Jewish Marriage and Divorce in America, 1830-1924

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The centrality of marriage to American identity dates back to the founding of the nation. Americans saw marriages by choice and for love as microcosms of their democracy in which the people chose their leaders and were bonded to them in a relationship of mutual trust and affection. During the era of mass migration to America from 1820-1924, the institution of marriage became a locus for debates over American identity. In myriad ways, American legal and societal norms made it clear that attaining full inclusion in the American polity meant interacting with the institution of marriage in a particularly American way. As Jews immigrated én masse to America in this period, they quickly understood that incorporating American legal and cultural norms with respect to marriage into their personal and communal lives was integral to their acculturation. Individual Jews adapted to the American milieu in certain ways, marrying for love (or at least pretending to do so), often at quintessentially American white weddings. However, such Jews simultaneously retained Jewish traditions and rituals both in spousal choice and in the celebration of their weddings, sometimes weaving their proud new American identities into those traditions and rituals. For their part, Jewish communal leaders worked tirelessly both within and outside the Jewish community to ensure that Jewish marriages were also American marriages. They exhorted their flocks to marry as respectable Americans, debated and changed Jewish marriage rituals to better fit American sensibilities, fought to attain legal imprimatur for rabbis to serve as marriage officiants on behalf of the state, weighed in on national conversations about issues related to marriage and divorce, and even worked with state authorities to punish those Jews whose behavior flouted American marriage norms and laws. Through their interactions with the American institution of marriage, American Jews simultaneously declared their Americanness and reshaped the definition of American marriage. Over the course of the century of mass Jewish migration to America, American Jews redefined both Jewish and American marriage and in so doing, reshaped both American Judaism and the contours of American identity.