Author Archives: Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan Sarna

About Jonathan Sarna

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. His new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available.

Saying New Things About Old Historical Episodes

When I first anounced that I was writing a book about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11, the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history, colleagues were skeptical. “Can there be anything new to say about the subject?” a good friend asked.

Although I pointed out that not one single book had ever been written on the topic, and that nobody had looked at it afresh in many decades, friends wondered aloud whether I was making a mistake. Wasn’t the chapter on General Orders #11 in Bertram W. Korn’s
American Jewry and the Civil War
, published in 1951, the accepted account of the subject? Why waste my time on an event that had already been written about before?

There were, of course, good reasons to re-examine the subject. First of all, a host of new documents had become available thanks to the publication of 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. They shed new light both on General Orders #11 and on Grant’s subsequent relations with Jews. Second, Grant’s entire career is currently being re-examined by scholars. The image of the drunken, coarse and corrupt general and president — largely manufactured in the twentieth century by opponents of Grant’s benevolent policy toward African Americans during Reconstruction — is giving way to a new image of a fair-minded, far-sighted humanitarian, one of the finest presidents in American history. Grant’s infamous order needs to be studied anew within the context of this revisionist view of his life. Finally, previous studies of Grant and the Jews ended with Abraham Lincoln overturning General Orders #11 and declaring nobly that “to blame a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”

Little has been written concerning the order’s aftermath: how it factored in the election of 1868 and how it affected Grant’s subsequent presidency. I suspected that this would yield an interesting and important story.

It did. In fact, much of what we once believed about U.S. Grant and the Jews turned out to be wrong. Yes, he had expelled Jews from his warzone and President Lincoln had overturned the order. Grant had identified a widespread practice -– smuggling — with a visible group, and blamed “Jews as a class” for what was in fact an inevitable by-product of wartime shortages exploited by Jews and non-Jews, civilians and military men alike. But it also turned out that after being excoriated for the order in the 1868 election campaign, Grant had publically repented of it. “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” he declared in a public statement. “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”

Writing the Civil War in Jerusalem

You are working on what?” most of the people I met in Jerusalem asked while I was writing
When General Grant Expelled the Jews
. Jerusalem is not where scholars generally go to write a book on the Civil War, even if it involves Jews. The majority of Israelis, in fact, know nothing about Ulysses S. Grant (one of them asked me how

he felt about Israel and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.) Still, my wife and I consider Jerusalem our second home; my wife’s research can best be done in Israel’s National Library; and the Mandel Foundation offered me a senior fellowship during my sabbatical. So it was that I found myself writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews in Jerusalem, even as my thoughts centered on such Civil War sites as Holly Springs, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky.

Anyone who writes about Ulysses S. Grant depends upon the magnificently edited 31 volumes of
The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant
, edited by the pre-eminent Grant scholar, John Y. Simon. No complete set of those papers may be found in all of Israel. Anyone who writes about the Civil War also depends upon the 130 volumes of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, published by the Government Printing Office. I could find no set of those records in Israel either. Once upon a time, that would have doomed my project as simply not doable in Israel. But no longer. For the Grant Papers, the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion and numerous other primary and secondary sources required for my study have in recent years all become available via the internet. A high speed connection brought them directly to my desk-top in Jerusalem. Once, when I needed unique materials from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, they kindly scanned them for me and sent them to my inbox the next day.

In time, all of the impediments to researching the Civil War while living in Jerusalem disappeared. To me, of course, this proved a great relief. I actually managed to submit my manuscript to the publisher a few months early. At a deeper level, the experience reinforced for me how the globalization of information is democratizing knowledge by making once inaccessible materials available to anyone with an internet connection. Where one physically resides and the quality of local libraries make far less difference today than they used to.

Nowadays, as my book demonstrates, one can research even the history of General Grant’s Civil War order expelling Jews from his warzone, while living in an Israeli apartment. My Jerusalem neighbors my not have appreciated what I was studying, or why, but I feel confident that American readers will.

A Golden Age for Jews

Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).

American Judaism had actually been gaining strength since the late 1930s, partly as a form of spiritual resistance to Nazism and anti-Semitism. Now with the war over, the nation as a whole turned increasingly toward religion–a response, some believed, to wartime horrors and to the postwar threat from "godless" Communism.

"One of the most significant tendencies of our time has been the turn to religion among intellectuals and the growing disfavor with which secular attitudes and perspectives are now regarded in not a few circles that lay claim to the leadership of culture," the left-wing Partisan Review reported in 1950. It predicted that "if the present tendency continues, the mid-century years may go down in history as the years of conversion and return."

Religion All Around

In 1954, Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 it made the phrase "In God We Trust," found on coins since the Civil War, the official national motto. "Never has religion been so institutionalized, so conspicuous, so public," journalist Claire Cox concluded in a 1961 book depicting the "new-time religion" that had taken shape in America since World War II. "Never has churchgoing been so acceptable, so much ‘the thing to do.’"

Judaism played a prominent part in this conspicuous "new-time religion." As anti-Semitism declined during the postwar decades, the religion of American Jews gained widespread recognition as America’s "third faith" alongside Protestantism and Catholicism. Popular interest in Judaism burgeoned as Americans sought to learn more about this "unknown religion of our time."

Fueled by postwar prosperity, Judaism strengthened institutionally through the building of synagogues and religious schools and the development of new communal institutions, though whether Jews actually became more religious or only affiliated at a higher rate has long been disputed.

Whatever the case, religion became the major vehicle for Jewish identity, while secular Judaism as an ideology largely collapsed. Judaism also began to adapt to new environmental conditions, accompanying Jews out to the suburbs and then to sunbelt cities like Miami and Los Angeles.

Less noticeably but no less significantly, Holocaust-era immigrants began to affect American Judaism during these years. Their memories, commitments, and collective sense of obligation to those who had not survived set the stage for developments that would transform all of American Judaism, Orthodoxy in particular, for decades to come.


In the midst of these transformations, Judaism’s status as an accepted American faith won striking confirmation in a 1955 bestseller entitled, memorably, Protestant-Catholic-Jew. Written by Will Herberg, a Jewish ex-Marxist intellectual, the book argued that America had become a "’triple melting pot,’ restructured in three great communities with religious labels, defining three great ‘communions’ or ‘faiths.’"

To be an American, according to Herberg, meant defining oneself according to the new "tripartite scheme" of American religion: to be, in other words, a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew. To be anything else, he contended, "is somehow not to be an American."

The argument–for all of its manifest inadequacies (for example, Herberg practically ignored evangelical Protestants and blacks and seemed to write off non-believers, Muslims, Buddhists, and other minority faiths entirely)–captured the national imagination and shaped subsequent religious discourse. It provided a vocabulary, an explanation, and a new set of boundaries for the restructured American religion that had by then been developing for half a century.

Carrying forward the achievements of the interfaith organizations, the military chaplains, Bess Myerson [Miss America 1945, the first Jew to win that competition], Hank Greenberg [a Jewish baseball superstar], and Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind [an inspirational best-seller by a Reform rabbi], Protestant-Catholic-Jew also reaffirmed the elevation of Jews to insider status within the hallowed halls of American religion. Though Jews constituted but 3.2 percent of the total American population, they found themselves, thanks to Herberg, "enfranchised as the guardians of one-third of the American religious heritage."

Time magazine underscored that new status when it provided its readers with cover stories on Jewish Theological Seminary president Louis Finkelstein in 1951 and Hebrew Union College president Nelson Glueck in 1963.

Anti-Semites on the Run

Anti-Semites, meanwhile, found themselves placed on the defensive as Judaism’s status rose. Forced to justify their anti-Jewish prejudice in face of America’s increasingly tolerant norms, they beat a hasty retreat. "Organized anti-Semitic activity, which began to decline after the war, continued at a low ebb during the year under review," the American Jewish Year Book reported in 1950. Thirty-five anti-Semitic organizations folded completely (leaving 57 others to keep the embers of hatred warm). Between 1946 and 1950, the percentage of Americans who claimed even to have heard "any criticism or talk against the Jews in the last six months" dropped from 64 percent to 24 percent.

Thanks to federal and state legislation, pressure from returning veterans, government and media exposure (including films like Gentleman’s Agreement), and the stigma of being compared to the Nazis, discrimination against Jews in employment, housing, and daily life also markedly declined. By the early 1960s, almost all resorts and housing developments had dropped their restrictive clauses; anti-Semitic college quotas had mostly ended; and professional fields like law, medicine, and banking proved more receptive to Jews than at any time in the century.

Anti-Semitism by no means disappeared, of course, any more than nativism, anti-Catholicism, or racism did. Slurs, prejudice, and violence against Jews still occasionally flared; exclusive clubs and suburbs still attempted, in some places, to keep Jews out; and tensions, particularly involving school prayer, public celebrations of Christmas, and related issues, still managed to bring ancient animosities back to the fore.

Looking back, however, Anti-Defamation League director Benjamin R. Epstein, who had spent much of his life battling anti-Jewish hatred, described the two decades following World War II as a "period of tremendous progress" and a "golden age." During those years, he recalled, American Jews "achieved a greater degree e of economic and political security, and a broader social acceptance than had ever been known by any Jewish community since the [ancient] Dispersion."

Prosperity & Religion

It was not just in terms of their security and social acceptance that contemporaries viewed the postwar era as a golden age for American Jews; prosperity characterized the period as well. By 1955, Jews of East European background had risen "more or less to the level previously achieved by the German Jews," and economic distinctions between the earlier and later immigrants had largely disappeared.

Jews had become fundamentally middle class, their proportion in non- manual occupations exceeding that of the general population. Jews had also moved up into the professions. One study discerned a particular increase in the number of Jewish journalists, authors, engineers, architects, and college teachers, and concluded that there had been a "rapid rise in the number of Jews engaged in all intellectual occupations in recent years." Another found that the number of Jews engaged in manual labor had markedly declined. "The Jewish worker in America," it turned out, "was typically a man of one generation. He was ‘neither the son nor the father’ of a proletarian."

Religion, too, contributed to the characterization of the era as a golden age. In 1949-50, according to the American Jewish Year Book, "synagogue building continued," "membership in synagogues and affiliated associations was on the increase," "synagogue attendance was improving," "adult education was continuing to attract substantial enrollments," and "religious ceremonies were being observed in more homes with increasing regularity."

Forty percent of America’s 4.5 million Jews affiliated with synagogues, an improvement from the 1930s but still far below Catholic and Protestant affiliation rates. By the late 1950s, that figure would reach 60 percent, a figure never exceeded and the only time in the 20th century that more than half of America’s Jews were synagogue members. In Milwaukee, where about 65 percent of Jews affliated in 1960, a survey found that in just 12 years, from 1945 to 1957, the number of families belonging to synagogues leapt from 2,169 to 3,600, with Conservative and Reform synagogues scoring the most impressive gains.

"Judaism has changed," one respondent explained to researchers. "Nowadays people enjoy religion and going to synagogue." As late as 1962, surveys continued to describe the "flourishing state of the American Jewish community’s religious bodies."

Havurah Judaism

Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).


Influenced by the same “anti-establishment” restiveness (“don’t trust anyone over 30”) and expressions of minority group liberation (“Black is beautiful”) that suffused America as a whole during this time [the 1960s], Jews–especially baby boomers born after the war and now coming to maturity–also channeled their feelings of rebelliousness, assertiveness, and alienation into domestic programs aimed at transforming and strengthening American Jewish life. They worried, as so many had before them, about the future of American Judaism, fearing that it would not survive unless it changed.

In response, they sought to revitalize their own Judaism, developing bold new initiatives to show that their faith could be timely, “with-it,” mean­ingful, and in harmony with the countercultural ideas of their day. 

The Havurah Movement

Some of the most exciting and enduring of these new initiatives emerged from within the “havurah movement,” named for the separatist religious fellowships that radical Jewish pietists, mystics, and scholars had formed back in the days of the Pharisees during the late Second Temple period. The Reconstructionist movement had appropriated this term in the early 1960s in an effort to promote the creation of small fellowship circles consist­ing of Jews who were partial to the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan [the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism] and gathered on a regular basis for study, discussion, and prayer.

Later that decade, in 1968, socially active, politically liberal students concerned with “the quality of Jewish living and the desire for an integrated lifestyle” appropriated the same term for a new institution established in Somerville, Massachusetts, called Havurat Shalom Community Seminary, devoted to fellowship, peace, community, and a “new model of serious Jewish study.”

Disdaining “self-satisfied, rich suburbanites” and “smug institutions,” the new seminary, be­sides helping students to avoid the military draft, sought to meet the needs of “serious young Jews… deeply involved in honest religious search, who are quite fully alienated from Judaism by all the contacts that they have had to date.” The idea, borrowed in part from Theodore Roszak’s The Mak­ing of a Counter Culture (1968), was to jettison the bourgeois middle-class values of suburbia and to re-imagine Judaism “as a revolutionary force… [that works] toward liberation, toward greater freedom for the individual and the society.”

Finding Acceptance in the New World

Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).

A gala parade marking the ratification of the Constitution, held in Phila­delphia on July 4, 1788, celebrated this achievement [of equal treatment of Jews and other religious minorities in the Constitution]. It presented, marching together in one division, “the clergy of the different Christian denominations, together with the rabbi of the Jews [probably Jacob R. Cohen], walking arm in arm.”

The famed physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, who witnessed the unprecedented spectacle, wrote that this first-ever ecumenical parade “was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new constitution, which opens all its powers and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion.”

Though it apparently escaped his notice, when the ceremony concluded, Jews ate separately at a special kosher table prepared on their behalf. Reflect­ing English custom, this public expression of Jewish ritual behavior (even, one assumes, on the part of those who were not always so scrupulous) effec­tively defined the boundaries of interreligious relations from the synagogue community’s official perspective. Much as Jewish leaders rejoiced at the “equal footing’ that brought them politically into step with Christians under the banner of the Constitution, they exercised the right to eat apart, following the precepts of their faith, formulated to help preserve Jews as a group.

Washington & the Jews of Newport

The famed correspondence between Jews and George Washington went even further in defining the place of Judaism in the new nation. The address of the “Hebrew Congregation in Newport” to the president–composed for his visit to that city on August 17, 1790, following Rhode Island’s ratification of the Constitution–paralleled other letters that Washington received from religious bodies of different denominations and followed a custom long associated with the ascension of kings.

Jewish Spiritual Crisis

Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).

East European Jews had to contend with a religious world radically different from the one they had known across the ocean. In Eastern Europe, Jews understood that for all of the difficulties that they faced, religion defined them; it was an inescapable element of their personhood. They were taxed as Jews and drafted as Jews. Religious affiliation was stamped into their passports and noted on their official documents. When they married or divorced it was done only according to Jewish law, by rabbis authorized by the state.

Indeed, the state recognized Judaism as a legitimate minority faith. Those who sought to observe Jewish laws and customs faced almost no difficulty in doing so, while those who sought to cast off Jewish identity entirely could not do so unless they converted.

Separating State & Synagogue

The situation in the United States was entirely different. Indeed, what made immigration so dangerous, from the perspective of traditional European Judaism, was that religion in America was a purely private and voluntary affair, totally outside of the state’s purview. Nobody forced Jews to specify their religion; they were taxed and drafted as human beings only. When a Jew married or divorced in America, it was state law, not Jewish law, that governed the procedure; rabbinic involvement was optional.

Indeed, rabbis enjoyed no official status whatsoever in the United States. As a result, Judaism proved easy enough to abandon, but in the absence of state support, difficult to observe scrupulously.

Partly because of this situation, rabbis could provide immigrants with very little guidance in making the transition from old world to new. In fact, very few East European rabbis even immigrated to America in the 1880s and 1890s. Rabbi Moses Weinberger, one of these few, claimed in 1887 that in all of New York City there were no more than "three of four" rabbis with the highest level of ordination, allowing them to issue rabbinic decisions based on Jewish law–this in what was already the largest Jewish community in the world. According to another source, there were but 200 rabbis of any kind (including Reform rabbis) nationwide in 1890–fewer than one for every 2,000 Jews.

"Sheep Without a Shepherd."

From a rabbinic perspective, this was a disaster; one rabbi compared immigrants to "sheep without a shepherd." From the perspective of the immigrant "sheep," however, the absence of rabbinic "shepherds" seemed no more problematic than it was to rabbi-less American Jews of earlier eras. Indeed, the immigrants seem to have taken their newfound freedom in stride, which explains why they failed to pay or treat their all-too-scarce rabbis any better than they did.

In New York City, Rabbi Weinberger reported (based in part on personal experience) that immigrant rabbis found positions "only after a great deal of trouble and effort," and even then they lived "penuriously," their small salaries "barely cover[ingl their basic human needs." He counseled Jews of his type to "stay home."

Rabbi Abba Hayim Levinson’s experience gave credence to this advice. The poor rabbi trudged all the way up to Rochester, New York, in 1883 to offer his services to the city’s East European Orthodox community. Yet, although there was no Orthodox rabbi for miles around, Beth Israel Congregation elected him by only a single vote and then offered him a paltry salary of $150–far less (as offers many another rabbi also learned to his chagrin) than the $400 paid to the same congregation’s cantor.

In part, this mistreatment may be blamed on the fact that East European Jews were not used to paying for rabbis–back home that was the job of the government or of the organized Jewish community. Some immigrants also harbored longstanding grudges against rabbis based on bad experiences with coercive rabbinic authorities in their home countries.

Even those with no personal ax to grind found that the East European model of the rabbinate was difficult to transplant to America. In Eastern Europe, rabbis tended to define their responsibilities communally; they looked to serve all Jews in a particular territory. In America, organized Jewish communities on the European model did not exist and congregationalism ruled supreme; rabbis were expected to meet the needs of the synagogue members who paid their salaries.

Everyone a Rabbi (or No One)

Democracy, America’s entrancing egalitarian ideal, also worked against rabbis’ interests, it undermined the deferential social structure that Jews had one accepted, and it subverted rabbis’ time-honored scholarly prerogatives. Men devoid of learning and piety, even boorish hand laborers who in their native lands would likely have received scant attention, now felt themselves to be the rabbi’s equal. Some went so far as to usurp rabbinic prerogatives, setting themselves up as teachers, preachers, ritual circumcisers, and (until a change in the law made this illegal) marriage officiators.

Precisely for this reason, many a rabbi and scholar described America as an "upside down world" and recoiled from it. Even some rabbis who had come to America prior to 1900, like Rabbi Weinberger himself, later abandoned the rabbinate and went into business.

The upshot was the collapse among immigrants of spiritual life as East European Jews had traditionally known it, parallel to what had happened in the early 19th-century America, when old religious structures gave way in the face of revolutionary changes. Henceforward, latitudinarianism [freedom of opinion on religious matters] reigned supreme in Jewish immigrant circles: Jews could practice their faith as they saw fit, without rabbinic intrusion.

The best evidence of this collapse may be seen in the astonishing number of immigrant Jews who failed to attend synagogue. Numerous surveys between 1900 and 1917 found that the number of "unsynagogued" Jews exceeded the number of "synagogued" ones by a wide margin. "Out of the estimated Jewish population of one million persons, or two hundred thousand families in the United States, four-fifths are ‘unchurched,’" the American Jewish Year Book calculated in 1900. Some of these, of course, were native-born Jews, but the overwhelming majority were not.

Frontier Judaism

Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press). 

The America that Jewish immigrants from Central Europe encountered [in the 19th century] when they disembarked in coastal port cities was in the throes of economic change. What had been, outside of a few port cities, a largely subsistence economy–consisting of small farms and tiny workshops that satisfied local needs through barter and exchange–gave way during the first half of the 19th century to a market-driven economy in which farmers and manu­facturers produced food and goods that they shipped for cash to sometimes distant places.

Canals, turnpikes, and later railroad tracks linked far-separated points of the country, producing a vast national transportation network along which goods and commodities flowed.

Foot Soldiers

The result was what historians call a market revolution. Entrepreneurial values coupled with new economic and cultural resources enabled people “to make choices on a scale previously unparalleled: choices of goods to consume, choices of occupations to follow educational choices, choices of lifestyles and identities.” As we shall see, the market revolution also profoundly shaped the lives of America’s growing community of Jews. They too now made choices on a scale previously un­paralleled, ones that affected their patterns of settlement, their occupational preferences, their values and attitudes, and the practices of their faith.

jews in the westPeddlers were the foot soldiers of this far-reaching revolution. They were the proverbial middlemen who purchased goods (usually on credit) from producers and set forth to transport and market them to far-flung con­sumers, residents of America’s rapidly expanding frontier. Peddling was a difficult and tiring occupation, but it required very little capital and prom­ised substantial returns.

As the desire for goods rose among those who once found most of what they needed close to home but now pined for luxuries from faraway places, young, vigorous, success-minded immigrants rushed in to meet the burgeoning demand. Many of these immigrants–indeed, most of the 16,000 peddlers listed by the 1860 census-taker, ac­cording to one source–were Jews.

The Future of American Orthodoxy

The following article is reprinted with permission from the February 2001 issue of Shma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

“In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed,” Samuel G. Freedman announced in his widely discussed volume titled Jew vs. Jew. Freedman, himself raised as a secularist, is far from alone in his analysis. In the thirty‑five years that have passed since Charles Liebman, writing in the American Jewish Year Book, first pronounced Orthodoxy to be “on the upsurge” and concluded that it was “the only group which today contains within it a strength and will to live that may yet nourish all the Jewish world.”

Orthodoxy has emerged as the great success story of late 20th‑century American Judaism. Some of its leaders proudly proclaim themselves the winners in the race to save American Judaism, and insist that non‑Orthodox Jews, with their high rate of intermarriage, will have no Jewish grandchildren and no Jewish future

A View from History

History warns against triumphalistic claims of this sort. In the post‑Civil War era, Reform Jews believed that they would define American Judaism. The architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, called his prayer book Minhag America and, given the number of synagogues that moved into the Reform camp in his day, his vision did not seem farfetched. Many in the mid‑1870s believed as he did that Reform would in time become “the custom of American Jews.”

Of course, with mass East European Jewish immigration that did not happen and within half‑a‑century Reform Judaism had stagnated. Conservative Judaism, meanwhile, became the fastest growing movement on the American Jewish scene and it too enjoyed a moment of triumphalism, especially in the immediate post‑World War II era. But its success proved no more long lasting. In recent decades, its numbers have declined both absolutely and relatively.

The question now is whether Orthodoxy will follow the same trajectory. History, of course, does not always repeat itself, but insiders in the Orthodox world know that their movement suffers from many “dilemmas and vulnerabilities.” Indeed a symposium organized by the Orthodox Union in 1998 spoke of “a sense of triumph mixed with trepidation.” I want to focus on six reasons for this trepidation. Without discounting any of American Orthodoxy’s obvious strengths, anyone who is seriously interested in the future of American Orthodoxy needs to confront these issues.