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Religion in the American City, 1600–1900  

Kyle B. Roberts

From Cahokia to Newport, from Santa Fe to Chicago, cities have long exerted an important influence over the development of American religion; in turn, religion has shaped the life of America’s cities. Early visions of a New Jerusalem quickly gave way to a crowded spiritual marketplace full of faiths competing for the attention of a heterogeneous mass of urban consumers, although the dream of an idealized spiritual city never completely disappeared. Pluralism fostered toleration and freedom of religious choice, but also catalyzed competition and antagonism, sometimes resulting in violence. Struggles over political authority between established and dissenting churches gave way after the American Revolution to a contest over the right to exert moral authority through reform. Secularization, the companion of modernization and urbanization, did not toll the death knell for urban religion, but instead, provided the materials with which the religious engaged the city. Negative discursive constructions of the city proffered by a handful of religious reformers have long cast a shadow over the actual urban experience of most men and women. Historians continue to uncover the rich and innovative ways in which urban religion enabled individuals to understand, navigate, and contribute to the city around them.

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Antisemitism in US History  

Britt P. Tevis

Antisemitism in the United States—whether acts of violence, social exclusion, cultural vilification, or political and legal discrimination—has resulted from antidemocratic currents refracted through bigoted beliefs about Jews. Prejudiced conceptualizations of Jews positioned them as outsiders to the nation, emphasizing Jews’ refusal to accept the supremacy of Christ; depicting Jews to be racially distinct (i.e., inferior or dangerous); and imagining Jews as greedy, dirty, untrustworthy, scheming, manipulative, powerful, and dangerous. Antisemitism has consistently been (and continues to be) connected with anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. Throughout US history, non-Jews deployed bigoted ideas about Jews for personal, professional, social, and/or political gain. As a result, with degrees of variation, Jews in the United States endured personal hardships, faced collective discrimination, and confronted political intolerance.

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Religion and Labor in the 20th Century  

Matthew Pehl

America’s tremendous diversities of faith, region, and ethnicity complicate efforts to generalize relationships between religious groups and the labor movement. Americans’ historic and widely shared commitment to Christianity masks deep divisions: between white Christians and black Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between northern Protestants and southern Protestants, and between “modernist” Protestants (who view the Bible in metaphorical terms as a source of ethical guidance and emphasize social justice) and “fundamentalist” Protestants (who view the Bible literally and eschew social activism in favor of individual evangelizing). Work, class, and the role of the labor movement add extra dimensions to these complexities, which are multiplied when considering non-Christian traditions such as Judaism or the other world religious communities that have grown in the United States since the immigration reforms of 1965. Nevertheless, scholars accept a general narrative that delineates key periods, themes, and players over the course of the twentieth century. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1930s, the relationship between religion and labor was shaped by the centrality of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the labor movement, the development of a “social gospel” among northern mainline Protestants, and the massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought millions of Catholic and Jewish workers into the United States before it largely ended in the 1920s. These developments were sometimes in tension. The AFL favored craft unionism and placed a premium on organizing skilled male workers; it therefore left out many of the unskilled new arrivals (as well as African Americans and most women). Consequently, the shape of “religion and labor” formed primarily around the dynamic between the AFL and Protestant social reformers, without much regard to the large masses of unorganized Catholic, Jewish, and African American workers. These dynamics shifted in the Great Depression. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), begun as a committee within the AFL in 1934, sought the organization of entire industries—skilled and unskilled alike, and ethnic Catholics and Jews became unionized in large numbers. Even traditional racial barriers in the labor movement began crumbling in some industries. And, the labor movement expanded its geographical ambition, pushing aggressively into the South. In turn, the religious voices associated with the labor movement broadened and deepened. Labor’s new alliances with Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and southern evangelicals helped to push the ranks of organized workers to historic highs in the 1950s. This coalition has faced divisive, even disastrous headwinds since the 1960s. The strength of anticommunism, especially within religious groups, caused some religious workers to retreat from the reformist ambitions of the labor movement and sparked a conservative religious movement deeply opposed to labor and liberalism. Race became an ever-hotter flashpoint. Although religiously affiliated civil rights reformers often forged alliances with unions, the backlash and resistance to civil rights among portions of the white working class undermined the efficacy of labor unions as sources of social cohesion. Perhaps most profoundly, the economy as a whole transformed from an urban-industrial to a post-urban service model. Organized labor has floundered in the wake of these changes, and the concomitant resurgence of a traditionalist, individualistic, and therapeutic religious culture has offered the remains of the labor movement little to partner with.

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Judaism in America  

Jack Wertheimer

It is impossible to understand American Judaism without reference to its adaptation to American social mores and religious models. Among the important aspects of the American ethos that would shape Judaism in this country were voluntarism, the choice Americans enjoy whether to join or stay aloof; congregationalism, the near autonomy of each house of worship to regulate its own services; egalitarianism, which levels differences between different socioeconomic classes and eventually the genders; democratic ideals of governance; individualism and personalism, both elevating the needs and interests of each person over those of the group; moralism, the belief that the most important, if not sole, purpose of religion is to enable believers to become better human beings; and decorum, evolving conceptions of how one is to behave in a house of worship. Successive waves of Jewish immigrants initially aimed to transplant customary ways of enacting Judaism in the Old World to the New. But in time, the children and grandchildren of immigrants adapted to American religious models, thereby reconceiving synagogue functions, home practices, and everyday lived Judaism. Not only did synagogues introduce English language prayers and sermons; they also incorporated democratic norms and egalitarian ideals to varying degrees. Though laxity in the practice of religious rituals and customs by “average” Jews is hardly unique to American Jews, ideological justifications for “pick and choose” religion draw upon American conceptions of individualism and personalism. By the end of the 20th century, Do-It-Yourself Religion—the apotheosis of individualism and personalism—had triumphed in most sectors of American Judaism (with the exception of Orthodoxy)—just as it had in other faith communities. The porousness of American society, the free flow of ideas and assumptions, render it virtually impossible for religious groups, such as Jewish ones, to insulate themselves in physical or intellectual enclaves. Indeed, many—though certainly not all—controversies about reforming American Judaism have pitted traditionalists against progressives over just how much Jewish religious practices can or should accommodate to American society’s ever-evolving ethos.

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Sexuality and American Religion  

Kathryn Lofton

Both sexuality and religion are terms as vexatious to define as they can be alluring to pursue. In the contemporary period, figuring out one’s sexual feelings, identity, and preferences has become a signal aspect of self-formation. Understanding one’s religious feelings, identity, and preferences may seem less imminent, but is certainly no less complicated. Both terms cause no small amount of confusion. Clearing up some of this confusion requires speaking frankly about delicate matters, and also speaking flatly about enormously complex experiences. Popular media coverage of ecclesiastical sex scandals in America suggests that people enjoy hearing about the profanation of religious duty. Despite the observed, inferred, and accused sexuality in American religious history, or maybe because of it, eroticism suffuses narrative accounts of American religious history and descriptions of religious actors. In U.S. history, sexuality has often been a key lens through which we have understood the nature of religion, the leaders of religions, and the reason for religious commitment.

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Jewish Experience in American Cities  

Tobias Brinkmann

The history of Jewish settlement and mobility in colonial America and the United States is inextricably tied to the rise of cities. Since the earliest days of European settlement Jews have embraced American cities and profoundly shaped their economic fortunes, cultural life, and politics. During the late 19th century several expanding urban centers, above all New York City, attracted huge Jewish settlement concentrations. Concerns that Jewish life would quickly fade in the industrial city were misplaced. After World War II most American Jews left densely settled neighborhoods for the suburbs and Sun Belt cities. In the early 21st century most metropolitan areas in the United States are home to a wide range of loosely linked Jewish religious congregations and secular associations. Greater New York remains the preeminent center of American Jewish life.

Article

Women and Religion in Colonial North America and the United States  

Catherine A. Brekus

Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.

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Religion in the American City, 1900–2000  

Christopher D. Cantwell

Home to more than half the U.S. population by 1920, cities played an important role in the development of American religion throughout the 20th century. At the same time, the beliefs and practices of religious communities also shaped the contours of America’s urban landscape. Much as in the preceding three centuries, the economic development of America’s cities and the social diversity of urban populations animated this interplay. But the explosive, unregulated expansion that defined urban growth after the Civil War was met with an equally dramatic disinvestment from urban spaces throughout the second half of the 20th century. The domestic and European migrations that previously fueled urban growth also changed throughout the century, shifting from Europe and the rural Midwest to the deep South, Africa, Asia, and Latin America after World War II. These newcomers not only brought new faiths to America’s cities but also contributed to the innovation of several new, distinctly urban religious movements. Urban development and diversity on one level promoted toleration and cooperation as religious leaders forged numerous ecumenical and, eventually, interfaith bonds to combat urban problems. But it also led to tension and conflict as religious communities busied themselves with carving out spaces of their own through tight-knit urban enclaves or new suburban locales. Contemporary American cities are some of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Historians continue to uncover how religious communities not only have lived in but also have shaped the modern city.

Article

The Jewish Experience in the American South  

Josh Parshall

Jews began to arrive in the present-day South during the late 17th century and established community institutions in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, in the colonial era. These communities, along with Richmond, Virginia, accounted for a sizable minority of American Jews during the early 19th century. As Jewish migration to the United States increased, northern urban centers surpassed southern cities as national centers of Jewish life, although a minority of American Jews continued to make their way to southern market hubs in the mid-19th century. From Reconstruction through the “New South” era, Jews played a visible role in the development of the region’s commercial economy, and they organized Jewish institutions wherever they settled in sufficient numbers. In many respects, Jewish experiences in the South mirrored national trends. Jewish life developed similarly in small towns, whether in Georgia, Wisconsin, or California. Likewise, relationships between acculturated Jews and east European newcomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played out according to similar dynamics regardless of region. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Jewish life in the South resulted from Jewish encounters with the region’s particular history of race and racism. The “classical” era of the Civil Rights movement highlights this fact, as southern Jews faced both heightened scrutiny from southern segregationists and frustration from northern coreligionists who supported the movement. Since the 1970s, overall trends in southern history have once again led to changes in the landscape of southern Jewry. Among other factors, the continued migration from rural to urban areas undermined the customer base for once-ubiquitous small-town Jewish retail businesses, and growing urban centers have attracted younger generations of Jewish professionals from both inside and outside the region. Consequently, the 21st-century Jewish South features fewer of the small-town communities that once typified the region, and its larger Jewish centers are not as identifiably “southern” as they once were.

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Stephen Wise and Americanism  

Randi Storch

Over the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) devoted himself to solving the most controversial social and political problems of his day: corruption in municipal politics, abuse of industrial workers, women’s second-class citizenship, nativism and racism, and global war. He considered his activities an effort to define “Americanism” and apply its principles toward humanity’s improvement. On the one hand, Wise joined a long tradition of American Christian liberals committed to seeing their fellow citizens as their equals and to grounding this egalitarianism in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, he was in the vanguard of the Jewish Reform, or what he referred to as the Liberal Judaism movement, with its commitment to apply Jewish moral teachings to improve the world. His life’s work demonstrated that the two—liberal democracy and Liberal Judaism—went hand in hand. And while concerned with equality and justice, Wise’s Americanism had a democratic elitist character. His advocacy to engage the public on the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state relied on his own Jewish, male, and economically privileged perspective as well as those of an elite circle of political and business leaders, intellectual trendsetters, social scientists, philanthropists, labor leaders, and university faculty. In doing so, Wise drew upon on Jewish liberal teachings, transformed America’s liberal tradition, and helped to remake American’s national understanding of itself.