Book review: Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History

Between the French Revolution and World War II, hundreds of thousands of Jews left the Jewish fold. Many did this by becoming Christians or in liberal states by intermarrying. A challenging question is why some did that and others not. In Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691004792), author and historian Todd Endelman (Professor Emeritus of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan) has written a masterpiece that attempts to answer the question. The book focuses on the Ashkenazim of Europe and their milieu, and is as fascinating as it is tragic.

The book examines the specific reasons why Jews in Europe left the fold. The social setting for European Jews was often that of a second-class citizen, with atrocious living conditions, careers hard to come by and rampant antisemitism.

Endelman writes that Jews left the fold predominantly for reasons of survival and practicality, not necessarily those of belief. Being baptized in the Christian faith meant that many doors were open to them. Very rarely did Jews leave Judaism for what they perceived was a place of greater spirituality.

Endelman uses radical assimilation as an umbrella term to refer to all routes Jews traveled to lose their Jewishness. It’s not that those who left Judaism only became Christians. The book details how Jews were (and still are) involved in new age and universalist movements, such as the many ethical culture movements, communism, Marxism and more.

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The book opens with the observation that there was split between conservative and liberal Christians about which should come first for the Jews – emancipation or acculturation. The conservatives believed that emancipation was a reward for the Jews only after they had proved themselves worthy (i.e., less Jewish) of incorporation into the nation-state. While the liberals believed that that the removal of legal disabilities against the Jews was a prerequisite for acculturation, a precondition that would enable the Jews to become more like their neighbors.

The book notes that much of European and especially German society was closed off to socially ambitious, university educated young Jewish men. Access to academic positions, appointments to administrative, judicial and academic positions were closed to unconverted Jews. As it became clear that baptism was a prerequisite for a public career, many young Jewish men made the decision to convert before seeking employment.

Endelman writes how the deplorable living conditions made these Jews particularly vulnerable to missionaries. Poor Jews at the end of their rope were always vulnerable Jews. These Jews were targeted by missionaries as they were ripe for conversion given their desperate straits.

Organizations such as the Presbyterian group British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews, founded in London in 1842 preyed on such Jews of Europe. They gave food, shelter and clothes to Jews in need who they hoped would convert.

The book tells the harrowing tale of a man who tried several time to escape the group and make it on his own, but he could not find work and had no friends to whom he could turn for advice or help. In the end, overcome by hunger and despair, he returned to the group. They, like the Anglican-based London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews and other missions offered what Jewish communal bodies were unable or disinclined to provide to every Jew: a helping hand, a sympathetic ear and a welcoming embrace.

One of the book’s main findings is that career choice, age and economic status determined for the most part who within the Jewish community converted.

Chapter 3 provides fascinating insights into those Jews who converted in order to move up the world of aristocracy. He writes that for such Jews, conversion was the last step in their social apotheosis. It was intended to close a gap for them that was small behaviorally, but wide perceptually.

The book also details the experience of 19th century Jews in the United States and what lead to their departures from Judaism. Endelman makes the fascinating observation that American Jews would choose high-status denominations like Episcopalian or Presbyterianism, in that having chosen Christianity for social reasons; they wanted to maximize the social benefit.

Chapter 6 deals with conversions of conviction, and is the most fascinating chapter in the book. Endelman describes Jews who left the fold hoping to find something in Christianity which they could not find in their own religion. Part of the problem was that many of these people viewed Judaism in a negative light long before they received instruction in Catholic doctrine.

Endelman concludes with the observation that the history of conversion and radical assimilation in modern Jewish history is a dispiriting tale, a story of the failure of the enlightenments and emancipations to bestow toleration and respect that they once that to have herald.

This is a remarkably fascinating and enthralling work. Endelman has written a compelling read detailing why the Jews of Europe and the United States abandoned Judaism.

This is an important book that will be of insight to every reader. Those working in Jewish education will find specific interest in the methods that the Christian missionaries used. Using similar methods can ensure that Jews stay within the fold, rather than run out of it.

Those involved in Jewish outreach will find that the best way to draw Jews closer to their faith, is by understanding those forces that often led them to go astray.

Anyone looking to understand some of the reasons for conversion and assimilation in modern Jewish history will find Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History a most stimulating narrative.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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