A peddler outside a Jewish grocery store in Portland, Maine, circa 1948. (Documenting Maine Jewry)

German Jewish Immigrants

A Bavarian influx changed the face of American Jewry in the mid 19th century.

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.

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.

Urban concentration also reflected a Jewish vocational pattern. As in Europe, Jews in America dealt extensively in clothing. Portable and nonperishable, clothing resisted the vicissitudes of the market. Cheap, secondhand garments were particularly merchandisable. In­deed, prior to the Civil War, trade in “old clothes” outweighed that in new clothing. As early as the 1830s, secondhand clothing became virtu­ally a Jewish monopoly.

Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.

Discover More

Eight Jewish Nobel Laureates You Should Know

These eight lesser-known Jewish Nobel laureates made groundbreaking contributions to science, culture and more.

Eight Famous Jewish Nobel Laureates

From Albert Einstein to Bob Dylan, there are many Jewish Nobel laureates who have become household names.

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.