“An important beginning to understanding the truth over myth about Judaism in American history” (New York Journal of Books), Steven R. Weisman tells the dramatic story of the personalities that fought each other and shaped this ancient religion in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The struggles that produced a redefinition of Judaism illuminate the larger American experience and the efforts by all Americans to reconcile their faith with modern demands. The narrative begins with the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam and plays out over the nineteenth century as a massive immigration takes place at the dawn of the twentieth century.
First there was the practical matter of earning a living. Many immigrants had to work on the Sabbath or traveled as peddlers to places where they could not keep kosher. Doctrine was put aside or adjusted. To take their places as equals, American Jews rejected their identity as a separate nation within America. Judaism became an American religion.
These profound changes did not come without argument. Steven R. Weisman’s “lucid and entertaining” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) The Chosen Wars tells the stories of the colorful rabbis and activists—including Isaac Mayer Wise, Mordecai Noah, David Einhorn, Rebecca Gratz, and Isaac Lesser—who defined American Judaism and whose disputes divided it into the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches that remain today. “Only rarely does an author succeed in writing a book that reframes how we perceive our own history. The Chosen Wars is...fascinating and provocative” (Jewish Journal).
Focusing mainly on the 19th century, this expertly told history from Weisman (The Great Tax Wars) explores conflicts between tradition and modernity within Judaism that first played out in Charleston, S.C., and still resonate today. When Charleston's Congregation Beth Elohim was reopened in 1841 after a fire, its members confronted some major proposed changes: the addition of an organ and the elimination of some traditional doctrines (such as the belief in a messianic redeemer). The innovations did not sit well with everyone, and the dispute eventually ended up in court. Weisman traces how these same controversies played out regionally and nationally, primarily through the experiences of Albany rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, whose campaign for reform eventually led to a fistfight during Rosh Hashanah services between his supporters and detractors. Colorful incidents like this add flair to the serious subject matter. For Weisman, the lesson of the history is that "Jews should be unafraid to stand up for how they want to pursue their varied religious paths towards meaning" and that the "courageous examples" of those who did so in the past should give hope to the present generation. Anyone interested in American Judaism will be enlightened by this lucid and entertaining history.