A lively and insightful history of American Jewry

Cover image of “The Jews in America,” a lively history

JEWISH HISTORY IN AMERICA BEGINS WITH REFUGEES

Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of the Dutch colony in the future New York City, was unsympathetic. They promised to be a burden on the tiny colony — not a threat, like the accursed Lutherans and Catholics, but undesirable nonetheless. He asked them to leave. Having nowhere else to go, they refused. And his employers at the Dutch West India Company in Holland overrode his decision. Thus begins Max I. Dimont’s celebrated history of The Jews in America.

HISTORY TOLD THROUGH THE LIVES OF REMARKABLE PEOPLE

The Jews in America is not a dry account of historical facts. Dimont writes beautifully, and he brings to life several representative figures in each era as he traces the evolution of American Jewry over the four centuries of our history. Some of their names may be familiar: famous rabbis, philanthropists, merchants, and professionals, some of them celebrities. Most aren’t. It’s a spirited tale.

THE JEWS IN AMERICA BY MAX I. DIMONT (1978) 272 PAGES ★★★★★

Image of Orthodox Jewish men praying
Orthodox Jewish men wearing tallis (prayer shawls), tefillin (leather bands on their arms and hand), and phylacteries(black boxes on their foreheads). Image: Messianic Bible Project

THREE DISTINCTIVE WAVES OF JEWISH IMMIGRATION

SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE JEWS

Anyone with even cursory knowledge of Jewish history in the United States is aware that Jews arrived here in three waves. First, the sephardim, the Jews and Marranos of Spanish and Portuguese descent, who dominated Jewish life in the new land until well into the nineteenth century. Though few in number, they represented Jewry here from roughly 1650 to 1850.

GERMAN JEWS

Then, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, German Jews, many of them fleeing the revolutions of 1848 and the bloody aftermath. By 1880, their larger numbers and their success as merchants and bankers had long since overwhelmed the sephardi influence. But the total population of Jews in America numbered only some 50,000 people at its peak.

RUSSIAN AND EASTERN EUROPEAN JEWS

Then came the flood of immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe. From 1880 until 1940, some three million Jews arrived here. Many settled in the great ports of the East Coast. But others, seeking opportunities denied them in the Old Country, rushed across the land, establishing Jewish enclaves in towns and cities from New England to California. “In less than six decades,” Dimont notes, “3 million Jews of Russian and Eastern European background, representing 90 percent of the Jews in America, lost the orthodoxy of their forebears, abandoned their shtetl culture and discarded their Yiddish language.”

Photo of a street scene in the Lower East Side of New York City, where hundreds of thousands of Jews began their lives in America
A vibrant street scene on the Lower East Side of New York City late in the 19th century. Jewish immigrants, including my own paternal grandparents, crowded into tenements in this storied neighborhood in enormous numbers from around 1890 to 1920. Image: Save Ellis Island

THE VARIETIES OF JEWISH WORSHIP IN AMERICA

Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform are the three large Jewish sects that have taken root in the USA. Dimont traces their evolution over the years, and what a colorful story it is! Our ordered minds strive to fit these three denominations into clearly defined categories. But Dimont makes clear that there is nothing orderly in their history. And he makes the valid point that there is a fourth and even larger Jewish “sect” in America: the unaffiliated, who belong to no temple or synagogue.

EUROPEAN INFLUENCE WAS PROFOUND

Dimont makes clear how profoundly American Jews were influenced by the shifting currents of Jewish history in Europe. For example, he writes, “while the Western Enlightenment had led the ‘Western Jews’ [predominantly of Germany and France] to religious reform, the Jewish Haskala [Jewish Enlightenment] led many of the ‘Eastern Jews’ [of Russia and Eastern Europe] to a rejection of religion [as it freed them from the ghettos]. They turned either to Zionism or socialism, but not to Reform Judaism. Though affirming their Jewishness, those who came under the influence of the Haskala rejected organized religion. Some even turned to communism, rejecting Judaism as well.”

GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

In Dimont’s telling, much of Jewish history revolves around the attitudes of religious leaders toward the Torahand the Talmud.

  • However, for the most conservative Orthodox Jews — a tiny percentage of American Jews today — the Talmud has traditionally displaced the Torah as their focus of attention. It consists of two elements, the Mishnah and the Gemara, which comprise the commentaries of learned scribes and rabbis about the Torah. Most of the contents were written roughly 1,000 years after the Torah. In the Torah, there are 613 commandments; the Talmud contains thousands more. Many of these “commandments” cover the most trivial (and now irrelevant) aspects of day-to-day life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Photo of Max I. Dimont, author of this history of the Jews in America

FOR MORE READING

Be sure to check out another outstanding book on Jewish history, published a decade before The Jews in America: Howard Fast’s The Jews: Story of a People (An account of Jewish history full of surprises).

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