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The Chosen Wars

How Judaism Became an American Religion

About The Book

“An important beginning to understanding the truth over myth about Judaism in American history” (New York Journal of Books), Steven R. Weisman tells the dramatic story of the personalities that fought each other and shaped this ancient religion in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The struggles that produced a redefinition of Judaism illuminate the larger American experience and the efforts by all Americans to reconcile their faith with modern demands. The narrative begins with the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam and plays out over the nineteenth century as a massive immigration takes place at the dawn of the twentieth century.

First there was the practical matter of earning a living. Many immigrants had to work on the Sabbath or traveled as peddlers to places where they could not keep kosher. Doctrine was put aside or adjusted. To take their places as equals, American Jews rejected their identity as a separate nation within America. Judaism became an American religion.

These profound changes did not come without argument. Steven R. Weisman’s “lucid and entertaining” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) The Chosen Wars tells the stories of the colorful rabbis and activists—including Isaac Mayer Wise, Mordecai Noah, David Einhorn, Rebecca Gratz, and Isaac Lesser—who defined American Judaism and whose disputes divided it into the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches that remain today. “Only rarely does an author succeed in writing a book that reframes how we perceive our own history. The Chosen Wars is...fascinating and provocative” (Jewish Journal).


The Chosen Wars

The first Jews to arrive in the New World may well have been converts or secret Jews aboard one of Columbus’s ships that landed in 1492 on an island in the Bahamas that Columbus named San Salvador. Indeed, Columbus could have been one of these “hidden” Jews himself.1

The year 1492 is also associated with a more catastrophic event for Jews, and Muslims as well: the horrific eradication of their life in Spain carried out under the decree of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who had united as king and queen to create a unified Spain in 1474. The Spanish Inquisition was a holocaust of torture and executions inspired by the Catholic Church and driven by the conviction that the Jews were infidels responsible for killing Christ. It was accompanied by spectacles of mass murder to entertain the populace, and it wiped out a community that had prospered peacefully, materially, culturally, and intellectually in Spain for hundreds of years. Portugal followed Spain and expelled its Jews or forcibly baptized them in following years. Those who converted or secretly maintained Jewish rituals—the so-called conversos (sometimes called “New Christians”) or marranos (“pigs”)—were hardly spared the church’s cruel persecution.2

The Spanish Inquisition also produced a vital new chapter in Jewish survival. From Iberia, Jews fled to France, England, Germany, North Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, eastward as far as what is today Iraq and Iran. A primary haven was the Netherlands, where the Jews’ capabilities at business and trade helped turn Holland into a world commercial and cultural power in the seventeenth century. The Jews in the Netherlands were not full citizens, but they still enjoyed many civil and economic rights, and they became investors in the Dutch East India and West India Companies and other enterprises that established footholds in North America.

In 1630, Dutch forces took the Brazilian coastal city of Recife from their longtime enemy, the Portuguese. Dutch Jews then settled in Recife, establishing a community that included rabbis, a synagogue, and two Jewish schools. But the Portuguese took Recife back in 1654, and the Jews fled yet again—some to England (where they petitioned to be returned after the expulsion in 1290), some to the Caribbean, some to Amsterdam—and some, probably unintentionally, to New Amsterdam in North America.

It was there that twenty-three Jewish asylum seekers sailed into New York Harbor aboard the French frigate Ste. Catherine in September of 1654. Their arrival in New Amsterdam was by some accounts accidental, after a storm-tossed voyage. Individual Jews had settled earlier in the area, but never before had a group come with the intention of seeking collective asylum and protection. Their appearance was hardly auspicious, in any case. Peter Stuyvesant, the despotic Dutch colonial governor, was imposing a series of edicts to accommodate a population growing rapidly from only one thousand at the beginning of the decade. He rerouted streets, established building codes, and banned citizens from throwing trash and dead animals into roads. The Jews had hardly set foot on the city’s shores when the captain went to a local court to sue his passengers for a payment he claimed they had not made, implying to Dutch authorities that, like it or not, this would be their last stop. Very quickly, however, the Jews established a synagogue congregation, Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel), then as now following Spanish and Portuguese Jewish customs. An early task was locating a cemetery for Jews and bringing in the first Torah scroll from Amsterdam. For the next 171 years, Shearith Israel was to serve as the only Jewish congregation in the city. (It is now located at the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue on Central Park West.) 3

All religious adherents in America are pilgrims in some sense. So argues Martin Marty in his book Pilgrims in Their Own Land, which asserts that no faith has ever felt “truly installed” in the United States. Escaping from imprisonment, slavery, debt, low status, poverty, and persecution, he contends, most immigrants were pilgrims when they arrived in America—“and pilgrims they have remained in their new land.”4

But more than the followers of any other religion, Jews see themselves as escapees, strangers, as galut—the Hebrew term for uprooted and living in exile—or Diaspora, a theme that derives from the long narrative of Jewish history and literature. Yet like Odysseus, Jews in biblical literature always contemplate a return—and a redemption. The theme of exile abounds in the earliest biblical writings: the expulsion of Adam and Eve, God telling Abram (later Abraham) to leave his native land for Canaan, and the escape from famine to Egypt by Abraham’s descendants. Always on the move, the Jews took flight from slavery back to the Promised Land, along the way receiving a body of laws from God in Sinai. These historical memories are tattooed into the Jewish psyche. But the escape from persecution to Dutch territory in the New World in the seventeenth century was different. It led eventually to Jews accepting their existence in a new Promised Land, for which their arrival in New York marked the beginning of a struggle to belong.

New York was hardly welcoming at the start. Stuyvesant, famous already for his wooden leg and authoritarian ways, made it clear that inhabitants had to adhere to the Dutch Reformed Church. Stuyvesant regarded the Jews as “a deceitful race” whose “abominable religion” worshipped “the feet of Mammon.”5 He tried to keep the Jews out altogether as “hateful enemies and blasphemers.”6 But to their defense came the West India Company and the Jews of the old country, noting that the refugees from Recife could help bring the prosperity Stuyvesant was trying to foster. Stuyvesant bowed to their wishes. The arrival and forced acceptance of the Jews, in turn, helped open the boundaries of tolerance for others, including Quakers, Lutherans, and Catholics.7 Still their rights remained limited, and they had to battle for the right to trade and practice religion publicly.

The new clusters of Sephardic Jews in New Amsterdam were a cosmopolitan lot compared to their Ashkenazi counterparts back in Germany and Eastern Europe. They were heirs to a separate tradition of “port Jews,” the term for inhabitants of coastal areas of Europe and the Caribbean willing to keep their customs and worship private in order to thrive and be seen as equals to the Protestants and Catholics with whom they lived.

Their accommodations of lifestyle and ancient Jewish practices to the new world in which they sought to do business had been influenced by years of exile, persecution, and the need to travel long distances. Disputes over longstanding Jewish identity, separateness, and traditional beliefs were already flaring in the Netherlands. In 1656, two years after the Recife Jews landed in America, traditional Jewish authorities in Holland excommunicated Baruch Spinoza for “evil opinions and acts,” “abominable heresies,” and “monstrous deeds.” It has never been clear what Spinoza had done by the age of twenty-three, with no published writings to his credit, to have outraged the Jewish establishment. But he later became a well-known rationalist philosopher and acquaintance of Descartes whose ideas continued to challenge the rabbinate. Spinoza not only disputed the Jews’ status as God’s chosen people, he challenged the veracity of the divine origin of the Jews’ sweeping code of behavior that believers understood as given by God on Mount Sinai. It would take two centuries for those ideas to become more mainstream.

In New Amsterdam, the Jews were doing their best to maintain their religious identity and practices when a new challenge arose in 1664. That year a British fleet under the command of Colonel Richard Nicolls set out from Coney Island and seized control of the Dutch colony. He granted its inhabitants the rights of English colonists, including freedom of worship—but only for anyone who professed Christianity. That barrier did not last. It fell after 1700, leading to a further influx of Jews. By 1740, Parliament granted the Jews naturalization rights in the colonies. Still, Jews in all the British territories were encouraged to practice their rites unobtrusively.8

In this incubated setting, Jews began to identify themselves as adherents of a unique religious faith, but nonetheless a faith like others in the New World. Their loyalties beyond their faith were to the larger community in which they lived. As a result, they prospered as merchants, traders, shopkeepers, artisans, doctors, and landowners, dealing comfortably and even intimately with non-Jews. In the countries from which they had emigrated, Jews had earlier prospered by employing their broad connections via cross-border letters of credit, bearer bonds, and other financial instruments. These were elements invented by Jews that contributed to the early European banking system. Paul Johnson, in his history of the Jews, regards the evolution of these instruments as a critical building block of modern capitalism. “For a race without a country, the world was a home,” he writes. “The further the market stretched, the greater were the opportunities.”9

Bringing that talent to the New World, Jews traded throughout the colonies—in textiles, spices, jewels, rum, furs, and other goods, including slaves.10 They also traded with Indians, merchants in the Caribbean islands, and commercial centers in Europe, often furnishing supplies for armed forces. Their lives were hardly easy. Dangers arose from hazards on the roads and high seas, not least from pirates, privateers, and enemy warships.11 When fortune turned against them, they served time in debtors’ prison, from where they relied on the charity of more prosperous Jews. And from New York, they spread to Newport, Charleston, Savannah, Philadelphia, and Richmond. Estimates based on a 1790 census are that the American Jewish population numbered 1,300 to 1,500 in this period. The largest communities were New York and South Carolina, with the rest scattered in New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, and North Carolina.12 In all these places, they sought to maintain traditions while adjusting to lifestyle and business realities. Generally, they did not try to control what fellow Jews did in their business lives but instead confined their religious activities to their own spheres, respecting the Sabbath, worshipping in makeshift synagogues, and keeping Jewish dietary laws when possible.

Other practices to which they adhered included circumcising their sons, the ancient sign of the covenant between God and the descendants of Israel, praying with their tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), and their belief in the coming of a messiah to deliver Jews back to Zion. In 1769, the Reverend Ezra Stiles, a founder of Brown and later president of Yale, recounted that he saw Jews frightened by a thunderstorm opening their doors and windows and singing prayers for the Messiah to deliver them.13

Stiles figured in another aspect of Jewish integration in colonial era society—the perils of acceptance and even love by non-Jews. As a prolific diarist and genuine philo-Semite, or “lover of Jews,” Stiles professed his admiration for the Hebrew race even while echoing the common Christian theme that the Jews did not understand their own Bible correctly. Later as president of Yale, he required instruction of Hebrew for its students. When Stiles’s friend, Aaron Lopez, one of the wealthiest Jews in America, died from a carriage accident in 1792, Stiles praised him but with a well-intentioned reservation. “He was my intimate Friend and Acquaintance!” the Yale president said. “Oh, how often have I wished that sincere pious and candid mind could have perceived the Evidence of Christianity, perceived the Truth as it is in Jesus Christ.”14 (It was a confession laden with irony. Lopez had arrived in New York in 1740 as a Catholic named Duarte but later adopted the name Aaron, had himself circumcised, and lived as an observant Jew.)15

As Stiles’s diary attests, Jews in the colonies generally did interact with Christians, visiting them in their homes and going ahead with intermarriage, by one estimate affecting 15 percent of Jews in the colonial era. Intermarriage was almost always a prelude to falling away from the faith, a frightening prospect to many in the community. Some families disowned their daughters and sons who married non-Jews. Others were more accepting. But the colonial years pointed to intermarriage as one of the first big issues that proved divisive within the community of American Jews.16

Congregation of Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia, established in 1740 when Jews applied for a cemetery plot to Thomas Penn, was one of the earliest of its kind in the colonial era. But shortly after its founding, members of the congregation complained to a visiting chief rabbi of Amsterdam that one of their leaders in Philadelphia had performed a marriage ceremony for his niece, though she was married to a non-Jew, and that he gave last rites for another Jew who had married outside the faith. The dissident who performed these rites, Mordecai M. Mordecai, said it was his right to interpret the law as best he could. The congregation members disagreed with his use of “erroneous legalistic loopholes” and sought to bar him from the synagogue.17

Another case, that of Jacob Franks, a shipowner, businessman, and merchant who served as an agent of King George III in the French and Indian War, illustrated the stresses on each family. Franks and his wife, the former Abigail Levy, had emigrated from London. Though British, he was a Jew of Ashkenazic or Germanic origin. He had lived as a boarder in the Levy household and married Abigail when she was only sixteen. They had nine children, three of whom died in infancy. Franks served as president, or parnas, of Shearith Israel and along with the Levys mingled socially among the city’s Protestant elite: the Livingstons, Bayards, De Lanceys, and Van Cortlandts.

Worldly and educated, Abigail wrote letters to her children quoting the novels of Henry Fielding and the works of Dryden, Montesquieu, and Pope. She proudly observed the Sabbath, kept kosher, and worshipped at the synagogue on the High Holidays. Wedded to tradition, she was not above impatience with it, writing her son with complaints about “the many superstitions we are clog’d with.”18

But the Franks family’s stately existence blew up in 1743, when their daughter Phila ran off with Oliver De Lancey, the unruly scion of a wealthy family, one of many who lent their names to streets in Lower Manhattan. Years earlier, Oliver and some friends had been accused of breaking into and ransacking the home of a Dutch Jewish emigrant, swearing, and threatening to rape the wife. Charges were not brought in that episode. Jacob reconciled himself to Phila’s marriage, perhaps seeing some advantage to it, but Abigail refused to speak to her or let Oliver in her home. There is no evidence that mother and daughter ever reconciled. In still another instance of difficulties in mingling with the majority population, Judah Monis, the first Jew in America to receive a college degree—from Harvard, where he was an instructor in Hebrew—nonetheless converted two years after graduating, in 1722, motivated perhaps by his need for a job, and his falling in love with a Gentile, Abigail Marret.19
The American Revolution confronted the few hundred Jews living in New York City, especially the so-called patriots, with something tragically familiar—a forced exodus. A few weeks after July 4, 1776, the British under General William Howe moved swiftly to snuff out the insurrection in the American colonies and take the city from the rebels.

General George Washington, anticipating an attack, had amassed his troops defensively in lower Manhattan. But British ships had surreptitiously ferried Howe’s army from New England to Staten Island for their assault. After crossing New York Harbor, General Howe seized control of Brooklyn Heights and then hopscotched across the bay to Lower Manhattan. Washington fled across the Hudson River to New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. The British managed to remain in the city through most of the Revolutionary War.

Like other citizens of the busiest port in North America, Jews faced a dilemma as this drama unfolded. In light of their precarious history, they vacillated between the patriots and their new British military overlords, in some cases pledging allegiance to both sides for as long as it was practical. Most in the city and the colonies generally appear to have lined up with the rebels, however. Many joined the Continental Army and fell in battle. Others contributed funds. For example, in Philadelphia, Haym Salomon, a Polish Jew, raised such large sums that James Madison praised him as “our little friend in Front Street” who, to his astonishment, asked for no recompense.20

Not surprisingly, war posed new tests to the ability of Jews to maintain their identity, laws, and traditions. A 1777 diary entry from a Hessian officer fighting for the British, Conrad Doehla, attests to the problem: “The Jews [in America] cannot . . . be told, like those in our country, by their beards and costume, but they are dressed like all other citizens, shave regularly, and also eat pork . . . moreover do not hesitate to intermarry. The Jewish women have their hair dressed and wear French finery like the women of other faiths. They are very much enamored of and attached to Germans.”21

After Washington fled New York, so did many Jewish patriots. Among them was a young New York–born cleric with piercing eyes and thick dark hair named Gershom Mendes Seixas, who had been elected spiritual leader of Shearith Israel in 1768 at the remarkably young age of twenty-two. Seixas, the son of a Sephardic father and an Ashkenazic (German-speaking European) mother, was a scion of the congregation, which had moved to a modest two-story building on Mill Street, just south of Wall Street.

Seixas (pronounced Say-shas) was described by associates as a man of considerable intellect and charm. Though he lacked formal religious training, he had been determined to go into the ministry rather than business trades. In his escape from New York, he took the synagogue’s Torah scrolls—partly burned when Hessian soldiers set fire to the sanctuary—along with other paraphernalia, going first to Connecticut, where British forces continued to harass settlements along the coast, and then to Philadelphia. (Jewish refugees in Norwalk, Connecticut, likened the city’s destruction by the British to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the same season, commemorated in the fast of Tisha B’av.) In Philadelphia, Seixas served as hazan, or cantor, at Mikveh Israel.

Toward the end of the war, Shearith Israel’s president, or parnas, Hayman Levy, beseeched Seixas to return to his home synagogue. But Seixas was not so eager. He wrote Levy that he had heard many reports about “divisions among the reputable members of the congregation, by which means a general disunion seems to prevail instead of being united to serve the Deity, consonant to our holy law.” In 1757, for example, leaders of the congregation had tried to oust members who did business on the Sabbath, ate nonkosher food, and committed “other Heinious [sic] Crimes.” But six months after being expelled, the miscreants were welcomed back, along with their donations and dues.22

Despite the turbulent atmosphere, Seixas gently told Levy that if perhaps his starting salary of £80 a year (plus a small bachelor’s quarters and free firewood) could somehow be raised, he might consider returning to his old congregation. “Do that what you know to be right, that the Lord may be with thee in all thy ways,” Seixas wrote the parnas.

Levy was a tough-minded businessman and storekeeper originally from the Lake Champlain region, where he sold goods to Indians in return for furs. He had once even been fined by his own congregation for using “indecent and abusive language,” perhaps another example of what Seixas had been concerned about. Yet Levy gave in to Seixas’s demands and offered a salary of £200, asking him to return at once, before Passover. That did not end the controversy. Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, home synagogue of the famed Haym Salomon, financier of the war, protested Seixas’s decision to leave so quickly. Seixas appealed to Levy for a delay, noting that the roads were difficult to travel in the winter in any case. Levy was adamant, and by April 1784, Seixas was back at Mill Street, where he served until his death in 1816. Reflecting the spirit of its role in a new nation, Shearith Israel welcomed Governor George Clinton to its synagogue in 1783 by likening the victory for independence to the Jews’ return from exile. A Hebrew prayer at the congregation compared the birth of the thirteen states to the deliverance of the Jews from bondage that would hasten the Jews’ own redeemer.23

But the saga of Minister Seixas has another revealing component about the important but still precarious role that Jews played at the time of the American revolution and its immediate aftermath. In this period, Jews in America remained small in number—no more than 2,000 to 3,000. 24 They constructed synagogues as the character of their life adjusted to the comforting idea that they could thrive in a brand-new country that was uniquely welcoming to them. Americanization represented an unprecedented chapter of belonging, a complete break from the traditions of their forefathers in the long and tortured history of Jewish experience.
The inauguration of General Washington as the first president in 1789 served as an emotional capstone for Jews living in the newly established United States. Seixas, as a widely renowned figure in the colonies, represented the Jewish community at the festivities, along with fifteen Christian ministers. He also became the first Jew to serve as a trustee of Columbia College, founded by royal charter in 1754 as Kings College and then still a Christian institution. Seixas was a traditionalist on most matters, but he later became the first “rabbi” (however unofficial the term for him) to use English (rather than Portuguese) for some prayers. As an acquaintance of Christian leaders in the community, he sometimes gave sermons to Christian congregations, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and invited Christian ministers to his congregation. He went so far as to describe himself as “minister” to the Jews of New York City, a symbol of his acceptance outside his community. In the process, he became what one historian calls “the first Jewish example of a type of religious leadership characteristic of Protestantism in the American setting but new to the Jewish tradition”—a full-fledged member of the new country’s pluralistic religious establishment.25

But how established were the Jews, actually?

Some old restrictions on Jews remained even after a revolution waged partly in the name of freedom of religion. Seixas, when he was still back in Philadelphia, shortly after American independence, joined with Haym Salomon and other members of their congregation to petition the Pennsylvania authorities against a new requirement that members of the state legislature take an oath containing the phrase “I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.” They were unsuccessful in their appeal, although a parade in Philadelphia in 1788 attests to the equal status of Jews in that community. To celebrate the new Constitution, Jews marched in the city and conspicuously ate kosher at their own table afterward. 26

Similar strictures applied to Jews for many decades after the revolution. The right to hold public office remained limited for decades in Maryland, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. A group of Jews petitioned the Maryland Assembly to adjust the language restricting officeholding to Christians in the 1790s, but it took another couple decades for the small community of Jews in Baltimore to get the state to extend liberties to Jews in 1825.

A close reading of the Jewish community’s relationship with George Washington also suggests a certain tentativeness to their acceptance. One of Seixas’s brothers, Moses Mendes Seixas—among the organizers of the Bank of Rhode Island and the president of the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island—presented Washington with a letter on the occasion of his visit in 1790. “Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits, and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport,” it declared to the new president. (The congregation, founded in the 1600s, employed a Palladian-style design for the new synagogue, the first in New England, dedicated in 1763. It served as a hospital for the British military during the Revolutionary War and was returned to the Jews after the British evacuated. In the nineteenth century, it became known as the Touro Synagogue, named after one of its early families in honor of their generosity for its upkeep. It remains the oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States.)

Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport in response is justly famous. It suggested that for the Jews, America might prove itself to be the Promised Land for which they yearned, a harbinger perhaps of the debate to come among American Jews over whether their loyalty to the United States should be compromised by prayers for deliverance back to the Holy Land on Judgment Day. But a double-edged meaning could have been inferred as well from one of Washington’s equally famous phrases: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Was there, one might ask, a whiff of conditionality in Washington’s suggestion that the Jews should “demean” themselves as a requirement for citizenship? The challenge of comporting themselves, and perhaps conforming themselves, was to be a major recurring theme of the American Jewish experience.
The earliest difficulties within the Jewish community derived from customs followed by two traditions, Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Begun as a predominantly Sephardic community, New York had from its earliest days a portion of non-Sephardic Jews. A famous example was Asser Levy, who had immigrated to Amsterdam from Vilnius, or Vilna, then part of Poland, before coming to New Amsterdam, by some accounts as a part of the group of asylum seekers aboard the Ste. Catherine. In New York, he successfully demanded the right of Jews to stand guard with Dutch burghers to protect the city. It was not until 1720, however, that Ashkenazi Jews formed a majority of the city’s population, and Shearith Israel, established by Sephardim, became an initial battleground over their varying customs and traditions. Ashkenazi arrivals often viewed their Sephardic brethren as elitist, complacent, and more lax in their observances, but many Sephardim argued that the opposite was the case, looking down on Ashkenazi Jews as abrasive and uncouth. Indeed, some Sephardic communities turned inward in America and increased their attachment to orthodox traditions.

The division of Jews into different camps was an old story, going back at least to the time when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE and Jews were divided into inhabitants of Babylon and Palestine. More diffusions occurred after the fall of the rebuilt “Second Temple” to the Romans in 70 CE. These scatterings of Jews in the Mediterranean world were sometimes followed by persecution and forced exile. But many if not most Jews no doubt also voluntarily traveled and settled in new homelands to seek opportunities as merchants and adventurers.

Establishing themselves in Spain, they spoke the medieval dialect of Spanish known as Ladino, and this became the language of their subsequent exile in the rest of Europe from the Spanish Inquisition. Meanwhile, probably around the eighth century, Jews began migrating from Italy to the Rhineland, where they became known in Hebrew as Ashkenazim, eventually adopting a combination of German dialects that later evolved into Yiddish, with a healthy dose of loan words from Hebrew and various Slavic languages. (The term Sephardim comes from a certain place name, otherwise unknown, in the Biblical Book of Obadiah, one that sounds a bit like Spania, “Spain.” The term Ashkenazi derives similarly from another place name associated with a European kingdom cited in the book of Jeremiah.)

A visitor to America in 1790 complained that synagogues “have no regular system” and their services were “in a state of fluctuation.”27 Synagogues were generally organized by a president or warden (parnas), a standing committee, and a hierarchy of members, usually with the biggest donors attaining higher status. Synagogue governance was thus a radical departure from what many Jews had experienced in large parts of Europe. No government or rabbinical authority existed in the New World to set the rules for Jews. It was the lay leadership, for example, that could wield the power of herem, or excommunication (though such actions were more frequently threatened than executed), and establish all sorts of rules governing conduct.

Adopting the spirit of the age, synagogues started writing constitutions. In 1790, Shearith Israel adopted a “bill of rights” enshrining sovereignty and opening membership and authority to more than just traditional elites.28 Synagogues became places mirroring the civics of the US government, deriving their rules from the “consent of the governed.” It was in that context that divisions over ethnic practices, liturgy, and other matters were adjudicated, particularly between various forms of Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions.

The first Ashkenazi synagogue in America, Rodef Shalom of Philadelphia, was established in 1795 when Germans wanting to pray according to the German and Dutch rules broke away from the Sephardic rituals of Mikveh Israel, founded a half century earlier. The first such synagogue in New York also had a contentious beginning. Shearith Israel, proud of its status as the one and only synagogue in the city, asked the Common Council of New York to be granted exclusive right to slaughter and sell kosher meat in 1813. A faction in the synagogue objected, arguing that the law was “an encroachment on our religious rites,” and the council reversed itself.29 Later an ugly dispute arose over Seixas’s widow’s pension. These episodes demonstrated that all was not peaceful within the congregation.

Another problem was the chaos of the services themselves—a cacophony of noisy individual prayers and worshippers interrupting the reading of the hazan. The congregation leaders sought to impose some order by introducing what became known as “decorum” in the service. Rules were introduced in 1805 “to promote solemnity and order” that might be presentable to outsiders and inspire congregants.30

Despite these changes, several younger Ashkenazi members at Shearith Israel were not satisfied. They asked for more. First, they sought permission to conduct their own Sabbath services under Ashkenazi tradition, though only in the summer. It is not precisely clear which traditions they wanted to change—the two branches of Judaism contained many sub-branches following different rules of when Jewish boys should begin to wear prayer shawls, what foods can be eaten on Passover, and which blessings are called for at what time. Whatever the specifics, the Askhenazi congregations were summarily rebuffed. Later they broke away to form a new organization called Hebra Hinuch Nearim (Society for Youth Education) paving the way for establishment of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (Children of Israel, Jeshurun being a poetic name for Israel) in 1825. The new congregation first rented a place at Pearl Street, closer to where many of them had moved, and then bought and remodeled their own building, converting what had been the First Coloured Presbyterian Church in 1827.

The thirty-two founding members of B’nai Jeshurun devoted themselves to strict keeping of their faith in accordance with German and Polish traditions. They also adapted services used by the Great Synagogue of London, the earliest Ashkenazi congregation established in the British Isles after Jews were permitted to return to England in the seventeenth century, having been expelled in 1290. B’nai Jeshurun leaders also called for less formal worship, accompanied by explanations for young people not versed in Jewish law, and for no permanent leader to dictate norms to others.

In declaring their independence, these Ashkenazi Jews importantly introduced a new willingness to challenge authority in a spirit of anti-elitism and a demand for democratic self-government. Later B’nai Jeshurun broke another barrier: it became the first congregation in New York to conduct services in English.31 B’nai Jeshurun also focused in its first decades on instituting decorum (omitting obscure prayers and reading prayers like the Kaddish in unison rather than in what was sometimes a cacophonous babble), and reforming the practice of worshippers paying to receive synagogue honors, such as reading from the Torah. In addition, they dropped the requirement for special gowns to be worn by the cantor and rabbi, all of these changes invigorating the service with a new emphasis on performance.

Soon and inevitably, there was a revolt against B’nai Jeshurun for becoming too “Americanized” and perhaps too affluent. Thus, a separate group of newcomer German, Polish, and Dutch immigrants established Congregation Ansche Chesed, a third congregation in New York, in 1829. It was so impoverished that it had to ask for ornaments and building materials from the more affluent Shearith Israel, and it struggled to maintain rituals of meat slaughtering, baking matzo, and building a ritual bath, or mikveh. It also experienced personnel struggles. The minutes show that members complained that the hazan was frequently seen gambling and hanging out at billiard parlors and perhaps even houses of prostitution, making him “unfit.” By the 1840s the congregation was on a steadier footing and started to enforce rules of decorum designed to avoid “the present confusion” in the service and have only those authorized to read prayers out loud.32

These disputes paved the way for a pattern that became typical in American synagogues. As Jacob Rader Marcus, an eminent historian of early American Jewry, has written: “Squabbles in God’s house were almost as traditional as the liturgy itself; one sometimes suspects that these quarrels testified to a rugged spiritual health.”33
As comfortable as Jews were living as equals in America, there remained a yearning among some for something more—the self-governing status of a different era in Europe, and perhaps the ancient epoch of Jewish kingdoms in antiquity. An important figure in that historical longing was also an early precursor to the modern movement of Zionism. But Mordecai Manuel Noah was as eccentric as he was compelling.

Like Seixas, Noah was not a rabbi even though he welcomed the trappings of one. (There were no rabbis in the United States until the 1840s, but there were some in Jamaica, Surinam, Curaçao, and elsewhere in the Americas.) Noah was in fact a journalist, playwright, and sometime diplomat whose editorials on the War of 1812 led to an appointment by President James Madison as consul to the Kingdom of Tunis before he was removed on the ground that it was inappropriate for a Jew to serve in a Muslim realm. Noah’s protests over the ouster were ignored at the State Department, deepening his concerns about the precarious status of Jews in the United States.

In New York City, Noah was active in Tammany Hall politics and rose to the position of high sheriff. In 1825, the same year as the rebellion of Ashkenazim at Shearith Israel, he took up an altogether different cause. With virtually no support from anyone—not even his fellow Jews—he sought to establish a Jewish “refuge” on Grand Island in the Niagara River, just south of Niagara Falls. Noah proposed to call his new community Ararat, after the mythical mountain where his biblical namesake’s ark came to rest.

Encouraged in part by a group of German Jewish intellectuals with whom he corresponded, Noah sought permission to set up his community from the New York legislature. Some lawmakers were favorable, but in the absence of a bill, Noah persuaded a friend to purchase a section of Grand Island for his purpose. For the opening of his community, Noah presided at a dedication ceremony on the Niagara riverbank. He turned it into quite a scene. Cannons boomed, and military and Masonic groups marched. Wearing a red ermine-trimmed robe, with a medal around his neck, Noah proclaimed himself “Governor and Judge of Israel.” The band played the “Grand March” from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus (it had been composed in 1746). Noah read his “Proclamation to the Jews” urging young people the world over to come to his colony, where polygamy would be forbidden and prayers would be offered in Hebrew. Noah also declared that Jews throughout the world ought to defray the costs of establishing Ararat as a farming community and refuge.

For all its crackpot absurdity, Ararat embodied a longstanding aspiration for Jews, the idea of complete self-government as a means to self-preservation. But Ararat never got off the ground. Indeed, Noah seems never to have set foot on the island himself. But Noah’s antics, with their historically resonant and prophetic elements, contained the seeds of what he predicted would come true—establishment eventually of a homeland in Palestine. In asserting that such a place would come to be, Noah channeled traditional Jewish prayers that were to be increasingly challenged by Jews living and growing perfectly comfortable in the United States.

In fact, Noah had for years been speaking of the Zionist ideals in concrete terms. As early as 1818, at Shearith Israel, he flatly predicted that the Jews would one day return to Palestine “in triumphant numbers” to “take their rank among the governments of the earth.” Years later, in 1837, he wrote a Discourse on the Evidences of the American Indians Being the Descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel but declared once again his belief that with the help of England and France, the Jews would eventually reestablish their homeland in the place of their ancient kingdoms.

“I confidently believe in the restoration of the Jews,” Noah declared again in 1844, in New York, adding an appeal to American Christians to help, citing passages in the Bible. These proclamations were seen among some Jews as dangerous, not only because they exposed Jews to accusations of divided loyalties, but also because they fed Christian and anti-Semitic impulses to convert or get rid of Jews in America. Among the worriers was Isaac Leeser, a hazan in Philadelphia who was the most prominent traditional Jewish religious scholar of the era. He declared that the Jews “had better remain as they are now, scattered over all the earth, rather than expose themselves to an extermination by some modern Haman,” a reference to the evil persecutor of Jews in the Book of Esther.34

Restive as Jews and their leaders were over these sectarian issues, a different storm was brewing in what was then the largest Jewish community in America—Charleston, South Carolina. It started with a fire that nearly destroyed the entire downtown.

About The Author

Photograph by Elisabeth Bumiller

Steven R. Weisman, vice president for publications and communications at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), previously served as a correspondent, editor, and editorial board member at The New York Times. His book The Great Tax Wars: How the Income Tax Transformed America, received the Sidney Hillman Award in 2003.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 20, 2019)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416573272

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Raves and Reviews

“American Judaism underwent a radical shift in the 19th century, adapting its rituals and its theology alike for an open, modern society. Weisman offers a thorough and fascinating history of these decades, which gave birth to the liberal branches of Judaism and allowed Jews to feel at home and thrive in America.”

– New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“Weisman’s meticulously researched and fluently argued book is a compelling story of a glorious past. It is also a guide to the foreseeable future. The chosen wars rage on, but now, at least, we have a manual to help us fight them more mindfully.”

– The Wall Street Journal

Well-documented and compelling . . . Weisman demonstrates that Judaism was able to adapt itself to the New World in multiple ways that, despite the ongoing challenges, continue to thrive.”

– The Washington Post

“The rise of Judaism in American is an astonishing, underappreciated saga with remarkable and eccentric personalities. Steve Weisman explains a lot about our country, about the Jewish people and tells a really great story.”

– Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, author of David: The Divided Heart

“Only rarely does an author succeed in writing a book that reframes how we perceive our own history. The Chosen Wars is one such book, and it could not arrive at a more appropriate time in that history. . . . fascinating and provocative.”

– Jewish Journal

“American Jews have shockingly little self-awareness about their place in an incredible saga. Life in the New World transformed their religion, creating distinctive beliefs and ritual. It is a fascinating tale, full of conflict and ingenuity. Steve Weisman has excavated this history with narrative flair and wisdom. The Chosen Wars is a book that will become a fixture on the shelves of the diaspora and beyond.”

– Franklin Foer, author of World Without Mind

“Expertly told . . . Anyone interested in American Judaism will be enlightened by this lucid and entertaining history.”

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A popular, readable account of the outsized personalities and dramatic conflicts that produced a distinctively American Judaism over the course of the Nineteenth Century. The Chosen Wars draws upon recent scholarship to produce a history that is as unforgettable as it is relevant to our times.”

– Jonathan D. Sarna, University Professor, Brandeis University and author of American Judaism: A History

"A contextually rich story of Judaism’s evolution in early America, containing surprises such as New York Jews’ sympathy for the Confederacy, source of cotton for trade and clothing."

– American Jewish World

The Chosen Wars is filled with light for dark times. It is an important and engaging narrative about the evolution of American Judaism. Gone are the old myths and suspicions, and in their place is a profound meditation on the nature of Jewish identity.”

– Amanda Foreman, New York Times bestselling author of A World on Fire

"Beginning with the mid-17th century, the author offers numerous illuminating anecdotes and outsized personalities to explain how and why the first Jews arrived in what became the U.S. more than a century later . . . Religious history that should interest Jews and non-Jews alike."

– Kirkus Reviews

The Chosen Wars is a uniquely American story about how minority religious communities have grappled with the tension between being, as Weisman puts it, ‘a part’ of and yet ‘apart’ from our wider society. It's a book full of life about a living tradition.”

– E.J. Dionne Jr, New York Times bestselling author of Why the Right Went Wrong and co-author of One Nation After Trump

"Weisman here gives a solid outline of the history of Jewish divisiveness that anyone can follow, an important beginning to understanding the truth over myth about Judaism in American history."

– New York Journal of Books

“Steve Weisman shares important observations about the American Jewish past and the way it shaped and continues to shape today's Jewish communities. The Chosen Wars offers a framework to view a complex, often contentious but ever proud people struggle with tradition and innovation on a new and captivating shore.”

– Erica Brown, author of Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet

“The fascinating story of Jews in America has been told many times but seldom if ever with the narrative power and analytic acuity this fine book displays. Anyone interested in the intricate history of religion in the USA will find this volume endlessly informative.”

– Harvey Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus, Harvard University, author THE FUTURE OF FAITH

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