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The German-speaking immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century and the ideas and culture they brought with them from their native lands had an indelible impact on the American Jewish experience. From the beginning of their arrival in sizeable numbers in the 1840s, German Jews had to face the same challenge as their Sephardic predecessors of encountering a new language and mainstream culture—the question of negotiating which elements of their existing identities to adapt in the United States and which to be sure to maintain was especially fraught for Jewish immigrants when their native culture and traditions were so inextricably bound to their distinctive faith. The special status of Jews throughout European history and Judaism’s long and often troubled relationship with Western Christian culture could not simply disappear even in the officially tolerant United States: well into the nineteenth century, American Jews were dealing with and accounting for the wide range of attitudes, from the bigoted to the exoticizing to the well-meaning, that Gentiles held toward their religion.

Some of the changes wrought in American Judaica by this middle wave of immigration are more obvious: the number of German-language works printed in the United States spiked starting in the late 1840s, as did the number of Judaica imprints overall as more Jews arrived and established more congregations and organizations as they settled into life in the New World. Other important developments are less immediately visible but a crucial part of the story nevertheless, as the entrenched, largely Orthodox Sephardic community of the United States was met with various new ideas springing from the nascent German Reform movement and carried to America by the many foreign-born rabbis who became prominent on the American Jewish national scene and the ordinary congregants clamoring for a more modern and accessible form of Judaism alike. Tracing the history of Judaica leads irrevocably to an investigation of the history of the American Jewry itself, and it becomes clear in doing so that the thirty-five years from 1841 to 1876 were a crucial transition period that laid a great deal of the foundation for modern American Judaism and prepared the Jewish population of the United States for the great changes that were just about to land on its shores in the form of the famous migration waves of the late nineteenth century.

A copy of John Gorham Palfrey’s Academical Lectures on the Jewish Scriptures and Antiquities, featuring a series of menorahs on the bindings. The work was published in four volumes between 1838 and 1852. [catalog record]

American Judaism | Ancient History and the End of the World | Evangelizing, at Home and Abroad | Jewish Stories | Biographical Works | In Their Own Words | Popular Literature | Children's Literature

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