The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870: An Historiographical Appreciation

By Nadell, Pamela S. | American Jewish History, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870: An Historiographical Appreciation


Nadell, Pamela S., American Jewish History


When Leon Jick set out to write The Americanization of the Synagogue, historical scholarship on American Jewry, and especially on American Judaism, was largely parochial. Important studies of American Judaism had appeared--Marshall Sklare's Conservative Judaism (1955), Nathan Glazer's American Judaism (1957), and Charles Liebman's Ambivalent American Jew (1973) (1)--but these were written by those trained in sociology and political science, not history. As far as the writing of American Jewish history, what then existed was, in Jick's words, mostly "filiopietistic, institutionally biased, and filled with cliches which were repeated over and over." (2)

But 1976 was a good year for American Jewish history. Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers won the National Book Award in History and became a bestseller. The publication of The Jewish Woman in America revealed American Jewish history engaging the emerging scholarship in women's studies. And Leon Jick's Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870 appeared. (3)

The Americanization of the Synagogue "diverged markedly from the standard themes of American Jewish historiography." (4) Jick shifted its focus by looking at the immigrants who came before the great East European migration. Morever, he wrote religious history and did so not from the perspective of religious ideology and those who shaped it but rather from the vantage point of "simple, untutored `people who let themselves be guided by their instinct' who were faced with the task of constructing Jewish life in America." (5) He thus tied his history of the emergence of Reform Judaism to the new social history written from the bottom up.

Jick, professor of American Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, earned his Ph.D. in American and Jewish history from Columbia University and is also a Reform rabbi. In The Americanization of the Synagogue he argues that as Jewish immigrants from the German lands arrived, they founded their own synagogues rather than joining the congregations established in the colonial era. "Acculturated native American [Jews] found the newcomers alien, abrasive, and uncouth, while immigrants found their Americanized fellow Jews lax in religious observance." (6) With each decade's new immigrants, the pattern was repeated. "The bewildered newcomers of one decade became the solid and settled gentry of the next." (7)

So the newcomers built their own synagogues, hoping at first to "recreate the traditional synagogues of their European villages." These congregations followed Minhag Ashkenaz, if their founders hailed from Bavaria, or Minhag Polin, if they were born in Posen. (8) And at first they remained traditional, with congregants worried about the competence of the shochet and building a mikvah. With the exception of the Americanized Sephardic community, Jick avers, "consideration of `reform' was never even on their agenda" for the 18 congregations founded prior to 1840. (9)

Jick turns from the immigrants and their synagogue life to those who aspired, with or without rabbinic ordination, to set the directions for American Judaism. He shows how these first leaders, Isaac Leeser, Abraham Rice, and Leo Merzbacher, "were faced with frustration and hostility." (10) They and those who followed, including Isaac Mayer Wise, often lost their jobs. "Ironically, the growth in strength and numbers of American Jewry at the beginning of the 1850's was accompanied by the repudiation of virtually every religious leader of standing." (11)

The heart of Jick's argument is his rejection of the notion that Reform Judaism migrated to America from Europe. He asserts that before 1848, while "the controversy over reform raged within Germany, few if any German-Jewish immigrants came to America with ideas for reform." In fact, "in the period immediately following their arrival in the United States they generally rejected proposals that seemed to be reformist.

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