Perhaps the single biggest surprise in “The Synagogue in America: A Short History,” by Marc Lee Raphael (New York University Press: $30), is its sheer entertainment value. Raphael, who holds the Nathan Gumenick chair of Judaic studies at the College of William and Mary, has produced a short, highly readable and wholly illuminating study that will delight anyone who has ever sat in shul and told himself the beloved old Jewish joke that ends with the punch line: “To that one, I never go.”
The book is a solid work of scholarship — and Raphael drills down into subjects that are not often the focus of academic inquiry — but it is also leavened throughout with the author’s lively, often funny and frequently ironic observations and asides. “The answer to the question of why so many rabbis write about themselves,” he observes, “must remain in the area of psychology.” He announces his intention to dig into “the thorny question of how many reforms it takes to make a synagogue a Reform congregation.” And, recalling the numerous synagogues that gave him access to “archives” that consisted of random boxes of loose paper, he announces: “I gave as many people as possible at each synagogue a lecture in the need to catalogue the archival materials.”
Indeed, Raphael is always exacting, and especially when he is dealing with the mythologies that are embraced by various congregations. The famous Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., claims 1658 as its founding date, but “we are much safer in concluding that Shearith Israel, which we can date back to 1695, was the first congregation (as distinct from synagogue building) in colonial America, as it possesses more compelling evidence.”
What Raphael has done here is really nothing less than a portrait of Jews in America as refracted through what does and does not take place in the synagogue. “We must remind ourselves at all times that, when we discuss the synagogue, even in the eighteenth century, we are far from discussing all the Jews in the community,” he writes. He points out that members of the first six American synagogues insisted on circumcision of male children “when a circumciser could be found,” and the Jews of San Francisco during the Gold Rush era had to make do with a printed Pentateuch because they lacked a proper Torah scroll.
Some things never change in the synagogue world. Starting early on, seats were sold to raise money, and the prices were determined by the desirability of the seat locations; sometimes the best seats were simply auctioned off to the highest bidder. Other things have changed profoundly. One prominent Reform rabbi in the late 19th century dismissed the teachings of Maimonides as the “rottenest rot of medieval Judaism,” something that no rabbi, no matter how reformed, is likely to say out loud nowadays. One proposal to update the synagogue service was to replace the shofar with a cornet on the High Holy Days, and another innovation was to do away with the bar mitzvah and replace it with confirmation at the age of 14. The aspiration of Jewry in the New World to redefine Judaism can be found in the title of a prayer book published in 1857: “Minhag America.”
Ironically, the greatest agent of change was the arrival of more than 2 million Jews from Eastern Europe. Until then, the Sephardic traditions were dominant, but now Ashkenazic practices were more common. “Immigrant rabbis preached in Yiddish — not only in all the big Eastern cities but in Atlanta, Durham, and Memphis and as far West as Los Angeles and Portland,” Raphael explains. “In Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, Orthodox Jews had their choice of the Russian shul, the Hungarian shul, the Austro-Galician shul, and the Rumanian shul.”
Change as a value (or a necessity) of Jewish tradition can be found in every denomination. One cantor at an Orthodox shul, as Raphael points out, resigned in indignation when the lay leadership asked him “to lead the services while facing the congregation, as in Reform congregations (rather than with his back to the worshipers as he faced the ark).” English replaced Yiddish as the preferred language for sermons, and the synagogue service was streamlined and simplified: “Tradition with decorum” was the byword at Temple Sinai, among the earliest Conservative synagogues in Los Angeles. The challenge in the 1920s, according to Raphael, was to “sell Orthodox Judaism to the children of the Jazz Age,” and one blandishment led to a trend described as “shuls with pools.”
The problem of attracting synagogue membership and participation only grew more challenging as the Jews of America became more affluent, sophisticated, mobile and diverse — “a transformation of American Judaism,” Raphael writes, “that is still in the process of development more than forty years later.” The largest and fastest-growing category, as he points out, are those who are affiliated with no Jewish denomination at all: “None Jews,” according to Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom.
But this, too, is nothing new, as we learn in Raphael’s fascinating book. “In most periods of history of the Jews in the United States, fewer than half of American Jews have been members of a synagogue,” he reports. But the author concludes that the synagogue remains “the most significant Jewish institution in the life of Jews,” if not in the life of every Jew, and he ends his study on an optimistic note: “There is no reason to think that this will not continue, in old and new ways that blend centuries of Judaism with the American experience.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at email@example.com.