Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A long, hopefully non-boring post, on Judaism in pre-war America

From May 22 2008

I've been trying to crank out a post on pre-war American Judaism, based on a book I finished last weekend, but it keeps getting too long, and too complicated for a DovBear post. So allow me to summarize some of the interesting points:

1 - In the years before WWII Reform Judaism was becoming more observant, and looking for ways to incorporate ritual into their theology. For instance, they brought some Hebrew back into the liturgy, began to reconsider the Zionism rejected by the Pittsburgh Platform, and so on. Some speculate that this was done because they were inspired/shamed into doing so by the hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans who arrived in America between 1890 or so and 1920 or so. There are many anecdotes which support this theory.

2 - JTS was created by Reform Jews who wanted to train American Rabbis who could minister to the newly arrived Eastern Europeans and their children. In the pre-war years, a majority of JTS students were yeshiva graduates, and possessed bachelor degrees from Yeshiva College. JTS, as everyone knows, originally followed Orthodox halacha (in most important matters. The egalitarian innovations, and even the ruling that allowed people to drive to shul on shabbos, came much, much later.)

3 - The Eastern Europeans themselves did all sorts of things to try and bolster religion in their own community. There opened hundreds of shuls, or every size, shape and style. Rabbis, including the first chief Rabbi of New York, were imported from Poland at the community's expense. Yeshivas were established, some of which were expressly designed to create "American Rabbis" who could relate to the next generation. And new organizations were created including the Khilla Kdeosha of New York and the Orthodox Union. As everyone knows, these efforts had mixed results. The yeshivas grew and created Rabbis, and learned lay-people (while also creating students for JTS, though before the war the Eastern Europeans didn't all think JTS was treif, and in many ways it wasn't.) There was also widespread prikas ol, though for the most part this phenomenon affected (some) new immigrants and their children and not the Orthodox communities that were established before the Eastern Europeans arrived.

Some speculate that the newly arrived Eastern Europeans went OTD faster than those Jews who were already here because American life offered too many challenges, but a better explanation (cribbed from the book) is this: The school system in Eastern Europe didn't prepare people to exist in the world. It prepared them to exist in the shtetle. Boys were taught HOW to do things (ie: how to read an translate Talmud; how to keep shabbos; how to keep kashrus; etc) and not why these things were done. (Girls were taught almost nothing at all) When the graduates of this system arrived in America they couldn't explain to themselves why Shabbos and Kashrus were necessary, so as their new lives began to interfere the old observances were dropped. As the book notes, the Eastern Europeans came to America with knowledge that was very broad, but very shallow. Of course, the reasons for the prikas ol are many and complicated but what the statistics show is that Eastern Europeans dropped observances much more rapidly and in much greater numbers than others did.

4 - When the Hasidim began to arrive in the late 40s and early 50s they had some success recruiting from among the more observant Eastern Europeans. According to the book, Williamsburg, at that time, was a slum inhabited by Eastern Europeans who were either too poor to leave, or who wanted the comfort and convience of the schools and kosher food which were readily available. (As the Eastern Europeans became established they left slums like Williamsburg and Lower East Side. According to the book, they often ended up in neighborhoods that were heavily Jewish, but not nearly as homogenous as the neighborhoods they left behind. In Williamsburg and the Lower East Side you could be "Jewish" without actually keeping commandments. In the "areas of second settlement" --ie. the places they went nect - "being Jewish" required a little more work; in some areas the challenge was met with schools and shuls and to varying degrees of success. Schools like Shulamith and HILI, and the Yeshiva of Flatbush are the legacies of those efforts) When the Hasidim arrived, after the war, in places like Williamsburg, the Jews who remained there tended to gravitate toward the rebbas and shteibels, and for any number of reasons. The book speculates that this occurred because Judaism is primarily about rituals and practices, not cold belief, so anyone sincerely interested in Judaism seeks to emulate practices that seem more authentic. Certainly, this would also explain (see above #1) why American Reform Jews could be influenced by the Eastern European example. It also explains why Reform Judaism originally attempted to update Judaism. See below #5.

5 - According to the book, Reform Judaism was at first a positive theology. The objective wasn't to drop inconvenient rituals and to become more like the gentiles, but to fix and restore Judaism by eliminating what could be judged "inauthentic" superstitions. (in some later iterations Reform Judaism certainly became a negative movement seeking to drop practices for no good reason, but that came later.) American reformers saw the prophets, with their protests against empty ritual and demands for justice, as being more legitimate than what came later and worked to restructure Judaism along more humanistic lines. Not coincidentally, this reflected the spirit of the times. Liberal religion was on the rise in 19th century America, and Jews rethought and reworked their religion in the same way that Christians were [*] and dropped almost all the rituals on the grounds they they were inauthentic and illegitimate superstition. Of course, we know how the story ends: Judaism without practice is nothing at all (see above) and the children of these reformers saw no reason to remain Jews. Many embraced humanism, and married non-Jews. In fact, a theology of the time argued that it was perfectly okay for Jews to intermarry because, the mission of the Jewish people having been fulfilled, there was no reason for us to remain separate as a nation. As noted above, after reaching this nadir around the time of the Pittsbugh Platform, reform Judaism began to recognize the value of ritual.


Ok - that's all for now. More later.

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[*]Sharper knives in the drawer have realized that (some) 21st century Jews are doing the same thing, only, reflecting the spirit of OUR time, they are modifying Judaism in ways that make it more consistent with fundamentalist religion.

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