The immigration of German Jews in America in the first half of the 19th century

Seminar Paper, 2002

13 Pages, Grade: 2,25



2 Introduction

3 The immigration of German Jews
3.1 Reasons for German Jews to emigrate

4 Gaining a foothold in the New World
4.1 Earning money for the daily life
4.1.1 Resourceful ideas and know-how leads to success
4.2 First steps in politics
4.3 Old religion in the New World
4.3.1 A family in the New World
4.3.2 Reforming steps in the Old World
4.3.3 Reforming steps in the New World

5 Bibliography

2 Introduction

About three percent of the population in the United States of today are Jews. Their home is America and they fell and act as Americans. Most of them are descendants of European emigrants who came to America in the mass migration in the first half of the 19th century. Today, scarcely anybody thinks about those days and even worse, many people hardly know anything about it. Well, it was not a long period of time in which the mass migration took place. It only covers about fifty years; yet, fifty important years. Those were the years, when the cornerstone of the Jewish history in America was laid. A history, different to Jewish histories in other countries. In the United States of America, Jews have never been discriminated nor persecuted. They had the same chances than every Gentile in America.

This paper shows how the Jewish immigrants gained a foothold in America between the early years of the 19th century and the beginning of the Civil War. Jewish immigrants arrived in America without any money in their pockets. Yet, they had the hope to find a better life in this ‘golden country’. In the following it will be discussed how German Jews in America succeeded in business life and politics, and how they dealt with their religion in a country that did not put up any restrictions on them. This paper looks more on the general history. Although a history is always the history of people, it was avoided to tell the history of single persons because it would exceed the limit of this paper. Yet, sometimes the life of some people are given as examples.

3 The immigration of German Jews

The first recorded arrival of Jews in North America was in September 1654. Twenty-three Jewish refugees from Recife (in those days called Pernambuco) landed in New Amsterdam. However, this arrival was not planned. Their original destination had been the islands of the Caribbean, but they had not been allowed to remain there by the Spains. So they were forced to continue their journey on the Ste. Catherines. Finally, after the Jews had ran out of money, the captain landed in New Amsterdam in order to sue his passengers. However, after having written several letters to Holland, Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, received the permission for the twenty-three Jews to stay. Since this day, more and more Jews immigrated to North America. Yet, this was almost an immigration of individuals and isolated families, all with individual reasons to emigrate. However, this changed in 1836. In that year, the first mass migration from Western and Central Europe to America started. It was “a movement of whole families and groups of families, from a single locality or country, owing to influences which affect an entire community, and the individual through the community“ (Glazer 1957:23). In 1820, there lived only about 3,500 Jews in the United States. Yet, due to immigration the Jewish population grew steadily. In 1840, it was estimated at 15,000, in 1850 at 50,000, 150,000 in 1860, and 250,000 in 1880.

3.1 Reasons for German Jews to emigrate

The situation of the Jews in Germany, especially in the southern parts of the country, was depressing. A specific part of the Jewish community, artisans and merchants, petty traders and cattle dealers, suffered under a load of restrictions and special taxes. As if this was not enough, Bavaria disposed over the family planning of Jews. Only by the death or removal of one Jew, a child was allowed to be born. Moreover, the number of Jewish marriages was limited by law. Jews who wanted to marry had to leave Bavaria. These factors led to the obvious choice: emigration. Many Europeans had read guide- and travel books about America. Letters of emigrated friends and family members where read and discussed. These facts brought America closer to Europe – at least in the heads of the Europeans. By then, emigration was even affordable for everyone. Steamships started to compete and railroads were build, which lowered the prices. Emigration seemed not abstract and impossible anymore. In fact, these conditions led to a continual and steady movement of German Jews to America. Only in the last decade of the 19th century did the movement start to cease. Yet, it were not only German Jews that immigrated to America in these days. Also Jews from countries under German influence (both culturally and linguistically), such as Austria, Bohemia, Hungary and western Poland, emigrated to North America.

The typical Jewish migrant in this time was poor, did not have a good education and came from a small town. Especially young men who could not find a job in an overpopulated, poor region, decided to emigrate. Yet, the good situated European Jews did not leave their home country. They had the possibility to leave the poor regions and move to big cities to make their fortunes there.

4 Gaining a foothold in the New World

Most of the new immigrants did not have any money left when they landed in America. They had sold everything in order to pay the big crossing. Now, they had to build up a new existence and a new social life.

4.1 Earning money for the daily life

During those days of mass migration, America and its agricultural society was changing. There was a big movement to the old cities and new cities were being built. It was the trading and the manufactories which had a magical attraction on the people. The poor European Jews arrived into this changing America. They came without business connections and did not have enough money to start an own business. Yet, in their home countries, they had already made experience in trading. It is obvious that most of the Jews became peddlers. Starting point usually were the cities in which they had entered the country. Many did not stay in the cities. Following the new canals and roads, the routes of expansion, they made their way to the hinterland. They were led to the South, the Midwest and to the Far West. Jews often were under the first settlers of a town or community. Between 1850 and 1860 the number of country peddlers in the United States increased from some ten thousand to perhaps fifteen or sixteen thousand. Most of them were Jews. They developed a trading system: Jewish manufactures in the East supplied Jewish wholesalers who again supplied Jewish retail merchants. These supplied the peddlers who went from farm to farm. (Sacher 1992:42) In the cities, the Jews’ trading goods were usually old clothes. Already in Europe, the Jews had dealt extensively in clothing. Yet, until the Civil War, it was more important in America to sell old clothes than making new garments. Before long, secondhand clothing became a Jewish monopoly. Trade was a very certain way to wealth and the Jews knew this. Many Jews took place in the Gold Rush of 1849, yet, not as prospectors for gold, but as storekeepers in every town and trading post in the Far West.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The immigration of German Jews in America in the first half of the 19th century
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Landeskundeseminar: Being Jewish in the USA
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ISBN (eBook)
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420 KB
German, Jews, America, Landeskundeseminar, Being, Jewish
Quote paper
Patricia Zimmermann (Author), 2002, The immigration of German Jews in America in the first half of the 19th century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 10/10/2008

    very good!.

    I loved this article. It really helped me with my research paper about Jewish emigration during WWII.

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