The middle decades of the nineteenth century can be an easily neglected part of the American Jewish story—too far removed from the glamor of the Revolution, too dominated by the sectional disputes that culminated in the Civil War. These years are nevertheless crucial to an understanding of American history as a whole, and American Jewish history in particular. The 1840s open with an American Jewry still dominated by the descendants of the first seventeenth-century Sephardic immigrants to the United States; the nation’s centennial in 1876, however, sees a much larger and more diverse Jewish population on the eve of the arrival of millions of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from central and eastern Europe. These two immigration events, one occurring well before 1840 and the other after 1880, often overshadow the intervening decades, and their dramatic differences in size and character can make them seem irreconcilable, impossible to locate them both on a single continuum of history. In order to understand how both of these well-studied waves of Jewish immigration form part of a cohesive narrative of American Jewish history, it is necessary to examine the intervening decades and the lesser known but vitally important immigration of Jews in consequence of the 1848 European Revolutions and other factors. This period of transition advanced the processes of change and adaptation that would help define Jewish American culture.
Within the American Antiquarian Society’s collections are a continually expanding range of Jewish voices and stories from the mid-nineteenth century; what is presented here is just a small sample, intended to inspire further research and acquisitions. Featured Items are grouped by subject to provide historical context. A Geography of Religious Life was grafted using descriptions of AAS’s holdings for many Jewish institutions across the United States. Building the Collections reveals the many ways AAS collections continue to thrive and grow by featuring some of the Society’s recent acquisitions in 2016.