PERIODIZATION OF AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORY
by Jacob Rader Marcus
Originally delivered at the Fifty-Sixth Annual Meeting
of the American Jewish Historical Society, held at the Library
of Congress, Washington D.C., February 15, 1958
time has come, I believe, to periodize American Jewish
history. Though Jews, as a community, have lived here
for over three hundred years, it was not until the year 1800
that a young graduate of Columbia College, in a Hebrew commencement
oration, attempted a brief survey of American Jewry. As
far as we know, that was the first sketch of American Jewish
history by an American. Since then, individual Jews, conscious
of the growth and possible significance of the American Jewish
community, have written on the history of their people inthis
land. As early as the ante-Civil War period, Jacques Judah
Lyons, the hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York,
began to collect material for a history which he hoped to write.
His published notes do not indicate that he had any scheme of
periodization. His approach to the subject - and
that is true of most writers in the middle nineteenth century
- was purely annalistic.
By the third quarter of the last century, students of American
Jewish life were fully aware that there had been three “waves”
of migration to this country: the Spanish-Portuguese, the German,
and the East European. What is more, they were conscious
of the fact that these “waves” represented different cultures.
Consequently, three different periods in American Jewish life
came to be commonly accepted, and when Peter Wiernik published
his History of the Jews in America in 1912, he employed the
obvious device of dividing all of American Jewish history according
to the three “successive strata of immigration.” In my
opinion, this division of the material of American Jewish history
is natural and correct, and should be definitivelyadopted.
My purpose in this study is to re-examine and reappraise this
now traditional form of periodization in order, if possible,
to fix the limits of the various periods of Jewish history in
As we know, periodization is the parceling of time into separate
and distinct periods. It is chronological division.
In its simplest form, it becomes annals. Obviously periodization
is largely a convenience, a contrivance to ease the study of
history. It is a skeleton on which to hang flesh, a frame
on which to build. But in truth, it is more than a convenience,
more than a mechanical arrangement determined by an arbitrary
snip of the shears.
It has been long known to us that in all history there are different
epochs and eras. They extend over fixed periods of time
and are determined by stages in culture. They have characteristics
of their own, a style and a tempo and manifestations that are
typical and distinctive. They reflect differences in ethnic
composition, in political, economic, social, cultural, and religious
life. Aspects of culture often die or wither away in one
era, only to rise again modified in a later period. New
ages bring minor or radical changes. The differences,
the new stresses, are significant.
Cannot the periodization adopted by historians for general American
history apply also to American Jewish history? I do not
think so. The Revolution, the establishment of the Republic,
Jacksonian Democracy, Manifest Destiny, slavery, the Civil War
and Reconstruction, to be sure, affected individual Jews and,
ultimately, all of Jewry here. The Revolution, for instance,
gave the Jew his first taste of full political freedom and opportunity.
But a history of American Jewry built on the scheme of general
American life would be merely a pale reflection and repetition
of American history. It would tell us little or nothing
about the history of the Jew as Jew. The periodization
of American Jewish life is determined by factors that are characteristic
in large part of the Jews alone, by elements that are inherent
in and relevant to the Jewish group alone over a period of time.
The epochs of American Jewish history may well be fixed by incidents
and circumstances almost completely independent of general American
On the whole, the complex of events and culture that go to make
an era for the Jew in America is unique with the Jew.
If periodization of a people’s or a nation’s history has been
based on a careful and thorough epochal analysis, then a brief
exposition of the reasons for defining the termini will in effect
constitute a précis of that history. After
this brief introduction, we may proceed to the actual periodization,
beginning, of course, not with the coming of individuals, but
with the first establishment of communities here on the North
American Jewish history may well be divided into four great
periods. Very roughly, we may call them the Sephardic,
the German, the East European, and the American periods.
The Sephardic period is so named because the pattern set up
by Spanish-Portuguese émigrés in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries predominated in this country until
the superimposition of another pattern no later than the year
1840. I call this the era of The Rise and Decline of Sephardic
Jewry, 1654-1840. Actually, this epoch is itself divisible
into two main parts: the Colonial Period (1654- 1776) and the
Early National Period (1776-1840). The Colonial Period
is further to be divided into two parts: the Dutch Period (1654-1664)
and the English Period (1664-1776). The decade from 1654
to 1664 is called the Dutch Period because the only Jewish community
of the North American mainland was then in New Amsterdam.
Initiated with the coming of Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil
after its reconquest by the Portuguese, this period extended
to the occupation of New Amsterdam by the forces of the Duke
of York in 1664. Under the Dutch, the Spanish and Portuguese
Jews controlled Jewish life in the community, Their Sephardic
ritual became traditional in American life and was to be accepted,
apparently without appreciable protest, by the Central and East
Europeans who were to outnumber the Spanish and Portuguese Jews
by the second decade of the eighteenth century.
The Dutch era in American was, in its essence, medieval-in the
worst sense of the term. This was due to the bigotry and unbusinesslike
attitude of Governor Peter Suryvesant and his adherents.
In a frontier country, where the skills and crafts of every
individual might well be exploited, the Stuyvesant “party” attempted
to ignore the directives of the profit-minded West India Company
and to force the Jews out by denying them elementary religious
and economic rights. It is obvious why the first Jewish
community on the North American mainland did not thrive.
The succeeding era, the English phase, began, as we know, with
the British conquest (1664) and ended with the Declaration of
Independence (1776). The English language had, almost
from the outset of the British occupation, become the vernacular
of American Jewry. The British mercantilists, eager to
further their Atlantic colonies, especially those on the American
mainland, had seen to it that the Jewish settlers here were
granted economic opportunities, adequate civil and religious
rights, and ample scope for cultural advancement. Political
liberties, however, were still circumscribed. Although
the ethnic composition of Jewry had changed by the 1720’s from
Spanish and Portuguese to German and Polish, the Spanish rite
was retained. Power in Jewish community was exercised by the
synagogue officers who co-ordinated and controlled all phases
of religious, educational and social-welfare activity.
In general, membership in this unitary type of synagogue-community
was compulsory, and discipline was maintained through effective
religious and social sanctions.
The Early National Period of the Sephardic era extended from
the Declaration of Independence through the Year 1840.
Under the auspices of the new government of the united States,
the Jews, for the first time, began to receive full political
rights. Privileges and immunities of citizenship came
first on th Federal level through the new Federal Constitution.
Rights under the states came much more slowly. New York
led the way in 1777, but it required a full one hundred years
before the last of the original thirteen states, New Hampshire,
emancipated its non-Protestants (1877). Sephardic Jewry
continued to exert cultural domination over the older seaboard
Jewish communities all through this period. Its minhag,
its ritual, persisted in the older synagogues, although by the
late eighteenth century Germanic (German and Polish) rituals
were already being employed by more recent European immigrants.
With the exception of Richmond, all new congregations established
during this epoch adopted Germanic rituals.
There was a sharp change in the economic life. Jews continued
to be shopkeepers and merchants, but the vast majority of them
confined themselves to urban domestic supply. Only
a negligible few continued as merchant-shippers. Jews
began to make their appearance in the professions, a few became
brokers, and some began to nibble at industry. The Sephardic
age had atrophied by 1840. The Sephardic unitary synagogue-community
died as German Jewish conventicles, formed in Philadelphia and
New York, remained outside the Sephardic orbit. Although
the tightly governed Sephardic synagogue-community lost its
power with the rise of voluntaristic, independent synagogues
in the metropolitan centers and in the trans- Allegheny towns
as far west as St. Louis, national unity among Jews became more
A feeling of fellowship, of kinship, among American Jews was
undoubtedly stimulated by the ritual-murder accusation directed
against the Jews of Damascus in 1840. In that crucial
year, as the medieval-like charge was once more voiced against
the Syrian libel. Though the leaders in denouncing this
lie were very often the old-line Sephardim, Shearith Israel
of New York, the mother synagogue of Sephardic American Jewry,
refused to open its doors for a protest meeting. That act may
well be designated the moral abdication of Separdic hegemony.
It was tantamount to a symbolic renunciation.
Ever since the middle 1830, German Jews had been coming into
the eastern ports in substantial numbers. Fifteen of the
twenty-one congregations in the country were, in fact, Germanic.
In that same fateful year of 1840, Sephardic Beth Elohim of
Charleston deserted Sephardic orthodoxy and joined the ranks
of the Germanic Reformers. When in 1841 the Sephardic-oriented
Isaac Leeser called for a country-wide American Jewish organization,
he was joined by a German colleague, an the call to action was
published both in German and in English. The German Period
I call this second period in American Jewish history The Age
of the Rise and Dominance of the German Jew and the Challenge
to His Leadership, 1841-1920. Actually, as we have already
said, the Germans and the related East Europeans had been in
the numerical majority ever since the 1720’s. They came
into their own and determined the destinies of American Jewry
after 1840. Their Askenazic rituals, the German and the
Polish, were almost universally adopted, and German culture
prevailed in practically all American Jewish communities.
Religious institutionalism was characterized by independency
and voluntarism. By the post-Civil War period, German
Reform Judaism had set the tone in American Jewish religious
and social life, though it never achieved the distinction of
being a majority movement.
It was but a short step from voluntarism -- the right to belong
or not to belong -- to secularism in Jewish organizational life.
About the third decade of the nineteenth century, the social-welfare,
educational, and socio-leisure agencies began to cut the umbilical
cord that tied them to the synagogal matrix. By the 1860’s
those Germans and their sons had created all the basic Jewish
institutions, or their prototypes, which now minister to the
needs of some five and half million Jews in twentieth-century
As the industrial age moved into high gear in the days after
the Civil War, Jews turned in ever increasing numbers to
manufacturing. Their presence was most evident in the
apparel industry. Some of the children of the German immigrants
went to the better colleges and universities and entered the
fields of law and medicine and science. As the last of
the original states cancelled its disabilities against non-Christians,
and as the immigrants and their children became acculturated,
more and more of them went into politics and sought office.
During the occupation of the West and the conquest of the frontier,
Jews, from 1841 on, kept moving west from the Mississippi and,
from 1849 on, east from California.
During this German era there was a Jewish storekeeper, in one
decade or another, in almost every town and hamlet between the
Alleghenies and the Rockies. The increasing visibility
of the Jew, his rise to relative prosperity and wealth, the
incidence of frequent economic dislocations and the need for
a scapegoat, the inflow of immigrant-borne European concepts
of Judaeophobia and anti-Semitism -- all this led to a growing
prejudice against the Jew. (But let it not be forgotten
that there never was a period of American Jewish history in
which anti-Jewish prejudice was absent.)
By 1920, the “German” Jews, not largely native-born citizens
who had absorbed the minuscule Sephardic group socially,
ruled an empire of almost four million Jews, most of whom were
of East European provenance. From 1914 on, however, the
East Europeans, sensing the power of their numbers and of their
improved economic status, essayed to challenge the leadership
of the “natives.” The East Europeans hoped not only to
overthrow the hegemony of the older German Jewish stock, but
even more, to control completely the institutions and destinies
of American Jewry. The instrument which they forged for
that purpose was the American Jewish Congress, reorganized “provisionally”
in 1920. The unquestioned leadership of the “German”
Jew had now come to an end; his philosophy of the American Jewish
way of life had been sharply challenged.
The third epoch in American Jewish life is The Age of the Advent
and Rise of the East European Jew and His Bid for Hegemony,
1852-1920. As the chronological termini indicate, this
epoch ran concurrently with the German. Thus, there were
two disparate, yet parallel, Jewish cultures in this country
from 1852 on, when the first Russian orthodox synagogue was
established. By the late 1870’s there were dozens of such
East European “shuls” and they increased into the hundreds and,
finally, into the thousands after the Russian pogroms of the
The East Europeans differed notably from their coreligionists
already established here. When the Russians and Poles and Roumanians
came to these shores, the westward movement had almost ground
to a stop. It would not be long before the homesteader,
the peddler, and the horse-drawn vehicle would become part of
a romantic past. The machines of industry were humming
at full force, the factories were spawning huge sprawling cities,
and the incoming East European immigrants, keenly alive to the
future trend of industry, poured into the metropolitan slums
to work in the needle trades. For the first time in its
history, America sheltered a substantial body of Jewish proletarians.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that, to a marked degree,
this group was unique. Its members were not the sons of
proletarians, nor were they destined to remain the fathers of
In a religio-cultural sense, the “Russian” Jew was different.
He had never had the advantages of the secular education which
had nearly always been available to the German Jews in the tiniest
of villages in the Fatherland. Perforce, the East European
had found his outlet for cultural expression in Hebraic and
rabbinic studies. He had, therefore, considerably more
knowledge of Jewish tradition than his American coreligionists.
The typical East European here was orthodox, observant, and
determined to maintain his traditional Hebrew school system.
Though his vernacular, Yiddish, was frowned upon as a “jargon”
by native American Jews and East European intelligentsia, he
loved it and persisted in cultivating it. If not
actively interested in latter-day Palestinian nationalism or
Zionism, he was at least sympathetic to the ideal of a restored
Jewish commonwealth in the ancient homeland.
To the native American Jew, on the other hand, Zionism represented
nothing so much as a return to the ghetto, a betrayal of the
imminent messianic advent of complete social and cultural equality.
A substantial minority of the East European immigrants were
anti-religious, radical in their political views, and disdainful
of the Hebraic heritage and hope. Like the native, they
too, were anti-Zionist, believing that Socialism would bring
political salvation to all peoples and thus obviate the need
for a specific Jewish haven of refuge.
With the beginning of World War I, the “Russians” felt strong
enough to emancipate themselves from the natives, who were generally
identified with the national civic defense organization known
as the American Jewish Committee. As we have seen, the
rival body established by the East Europeans to overthrow the
power of the “Germans” was the “democratically” elected American
Jewish Congress. That organ of the newcomers enunciated
the goals which the masses here were determined to reach: an
autonomous Jewish homeland in Palestine and minority rights
for the oppressed Jews in the East European states created or
strengthened by the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The
power of an aroused American Jewish public opinion was so irresistible
that the natives and their leaders thought it wise to subscribe
to that program. Yet, conscious of their wealth, culture,
and status, they refused to surrender their rule and to subject
themselves to the dominance of the “Russian” or new immigration.
By the 1920’s the two groups had apparently determined to continue
on their own separate ways.
Though it seemed at first glance in 1920 that American Jewry
was to be split into two hostile groups, forces were at work
which were to compel a fusion of the two elements. That
continuing unification is the outstanding characteristic of
the fourth period, the one in which we now live. This
is the period of The Emerging American Jewish Community, The
Age of Fusion, The Epoch of the Rise of the American Jew.
It began in 1921. In that year the first immigrant quota
law was passed, a law that was to restrict Jewish immigration
and to serve as a forerunner for similar and more drastic acts.
The quota laws, which in effect, cut off immigration to these
shores, meant that within a generation most Jews in this land
would be natives. Cultural and social leveling and intermarriage
and fusion were, therefore, inevitable. The “Spanish,”
the “German,” the “Russian” Jews were doomed. There would
be only “Americans,” Jews with but little knowledge of their
European origins and with a growing disregard for traditional
In the last forty years, more or less, there have been pronounced
economic changes. The Jews have concentrated themselves
in the larger metropolises. The children of the East Europeans
have moved upward in the economic and social scale into the
white-collar class. They are largely in commerce and trade.
An unusually large percentage of them has acquired a college
education and is heavily represented in the professions.
In its social, religious, and communal life since 1921, Jewry
has been subject of four forces that have profoundly affected
its development: American cultural and economic opportunity,
anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe and in the United States, an
effective Jewish education, and Zionism. In consequence
of the impact of these four factors, American Jewry has developed
apparently along antipodal, if not ambivalent, lines.
Under the lure and attraction of the prevailing economic opportunity
and the chance to participate in all phases of American cultural
life, most Jews have entered completely and wholeheartedly into
the world of business, culture, and science. Their acculturation
has been remarkably rapid. On the other hand the anti-Semitism
of the 1920’s, the trauma of Hitlerism, the beneficial effects
of an improved Jewish education, the fascination and inspiring
appeal of Zionism have all acted to intensify Jewish loyalties.
There has been a remarkable growth of interest in all phases
of “Jewishness,” an interest that is manifested most strikingly
in the post-prandial life of the Jew in the metropolitan suburbs
to which he has moved. It is no exaggeration to maintain
that there has been a renascence of Jewish sympathies and Jewish
culture -- although, of course, its characteristics are not
those of the Jewries of ancient Palestine, Babylonia, Spain,
The American Jews of this generation are a middle-class group
who have much in common socially, culturally, and economically.
As they move into the suburbs and are touched by the prevailing
Gentile concept of respectability, many of them, hitherto unaffiliated,
have joined religious organizations. Some have entered
the synagogue, if for no other reason than to provide their
children with a Jewish education. As the result of a historical
development, now centuries-old on this continent, the American
Jew finds himself surrounded by a series of interlocking institutions
which literally mount guard over him from a pre-natal to a post-mortem
stage. In effect, he lives in a closely integrated, highly
organized Jewish “community” which guarantees him civic defense,
vocational guidance, medical and social-welfare care, religious
and cultural edification, and opportunities
for leisure in a most attractive environment. Sensitive
-- if not hypersensitive -- to rejection, present-day American
Jewry has tended to withdraw into himself itself. This
new “community,” most often held together by the device of a
Jewish Community Council, has in effect reconstituted the all-providing
kehillah of Eastern Europe and the eighteenth-century American
Jewish Sephardic compulsory unitary community. There is
this difference: the early American Jewish form of living-together
was shot through with religious motifs; the present-day community
has strong secular overtones.
It is in this age of fusion that there has begun to emerge a
homo novus, the American Jew. Because of numerous intermarriages
and other environmental factors, the “Semitic”-looking Jew --
more native to caricature than to reality -- has all but vanished.
Typical Jewish names have begun to disappear. The American
Jew, in appearance, dress, and manners is indistinguishable
from his fellow-citizens. He is an urban white collar
worker who is, at the very least, literate and, indeed, often
well-educated; he is liberal in his politics, sympathetic to
Judaism and to Jewish education, and imbued with a strong sense
of kinship for all Jews. Paradoxical as it may sound,
this emerging “American” Jew is more assimilated, culturally,
than was his father, yet in many respects as good, if not a