What does it look like to be Jewish in America? The answer is as varied as the six million Jews that live in the United States today. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2020 showcased the wide diversity of this community and the varied ways Jews practice, celebrate, and define Jewish identity, culture, and religion. As we see in The Wanderers, even Jews who grew up in the same community might come to understand and relate to their Jewish identity in different ways. Jewish American identity is probably best defined by its wide diversity.
The first Jewish immigrants arrived in New York (then called New Amsterdam) in 1654 fleeing religious persecution. While they still faced discrimination and antisemitism in the US colonies, they were afforded enough religious freedom and autonomy to establish roots and build communities. They participated in every element of US society and many built successful careers as retailers, bankers, clerks, and more. By the mid-19th century there were small but thriving Jewish communities in Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport.
The largest wave of immigration took place between 1881 and 1914, when nearly 2.5 million Jewish people immigrated to the US, many from Eastern Europe, fleeing political unrest, anti-Jewish persecution, and government sanctioned massacres (called pogroms). Many of these immigrants entered the manufacturing industry. The garment trade employed a large majority. By the start of the 20th century, most garments were made by Jewish manufacturers. This wave of immigration ended with the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which established a discriminatory quota system for determining who could immigrate. This act was overturned in 1965 but Jewish immigration rates never returned to the same numbers as before. Despite these restrictions, Jewish Americans had already become thoroughly embedded in US culture, society, and history.
As the population of Jewish people in the US grew throughout its history, so too did the ways of practice. Today there are many different denominations and branches of Judaism. Three of the most widespread denominations are Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism. They differ in a multitude of ways including in their relationship to secular society and in their adherence to Jewish ritual law (which includes observing Sabbath and following the dietary kosher laws).
Below is a general overview of each of these major denominations, but it’s important to note that even within these denominations, there is great diversity in how each individual practices and relates to Judaism and it varies widely among individuals.
Reform Judaism was officially established in the US in the 1820s when it was adopted by a temple in Charleston, South Carolina. Reform Judaism embraces the adaptability of Judaism to changing modern life and emphasizes the importance of Jewish ethical law over ritual law. For example, rituals like keeping a kosher diet and strictly observing Sabbath are relaxed while the Jewish idea of tikkun olam (repairing of the world) is central to Reform Judaism. Today, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination in the US, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center.
The concept of Orthodox Judaism emerged in the 1820s as a contrast to Reform Judaism – prior to the articulation of Reform Judaism, Orthodox Jews thought of themselves simply as observant. While Reform Judaism emphasizes adapting to contemporary life, Orthodox Judaism focuses on maintaining cultural and religious traditions and adhering to both ethical and ritual law. Orthodox Jews keep traditional Sabbath and holiday rituals, observe kosher laws, and separate men and women in the synagogue. A significant subculture of Orthodox Judaism is Hasidism. Esther and Schmuli in The Wanderers come from the Satmar Hasidic sect. Click here to read more about the Satmar community.
Conservative Judaism emerged in the early 20th century as an intermediate between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. Like Reform Jews, Conservative Jews believe that some modifications must be made to adapt to contemporary life. For example, services are performed in a mix of English and Hebrew, women may be ordained as rabbis and cantors, and driving to synagogue on Sabbath is allowed. Like Orthodox Jews, however, Conservative Jews believe that ritual law – which includes the observation of Sabbath and following kosher laws – is still central to the religion and need to be followed as closely as possible.
Just as there is a great diversity of religious practice in Jewish communities, there is also significant racial and ethnic diversity in those that make up these communities. Jews have a long global diasporic history and come from all over the world. Three common heritage categories that American Jews identify with are Ashkenazi (originating from Central and Eastern Europe), Sephardi (from the Iberian Peninsula), and Mizrahi (from Northern Africa and the Middle East). However, definitions of race and ethnicity are a complicated matter for many Jewish people.
As Mijal Bitton, a scholar-in-residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, explains, part of the complication comes from how race and traditional Jewish heritage categories are defined:
[T]he traditional Jewish heritage categories – Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi – do not cleanly map onto U.S. categories of race and ethnicity: Being Ashkenazi doesn’t necessarily mean being White, and being Sephardic or Mizrahi doesn’t necessarily mean being a person of color.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the term “Jews of color” started to emerge. In an article for Moment Magazine, Sarah Bregger writes:
It was an extension of “people of color,” then being used to build coalitions between different marginalized groups. More specifically, it was a way to see beyond the binary of Ashkenazi Jews (whose families come from Central and Eastern Europe) and Sephardi Jews (whose families originated in the Iberian peninsula) when discussing Jewish identity. An umbrella term, it encompassed Jews with family origins in African, Asian or Latin American countries or those who identified as Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous or of mixed heritage.
The term “Jews of Color” has since grown in popularity. However, there are those who oppose the term, finding it too flattening of the varied and specific experiences encompassed. Other terms include “Jews Targeted by Racism” and “Black Indigenous Jews of Color, Sephardim and Mizrahim.” Despite the growing conversations about race in Jewish communities, many Jews of Color still feel marginalized from the greater Jewish community due to their race. As such, organizations like the Jews of Color Initiative and the Mitsui Collective work to diversify our perception of Jewish Americans and create a more welcoming space for everyone.
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Diamond, Anna. “The 1924 Law That Slammed the Door on Immigrants and the Politicians Who Pushed It Back Open.” Smithsonian Magazine, 18 May 2020.
“From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America a Century of Immigration, 1820-1924.” Library of Congress, 9 Sept. 2004.
Grossman, Lawrence. “Jewish Religious Denominations.” The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 81–100. Cambridge Companions to Religion.
Guskin, Emily. “How many Jews live in the U.S.? That depends on how you define ‘Jewish.’” The Washington Post, 23 Feb 2018.
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