American Jewry

Transcending the European Experience?

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Christian Wies, Cornelia Wilhelm
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many scholars of American Jewish history have recently reconsidered the field’s historic investment in depicting America as exceptional in the modern Jewish experience. However nascent, the academic trend of late has sought to nuance American Jewry’s multifaceted and complex transnational connections, both contemporary and historic, as well as renew its search for what is in fact distinctive about the American context and the American Jewish experience. The edited volume American Jewry: Transcending the European Experience? participates in the academic conversation from a different angle. In the collection’s introduction, Christian Wiese frames the volume as focused on “the way American Jews perceived the history, challenges, and legacy of their European experience” (8, emphasis mine). Indeed, Europe loomed large in the way that many American Jews embraced the Old World past, deviated from it, and negotiated “their self-understanding as Americans and Jews” in a different context (8, emphasis Wiese’s). As a whole, the chapters indicate that it is almost impossible to talk about American Jewish history without accounting for its transnational connections, especially its connections to Europe.

In part 1, “Colonial Identities: The Early Modern Period,” Judah M. Cohen follows the lives of Jewish merchants who moved between colonies in the Caribbean and regularly traveled back to the European continent, often returning to the Caribbean again. His chapter especially challenges the idea that Jews arrived in North America directly from Europe rather than from colonies south of North America. Cohen persuasively shows that movement was crucial to Jewish merchants, proving that in the midst of their business ventures they navigated shifting colonial contexts. In such contexts, Jews were offered religious freedom at least some of the time, but these freedoms were heavily based on economic motives, not benevolence. Similarly, Laura Arnold Leibman’s archaeological approach argues that the placement of mikva’ot (ritual baths, especially for female purity) was central to Jewish colonial urban planning in the South American and Caribbean contexts. The construction of colonial mikva’ot mirrored the “Enlightenment-inflected religious discourse of redemption and medicinal ‘water cures,’” in Europe (65). These mikva’ot thus offered Jewish women a privileged social and spiritual place in the colonial context, unlike that of the wider colonial female populace. Despite a third essay by Eli Faber, this section is unfortunately much smaller than the others. 

The chapters in part 2, “Finding a ‘New Zion’ in America’s Civic Culture?” compare the American context with the Central European context, addressing the various ways that German-speaking Jews from Europe adapted to American life in light of the European legacy. Two essays helpfully illustrate where American Reform Judaism distanced itself from German Reform Judaism. Christian Wiese highlights a transatlantic dispute that emerged after the American Reform rabbis’ Philadelphia Conference in 1869. The dispute—largely an argument over American Reform Judaism’s radical reforms—took place between David Einhorn, a Bavarian-born rabbi serving in America, and Abraham Geiger, the founding father of German Reform who remained in Europe. The controversy set a tone for American Reform rabbis going forward: they felt caught between their appreciation of German Jewish cultural heritage and a desire to move beyond the German model of Reform Judaism. Similarly, Karla Goldman contextualizes the more radical American Reform approach to women’s roles in synagogue life, over and above that of their German counterparts. Jewish women’s expanding public roles in American synagogue life reflected the American Protestant context, where churches and other religious organizations remained vital to female religiosity. By contrast, the secularizing German social context continued to place female religiosity largely in the domestic sphere. Thus in both societies women were “ultimately more attuned to the expectations of the society in which they lived” (166) than they were to any unified Reform strategy. An excellent chapter by Yaakov Ariel on Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue further adds to the conversation on religion.

Part 3, “New Roles and Identities in an Age of Mass Migration,” shows how Jews during the mass migration period wrestled with their European past and claims of America’s uniqueness. Gil Ribak’s chapter resurrects many forgotten Jewish immigrant voices to show how some Jewish immigrants compared post-WWI anti-Semitism in Europe to anti-Semitism in the United States. Historically, Jewish immigrants interpreted antisemitic activity in America as imported products from other European immigrants. In other words, they thought anti-Semitism among the American WASP populace was impossible. But, as they saw the growth of anti-Semitism in the United States as well as post-WWI violence against Jews in Europe, some Jewish immigrant leaders began clamoring that American society was in a process of “Europeanization” (298). That is, the established American populace was embracing transnational anti-Semitism. Apart from Ribak’s chapter, chapters by Arthur A. Goren and Jeffrey S. Gurock also stand out in part 3.

Entitled “Challenges for American Jewry after the Holocaust,”part 4 grapples with post-WWII demographic changes that impacted American Jews as well as Jewish communities across the globe. The Holocaust and Israel have clearly played key roles in American Jewish self-perception and have had a lasting effect on the American Jewish relationship with Europe. Henry Feingold hits all of these issues in his chapter, a comparison between the rescue of German Jews during WWII and the Soviet Jewry movement’s (SJM) rescue of Jewish refuseniks between the 1960s and the 1980s. (Refuseniks were Soviet Jews who supposedly wanted to immigrate to Israel during these decades.) Contrary to American Jewish (mis)understandings of Soviet Jewry, the actual number of Jewish refuseniks was small until 1977, and most Soviet Jews were not actually wanting to reach Israel. American Jews in the SJM, however, idealized refuseniks as representative of Soviet Jewry as a whole: an embattled minority still aching for Zion in spite of the decades-long Soviet annihilation of their Jewish heritage. Under the banner of “Never Again,” American Jews in the SJM envisioned saving Soviet Jewry as a way of righting the wrongs done to Europe’s Jewish population. In their own chapters, Jonathan D. Sarna and Michael E. Staub highlight similarly complex America-Israel intersections. 

I have highlighted only several chapters of particular interest, but the volume includes many useful essays by notable scholars in American Jewish history, including Hasia R. Diner, Tony Michels, and Stephen J. Whitfield, just to name a few. Gaps in the collection are noticeable. Expanding on Judah M. Cohen’s broader Americas emphasis, the European legacy and transnational connections were also important to other Jewish communities in the Americas, such as those in Mexico, South America, and Canada. Jewish communities in the Pacific region are largely absent from the volume as well, aside from a few references here and there. A more expansive approach would have enhanced the conversation and addressed transnationally circulating perceptions of the Old World shared, or not, by diverse Jewish populations in the New. Wiese does in fact indicate similar limitations in his introduction. Regardless, American Jewry: Transcending the European Experience? is a robust and significant contribution to complicated and shifting transnational connections. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Brittingham is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University and a Fellow at Emory's Tam Institute for Jewish Studies.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian Wiese holds the Martin Buber Chair in Jewish Thought and Philosophy at the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His recent publications include Years of Persecution, Years of Extermination: Saul Friedlander and the Future of Holocaust Studies (co-editor, 2010).

Cornelia Wilhelm is currently DAAD Professor in the Departments of History and Jewish Studies at Emory University. She also teaches as Professor of Modern History at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and has held visiting positions at Rutgers University, US, and Leopold-Franzens-University of Innsbruck, Austria. She is author of several volumes including German Jews in America: Bourgeois Civil Self-Awareness and Jewish Identity in the Orders B'nai B'rith and True Sisters (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2007), which was published in English translation by Wayne State University Press in July 2011.



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