German Jewish Immigrants
A Bavarian influx changed the face of American Jewry.
Between 1815 and the eve of the Civil War, two million German-speaking Europeans migrated to the United States. By 1875, the number would grow again by half. From the Atlantic seaboard cities to the new trans-Allegheny states, Swabian and Palatine regional dialects [of German] vied with English as a daily vernacular. As early as 1851, a group of German communities actually petitioned Congress to declare the United States a bilingual republic.
Why They Came
The initial impetus for this human tidal wave was the ruination left by the Napoleonic Wars. Subsequently, agricultural enclosures and the inroads of the early Industrial Revolution merely compounded economic chaos. From 1815 on, by the tens and hundreds of thousands, villagers and city-dwellers alike sought a new future overseas. Their destination of choice was overwhelmingly the United States.
Gottfried Duden's Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America (1829), with its vivid descriptions of American political and social opportunities, became a catalyst for hundreds of articles, essays, and books, for innumerable discussions on the New World. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, as individuals and family groups alike, Germans traveled by river barge, by horse and wagon, and by foot; piled up in North Sea port cities; jammed the docks, the streets, the poorhouses; overflowed into the countryside. If they could not afford ocean passage, they signed on as indentured servants.
Jews were among them. Indeed, well before the American Revolution, German Jews comprised the majority of Jewish settlement in the colonies. Yet their numbers in the 18th century were minuscule, and during the Napoleonic Wars their immigration stopped altogether. It did not revive until the 1820s. In common with most Central Europeans, Jews suffered from postwar desolation and the trauma of adjustment to a pre-industrial society. In backward southern and western Germany, however, particularly in Bavaria, Baden, Wurttemberg, Hesse, and the Palatinate, Jews experienced an additional refinement of political oppression. Without special letters of "protection" from their governments, they were barred from the normal trades and professions. If a Jewish youth sought to marry, he was obliged to purchase a matrikel--a registration certificate costing as much as 1,000 gulden. For that matter, even a matrikel holder had to prove that he was engaged in a "respectable" trade or profession, and large numbers of young Jews were "unrespectable" peddlers or cattle dealers. Facing an endless bachelorhood, then, many preferred to try their fortunes abroad.
No less than their Gentile neighbors, Jews were seized by the image of a golden America, "the common man's utopia." They, too, read the numerous guide- and travel-books then being circulated by shipping agents and United States consulates. More important, they read and endlessly discussed letters from relatives and friends in the New World or letters published in the German-Jewish press.