cover image The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion

The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion

Steven R. Weisman. Simon & Schuster, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4165-7326-5

Focusing mainly on the 19th century, this expertly told history from Weisman (The Great Tax Wars) explores conflicts between tradition and modernity within Judaism that first played out in Charleston, S.C., and still resonate today. When Charleston’s Congregation Beth Elohim was reopened in 1841 after a fire, its members confronted some major proposed changes: the addition of an organ and the elimination of some traditional doctrines (such as the belief in a messianic redeemer). The innovations did not sit well with everyone, and the dispute eventually ended up in court. Weisman traces how these same controversies played out regionally and nationally, primarily through the experiences of Albany rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, whose campaign for reform eventually led to a fistfight during Rosh Hashanah services between his supporters and detractors. Colorful incidents like this add flair to the serious subject matter. For Weisman, the lesson of the history is that “Jews should be unafraid to stand up for how they want to pursue their varied religious paths towards meaning” and that the “courageous examples” of those who did so in the past should give hope to the present generation. Anyone interested in American Judaism will be enlightened by this lucid and entertaining history. (Aug.)