d r a f t

Interview with Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University on creolization in Jewish-American institutions in the years after the Civil War — although he doesn’t use the word — points up some important (imho) simliarities between the Jewish and and Swedish-American Lutheran experience.

At this point, Jews were not hated like Irish Catholics were. So the question arises — how do you maintain your religious traditions in a culture where the theological and cultural norms are Anglo-Saxon Protestant that’s basically accepting but is going to insist on its own cultural norms. Sabbatarianism was going to be a huge issue for both, albeit for different reasons.

Gurlock was interviewed March 2, 2010 for the PBS series God In America, and an edited transcript is available online at:

http://www.shoppbs.pbs.org/godinamerica/interviews/jeffrey-gurock.html

One crucial parallel with Scandinavians in the mid-19th century —

If you go back to the Revolutionary War, there are only 1,000 or 1,500 Jews in the United States. By the 1860s, the numbers of Jews have risen to about 50,000, on the road to a quarter million. So you have a very significant Catholic minority within this Protestant majority, very small Jewish component, and frankly, in terms of tolerance in America, the issue is more of acceptance of Catholics in this country rather than Jews. To a great extent, Jews are not noticed because of the paucity of numbers until the 1850s, 1860s. But as we move through that time period, there will be an increase in Jewish numbers, and with that, that possibility of creating larger Jewish institutions. Critical masses of Jews arrive, and also Jews become far more visible to the Christian majority and of course to the dominant Protestant denominational life in America.

Especially this (!) in a culture where you’re not only not hated but you’re encouraged to assimilate:

They’re feeling liberated that they’ve made it to America, but the challenge that they’re going to face is twofold. One, they’re part of a larger immigrant saga, because Jews don’t come alone on those boats, or Italians and Greeks and others who are looking for the advantages of American freedom. Jews are coming for the same reasons, but they’re also dealing with the question of, how do I maintain my Jewish traditions in a country that’s highly accepting of me? 

Other quotable snippets, in Q&A format:

***

In 1870, does being American have a religious component?

I think, for the white majority in America, there’s a basic level of tolerance for a variety of religions, so consequently, I don’t think your religious confession is all that important in defining whether you’re American. Remember, we’re still in an era of expansion of America out to the West, and the issues of what new Americans will mean for the Protestant majority are not all that robust until a little bit later in our history, so that I think [there is] this tolerance for minority religion.

By the same token, there’s a great desire on the part of minorities — in one particular case, the Jews — to act and look and behave like the Protestant majority without abandoning their faith.

And that’s one of the critical crises for Jews: How do I become American without abandoning my Jewish tradition, the totality of my Jewish tradition or portions thereof? And Jewish denominations will split on that, as all want to become Americanized, but they will differ to the extent to which they want to abandon or temper their longstanding Jewish traditions.

***

Public life in America is dominated by Protestants, but there is freedom. Explain the freedom part.

Freedom is a great challenge for traditional faith, particularly for Jews. In the mid-1890s, one of the most revered rabbis in Eastern Europe — his name was Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan — admonished Jews in Eastern Europe. He said: “Don’t come to America. America is an unkosher land. And if you go to America, you’ll lose your Judaism.” So why would he say that? Because he realized that Jews coming to America, given the opportunity to advance in this country, with some limitations, would be challenged in terms of maintaining their Jewishness.

A classic example: American socioreligious culture says that you work six days a week and you rest on the seventh. But the seventh isn’t the Jewish Sabbath; it’s the Christian Sabbath. And all over this country, you have the phenomenon known as blue laws, where stores are closed and factories are closed, and if you open your store, you open your factory, you’re liable for fines. So now, as a Jew, I have to make a choice: Am I going to work six days or five days and observe my Sabbath, because Sunday is off limits? So choices have to be made. …

It’s an American Christian society that’s very accepting of Jews, but raises challenges in terms of maintaining one’s tradition. So this rabbi says it’s better to live under oppression in Eastern Europe and live a full Jewish life than to come to America and be challenged. […]

***

[Concluding tie-it-up Q&A:]

[Tell us about] the challenge of coming to America as a Jew: how to be religious and also be American.

Or to what extent can I be religious and also be an American, because at the end of the day, Jews remain, as they’ve always been, a minority group within a majority society. And the problem of America is that you’re a minority group in a majority society where basically you’re accepted, although there’s significant caveats which might undermine your performance of the faith. And therefore, how do I redefine myself in such a way to have some connectedness to the traditions of the past while I make my way in America? And in the end, Jews remain a minority group, and a lot of the decisions are made for them, not by them, and Jews have to react to those types of decisions. Again, in a Christian society, their Sabbath trumps our Sabbath.

You know, the pre-modern Jew has it relatively easy to remain tied to his or her faith, because there’re no options, no alternatives. It’s easy to remain Jewish. It may not be so easy to live, but it’s easy to remain Jewish. America is the opposite scenario. Acceptance as a minority group in a majority society comes with a price. The price is, I have to make some sort of changes. And it’s a difficult task.

***

GUROCK’S FACULTY PROFILE: https://www.yu.edu/faculty/pages/gurock-jeffrey

Professor Jeffrey S. Gurock is Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and former chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society. Gurock served from 1982 to 2002 as associate editor of AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORY, the leading academic journal in that field. He is the author or editor of eighteen books. His works include A MODERN HERETIC AND A TRADITIONAL COMMUNITY: MORDECAI M. KAPLAN, ORTHODOXY AND AMERICAN JUDAISM (Columbia U. Press, 1997). In 1998, A MODERN HERETIC… was awarded the bi-annual Saul Viener Prize from the American Jewish Historical Society for the best book written in that field. Gurock’s book, JEWS IN, GOTHAM: NEW YORK JEWS AND THEIR CHANGING CITY ( NYU Press, 2012) received the “Book of the Year Award” from the National Jewish Book Council. His most recent book is THE JEWS OF HARLEM:THE RISE, DECLINE AND REVIVAL OF A JEWISH COMMUNITY (NYU Press, 2016).

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