October 23, 2018

“The Chosen Wars – How Judaism Became an American Religion” by Steven R. Weisman – A Review

Steven R. Weisman does the American Jewish community and anyone interested in who we are and how we came to be who we are a deep favor. His history of the American Jewish experience (publ. 2018 – 266 pages) is a wonderful read. He covers the beginning of our history in the new world when Jews first arrived on American shores in New Amsterdam in 1654, spends much time on the dynamic 19th century, and brings it all into the present.

Weisman’s readable narrative is comprehensive. His nuanced discussion of events and trends as they reflect the influences of the American experience on our community gives insight into how we evolved from before the American Revolution through the Civil War into the industrial age and twentieth century as we strove to be at once American and Jewish.

He describes how we acclimated to the new world in every generation without losing a sense of Jewish meaning. He discusses radical and conservative religious, ideological, and practical responses to the myriad of challenges Jews encountered coming from Central Europe, Germany, Russia, and Sefardic lands over a period of two centuries.

Weisman discusses at some length the emergence of the American Reform movement, the founding of the Conservative movement, and how orthodoxy struggled to survive and then staked its ground as immigrant waves from Eastern Europe arrived during the twentieth century.

The title of the book (“The Chosen Wars”) is Weisman’s thesis. So often, there is a tendency to look back with nostalgia on our history and smooth the edges of controversy. To do so, however, is to mischaracterize history itself and especially Jewish history. He shows that we Jews were and continue to be argumentative and rarely unified even as we have aspired for unity.

He writes in the epilogue:

“Judaism’s flourishing in America was not foreordained or inevitable. Neither was it free from conflict and animosity. On the contrary, the disputes among Jews in America were emotional and personal. They were also very American…The Jews shaped their experience in America, and they were shaped by the America they found. The push and pull for Jews followed a historic tension.”

Steven R. Weisman is vice president for publications and communications at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He previously served as a correspondent, editor and editorial board member of The New York Times. He is the author of “The Great Tax Wars: How the Income Tax Transformed America.

I recommend this volume highly. If you want deeper understanding about who we are as an American Jewish community, how we got here, and what contemporary challenges we face, this book will not only frame it all for you but inspire you with the hope that, indeed, we are NOT the ever-dying people.