish but in the larger general community. I am however committed to the thesis that the story of the Jew in this land lies not in the vertical eminence of the few but in the horizontal spread of the many.4

Is there a golden thread that runs through American Jewish history? Woodrow Wilson once told Simon Wolf, American Jewry’s dedicated Washington lobbyist, that general American history was “too large a stage; the play moves with too varied a plot for any spectator to see more than a typical incident here and there,” though he did admit that there were chief figures and main motives in the epic drama we know as America. Edward Channing disagreed with Wilson; he maintained that the central recurring theme in American history was the “victory of the forces of union over those of particularism.” Is it possible that the story of the Jew in this land is a series of unrelated histories? Definitely not. The leitmotif of Jewish history in this country is the constant attempt, the determination, to create and further a distinct community with its synagogs, its schools, its charities. It is as simple as that. In Jewry where there is no community there is no history. This work concerns itself primarily with Jewry as an organized collectivity.5

Much of the material in these four volumes is arranged topically. Such an approach is unfortunately bound to invite repetition. Each of these four volumes stands on its own two feet; I have not hesitated to use data cited in other volumes. In some instances repetition has been unavoidable; some facts, important in themselves, illuminate multiple facets of American Jewish life; Rabbi Isaac Leeser is an important figure in nineteenth-century Judaism, education, journalism. I have my own views on the use of the title “rabbi.” As early as the eighteenth century the community religious factotum was recognized by the Gentile community as a “rabbi.” For me a rabbi is the duly elected leader of a congregation; he is hired to conduct services and to preach. Often, here in the United States, he is a man who has no document authorizing him to officiate at religious services. In some instances—this we know—“rabbis” possess certificates issued by so-called rabbis who were themselves unauthorized practitioners. Leeser, Isaac M. Wise, Stephen S. Wise, three of the most prestigious religious leaders in Jewish America, were not trained and ordained in rabbinical seminaries. Often, too, the nineteenth-century non-diplomate was more learned than the twentieth-century graduate of a prestigious rabbinical college.6

No glossary has been appended to this work, for many Hebrew and Yiddish words are now English and are defined in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Unfailingly I give preference to the Webster spellings. Frequently I clarify immediately the meaning of a foreign term employed in the text. The transliteration of Hebrew and Yiddish words employed is a modified form of the standard system used in the Jewish Encyclopedia and in the publications of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. Diacritical marks are omitted. I have not hesitated to use the mistransliterations of Hebrew and Yiddish phrases which were used by most founders of Jewish institutions. They have the right to spell, or misspell the names of their organizations as they see fit. Like other American Jewish historians I often transliterate Hebrew and Yiddish words scientifically though this type of transliteration was eschewed by most Jews. Using proper transliterations of the Hebrew is anachronistic, unhistorical, but all of us are guilty of this practice; it is a convention which we hesitate to discard in formal historical writing. Actually the pronunciation of some vowels and consonants in the synagog is at variance with the transliterations of the college trained Hebraist.

No formal bibliography has been appended to this volume. The Key to symbols, abbreviations, and short titles serves this purpose for it lists the basic works, magazines, articles, and manuscript sources used by the author. The Key rarely includes books or articles cited but once; these are described fully in the notes. Very frequently the notes include duplicate references. This is done to aid scholars because many of the works cited are difficult of access and are found in few libraries. Sources are often recorded which are at variance with the author’s views; these additional references are given solely to provide more literature for the subject under discussion; the author’s conclusions are given in the body of the text. Because I am frequently dependent on undocumented clippings I do not always cite page or column.

In any large work prepared over decades, one receives help from many individuals and institutions. It is now my privilege to thank those men and women who have responded to my appeals for help. My colleagues and staff in the American Jewish Archives have never failed me; I have leaned heavily on all of them, Fanny Zelcer and Kevin Proffitt archivists, Eleanor Lawhorn and Jacqueline Wilson secretaries. Abraham J. Peck, the administrative director, has worked closely with me every step of the way; his concern has touched me deeply. I am very grateful. Dr. Malcolm H. Stern, historian and genealogist, responded speedily to all my queries. The American Jewish Historical Society, the Cincinnati Historical Society, and the Cincinnati Public Library have also responded generously, patiently; they have been most helpful in according me aid and counsel. Dr. Herbert C. Zafren and his staff in the Hebrew Union College Library have been a tower of strength; there is probably no library in the country better equipped to aid scholars who work in the field of American Jewish history. Let me hasten to thank those who have worked closely with me in my study. Judith M. Daniels of the University of Cincinnati, Rabbi Judith A. Bluestein, Rabbi Douglas Kohn, and Birgitta Mehdi have slaved to check my data, arrange my notes, and copy edit the text. Literally, their help has been invaluable. Etheljane Callner who has been with me for almost four decades has typed the manuscript and hovered over this work with the meticulosity and dedication that have always distinguished her. Her constant encouragement when the going was rough has meant more to me than I can voice in words. Mr. Aaron Levine, a retired corporation executive, has never failed me when I turned to him for counsel. Thank you, Aaron, for your advice and guidance. My dear friend Leonard N. Simons of Detroit, Michigan, the prominent civic worker and philanthropist, has always taken a deep interest in all my work, encouraging and sustaining me in my efforts. It is a privilege to enjoy his friendship and to express—in this formal fashion—both my gratitude and affection. And now I turn to my colleague and dear friend Stanley F. Chyet, Professor of American Jewish History on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Almost thirty years ago when he aided me with my Colonial American Jew, I wrote these words of thanks:

He has helped me in matters of style and content with all the devotion of a friend and a conscientious scholar. It is literally impossible for me to express all that I owe him. It is my fervent prayer that the disciples he raises will enrich him with that same courtesy, kindness and friendship he has always showered on me.

I am happy to repeat these words of thanks for all he has done to make this work possible.

And finally there are the many who at some time or another have aided me in the preparation of these volumes but whom, for a variety of reasons, I am regretfully obliged to leave unnamed. My most grateful thanks to them all.

Jacob R. Marcus

American Jewish Archives

On the campus of the

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Cincinnati, Ohio

Previous Chapter


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.