A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him profusely and offers to give him a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in and the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks. “Why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I never go to.”
It’s an old joke, but as Marc Lee Raphael shows in “The Synagogue in America: A Short History” (NYU Press), the phenomena of inter-shul rivalry and congregational splitting are quite a bit older. In 1825, for instance, some of the members of New York City’s Shearith Israel, the oldest synagogue in America, decided to break away and start a new congregation. Their stated reasons, Raphael notes, sound very contemporary — “complaints that would echo and reecho within various congregations in the following two centuries.”
When Shearith Israel was built in downtown Manhattan, in 1695, the city’s Sephardic merchants all lived nearby. But by the 19th century many Jews had moved away, to what were then the suburbs, and found Shearith Israel “very far from the convenience of a considerable number of our brethren.” Besides, the Sephardic population had given way to new Ashkenazi immigrants from Germany and Poland, who found “it difficult to accustom [themselves] to the Portuguese minhag.” The seceders built an imposing new synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun; but apparently it wasn’t good enough, because just three years later a group of Jews split from B’nai Jeshurun to found their own congregation, Ansche Chesed. Both of those shuls still exist, almost 200 years later, but after several incarnations they’re now on the Upper West Side.
This little episode demonstrates all the forces that would continue to drive the evolution of the American synagogue, down to the present day. Shuls follow Jews: geographically, when the Jewish population moves to new neighborhoods and cities; demographically, when new Jewish immigrants import different ways of praying; and theologically, as American Jews change their understanding of how and why they practice Judaism. In this short book, Raphael, a distinguished historian of American Judaism, uses congregational archives, rabbis’ sermons, prayer books and other ground-level sources to fill out a basically familiar historical outline. It starts in the 17th century with the first American synagogues, founded by immigrants from Portugal by way of Holland or the Dutch colonies. By the time George Washington was inaugurated, in 1789, there were six Sephardic congregations in the United States — in New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah, Charleston and Richmond.
The second phase in American Jewish history began in the 19th century, when immigration from Germany and Central Europe brought tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews to the country. Almost immediately, they began reforming traditional Jewish practice — though, as Raphael shows, not all adopted the name or ideology of Reform Judaism. Raphael lists 20 popular changes that became widespread between 1850 and 1890. They range from the aesthetic (using an organ, replacing the shofar with a cornet) to the linguistic (reading the haftorah in English) to the calendrical (eliminating the second day of holidays, scheduling evening services later on Fridays).
But what “definitively moved a synagogue out of the ‘traditional’ realm and firmly, incontrovertibly, into that of Reform” was changing the siddur, by eliminating or shortening prayers, or translating them from Hebrew into German or English. As early as 1857, the Reform leader Isaac Mayer Wise produced a prayer book, “Minhag America,” which aimed to be “thoroughly American, republican, and cosmopolitan — every man of any creed can now pray with us.” Any creed included Christians; in fact, Raphael shows that some Reform rabbis were so well known for their sermons that they attracted as many gentile listeners as Jews.
Edward Nathan Calisch, the rabbi who led Richmond’s Beth Ahabah from 1891 until World War II, serves as Raphael’s example of the ideal Reform clergyman. In his pursuit of an Americanized Judaism — a religion for “Americans who happen to be Jews” — Calisch did away with the kipa, the bar mitzvah, the chuppah at weddings, Friday night Kiddush and almost all Hebrew prayers. His most popular sermon identified Jewish heroes with American heroes, casting “George Washington as a modern Joshua, Thomas Jefferson as a modern Moses, Benjamin Franklin as a modern Solomon, Andrew Jackson as a modern David,” and so on down to George Mason.
There is something ludicrous, even self-abasing, about all this, and Raphael writes about Calisch with notable irony. But classical Reform Judaism was trying to answer, as honorably as it could, the same problem faced by all Jewish congregations and denominations. This was the problem of how to pray in a way that felt honest in both Jewish and modern, American terms. As Raphael shows throughout “The Synagogue in America,” this was a matter of style even more than of substance. The key word in synagogue debates from the 19th century on was not Orthodoxy or Reform, tradition or modernity, but decorum. To 19th-century German-American Jews, a traditional Jewish prayer service did not seem decorous enough: It lacked the choir, organ, pulpit, and reverential hush that made high Protestant churches so imposing.
In the 20th century, Raphael shows, the concern for decorum was a major driver of the evolution of Conservative Judaism. When Eastern European Jews began to arrive in the United States in the hundreds of thousands, starting around 1880, they did not want, and were not wanted by, the socially elite Reform congregations. But within a generation, the descendants of these immigrants felt the need for synagogues that preserved more of Jewish tradition than Reform wanted to, yet testified in concrete ways to the Americanization of their own tastes and values. A shul became Conservative in the 1920s by adopting many of the same changes that made a shul Reform in the 1820s: mixed seating, English prayers, late Friday services. The justification for these changes was not doctrinal but, in the words of one New York rabbi in the 1920s, a matter of “dignity and decorum and beauty.”
The irony is that this growing concern with dignity — with what religion should look and feel like — went along with a decrease in actual Jewish knowledge. It may have been cacophonous when, in an Orthodox shul, each worshipper entered at a different time and started praying at his own pace; but it was also a sign that people actually knew the Hebrew prayers and what they meant. A Conservative congregation singing in unison, or a Reform one sitting reverentially while a choir sang, may have looked more dignified, but they understood far less. This was the vicious circle of assimilation: The less Hebrew that American Jews knew, the more English was used in synagogue; but the more English was used in synagogue, the less reason Jews had to learn Hebrew. “The Jews to whom we minister are ignoramuses when it comes to the elemental facts of Hebrew,” said one rabbi on the commission charged with writing a new Conservative prayer book — and that was in the 1930s.
In the last 30 years, Raphael writes, all denominations have moved toward a greater fidelity to tradition: Reform services now use more Hebrew, and the standard of observance for Orthodox shuls has become markedly more rigorous. (In the 1950s, it was common for Orthodox congregants to drive to synagogue, and mikvehs were almost unknown — there was only one in all of Westchester County.) On the other hand, less than half of American Jews identify themselves with any of the four denominations (counting Reconstructionism), and only a fraction of those attend synagogue regularly. And if most non-Orthodox synagogues are full of people reciting Hebrew prayers they don’t understand and couldn’t honestly endorse if they did, it’s no wonder. “The Synagogue in America” suggests that, in modern America, it has always been thus. Fortunately, what happens in synagogues does not constitute all, or even most, of what it means to be Jewish in America.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor of The New Republic and contributing editor to Tablet. His most recent book of poetry is “Invasions” (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). Reprinted from Tabletmag.com