“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” 
                                    —Emma Lazarus, Epistle to the Hebrews, 1883

Sabbath Eve at Home, After Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1799-1882).

In France, the only European nation where Jews had been granted equality by the end of the eighteenth century, the optimism following the Revolution was tempered by Napoleon’s reassessment of Jewish rights. The Emperor convened a "Sanhedrin" (named after the ancient Jewish court) of rabbis and lay leaders in 1807 in order to test the loyalty of French Jews. Despite the overwhelmingly patriotic assertions made by the Sanhedrin, the ensuing decrees by Napoleon led to the temporary loss of many of the Jews’ newfound rights and privileges. The resulting restrictions proved to be short-lived, however and for most of the century, the Jews of France found themselves enjoying the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

The emancipation of the Jews in other territories conquered by the French was abruptly halted after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 marked not only an end to the expansion of emancipation, but also the rescinding of many of the rights the Jews had been granted, as they were seen by many to be the direct beneficiaries and therefore allies of the defeated French. In Italy, the Pope ordered the rebuilding of the ghetto; a contemporary engraving shows Roman Jews being forced to listen to conversionary sermons. In 1819, the infamous Hep-Hep riots broke out in towns all across Germany with rampaging mobs attacking Jews in a homicidal fury. European revolutionary fervor erupted again in 1830 and on a much larger scale in 1848, and many Jews could be counted among the varied insurgent constituencies. Nevertheless, the accompanying social unrest frequently targeted the Jews. Despite the failure of most of these revolutionary movements, the liberal ideals they espoused had gained a strong foothold and eventually led to the emancipation of most of European Jewry, including the Jews of Italy and Germany in 1861 and 1871, respectively.

As more and more Western European Jews were formally emancipated, they gradually entered and integrated into mainstream European society. Assimilation, especially in urban areas, was accompanied by a palpable diminution in adherence to the Jewish laws and social mores that had sustained previous generations, a development deplored by traditional rabbis and religious leaders. At the same time, among non-Jews, there were those who for their own reasons disapproved of the changes which had been wrought by the revolutions. Some saw the Jews as primary beneficiaries of the turmoil that had roiled the continent throughout the nineteenth century. They continued to oppose Jewish emancipation, and it was from their ranks that a reactionary populist movement called “anti-Semitism” began to gain traction. This new form of anti-Jewish prejudice targeted the acculturated Jews of Western and Central Europe. In Germany, political parties arose whose only platform was hatred of Jews. In France, the cradle of Jewish emancipation, the closing years of the century brought forth an eruption of anti-Jewish fervor that tore at the very fabric of the nation. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish military officer, was falsely accused of treason and quickly became the focal point of the poisonous invective leveled against the Jews of France. The streets of Paris resounded with the shouts of “Death to the Jews,” as Dreyfus was convicted and condemned to Devil’s Island. Despite his eventual exoneration, many of those who witnessed the trial and its aftermath became convinced that European emancipation of the Jews was a failed experiment. Among them was a young Viennese journalist named Theodor Herzl, whose experiences of the Dreyfus trial would lead him to the conclusion that the Jews must once again have a land of their own, and to the birth of political Zionism.

In class-conscious England, Jews could be found among the highest and lowest strata of society. Some contemporary prints depicted the glorious victories of Jewish pugilists in the boxing ring, while other, less sympathetic portrayals featured Jewish rag pickers and pickpockets. The upper echelons of English Jewry, however, included the likes of Moses Montefiore, renowned Jewish philanthropist, and Lionel Rothschild, scion of the pan-European financial dynasty. The seating of Lionel Rothschild in Parliament in 1858, more than a decade after he was first elected, marked the removal of all civic disabilities from English Jewry.

In the United States the nineteenth century marked a period of sustained growth for American Jewry and concomitantly, Jewish liberties. The Constitution guaranteed the rights of American Jewry on the federal level, yet in individual states Jews were still denied, among others, the right to hold office. The Jews of America fought back against these restrictions on the legislative front, most notably in Maryland in 1825. In 1877, New Hampshire became the last state to abolish all political and civic disabilities for its Jewish citizens.

Successive waves of Jewish immigrants responded to the allure of freedom unavailable to them in their native lands. The 2,500 Jews in the United States in 1800 would see their numbers swell to over one million by the end of the century. The first major migration was undertaken by German Jews between 1840 and 1880, many of whom settled in the established Jewish communities of the eastern seaboard. In both numbers and influence, the German Jews surpassed the small Sephardic Jewish communities that had preceded them. This influence extended to their manner of worship as well. While traditionally orthodox congregations continued to proliferate, the American religious landscape was particularly well suited for new reformed Temples that embraced ritual changes that had been the subject of fierce acrimony in Europe. Some of the Jewish merchants and itinerant peddlers who plied their wares across the ever-expanding country set down roots and founded stores that grew into retailing giants. That Jews had thoroughly integrated into the fabric of American life is perhaps best exemplified by their widespread participation on both sides of the Civil War.

For American Jews, however, their increased numbers and broad participation in American society carried unexpected consequences. Many newly successful Jews whose fortunes had been made in the post-Civil War industrial boom were seen by the older, established, and mostly Protestant social elite as threatening to their own social position. Jews were restricted from many private resorts, social clubs, private schools—all institutions of the upper class. In the face of these exclusions, Jews in the United States founded their own self-sustaining communal associations, philanthropies, and fraternal organizations, further strengthening the broad foundations of American Jewry. For the Jews of the United States, the combined promise of religious freedom and economic opportunity was in large part fulfilled. As conditions worsened for growing numbers of Jews in Eastern Europe, more than three million of them joined the massive wave of immigration to the United States that would reshape both American and Jewish history.

Wood engraving by Xavr Henkel, Berlin: Franz Lipperheide, 1887.  Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Following the partitions of Poland between Prussia, Austria, and Russia in the late eighteenth century, the lion’s share of Eastern European Jewry found itself under Russian control and restricted by imperial decree to a “Pale of Settlement.” Forbidden to travel beyond the borders of the Pale without special permission, and barred from all but a handful of professions, the crowded conditions and strict legal barriers to self-sufficiency led to deepening poverty for the region’s millions of Jewish inhabitants. The “enlightened despots” of Austria and Russia sought to “normalize” and assimilate the overwhelmingly traditional Jewish population through mandatory secular education, oppressive tax policies, and forced military conscription of minors.

Eastern Europe nevertheless remained the heartland of Rabbinic Judaism, with its two divergent streams, Hasidic mysticism popular in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Russia and of Mitnagdic Talmudism centered in Lithuania and Volynhia. The traditional hierarchies in both groups found themselves challenged not only from without, by government involvement, but from within, by the spread of the Haskalah, imported from Jewish communities farther west.

When the reforms of the 1860s abolished serfdom and opened the empire to capitalist enterprise, the situation improved for some Jews in the large Russian cities, but those in the Pale remained trapped by economic hardship and dismal conditions. By 1880, at the instigation of an emerging urban Jewish bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, an assistance fund was started to improve the lives of the millions of Russian Jews then living in poverty. This led to the establishment of the Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor (ORT) among the Jews in Russia, an organization that would provide education and training in practical occupations, handicrafts, and agricultural skills.

In the second half of the century, the Haskalah's message of integration into non-Jewish society was supplanted by the emergence in Eastern Europe of alternative Jewish political movements. Though most were secular in nature, a few were grounded in religious tradition; nearly all of them advocated a variety of socialist or nationalist Jewish identities. The fierce rivalry between these competing ideologies resulted in an outpouring of literary creativity as each movement sought to command the loyalty of Eastern European Jewish masses. Jewish works as disparate as rabbinic texts, fiction and poetry, scientific treatises in mathematics and linguistics, and the academic study of Judaism rolled off both Hebrew and Yiddish presses across Europe.

The lack of widespread opportunity, coupled with the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiment in the surrounding milieu, punctuated by intermittent pogroms, paved the way for the departure of millions of Eastern European Jews to foreign shores that promised a brighter future. The largest number made their way to the United States, with smaller contingents settling in Western Europe, South America, and South Africa. Additionally, groups of young pioneers, inspired by the rise of nationalist and socialist utopian visions, made their way to the Land of Israel.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from the Age of Emancipation included in the sale go to lots 163-296.

Next essay: The Jews of the East: The Ottoman Empire, North Africa and India