This book surveys the evolution of American Judaism from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth, and briefly discusses contemporary Jewish life. It features profiles of the leaders who initiated the ideological and ritual changes which significantly modified traditional Jewish practices to remove barriers to full participation in civic, social, and economic life in America. Many if not most of the Rabbinic and lay leaders were influenced by their experiences in Europe which suggests that the author might have incorporated a transnational focus which makes it clear that many of the religious innovations were not developed in the US but were a response to modernization and therefore a response to that process rather than to American life. There is a greater focus on the evolution of Reform Judaism. The infamous 1883 trefa banquet marking the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College is portrayed as a major milestone, and described in great detail at two points in the book. Although the largest share of American Jews now self-identify as Reform, the book overlooks important innovations in the creation of Conservative Judaism on American soil and the modest but often significant adaptations within the Orthodox community. An important recent trend, the growth in the number of Jews who have no denomination merits discussion.
Like other culture wars, the evolution of American Judaism involved conflicts and controversies, not the least of which was the response to the trefa banquet whose diners included both traditionalists and reformers. There were significant differences of opinion among Reformers, one of whom was Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Hebrew Union College, who took a number of extreme positions including viewing kashrut as “stomach Judaism”; viewing Yom Kippur as “based on a fallacy”; discarding tefillin, tzitzit, Jewish divorce; and the centrality of the Messiah. Some of his contemporaries, primarily David Einhorn, thought that Wise’s positions were extreme and that traditional practices could be retained while modernizing the religion. Not mentioned in the book, but significant, is the fact that many rituals have been revived: multiple Reform synagogue websites feature their rabbis wearing prayer shawls.
The mainly nineteenth-century focus, and the limited coverage of the evolution of more traditional forms of Judaism – both Orthodox and Conservative – is based on the idea that the American Judaism Weisman describes serves as the basis for contemporary Jewish life. This includes a focus on working for social justice and “leading an ethical life.” Greater detail on the role of these two denominations would have enriched the book, since, as scholars like Jenna Weisman Joselit vividly demonstrates in New York’s Jewish Jews, both groups the modified some practices while maintaining central ideas and rituals.
There are some omissions and errors which reflect Wiseman’s negative bias toward traditional Judaism, such as his description of the decline of kashrut observance as “inevitable,” and discussions of key halachic issues as “arcane.” His brief analysis of the state of Jewish life today also reflects this bias. American Jewish life continues to evolve, in some cases incorporating ideas and customs from the broader society. Although the nineteenth century was an important time of change and exploration, the inclusion of greater detail about contemporary developments in this section of the book — the role of Chabad, youth groups, Birthright, the National Jewish Outreach Program and organizations like Partners in Torah — would have complemented this study of American Judaism.