“The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion,” by Steven R. Weisman

Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

Recounting the ways the ancient faith redefined itself in the 18th- and 19th-century United States.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

There’s the story of the rabbi who went to a Jewish community center mixer to welcome newcomers. When someone asked him what kind of rabbi he was, he answered: “Jewish. I’m a Jewish rabbi.”

Was he making a joke? Didn’t he know that the questioner wanted to know if he was Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Hasidic, or some other variation of the religious spectrum? Of course, he knew. It was a serious answer, but with a bit of a wink.

The story that Steven R. Weisman tells in The Chosen Wars is, among other things, the story of the search for a unified Judaism responsive to time and place and seeking to be confident about a Jewish future. It’s the story of growing opportunities for Jews to enter cultural mainstreams and the costs and consequences of admission. It is a story told with power and precision.

Steven R. Weisman

After sketching the earliest arrivals of Jews in New Amsterdam (1654) and examining Jewish life in the Colonial period, Weisman explores the peaks and valleys of migration — most often peaks — that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. He details the early prominence of Charleston, South Carolina, as a place where immigrant Jews could build a vibrant community.

He examines the interplay between becoming an American with almost unimaginable rights and holding on to the traditional responsibilities of Jewish life as it had existed in past centuries. Along the way, Weisman explores the vying strands of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish culture.

Part of the process of fitting in had to do with imitating what Americans expected in houses of worship. To that end, many synagogues echoed the grandeur of churches, particularly Presbyterian churches.

But how did Jews make the transition from various corners of Europe, where they were so often victims of persecution, to an unaccustomed security and even prominence in the land of the free? Weisman presents the saga in its many parts, drawing on a series of fascinating characters and stressful crises. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Chosen Wars

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