The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 set off the era of the Jewish Migration that continued into the 16th and 17th century. The recapture of Brazil by Portugal in 1654 sent many Jews to sail through the Dutch region (from the Caribbean up to New Amsterdam) marking the start of the Jewish community in North America. Although their numbers in the American population hardly exceeded a tenth of one percent, Colonial Jews established patterns of communal that has lasted to date. They lived in cosmopolitan port cities and organized themselves into communities centered on their religious practices and synagogues. (Nobert, 2011, Pg. 13) Their population was high in ports cities such as Newport and New York due to their opportunities for trade and commerce.
The American Revolution presented the opportunity for Jews in America to assert their principles of freedom, especially their religious freedom and democracy alongside other minority groups. The 19th century saw the unification of Judaism strengthen itself against the pre-dominantly Christian religion in the American religious marketplace. Although the Jew’s in America did not register with the state like their counterparts in Europe, they practiced Judaism individually and communally. Thus, American Judaism resulted in religious practices that are both pluralistic and voluntaristic in a strategic effort to balance the sometimes-conflicting traditional Jewish demands with the American norms (Sharot, 2011, Pg. 7).
There are different cultures and traditions among the Jewish subgroups. The Ashkenazic Jews are the descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe, Germany and France while the Sephardic is descendants of those from Portugal, Spain, the Middle East and North Africa. The Mizrachi Jews descend from the Middle Eastern and North African Jews while those from Yemen, Ethiopia and the Oriental region constitute the other subgroups. Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 saw many Jews being absorbed into the existing Muslim Mizrachi communities of the Middle East and Northern Africa. In comparison, many early Jewish settlers (Colonial Jews) in North America were Sephardic.
The mid 1800s and early 1900s saw a growth in the number of Ashkenazic Jews following their migration from Eastern Europe and Germany to escape the Holocaust (between 1930s and 1940s). During this time, the Ashkenazim Jews faced persecution for their religious beliefs and their ethnic heritage. The Nazi German soldiers under the command of Adolf Hitler in a nationwide ethnic cleansing perpetrated the Holocaust (Robinson, 2000, Pg 13). Thus, they lost their family and economic status when they were refugees and those who managed to escape fled to America. Immigrant Jews faced discrimination in their early years in America since they were socially incompetent in the American way of life. The fact that most of them were refugees means that they had to start rebuilding their fortunes from scratch. They were of ill health, lacking financial capability, and they arrived in great numbers, which exceeded the existing Jewish population. Nevertheless, as time went on, the discrimination against them declined, and the Jews gained prominence in their social and economic circles after World War II.
The development of Jewish Subcultures and the Reforms
The Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews represent two major distinct subcultures in the Jewish culture due to variations in traditions and practices such as the foods eaten when observing holidays. The Sephardic Jews integrate better into local cultures than the Ashkenazic Jews who flourished in isolation (either voluntarily or otherwise) in Christian lands. Despite Yiddish being the predominant Judaic language, it stems from the Ashkenazic culture while the Sephardic Jews use the Ladino language. The Arabic and Greek cultures influence the Sephardic Jews traditions while the German and Hebrew ancestors influence the Ashkenazic ones. Until the early 1800s, the Sephardic Jews were the major subdivision of Jews in America but increase in trading contacts and persecution of Jews in Central and Northern Europe pushed the Yiddish Jews into Northern America. The growth of the Yiddish/ Ashkenazim community in large commercial cities eventually overtook the Sephardic pop (Ariel, Pg.12).
The 18th century saw many advancements in the socio-political sphere and religious one as well. Europe became more secular, and democracy was popular. Scholars and rabbis such as Nachman Krochmal (Jewish scholar) and Abraham Greiger (German rabbi) proposed evaluating the Torah and adjusting Jewish values to promote moral law and monotheism. This marked the Reform Judaism era. This era resulted in the reconstruction of Jewish ideals by downplaying them in favor of the European culture. For example, the language used in worship services departs from Hebrew (which is the tradition) in favor of English (the contemporary). The Reform movement believes in the freedom of an individual to decide what to believe in from the Torah rather than blindly follow its teaching. The argument being that the Torah is a compilation of philosophical and cultural practices developed over time, thus, is as guidelines that assists an individual in their search for God.
Another school of thought is the Conservative movement, which arose from the tension between Reformist and the Orthodox Jews. Its main teaching was the adaptation of Jewish law without departing from the teachings of the Torah. It gave rise to another school of thought, the Reconstructionist movement who believe in the reconstruction of Judaism to fit the contemporary ideals. The last is Zionism. Though it is a secular movement (motivated by politics), it is founded on the belief of all Jews returning to Zion (modern day Palestine). In the early 1900s, Jews underwent a revival and the active radicals of the time to reshape their beliefs in a way that their practices their culture and interacted with their surrounding communities. This Jewish Renewal was carried forward to recent times with a similar take on transforming their identity as Jews. This Renewal caters for individuals who felt left out of the old traditions but still wanted to identify as Jews.
Understanding the Jewish life of an observant Ashkenazic American Jew
Robinson (2000, pg. 12- 34) notes that when a Jew prays, he/ she channels three tributaries of the spiritual river in time. The first is his/ her personal history into prayer. The second is the customary ways of worship, and the third is the litany of prayer passed on by their ancestors. Jewish worship relies heavily on its history, with the study of the sacred text being a key part of worship. Jews read the Torah (The Word of God) throughout the year in a cycle that seeks to shed light on the nature of God and respect His awe. The study of the Torah utilizes the B’rakhah while the Sh’ma is a recitation of the biblical text from the book of Deuteronomy. The Talmud is a bible commentary compiled for use in weekday morning services. However, the importance of the synagogue and Shabat has been lost on the American Jews.
Since the 1900s, the American Jewish community has seen the secularization of its values. In the early 19th century, the Jewish community center gained prominence as a vital nonsectarian partner to the synagogue. These centers used a model similar to the Hebrew Association of Young Men. In the 1920s, professionals that sought to acquire American values such as self-development and humanism dominated the Jewish centers. (Samuelson, 2013, Pg. 36) Today, many American Jews live in Jewish communities as an outward sign of their identity but their association with the synagogue and community centers is not as popular. One example of this is in their observance of traditions. The Talmud gives the Minhagim importance, but the scope and definition differ within the subcultures. The Ashkenazim has halakhically binding practices that are sometimes different from other subgroups. The Halakhah gives a guide of the regulation that the people should follow (Sharot, 2011, Pg. 32).. The division between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardic liturgical practice began in the medieval time. The Sephardic includes the use of poetic prayers while the role of the rabbi changed as well.
Perhaps one of the most iconic practice of the Jews is the observance of holidays and rituals by having a ritual calendar. It ensures that one takes time out his/ her normally hectic life to reflect on God without losing the meaning of the festival/ holiday celebration. Contemporary rabbis also use the Torah to define the acceptable definitions of work that come the traditional law on working during religious celebrations. In this way, only work done is to enhance the holiday/ celebration, a good example is cooking. One can only prepare food that will be eaten that day and not make excess food with the purpose of storing it for later use. Thus, the Sabbath and similar holidays ensure individuals get quality time to rest and break from the monotony of work (Robinson, 2000, pg. 85). Jewish traditions stem from the practices of Judaism, which are the preserve to date. In addition to the integration of their children in the American way of schooling, many Jewish parents ensure their children attend congregation school to learn about their culture.
Traditional Jewish Practices and the Contemporary Jews
While many texts exist to explain the practices of the Jews, few explain the why (Robinson, 2000, pg. 13). The problem this causes is that contemporary Jews have trouble finding that school of thought to follow despite the Torah being the anchor of the religion. In this section, we will examine the teachings available to modern day Jews and compare them to the expectations of Ashkenazim.
Reform Judaism teaches the observance of the Torah up to the level an individual think best suits him/ her. This promotes the perception that traditions are not binding since they are just cultural rather a religious identity. (Samuelson, 2013, Pg. 64) Many reformists do not strictly observe the Sabbath, nor do they value the halakha or the kashruth (these practices seem outdated and out of touch with the modern times). Thus, religion it loses meaning in favor of contemporary practices that can substitute its ethnocentric nature since people do not see its value. However, the commitment of the orthodox does not quite provide a well-rounded religious identity. While following the teachings of the Torah, these laws may cause misunderstanding and hurt the feelings of other people we interact with unintentionally. For example, the Torah forbids an observant man from greeting a woman by hand. Suppose the woman I question has no information on this law and the mad refuses to greet her, her outstretched hand becomes a source of ridicule and embarrassment from the people around her. Therefore, the commitment of the orthodox can fall into the extremist bandwagon.
The Sephardic principles provide a balance between the old ways and keeping an open mind due to the influence of science and modernity of the Greeks and Arabs. The Zionist movements supported the restoration of the disregarded books of prayer in the Union Prayer Book, but much of its power was politically motivate thus it lost its sphere of influence. Therefore, in terms of organization leaves the Reconstructionist as the most organized movement. The Jewish community centers retain their importance as a resource center that cates for communal needs. It has a greater commitment to gender equality than the Reform. Reconstructionism arose from the reconstruction of the tradition values and borrowed heavily from the Reform movement; it can push for important changes. One such example the inclusion of girls in the bat mizfah celebration created by Kalpan and pioneered by his daughter, she was also the first woman to school attend the RRC (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Therefore, the popularity of the havurot is an example of a community that not only fellowshipped together, but also lived together is an example of how young alienated Jews found their sense of belonging. This established a Jewish Renewal that borrows from the 1960s radical activism. Their appeal to the modern day Jew is their adherence to the traditional Jewish circles of influence (Sharot, 2011, Pg. 32). However, they cannot take credit for all the reformation. The 70s saw the first gay and lesbian synagogue come into being in America and probably the whole world. Today there are several more such synagogues spread out in the country. By having their umbrella bodies, this congregation has ensured that despite their divergent beliefs in sexuality, they share in a similar liturgy as their more traditional counterparts. Although the Jewish law observed remains rooted in the Torah, it is more accommodating to women in that women can lead a service but some duties such as the Kaddish and Barekhu require men to perform them. Rabbi Weiss was among the pioneers who embraced and promoted women’s quest to have active roles in religious services.
Today modern Jews face the identity crisis because they live in a time when a pluralistic environment is the norm. The older generation raised in the Conservative model, a time when the community and synagogue formed the core of their values paved way for their children to reconstruct their sense of community because synagogues nowadays are less impersonal. Therefore, contemporary Jews ascribe to the movements that they believe in and use this together with their religious communities to maintain their religious relationship with God and celebrate their culture.
Ariel, David S.. What do Jews believe?: the spiritual foundations of Judaism. New York: Schocken Books: , 1995. Print.
Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: a complete guide to beliefs, customs, and rituals. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. Print.
Samuelson, Nobert. Jewish Philosophy, A Historical Introduction. NY: Continuum, 2013. Print.
Sharot, Stephen. Comparative perspectives on Judaism and Jewish identities. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011. Print.