Way back in late 2005 I placed a library hold on Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Judging by the number of holds ahead of me, I wouldn’t be reading it anytime soon. So, in an effort to turn lemons into lemonade I decided to read a few books on Jewish history while I waited. One was Max Dimont’s 1962 highly acclaimed bestseller Jews, God and History, a book that had been gathering dust on my shelf for years. A few months after I finished it, Outwitting History became available. Once in my possession I eagerly dived into it, fortified with background information from Jews, God and History as well as other books on Jewish history I’d just read.
Fast forward to a few years ago, while rummaging the shelves at a used bookstore/pub I stumbled across a copy of Dimont’s 1978 The Jews in America: The Roots and Destiny of American Jews. Hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Jews, God and History (and more than his 1971 offering The indestructible Jews: Is there a Manifest Destiny in Jewish History?) I bought it.
In June I included The Jews in America as part of my 20 Books of Summer series in hopes it would prompt me to read it. Unsure how a 40 year old book on American history would hold up after all these years I wondered if I’d chosen the right book. After finishing it a few weeks ago I’m happy to report The Jews in America did not disappoint me.
My most lasting takeaway from this book is America served as a land where the Jews could reinvent themselves. Here was a land with no mandated religion, forced ghettos or state sponsored anti-semitism. Jews were free to move about and settle anywhere. As the United States expanded over the course of its history many migrated westward, trying their luck as traveling merchants or pursuing other professions. This freedom of the wide-open frontier, coupled with the lack of any rabbinical authority led to many American Jews adopting a laissez-faire approach to Jewish life. More traditional practices customary to Europe, be they dietary or ceremonial were commonly loosened or discarded among those on the frontier of the young republic. (Legend has it some itinerant Jews, when encountering settlements lacking as they usually did a synagogue simply worshipped in the local church, freely substituting God for Jesus in the hymns and liturgy.)
Over the course of America’s history there were three waves of Jewish immigration. The first, which was the Sephardic, began in the early Colonial period. Originally from Iberia but more recently England and The Netherlands, when compared to their co-religionist of Central and Eastern Europe were secular and patrician. Later, a second wave arrived from Germany. Some, but not all were Reform Jews or would eventually embrace the liberal practice of Reform once in America. Lastly, the largest wave came during the last decades of the 19th century. These were the Jews of the Russian Empire, from what is today Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. Despite their poverty and provincialism by their sheer numbers alone would help transform not only American Judaism butt the entire nation.
Dimont traces the dynamic history of American Jewish life. America’s Gentile culture at large understandably was a naked factor, but within American Judaism there was a great deal of cross pollination. Seeking a middle path between liberalism of Reform and the old world restrictiveness of Orthodox many American Jews coalesced into the Conservative camp, making it one of the nation’s largest and most vibrant. By the early 20th century many were no longer practicing Orthodox but had migrated to more liberal communities, and as a result helped make them more traditional. Lastly, conversion to Christianity was always a concern. Ironically, so often the pattern was nonobservant Jews marrying into to nonobservant Christian families, swapping one pro forma for another.
After over 40 years The Jews in America still packs a decent punch and makes a great companion read Howard Sachar’s A History of the Jews in the Modern World and Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Even with a personal library best called an embarrassment of riches I’m happy I figured I had room for at least one book and bought this old copy of The Jews in America.