Generation One: The Founders

It helps to have some dates in mind, but dates are arbitrary. Dating by decades is at least convenient, however, starting with our own and looking backward. Also helpful is the Bible’s generational calculus. There too we find “generations,” the generation of the flood, as the Rabbis put it, or the generation of the dispersion, meaning those who lived at history’s putative beginning, touched forever after by their failure to erect a Tower of Babel. Assume that both are myths; there never was a Noah (though there may have been a flood), and there is no Tower of Babel. But there must have been generations whose project was the kind of thing that floods and towers can explain. Live through a flood, and you never again take life’s steady course for granted. Your project is to build upon the shores of an eroded past. As for Babel, here we have the way in which our ancestors took stock of human particularity. Why should we all be different? Why are we not all one people, with one language and one scrap book of the things that made us who we are? The generation of the dispersion explains the human project that anthropologists know as culture.

Generations come and go, even by the biblical count, but when its authors think in rounded numbers, they estimate a generation as about forty years. More specifically, forty is the number used to indicate growing up. Every forty years, a new generation exercises its own turn at leadership.

So let us count back forty years from where we are today, then forty years more, and forty years more still, to get back to the first generation of the four that will concern us here. If the high-water mark of our generation is the 1990s, then Generation Three to which we are heir reached maturity in the 1950s, their parental generation left its mark from 1910 to 1920, and the first generation etched its project in the stones of time somewhere in the 1870s.

To be sure, Jews had been coming to America for a long time prior. Sefardic immigrants arrived from the Brazilian port city of Recife as early as 1654. They had moved there from Holland when the Dutch controlled the area (1630-1654), but had to leave when Catholic Portugal took it from the Dutch, and imported to it the hated Inquisition. Threatened now with criminal investigation leading to the auto da fe (burning at the stake), Jewish refugees made their way by ship to what lay still in Dutch control, the city of New Amsterdam (later New York) under the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant. Against his will, Stuyvesant admitted these first Jewish settlers, and with that act, North American Jewish history had begun.

But Sefardic founders were virtually overrun by German immigrants who began arriving shortly after 1815 when the Congress of Vienna ended the Napoleonic wars. Under Napoleon, Jews had been led to believe that all things were possible. Napoleon had convened a great council (or Sanhedrin) whose purpose it was to hail the new era in which Jews as national citizens of the Jewish faith had a place. But with Napoleon’s demise, Jewish hopes collapsed. In an age known primarily for its reactionary politics and its nascent racist doctrines, Jews were relegated once again to the margins of European life. No wonder many of them came here. Napoleonic enlightenment still ruled here in the form of Jefferson, Madison, and other early founders of American political theory. While German statesmen went about the business of returning Germany to the Germans, Jefferson outfitted Washington with neo-classical architecture that reflected universal reason common to us all. The first German Jews to arrive were thus enraptured by America’s promise. Their project, simply put, was to make it here.

European liberals tried one more time to wrest Europe from the hands of the reactionaries. When their attempted revolution of 1848 died, a second stream of German Jews admitted defeat and headed to America to join the German emigrĂ©s already here. The latter had followed the course of the revolution in the press, which reported the battles fought by democratic partisans on the ramparts of the very cities where America’s Jewish readers had once lived and whose curvatures and alleyways they knew by heart. Some even went home to Europe to usher in the messianic era that was surely on its way. When no messiah came, they washed their hands of Europe once and for all, and returned home to New York and Baltimore. This time, they were joined by the second wave of Germans just now migrating westward.

If they met on the boat across the Atlantic, these two groups of Germans would have had much in common, but something subtle divided them as well. Unlike the Jews who had left immediately after Napoleon’s defeat, the second wave brought with them the dream of German culture at its best, not just universal reason the likes of which the old-time French revolutionaries had pushed and Jefferson had echoed. They too adopted the project of making it here, but making it for them meant making it as Germans in America. Thus was born the ambivalent project of German Jewry: to make it in the new world without actually giving up the old; to be a Jew, a German Jew, but to be American also.

What it meant to be American was clear enough. Separation of church and state dictated the contours of America’s claim on people — they were citizens of a modern state, just as Napoleon had foreseen in his abortive fling with modernity. But what did it mean to be Jewish? In Europe it had many meanings: religion, certainly, but also peoplehood, ethnicity, separatist community, a way of life. America in the 1800s, however, was in love with religion. Founded by religious people in the first place, America insisted on religious identity for its citizens. By 1830, for instance, forty years before the high point of Generation One, America was in the throes of a Great Awakening. Preachers starting in upper New York State had been steadily migrating westward, gathering enormous crowds wherever they went. As the new decade dawned, the largest such gathering ever held had massed in a place called Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where Evangelical Protestantism made its greatest one-time stand. That same year, Joseph Smith announced that he had been visited by an angel with the good news that this new land of the United States was actually the land of promise, the new Israel (no less); the people he would lead were the lost ten tribes. Until the Civil War, religious consciousness would give us utopian communities in bucolic communes on the one hand and militant abolitionists for whom life was an all-out war against the devil, on the other. Thanks to Madison who had rejected any possible religion of the state, Protestantism had been splintered into warring factions, each one now a self- determined church: Maryland’s old-time Catholics, for instance, or the Methodists and Baptists who stormed the expanding American frontier making souls. Jews of the time took it as part of their project too, that they should become a “church,” American style.

Epitomizing Generation One was the founder of founders, Isaac Mayer Wise. As early as 1855, just one year after he had left Albany for Cincinnati and eight years after coming here from his native Bohemia, he had called a conference in Cleveland for the purpose of forging America’s disparate Jews into a Union. By the 1870s, the decade we have singled out as the high point for the generation whom Wise led, he tried again, and by 1875, he was the president not only of a Union of American Hebrew Congregations but also of a Hebrew Union College, whose mission it was to provide Jewish clergy just as Princeton did for Presbyterians or Harvard for Unitarians.

By 1880, the project of the German founders was largely finished. Its ideological cornerstones would be published as the Pittsburgh Platform five years later, but its institutional bastions were firmly set in place. In the 1770s, America itself was born; one hundred years later, its Jewish founders served their institutional notice that they too had arrived. Their project was successful; they had indeed made it here.