Cornelia Wilhelm. The Independent Orders of B'nai B'rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843-1914. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011. 384 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8143-3403-4.
Reviewed by Melissa Klapper (Rowan University)
Published on H-Judaic (March, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Secular Synagogue? B'nai B'rith, True Sisters, and the Development of an American Jewish Civic Identity
Cornelia Wilhelm’s The Independent Orders of B’nai B’rith and True Sisters, originally published in German in 2007, makes a significant contribution to the fields of both American Jewish history and American immigration/ethnic history. Her meticulous study offers the first comprehensive account of B’nai B’rith that draws on extensive research in German-language archival materials, allowing for a fuller picture of the important communal organization than has previously been available. The inclusion of the True Sisters is also noteworthy because there is relatively little scholarly literature on the subject of this group, which enrolled thousands of women during the second half of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century but is much less well-known than its brother organization, B’nai B’rith. Wilhelm does a real service in not only tracing the history of two groups central to American Jewish history but also attempting to place them in the larger context of American fraternal organizations and the development of civil religion.
The book is organized chronologically, offering exhaustive--and sometimes exhausting--detail about such topics as the founding of various districts and lodges, the development of secret rituals known only to members, the emergence of a divisive insurance system within B’nai B’rith, the often tense relationship between the men’s and women’s organizations, the response of “German Jews” to the influx of eastern European immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, and the increasing external identification of B’nai B’rith as a major communal organization with the power to speak for American Jewry. The book’s structure as an organizational history sometimes obscures the individuals for whom B’nai B’rith and True Sisters became crucial venues for social and cultural life, but there is no doubt that Wilhelm’s approach to organizational history yields some important and fascinating insights into the nature of American Jewish identity formation. Given the fact that nineteenth-century American Jewish history has until recently been somewhat understudied, the book provides a welcome correction and a treasure trove of information.
On the first page of the introduction, Wilhelm claims that B’nai B’rith was “based on the construction of explicitly Jewish civil virtues--emphasizing reason, education, character, morality, and humanity as elements of a modern Jewish identity--coupled with the notion of social universality” (p. 1). This argument is both a strength and a weakness throughout the book. On the one hand, Wilhelm provides ample evidence that the leaders of B’nai B’rith consciously set out to participate in what they perceived as one of the great assets of American life, the ongoing development of civic virtue as something detached from particular religious expression. On the other hand, Wilhelm argues so strenuously for the importance of Reform Judaism and German identity to B’nai B’rith that she undercuts her own thesis to some degree. And although she clearly traces the major changes over time that affected the organization as a whole, she does not really take up the issue of how later members, often several generations removed from outright German identity by the early twentieth century, adapted the priorities of the founders. This question is a common one for historians analyzing the histories of ethnic organizations and could have been dealt with more directly here.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to the True Sisters, whom other historians have noted but not known a great deal about. Very much a ladies auxiliary at first, the True Sisters developed into an organization that often functioned quite independently and spread to nearly as many locations as B’nai B’rith. Wilhelm attempts to make the case that members contributed greatly to the development of a new model of Jewish womanhood, but she cannot but admit that the small, exclusive nature of the True Sisters constrained its communal impact. A larger problem with the otherwise valuable narrative provided in the True Sisters chapters is the relative unfamiliarity with American women’s history that it displays. First arguing that the organization “distanced itself from the movement of feminist women’s rights activists,” Wilhelm then quotes an 1871 True Sisters statement complaining about women’s lack of equal rights, which said in part, “‘history teaches us that woman, whenever she had free scope to develop her energies, proved herself equal to the task, and let us hope that the time will not be far distant when all social barriers impeding woman’s progress will be removed’” (pp. 162-163). She correctly notes that the True Sisters did not endorse women’s suffrage until several decades later--as was the case for many other activist women’s groups of the time, for whom the vote was only one implement in the political toolbox. But the assumption that the members therefore must not have been interested in the many other contested women’s rights of the nineteenth century is belied by the evidence throughout the book that the True Sisters very consciously set out to expand their power and authority and the standing of Jewish women in the community. The history of the True Sisters fits right into a larger story of American women’s organizations that gradually expanded their fields of activity and became increasingly politicized as their focus turned from social and cultural endeavors to active reform efforts.
Wilhelm’s comprehensive research is visible on every page, but the book’s appeal may be limited to specialists because the text is so very detailed. It is unclear to this non-German reading reviewer to what extent the translation reflects the density of the original, but the book is not an easy read and may be most useful as a reference. However, The Independent Orders of B’nai B’rith and True Sisters certainly suggests many productive research questions for further investigation of nineteenth-century American ethnic organizations and is, of course, especially evocative for historians interested in the American Jewish experience before the transformative eastern European migrations of the turn of the twentieth century.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Melissa Klapper. Review of Wilhelm, Cornelia, The Independent Orders of B'nai B'rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843-1914.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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