Ethnic Jewishness

Along with their traditional notion of JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol..., the immigrants from Eastern Europe brought with them a solid sense of their own ethnicity. In the old country, whether it was Russia, Poland, or Lithuania, Jews identified themselves as Jews rather than Russians, Poles, or Lithuanians. Despite having lived in a country for centuries, they had their own national culture, language, and society. This cultural phenomenon—Yiddishkeit, the YiddishYiddish is the language of Ashkenazic or Eastern European Jews, based primarily on German with words taken from Hebrew and many Slavic languages, and written in the Hebrew alphabet. word for “Jewishness”—would not so easily dissipate in the New World. While Jewish religious practice was rapidly democratizing, secularizing, and Americanizing and undergoing schisms into different movements, Jewish ethnic, political, and cultural identity would persist through the immigrant era and into the succeeding generations.

On a grassroots level, this ethnicization may be traced all the way back to early American Jews such as Mordecai Manuel NoahNoah was the descendant of Adam whose story is told in the biblical narrative of Genesis 6-9. He built an ark and saved himself and his family from a flood, taking with him pairs of animals of all kinds. After the earth was devastated by flood, God made a..., a journalist, public speaker, and proto-Zionist. Its first institutional expression came at the height of the mid-nineteenth century German Jewish immigration. In 1843, the first ethnic Jewish organization was founded in New York City. B’nai B’rith, or “sons of the covenantA covenant (or brit) is a mutual promise or compact between two parties. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, covenant is of deep significance in describing the mutual relationship of God and the people of faith. The major covenants in Jewish scripture...,” began as a fraternal club offering its membership a Jewish alternative to the synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but .... But in the main, German Jews would continue to support their Reform templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref..., and, as they further Americanized, to identify themselves as Jews in a religious sense only. If not for the massMass is a term used in the Roman Catholic Church for the ritual that culminates in the celebration of the Eucharist, the central rite of sharing the consecrated bread and wine in the church community. immigration between 1881 and 1914, they may well have forgotten their roots as a people altogether. But the arrival of the immigrants was a clear reminder that they had ethnic ties beyond their fellow German-Americans.

Eastern European immigrants had no such ambivalence. Their self-understanding as a people was expressed in innumerable Jewish ethnic organizations and secular institutions. The best known of these was the Landsmanshaft, a mutual benefit society formed by “landsmen,” or neighbors from the same area in the old country. Hundreds of such informal groups sprouted up during the immigrant period in North America, laying the foundation for more formal Jewish organizations such as free loan societies, trade unions, Yiddish organizations, cousin clubs, insurance and burial collectives, and synagoguesSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ....

In an important sense, the heavy involvement of immigrant Jews in the American labor movement was an outgrowth of Jewish identity. Common background and language enabled Jewish workers of diverse trades and economic sectors to find common political cause. A key factor in both the the maintenance of a Yiddishkeit culture and the leftist politics of the immigrant community was the Yiddish press, best represented by AbrahamAbraham is the patriarch, acknowledged as the father of the lineage of faith by the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. He is presumed to have lived sometime in the period 2000-1700 BCE. He is the father of Isaac by Sarah (Genesis 12.25), and the "... Cahan’s Yiddish-language progressive newspaper, The Daily Forward.

The most lasting expression of ethnic Jewishness in America was the political and cultural movement of ZionismZion is a sacred hill in Jerusalem and refers, by extension, to Jerusalem and the homeland of the Hebrew people. In this latter sense, Zion came to symbolize Jewish national-religious hopes of renewal and Zionism became the name of the 19th and 20th centu.... Emerging as a movement in 1897, Zionism and socialism competed as the leading ideologies of the Jewish-American immigrant community in the early 1900s. In those early years, Zionism made its greatest inroads as the basis for the new Jewish education, bringing HebrewHebrew is the ancient language of the Israelites in which the Bible and most of Jewish liturgy is written. language and Jewish history education to Jewish youth. When America came to favor nationalism over socialism in the First World War, Zionism became the preferred orientation of most American Jews, both religious and secular.

In 1909, the Reform RabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... Judah L. Magnes attempted to unite the entire New York City Jewish community under the banner of Jewish peoplehood, calling his umbrella structure the kehillahKehillah is a Hebrew term for community, and generally refers to the formal communal structure of European Jewish communities., Hebrew for “community.” At the same time, when it came to supporting the establishment of a Jewish state, RabbiRebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion. Magnes was an early and avid voice for a two-state agreement and for conciliation with the local Arab population. In 1917, a national representative congress of American Jews developed, naming itself the American Jewish Congress, again with Jewish nationalism as its unifying ethos. Perhaps the most telling example of how Zionism shaped American Jewish ethnicity was the ascendancy of soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis to the head of the American Zionist Movement in 1914. Brandeis’ credo was, “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” For many, Americanism and Judaism were seen to be compatible in terms of the liberal political ideals and broad support for the development of the state of IsraelLiterally “Wrestler with God”, Israel is the name given to the Jewish patriarch Jacob and came to refer to the entire nation, bound in an eternal covenant to God. Historically, Jews have continued to regard themselves as the continuation of the ancien... from both American Jews and successive American administrations.

Through their ongoing support of Israel, many American Jews continue to demonstrate their continued adherence to the notion of Jewish ethnicity. However, since American Zionism as a political movement found a good deal of fulfillment with the establishment of Israel in 1948, the emotional impulse of Zionism has often been co-opted by other Jewish ethnic sectors, such as secular philanthropy and the religious denominational movements. The most important Jewish thinker to advocate the combination of Jewish nationalism and Jewish religion was Mordecai M. Kaplan, the founding father of ReconstructionistThe Reconstructionist movement is a recent development in American Judaism, beginning with Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881 - 1982) who understood Judaism to be a civilization and culture, kept vibrant by constantly changing and adapting to new situations. The ce... Judaism in the 1930s. Subsequently, the historical event of the HolocaustHolocaust (from Greek, entire burnt offering) refers in modern times to the Nazi German campaign to exterminate the Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s with death camps and gas chambers. Six million Jews died in this Holocaust. In Hebrew, the Holocau..., the birth of the state, and the Six Day War of 1967 have all combined to sear Israel into Jewish consciousness, both religious and secular, as a central symbol of Jewish identity.


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