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What People Get Wrong About the History of American Judaism Before the Civil War

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

Years ago, Steven R. Weisman visited a friend in Israel who had grown up in a non-observant Jewish-American household like him. But, unlike Weisman, the friend had become devoutly Orthodox.

Thinking about the differences in their practice of the same religion, Weisman began to contemplate the history of American Judaism, even as his career led him to focus mostly on economics, not faith. By the time he was ready to write a book decades later, he had come to realize that America had changed Judaism, just as Judaism had changed America.

In particular, he found that freedom of religion had given Jewish immigrants in the United States the opportunity to define their religion in new and different ways, and that larger struggles about issues such as slavery forced them to confront the issues that faced the rest of the country, too. And, though late-19th-century waves of immigration often dominate the popular conception of the history of Judaism in the U.S., he also found that the story began far before most people think it did.

With the book — The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion — out this week, Weisman spoke to TIME about some of the most surprising periods his newest work covers.

The title of your book calls Judaism an “American religion.” What does it mean for a religion to be American?

As I was writing it occurred to me that would be the subtitle, because I came to realize that the Judaism that evolved in America in the 19th century, what the reformers were trying to do, was not to “reform” Judaism but rather to make it Americanized — what they established was a different Judaism from the way it was practiced before and the way it still is practiced in other countries. There’s no comparable thing in Israel or Europe or wherever Jews live, both in terms of customs and traditions and beliefs, but also intellectually.

Your book focuses a lot on the earlier side of the history of Jewish people in America, and gets into how the South was an important region in the development of an American version of the religion. That may surprise readers, especially given that the places in the U.S. with the largest Jewish populations these days are mostly in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Why is that part of the narrative not better known?

I think Jews in America tend to think that Judaism began in America with the great migration of the people who are the ancestors of most Jews living today. You sort of vaguely know there were some Jews going back to the colonial era, and that George Washington wrote a famous letter to the Jews of Rhode Island, but you don’t learn about these battles [over reform and orthodoxy] in the 1800s. I don’t know why that is. I guess it’s because maybe American Jews are uncomfortable with the fact that what was created in that era is so pivotal. It doesn’t occur to them that what happened in the previous century was so pivotal, because it happened before their ancestors came.

And numbers-wise there are just more people whose ancestors came later?

Oh yeah. The vast majority. Every once in a while you run into people who say, well, my ancestors were here before the Civil War.

You call the Civil War a turning point for American Jews. Why was that the case?

The Civil War drew American Jews into fighting and participating in the causes of the North and the South, wherever they lived. Most lived in the North but quite a lot of influential Jews lived in the South, and in some ways their status was higher in a slave society, as some scholars point out.

Comparatively, you mean?

Yes. And the war marked a great turning point because the Jews were integrated into the war effort on both sides. In some ways it’s comparable to World War II, where the second wave of Jews got integrated into the military and therefore American society in a dramatic way. At the same time, the war caused a fair amount of anti-Semitism on both sides, and the other thing that happened was Jews stood up for themselves. So when the Jews got Lincoln to rescind General Grant’s order [expelling Jews from the military district he commanded in 1862] and got the laws changed to allow Jewish chaplains to serve in the war, that was a real initial moment where Jews were not embarrassed to say, “we’re Jews and even though we’re integrated into society we want to stand up for our rights.”

You write that “in some accounts over the years, Jews have been singled out for an allegedly outsized role in slavery and the slave trade” — even though the records show that the influence of Jewish people in the slave trade wasn’t disproportionate, and that most Jewish Southerners weren’t “slaveholders on a grand scale.” So where does that idea come from?

I think it comes from more recent anti-Semitism. That’s my general impression.

It seems to me that people might focus on it because there’s an idea that Jewish people ought to know better, whether or not they actually participated, because of the biblical stories of slavery in Egypt and more recent experiences of being oppressed. So the fact that some Jewish Southerners owned slaves or just weren’t interested in abolition seems particularly bad, even if their influence in that history was relatively small.

For sure. My friend the late Roger Wilkins, before he died, I invited him to speak at my synagogue on the March on Washington, and he [said] that Martin Luther King gave the second best speech at the March on Washington, and the best speech was given by a rabbi who spoke about how it was the obligation of Jews especially to support the civil rights movement. Jews have always been associated with that cause, with Passover and the freeing of slaves. But many [antebellum] Jews, even liberal-oriented Jews, had no problem with slavery.

So how should you characterize the antebellum situation if we want to be correct?

How would I characterize it? Jews had a role in the slave trade. The really interesting histories have done a good job of confronting the truth, though only in the last 50 years.

Correction, Dec. 5:

The original illustration that accompanied this article was misidentified as an image of Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue; it was an engraving depicting a synagogue in Amsterdam and has been replaced.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com