German Jewish Immigrants

A Bavarian influx changed the face of American Jewry.

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Editorial Support

Often these newspapers added their own editorial encouragement to depart. "Why should not young Jews transfer their desires and powers to hos­pitable North America," observed the Allgermeine Zeitung des Juden­tums in 1839, "where they can live freely alongside members' of all confessions... [and] where they don't at least have to bear this?" In 1840 a correspondent for the Israelitische Annalen wrote: "From Swabia the emigration-fever has steadily increased among the Israelites of our district and seems about to reach its high point. In nearly every community there are numerous individuals who are preparing to leave the fatherland... and seek their fortune on the other side of the ocean."

The Allgermeine Zeitung des Juden­tums reported that all young Jewish males in the Franconian towns of Hagenbach, Ottingen, and Warnbach had emigrated or were about to emigrate. From Ba­varia, by 1840, at least 10,000 Jews had departed for the United States.

It was an emigration largely of poorer, undereducated, small-town Jews. Most were single men. Unlike their Gentile neighbors, Jewish families rarely were able to sell a homestead large enough to cover a group departure. Afterward, however, once settled and solvent in America, émigrés could be depended upon to send for brothers, sisters, fiancées. Thus, Joseph Seligmann (later Seligman), who would achieve eminence in America as an investment banker, departed Ba­varia in 1837 at age 17, sent for his two eldest brothers in 1839, and for a third brother two years after that. By 1843, seven more broth­ers and sisters and his widowed father had been brought over. It was a chain reaction of emigration.

Yet, even the trek to a European port city was a harsh challenge in the early 19th century. In common with other Germans, the early Jewish emigrants made their way by coach, wagon, or foot to staging points at Mainz and Meiningen, before continuing on to Ham­burg, Rotterdam, or Le Havre. With them they took packages of dried kosher food, and often family Bibles and prayer books....

Growing Numbers

The migration never stopped. In 1820, some 3,500 Jews were living in the United States. By 1840, their numbers reached 15,000; by 1847, 50,000. Like their predecessors, most of the immigrants gravitated to the cities. New York continued as their first choice. In 1840, 10,000 Jews lived there, in 1850, 16,000--30 percent of the American Jewish population. By 1850, 16,000 Jews lived in Philadelphia, 4,000 in Baltimore.

There were valleys as well as peaks in the new Jewish demography. Charleston's Jewish community shared in their city's dignified decline after 1820, when steam vessels became less dependent on the southern trade wind route to America. By contrast, a new and vital Jewish nucleus sprang up in the inland city of Cincinnati. From the 1830s on, paddle steamers served as the backbone of western commerce, and Cincinnati's location on a convenient bend in the Ohio River made it a natural gateway to the markets of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. By 1840 some 115,000 people lived there--a major ity of them German immigrants. Possibly 1,500 of these were Jews. By 186o, 10,000 were Jews.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.