Jews Are Still Coming to Terms With America
The lofty goal of developing America into a center of Jewish culture, creativity and scholarship collided from the start with a more mundane aspiration: to preserve from dilution the faith, culture and community that rendered Jews distinct. Freedom emboldened Jews to dream great dreams, but it also empowered them to shape their own religious destinies, whatever those might be. As a result, ever since America declared its independence 246 years ago, every generation of American Jews has wondered anew how their own children would come to terms with America and whether those children would be Jewish at all.
In the opening years of the 20th century, the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Jacob David Willowski (1845-1913), then serving a brief and contentious term as chief rabbi of Chicago, expounded on the state of Judaism in America as part of an introduction to his scholarly Sefer Nimukei Ridvaz , published in 1904.
“Jews were exiled to the United States, a land blessed with prosperity,” he began. “Here they prospered and won respect from the people. But the ways and customs of this land militate against the observance of the laws of the Torah and the Jewish way of life.”
First and foremost, he complained, the state requires young Jews to attend public school with non-Jewish children, “boys and girls together.” A young person who “spends most of his days in the public school,” he warned, “learns the ways of the gentiles and becomes estranged from Judaism.”
He also condemned the “difficulty of observing the holy Sabbath” in America; the widespread violations of Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and marital precepts; and even the “great evil” caused by “freedom of the press,” which permitted “wicked men” to establish periodicals that vilified God, Torah and religious scholars, all with impunity.
In the end, he offered a suggestion based upon what he had learned from the Jews’ Catholic neighbors in Chicago. He urged Jews to establish Jewish “parochial” schools where boys could learn Torah as well as secular subjects. “The Poles who came to this country did this,” he observed, “establishing schools in their churches to prevent the corruption of their faith. Why should we not do the same for our children?”
Rabbi Willowski’s jeremiad points to significant concerns as he surveyed American Jewish life at the time, first and foremost the survival of Jews in the face of overwhelming majority pressure to assimilate. Assimilation and accommodation, central themes to social workers and scholars, were anathema to him. He advocated resistance to the mainstream instead.
His comments also underscore the significance of education as a focal point of religious and cultural contention. At a time when the majority of Americans (including most Jews) celebrated public schools as “temples of liberty” that imbued children with “American values,” he posed disturbing questions concerning the compatibility of nonsectarian public education with the goal of minority faith preservation.
Finally, his words demonstrate that even those most resistant to assimilation recognized that they were not swimming all alone against the tide. Rabbi Willowski portrayed Jews as part of a diverse community of “religious outsiders” and understood that Chicago’s Jews had much to gain from observing those swimming beside them who shared parallel goals. Just as Polish-Catholic parochial schools captured the rabbi’s imagination, so, too, in many other cases, Jews selectively borrowed survival strategies learned from their neighbors, including Sunday schools, fraternal societies, English-language publications and summer camps.
Time and time again, American Jews have rediscovered a fascinating paradox: Sometimes, it requires bold discontinuities to secure Jewish continuity.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the University Professor and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of Coming to Terms with America, from which this essay was adapted.