The Spirit of ’77
Two important but relatively unknown events marked the summer of 1877, involving businessman Joseph Seligman and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, highlight the impact of mobility on religious life and thought at the end of an era in American history. The shifting economy and demography of American life created a new context for religious life, in which Jewish mobility was less common and Jewish whiteness was questioned. The 2.2 million Jews who came to the United States around the turn of the twentieth century built on the American Jewish infrastructure that earlier Jews had created and that would see its heyday at the middle of the twentieth century. Today, globalization and the Internet have thrust Americans back into an age of relentless mobility, anonymity, and uncertainty. Again, unafilliated Jews—and the much-heralded “nones” of all backgrounds—seek identity and belonging through family, informal social ties, print culture, and forms of knowledge unmoored from stable, coherent, and authoritative religious sources.
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