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Why the rise of American Judaism offers a ‘great political story’

On our Bookshelf tonight, the dramatic struggles to turn an ancient faith into an American religion. Judy Woodruff speaks with longtime journalist Steven Weisman, author of “The Chosen Wars,” about why he decided to examine the evolution of Judaism in the United States, the religion’s “history of conflict” and the great personalities that created a story worth telling.

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  • John Yang:

    On our Bookshelf tonight, the dramatic struggles to turn an ancient faith into an American religion.

    Judy Woodruff spoke with longtime journalist Steven Weisman, the author of "The Chosen Wars," about why he decided to examine the evolution of Judaism in the United States.

  • Steven Weisman:

    I really thought that the story of the rise of American Judaism could be told like a great political story, because it has great personalities and conflicts over real issues.

    But I also wanted to show the reader that the history of Judaism is a history of conflicts among Judaism, and reassure people that the conflicts today are rooted in the past, and, if we look to the past, we can figure out how to resolve them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And hence the title, "The Chosen Wars."

    Steve Weisman, remind people when Jews came to this country, from where, and why they came.

  • Steven Weisman:

    They first came to this country as a group in the 17th century, in the 1650s.

    They were escaping persecution from Brazil, which had just been — their community had just been taken over by the Portuguese. They came up to New York, and came to Peter Stuyvesant's New Amsterdam. So there was a Jewish community in the Colonial era, the Revolutionary War.

    But the real Jewish influx in the 19th century came in the 1840s, largely from German-speaking territories in Europe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the book is about, as you say, conflicts within the Jewish faith, within the Jewish community about its identity.

  • Steven Weisman:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you talk about the change that was made along the way in the mission of American Jews.

  • Steven Weisman:

    That's right.

    And what really interested me was that, for 2,000 years, pretty much, Jews prayed and believed in a messiah who would come and deliver them back to the holy land and restore the ancient temple.

    By the 1840s or 1850s, Jews stopped praying for this messiah to deliver them back to the promised land because they felt that, in America, they had arrived in the promised land. And it was in this period that they changed really the identity of Judaism itself, so that Jews began to see themselves as — as the messiah, as the people who would bring a — who, through their actions, would bring humanity to a period of redemption.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ultimately, you're talking about that is — that is the — been the essence of their survival, their determination to survive, as a significant piece of American life, American culture.

  • Steven Weisman:

    Jews in America are different from Jews in other parts of the world, because they see themselves as Americans first.

    Judaism is always had an identity as a national identity. It's funny. Trump says he's a nationalist. In a funny way, Jews invented nationalism, because God said to the Jews, I will make you a great nation.

    But, in America, they became Americans. However, they wanted to make Judaism into more of a religion, rather than a national identity. So, they adopted practices that were in churches. They had men and women sitting together. They brought in organ music. They instituted decorum, where everybody rises and sits in unison.

    These were practices that they wanted to make Judaism into more of a mainstream American religion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are so many interesting, fascinating people, characters you write about who were leaders in the Jewish faith. Do you have a favorite among them?

  • Steven Weisman:

    Well, I think my favorite is Isaac Mayer Wise, who was this combative, brilliant visionary who led the way to redefining the mission of the American Judaism.

    I mean, he went down and declared that he no longer believed that there would be a messiah who would deliver the Jews back to Palestine. The conservative Jews almost excommunicated him. And when he went back to his synagogue in Albany, he was fired and went to the synagogue anyway on Rosh Hashanah, the new year, took the Torah out of the ark, and got into a fistfight with the president of his congregation.

    And the police had to come in and evacuate the synagogue.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the end of the book, you write: "If the past is any guide, as long as there are forces to eradicate distinctive Jewish identities, Jews will find ways to reinforce their identities. They will cherish their heritage and simply refuse to disappear."

    Where does that stubbornness come from, and especially today when we are seeing evidence of anti-Semitism with this terrible shooting so recently in Pittsburgh?

  • Steven Weisman:

    And I think the shooting does reinforce the point, doesn't it, Judy, that you saw, in the face of this horrific attack, after a year, frankly, in which anti-Semitic tropes and code words entered into the political discourse in a way that we have haven't seen in decades in American history, what happened?

    Jews rallied. They came together. What's the source of that? I think part of it is that pride and conviction, but also a belief that Judaism stands for something more than just self-love and self-worship.

    It stands for bringing a message of justice and humanity to all of humanity. And Jews really are determined to preserve that in the face of these terrible events of the last year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's an enduring message from this book.

  • Steven Weisman:

    Thank you very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    "Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion."

    Steve Weisman, thank you so much.

  • Steve Weisman:

    Thank you very much, Judy.

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