NEW YORK — The midday talk Thursday at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y was called “How Judaism Became an American Religion,” and I thought I’d be able to sense the outrage a mile away. Surely some European Jews or Israelis or the folks from Borough Park that look and sound like they just got here from Volhynia in 1750 would have a few things to say about such a contentious statement.
But it was not to be. For starters, this was a weekday at around noon. “Not a lot of young people,” the retired woman behind me noted. “Well, who else is free in the middle of the day?” her friend asked back. “At least we’re still standing,” the retiree concluded.
This breezy attitude was shared by the two speakers. Steven R. Weisman, author of “The Chosen Wars” (which has the subtitle “How Judaism Became an American Religion”), is an agreeable, good-natured man who was the chief international economics correspondent for The New York Times, after holding numerous positions at that outlet since 1968. He is also the vice president of publications and communications at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and wrote a previous book about the history of income tax.
His interviewer was Roger Cohen, a British-South African-Jewish newspaperman and Wiseman’s old friend (“I’ve edited him, he’s edited me”) and current columnist for The New York Times.
The word “genteel” doesn’t cover it. Nothing made the two men chuckle more than a jibe like “Oh, you mean, you wanted to report both sides of a story? How very old fashioned.”
“The Chosen Wars,” an anecdote-heavy look at the roots of the Reform movement in the 19th century, is a book that’s been percolating in the back of Weisman’s mind for 10 years. He describes himself as a secular Jew from Los Angeles; his grandfather was one of the founders of the legendary Hillcrest Country Club, where Groucho Marx and Jack Benny and so many other Hollywood Jews would hang out. It was founded because all the other country clubs were restricted, but it was also the type of place that would serve bacon and shellfish.
This wasn’t just a passing remembrance. One of the key moments in Weisman’s book is the so-called “Trefa Banquet” of 1883. In Cincinnati, Ohio, at the graduation of Hebrew Union College’s first class, some shrimp, frog legs and clams somehow ended up being served. To this day no one knows how it happened, if it was a deliberate act or a caterer’s mistake, but what’s key is that the academy’s founder, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, refused to apologize for it.
Wise, the Mitteleuropean emigré, is one of the major figures in the Reform movement, and his colorful exploits are a reappearing point of fascination for Weisman. Prior to the Cincinnati incident was a fistfight on the bimah (dais) of a synagogue in Albany between Wise and his (soon-to-be-ex) congregation president.
But by this point, word of his changes began to spread, among them his suggestion that families sit together during services. It wasn’t only due to a progressive attitude toward women, but the notion of sharing the moments of faith as a family unit.
Part of the reason Reform Judaism spread quickly in the United States, Wiseman argues, was the far-flung nature of Jewish groups across the country. In the traditional mercantile role, the notion of the itinerant Jew took hold in the 19th century, and it became more difficult for families to keep to strict dietary laws or to dress demonstratively different if trade with the rest of the community was core to your business.
At around the same time you had a burgeoning school of thought completely new to Judaism: that Zion had been found, and we need not pray for “next year in Jerusalem,” because America already was the Promised Land.
There are a lot of avenues to explore in 19th century American Judaism, and “The Chosen Wars” doesn’t shy away from the rabbis prior to and during the Civil War who found Talmudic rationalizations for the perpetuation of slavery. Many New York City Jews, especially, were on the unfortunate wrong side of history here.
Wiseman suggests that a lot of this was due to economic fears (if cotton were to stop coming north, the garment industry would collapse) as well as a worry of being a minority that “rocked the boat” too much with an abolitionist fuss. Ambiguous lines from the Bible (does “servant” really mean “slave”?) were easily twisted to mean what people wanted them to mean.
While the book is about the 19th century, it echoes significantly with today, especially for those worried that different camps within modern Judaism are at intransigent odds.
“The history of Judaism is a history of conflict within Judaism,” Weisman wisely says.
In other words, it’s been this way before, and we’ve survived. What’s important is maintaining a Jewish identity that works for you — without worrying if someone else’s country club serves bacon or not.