German Immigrants, Part 2

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Settlement of 19th Century German Jews in the United States


     In the 19th century, all German principalities restricted Jewish life severely. Jews were limited in the type of occupations they could use to earn their livelihood, and Jews had no access to guilds, or labor unions as we call them today. Jews could not hold government jobs and were not allowed in the armed services. Even marriage was regulated, so that the number of official heads of family could not increase.

    The Jews who came to America in the middle of the 19th century were not destitute. Unlike those who came later as a result of the general persecution of the European Jews between 1933 and 1945, the nineteenth century German Jews usually had a limited amount of capital. This was true because the poorest Jews could not come to the United States, because they could not pay for the passage and their upkeep until they found work in America. It cost money to reach Hamburg or Bremen, which were the German embarkation ports for travel overseas. In addition, forty dollars were required for passage, which took about 66 days before steamships came into use. That money allowed the passenger only one meal a day.

      Unlike the Eastern European Jews who later concentrated in New York City because they were destitute and could not go further, a good number of the German Jews of the 19th century traveled further and settled in small and large communities all over the country. Together with non-Jewish Germans, these immigrants settled in Louisville, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio, and as far west as California, so that by 1860 there were, in addition, synagogues in Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

     The German Jews who traveled all over the United States were not interested in the social class distinctions which occupied the attention of city dwellers, particularly in New York. These Jews had been excluded from the social structure of European society for so many generations that they never considered their status role in general American society. They did not even notice it. The German Jewish peddlers settled in small towns in every state of the union but also founded Jewish communities in large cities such as Cincinnati. Included among these poor peddlers were men whose names became famous in America for their immense wealth and as forerunners of the established American Jewish community as found in the 20th century, especially after the First World War.

     A number of these peddlers settled in New York City once they had earned enough money to open a variety of businesses in a locale which housed a good sized Jewish community, thus giving them access to the religious institutions they lacked in the west. Consequently, a Jewish elite developed in New York City consisting of German Jews and their descendants, who sought to replicate the Protestant establishment which would not let them in because of their religion. This elite developed when the most prominent of the successful German Jews in America entered finance after accumulating assets in the retail business.

Shalom uívracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Assassination, Anarchy, & Terrorism (2012).

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