The show opens with scenes of Russian Jews emigrating to the United States in the late nineteenth century. These Jews, however, were not the first to come to this country. Earlier refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions had come to South America and the Caribbean, and in 1654 twenty-three individuals arrived in New Amsterdam, the site of present-day New York. Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor, wished to deport the Jews but the Dutch West India Company refused his request.
Some Jews lived in the colonies on the eve of the Revolution, were involved in the fighting, and helped in the financial backing of the rebel cause. According to the Founding Fathers, all people were to possess liberty, and as George Washington indicated in his speech to the Newport Jews, this statement clearly included the Jews.
An influx of German Jews burst upon these shores in the 1840's, and these immigrants participated in the American movement westward. Jews were pioneers and took up the roles of peddlers, shopkeepers, and later, entrepreneurs helping fuel industrial expansion. Despite the Jews' successful integration into American society, there were instances of anti-Semitism during the Civil War even as the Jews fought alongside their Christian neighbors on both sides of the conflict.
Due to the economic strangulation and physical oppression suffered by Russian Jews in the late nineteenth century, America witnessed a large-scale Jewish migration from Tsarist lands. The immigrants worked mainly in the New York garment trade, often in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire galvanized the immigrants to band together to alleviate their harsh working situation. Thus the seed was planted for the growth of labor unions.
The Jewish immigrants wished to acculturate into American society and pursued education as a means to achieve full integration. The uptown German Jews helped their poorer brethren, but this assistance often caused friction with their downtown co-religionists. The immigrants founded mutual-aid societies and helped each other to adjust to the new country and to overcome the hard economic times.
As the Jews emerged from their original immigrant settlements, they turned to other neighborhoods within the cities or moved to new areas across the nation. They attended American universities and pursued careers in high-risk industries such as moviemaking and show business.
Social anti-Semitism in the 1920s was fueled in part by the activities of Henry Ford, who published the infamous anti-Semitic pamphlet "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." These nativist sentiments were translated into political realities when the Congress of the United States passed immigrant quota laws which effectively shut down the Jewish migration to this country.
- Chart the growth of American Jewry and its various subcommunities.
- Understand why Jews came to America.
- Analyze the Americanization of Jews and Judaism.
- Explore how American Jewry differed from other Jewries.