by: Jay Tolson
I T IS A NIGHTMARE VISION OF THE JEWISH AMERICAN EXPERIENCE GONE HELLISH. In 1940, the aviator and Nazi sym-pathizer Charles A. Lindbergh defeats FDR at the polls. Signing a pact with Hitler and tacitly acceding to his sinister agendas, President Lindbergh launches some pretty scary programs of his own. One, “Homestead 42,” aims to relocate Jewish families in “an inspiring region of America previously inaccessible to them,” where, it is ominously said, they can “enrich their American-ness over generations.”
A dark fable, Philip Roth’s widely acclaimed new novel, The Plot Against America, is also perfectly timed, as scholars and others observe the 350th anniversary of the first Jewish settlement in North America. Using a lightly fictionalized version of his own Newark, N.J., family—a horrified mother “Bess,” a fiercely un-defeatist father ‘Herman”—Roth explores the sometimes vulnerable sense of Jewish difference that has existed throughout American history. But he also captures the attendant conviction that the core values of Americanism—mostly liberal, tolerant, and progressive—are largely compatible with the ideals and accomplishments of the Jewish people.
Hope and fear. This idea builds on a covenant affirmed by George Washington in his 1790 letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation, pledging that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” The Plot Against America is the story of what didn’t happen here, of course. But it still credibly evokes the real drama of Jews whose faith in America has been hedged as often by fears and reservations as by confidence and hope.
During the past 50 years in particular, that drama has come under the scrutiny of a growing scholarly industry. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish hist-ory at Brandeis University, says that “the field has come of age. ” Once largely an apologetic exercise in documenting Jewish contributions to American life, the scholarship now focuses on the diversity of Jewish experiences. It also looks very closely at the post-World War II period, when, as a result of the Holocaust in all of Europe, American Jews became (and until recently remained) the world’s largest Jewish community. As American Jews—numbering around 6 million in 2000, or roughly 2 percent of the total U.S. population (down from a peak of about 3.6 percent in 1940)—became more confident of their place in the larger American society, the American Jewish experience, including its religious innovations, greatly
influenced Jews and Judaism worldwide.
In fact, such reciprocal influences have been at work ever since 1654, when 23 Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. They came from Recife, Brazil, where the Port-uguese had expelled all Jews who had not at least outwardly converted to Christian-ity. The director-general of the North American Dutch colony, Peter Stuyvesant, would himself have forced the 23 to move on had not his superiors in the Dutch West Indies Company heeded the petitions of Portuguese Jewish merchants residing in Amsterdam. The success of those appeals was proof of the power of a network through which the Sephardim—as Jews from the Iberian peninsula are known---- used family and religious ties to forge reliable commercial relationships linking the old and new worlds. Permitted to live and trade in NewAmsterdam, the original American Jews were also allowed to worship “quietly” in their homes and to pur-chase their own cemetery. But a strict prohibition against public worship remained in place for a time even after the British took the city and renamed it New York in 1664. By the end of the century, however, long after most of the original community had disappeared and had been replaced by a new wave of Jewish families, the British acceded to the creation of a synagogue, Shearith Israel. For the next 125 years, writes Sarna in American Judaism, in New York and other American port towns, “the synagogue and organized Jewish community became one and the same.”
Run by lay members on a rotating basis—there would be no rabbis in American congregations until 1840—the synagogues stressed tradition, deference to authority, and solidarity . Although by 1720 Ashkenazic Jews (those with roots in Central and Eastern Europe) outnumbered Sephardic Jews in New York and other Colonies, the custom of precedence meant that Sephardic rites and interior architectural styles prevailed. While there was little such communal coexistence among Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in Amsterdam and London, American Jews largely set aside their differences. “Overall,” says Eli Faber, author of A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654 -1820 and professor of history at the City University of New York, “the communities held together.”
Ferment. They would do so well into the early years of the American republic. But after the revolution, things began to change. “Among Jews, as among many Protestants of the day, the immediate post-Revolutionary decades were character-ized by burgeoning religious ferment,” writes Sama in his contribution to Michael Grunberger’s From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, a book that accompanies the current Library of Congress exhibition by the very same name. In 1825, for example, young Ashkenazic Jews who had been rebuffed in their efforts to modify the worship services at New York’s Shearith Israel founded their own congregation, B’nai Jeshurun. In Charleston, S.C., a group of young Jews, this one strongly influenced by Unitarian teachings, broke with the local synagogue and established the “Reformed Society of Israelites.” Thus was estab-lished a new template in Jewish American life, one in which religious innovators and reformers, claiming either to return to orthodoxy or to align with modernity, established alternative congregations and movements (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative), competing among themselves for young spiritual consumers.
As the connection between synagogue and community loosened, Jews had to find new ways to shore up a sense of collective identity. One solution was the creation of communitywide charitable and fraternal organizations such as the Hebrew Ben-evolent Society and B’nai B’rith. But the challenge of forging bonds among all the Jews only grew between 1820 and 1924, when a huge influx of German, Eastern European, and Russian immigrants sent the Jewish American population rocketing upward from about 3,000 to 3.5 million. Some Jewish leaders vainly promoted the idea of a central religious council or a chief rabbinate (such as existed in Eur-ope) to foster a kind of Jewish “union.” Other efforts to unify the community sometimes had almost comical results. In 1883, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise invited both traditionalists and reformers to the first graduation ceremony at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College. But fare that included shellfish drove away many guests, and what came to be known as the “Trefa Banquet” (“Unkosher Banquet”) epitomized the futility of trying to unite America’s Jews.
While the long period of massive migration was previously seen as the formative period of American Jewish life, new scholarship locates that crucible in the years between World War II and the late Sixties. In his contribution to Grunberger’s volume, historian Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Center of America, tells how some of the major rifts within the American Jewish community closed during the first postwar decades. “The demonstrable vulnerability of Euro-pean Jewry during the Holocaust, coupled with Israel’s establishment in 1948, resolved the enervating battles between Zionists and anti-Zionists,” he writes. But as Wertheimer and other scholars have shown, more recent decades have seen a number of paradoxical developments. As anti-Semitism generally declined in American society and Jews themselves in growing numbers moved away from the Northeast and into the vast American Sun Belt, Jewish identity lost a powerful, if negative, reinforcement. While many contemporary American Jews are returning to religious practice with renewed intensity, high rates of intermarriage threaten to further erode Jewish identity. And against all this, says American University historian Pamela Nadell, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and other parts of the world makes some American Jews again wonder if” it can’t happen here.”
But it is too easy to note such worrisome developments and downplay the covenant set forth in Washington’s letter and the way generations of Jewish Americans have renewed it from their side. In a memoir titled Patrimony: A True Story, Roth describes how his real father, the son of a Polish-Galician immigrant, made good on the deal: “I drive him around... and all the time I’m thinking that the real work, the invisible, huge job that he did all his life, that whole generation of Jews did, was making themselves American . The best citizens.”
U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
October 25, 2004. (Pgs.80-82)
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