Losing Our Religion

What Fiddler on the Roof is for most American Jews — an emotional bull’s-eye on any family’s saga that began in a shtetl and wound up in the United States — The Lehman Trilogy is for me. My family, like the Lehmans, came here from Germany in the early nineteenth century. Both families left the old country as Lehmanns; we lost an “h” at the dock in New Orleans in 1836, they lost an “n” at the dock in New York in 1844. In both cases, the family saga began with a young single man from a small town — Rimpar, Bavaria in their case, Essenheim, Hesse-Darmstadt in ours — coming to America alone, starting out as a backpack peddler in the slaveholding antebellum South, and establishing a dry goods store. Theirs was in Montgomery, Alabama; ours was in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and still exists there in altered form as Lemann’s Farm Supply, where I hope you’ll buy your next tractor. Distinctive German-Jewish culture, which is now as completely vanished as Lehman Brothers, had a triumphant and controversial reign for a century or so in the United States, between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. German Jews, often with the same oddly specific Southern-peddler American beginnings, started many of the leading Wall Street financial firms. They developed and ran grand, and now disappearing, department stores — Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Neiman Marcus, and so on. They were book, magazine, and newspaper publishers — Viking, Knopf, Farrar Straus, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker all have a German-Jewish origin story. The German Jews built palatial houses of worship, such as Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in New York. They married within their tribe. They lived in distinct neighborhoods. They practiced their own religion, American Reform Judaism. They maintained business networks.

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