Modern Jewish History 101

Modernity did not affect all Jews at the same time or in the same way. The replacement or supplementing of religious community with a national affiliation as their primary allegiance was directly linked to the modernization of the societies in which they lived. Jews living in France experienced modernity sooner and in a different fashion than their co-religionists in Yemen or Russia. Still, the struggle to become part of the modern nation state was a key part of the process for Jews everywhere. At the heart of this struggle were questions of identity–what it menapoleonans to be a citizen, and a Jew.

The Early Modern Period

Historians in their periodization of Jewish history have come to refer to the gradual process by which modern conditions affected Jewish life as the “early modern” period. These characteristics include nationalism, capitalism, population increase, and, most notably, legal emancipation (the granting of civil rights) and liberalism. Scholars have long debated which factors proved determinative in the substantive beginning of modern Jewish history.

The Story

Jewish reactions to the promise of citizenship (and thus political, and hoped-for social, emancipation) varied. Many Jews embraced the promise of emancipation, by acculturating to become Russians (Germans, Italians…) “of the Mosaic faith,” while others sought to change the terms, pursuing alternatives like Zionism, socialism, and immigration to Palestine or the United States. The Holocaust struck a significant blow to the citizenship ideal. The destruction of European Jewry led to a realignment of world Jewish leadership in the postwar period, putting Israel and the United States at the helm of world Jewry.

Religion and Culture

The freedom of individuals to study, explore and invent in the modern period resulted in Jewish cultural and religious innovation. The emergence of modern denominationalism, for example, attests to the variety of approaches that Jews devised as a response to the identity question. The formation of new kinds of Jewish organizations, like synagogue sisterhoods and university Hillels, demonstrates the quest to create new kinds of religious community.

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