Commentary Magazine


Early American Jewry, by Jacob R. Marcus

Jews In The Colonial Era
Early American Jewry.
by Jacob R. Marcus.
Jewish Publication Society of America. Vol. I, 301 pp, $3-50. Vol. II, 594 pp, $4.00.

 

The history of Colonial America has an intrinsic importance; it was in the Colonial period that our national institutions began to take form. Unfortunately, other considerations have often obscured our view of it. Thus for many groups Colonial history became the touchstone by which they demonstrated their sense of belonging in America. Since the 1890′s, a host of ethnic societies have pursued the quest for pre-Revolutionary ancestors. Devoted as their labors have been, their filiopietistic zeal has also produced distortions in our understanding of the beginnings of modern American institutions.

The Jews have been altogether characteristic in this respect. Investigation of the Jewish past in America has always reached back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The careers of the handful of Jews then living in the New World were often overladen with myth out of the desire to justify the group’s place in American life.

We must therefore welcome from the pen of Professor Marcus a study that comes as close to being definitive as we are likely to have. Professor Marcus has mastered the corpus of existing sources; has handled this material with moderation and sobriety; and he has judiciously put together an accurate account of this phase of the American past that is not likely to be modified substantially so far as its facts are concerned. New data from American and European archives may fill out occasional details in his narrative. But the work as a whole will stand for a long time.

Professor Marcus’s account falls into two unequal parts. The first, which takes up all of the first volume and more than half of the second, is a detailed study, colony by colony, of whatever Jews are known to have lived in America before 1790. Beginning with Canada and moving southward from province to province through Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, the book exhaustively describes the development of Jewish settlement in each area. The account is meticulous and is enriched with copious quotations from sources often hitherto unpublished.

This section of the book is factual and uninterpretive. Occasionally it touches on familiar material in a fresh and enlightening way; there is, for instance, a judicious and probably definitive account of the career of Haym Solomon in the second volume. Occasionally relatively obscure and hitherto neglected personages are dealt with. But its detail and thoroughness make every part of the work useful.

The disadvantage of this treatment derives from its method. The first part of the work is an accumulation of details, and often it reads that way. It lacks generalization and will prove unexciting to those who are not particularly concerned with the problems on which it touches.

No doubt Professor Marcus himself felt the force of this possible objection. The second part of his study, the last half of Volume Two, comes a long way towards meeting it. Six chapters of “Survey and Retrospect” go back over the same ground, but from a generalized rather than from the particular point of view. These pages treat the coming of the immigrants, their religious and communal organization, their cultural and philanthropic activities, their class composition and social situation, their acculturation, and their struggle for political equality. And in a brief summary conclusion Professor Marcus presents his views on the meaning of the whole process.

These generalizations are often enlightening. Unfortunately they often repeat material given in the first part of the book. The work as a whole would no doubt have profited from the integration of its two sections; the generalizations, withheld to the end, would have strengthened the narrative.

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The picture presented of early American Jewry is clear in its outlines. There were never more than a handful of Jews in the Colonies. At the time of the Revolution it would appear they numbered no more than two thousand five hundred.

These folk were not transferred to the New World by any mass movement; they were individuals who moved from Europe as a result of accidental, personal displacements. By and large they drifted easily into the main currents of American life. They made use successfully of their mercantile training and their dispersion through the Colonies reflected the nature of their commercial interests. They encountered few pressing group problems. Although the religious liabilities that existed in Europe had been, in law, transplanted to the other side of the Atlantic, they seemed to have imposed no genuine burden on the Jews who came to the New World.

By the end of the 18th century these Jews were at home. Although their numbers did not grow and they were altogether unaggressive, they then held an established place in American life.

What then was the significance of the history of these few scattered fugitives? Its larger meaning lies in its relation to the much greater waves of migration that followed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The reception and the adjustments of the millions of Jews who arrived in the United States after 1800 were intimately conditioned by the earlier experience of the few hundred who had already arrived here. The decay of traditional communal institutions and the emergence of new forms, for instance, shaped the way in which the later arrivals built their own cultural and social organizations. In the same way the Colonial struggle for political equality significantly influenced the developments of the 19th century.

These are problems probably outside the scope of Professor Marcus’s study; he touches on them only casually and without any effort at rounded answers. The task of evaluating this experience in its larger context is therefore yet to be performed. But in the execution of that task, Professor Marcus’s volumes will have enduring value.

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