The largest Jewish community in the world owes its true origins to the almost two million Eastern European Jews who fled Tsarist Russia and other countries from 1881 to 1924 to seek political and economic refuge in the United States. But these were not the first Jews who arrived on these shores to enjoy the freedom of American society. The first Jews in North America fled from seventeenth-century Brazil, which the Portuguese had reconquered from the Dutch. These settlers were mainly former Iberian conversos (see Chapter 5) who had openly embraced Judaism under Dutch rule. With the Portuguese victory and the threat of impending Inquisitorial trials, these individuals had to set sail.|
Although there were already Jewish settlements of former Iberian conversos in the Caribbean (note the beautiful shots of Curacao, where the oldest synagogue in North America still stands), twenty-three of these Jews dropped anchor in the Dutch-controlled port of New Amsterdam, the future site of New York City. There they encountered New Amsterdam's governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who for religious and economic reasons did not wish to let them settle. After intervention by some Dutch Jews with the parent Dutch West India Company, Stuyvesant relented.
As Professor Stanislawski observes and the video makes abundantly clear, this inauspicious beginning was an exception and not the rule of the American Jewish experience. By the mid-eighteenth century, Jewish settlers were to be found up and down the coast of what were now the British colonies. Most of these colonists were Sephardic Jews of Iberian origin who came to North America for commercial opportunities. These well-off individuals were very much like other early colonists and indeed mixed well with them. (Source Reader Selection 3 contains an indication of the easy socializing between Jews and non-Jews.) Ashkenazic Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who arrived later integrated into the Sephardic community, and its synagogue services were conducted according to the latter's rite.
Although Jewish status in the various colonies depended on whether the colonies were crown-controlled or proprietary and so on, the attitudes of the colonists was generally one of the disinterest in the Jews' religious beliefs. If anything, as the video indicates, the tradition of biblical studies among the Puritans (see Source Reader Selection 6) made them look upon these Jews with a measure of respect. (Note the biblical phrase on the Liberty Bell, shown in the program.) American society did not possess a tradition of entrenched ecclesiastic authority, and that made it easier for Jews to live among their Christian neighbors.
Most American Jews, contrary to the Jews' traditional political stance, supported the Revolution. They truly believed in America's promise, and their hopes proved to be well founded. As the American Constitution
(see Source Reader Selection 2) clearly indicates, there was no need for an emancipation debate over granting equality to the Jews. Still, certain limitations on Jews persisted through the early nineteenth century. (See Source Reader Selection 7 on the Maryland "Jew" Bill, which was finally passed in 1826.)
In an event of much symbolic importance, the Jews of Touro Synagogue in Newport greeted President George Washington in 1790. See the wonderful footage of Abba Eban in the synagogue, dramatizing the event. (The Jews' letter to Washington and his reply are found in Source Reader selections 4 and 5.)
Remember that, at the time of independence in 1776, there were only 2,000 Jews in America. (See the important chart inserted in the Study Guide chapter.) It was not until the 1830's that these numbers changed dramatically.
With a deteriorating social and economic situation in Central Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, over 150,000 Jews arrived in the United States. These Jews formed their own congregations, separate from those of the Sephardim, and in general were quite independent. They did not remain in the older Jewish settlements on the Atlantic coast, but set out across the North American frontier.
As we view the broad vistas of the American Midwest, then still relatively unsettled, the program explains how Jews followed the pioneers across the country, even crossing the Continental Divide. Most of the Jews started as peddlers (see the interesting Source Reader Selection 8) and in some extraordinary cases went beyond the ownership of small shops in the new American cities to become the proprietors of large department stores.
Like earlier arrivals, these German Jews became fully integrated into American life; therefore it is not surprising to find them on both sides in the Civil War. (See Source Reader Selection 9.) There were some anti-Semitic incidents during the War Between the States, but they appear to have been idiosyncratic events and not rooted in the mainstream of American societal ideas.
The German Jewish immigrants who spread over the North American continent desired a form of Judaism that would accord well with their far-flung demographic profile and also, as Professor Stanislawski points out, with their American progressive environment. Reform Judaism, coming of age in Germany, found rapid acceptance on American soil. German Jews also created social and philanthropic institutions that satisfied their need for community and yet meshed with their American ideals.
Some immigrants, as the Study Guide indicates, had become wealthy entrepreneurs and were involved in merchandising and investment banking. The video shows how these Jews were influential in many sectors of the American economy.
But these German Jews were soon overwhelmed by the next wave of immigrants: starting in 1870, Jews began to pour in from Eastern Europe. Professor Stanislawski argues that this massive immigration was not a response to the Russian pogroms and government-inspired economic strangulation, as many other scholars and the video would have it. Instead, he suggests that the Jews needed a place for their growing population, which could no longer be supported by the existing Jewish society in Eastern Europe.
Whatever their reasons, over two million Jews came to these shores over the course of the next forty years. (See Source Reader Selection 10.) Note the photographs of the difficult voyage to America and of Ellis Island, where most of the immigrants disembarked. These individuals moved into the large cities, especially New York, where they settled in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Many of them went to work in the newly mechanized needle-trade industry and worked under extremely poor conditions.
The already-established German Jews attempted to help their co-religionists, if not out of purely altruistic motives, at least out of their desire to Americanize them and therefore eliminate a possible target for the nascent anti-Semitic feelings that were cropping up across the country. Note the shots of the Educational Alliance and other institutions set up to help new arrivals. But many of these institutions, such as the Reform synagogues, with their churchlike decorum and English-language services, seemed totally foreign to the Eastern European Jews. The immigrants established their own landsmanschaft societies made up of groups of individuals from their own hometowns. These institutions served as welcoming havens for new arrivals and as information booths for job-seekers, and accommodated the immigrants' religious, social -- even financial -- needs.
It took much effort to overcome the resistance of the immigrants to unionize, even though they worked under miserable conditions. After all, some of the bosses were friends from their old hometowns. But slowly, due to much energetic work by the labor leaders, and probably helped along by such catastrophes as the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the Jews and other garment workers organized themselves into unions. (See Source Reader Selection 11.) The video has wonderful live footage of the union activities of some of these Jewish pioneers.
Although the Jews tried as hard as possible to Americanize (see Source Selection 13 for an eloquent expression of this desire by a German Jewish Reform rabbi), they carried some ideological baggage with them from the old country. Debates with other Jews who maintained rival political and religious positions, so crucial to their lives in Eastern Europe, continued to rage. A thriving culture was born on the Lower East Side that included the publication of Yiddish newspapers of all shades of opinion, a lively Yiddish theatre and the ubiquitous educational programs. As described in Source Reader Selection 12, anarchists planned gala
balls on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish religious calendar, so as to demonstrate what they considered to be their freedom from the shackles of religious oppression.
But because of social anti-Semitism and general nativist prejudice, legislation was passed in Congress to limit the number of immigrants coming to America. The immigration bills of 1921 and 1924 (see Source Reader Selection 1) effectively cut off the number of Jewish arrivals to this country. According to the latter legislation, only two percent of the population of a national group living in the United States in 1890 would be allowed to come every year. For the Jews as well as for many others from Southern and Eastern Europe, this meant an end to the continual stream of refugees from across the Atlantic.
In the 1920s Jews faced increasing anti-Semitism; they were excluded from or at least found their numbers limited in colleges, social organizations and various professions. Henry Ford published the scurrilous anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. In some cases the prejudice had an interesting positive effect, as Jews sought work in areas of minimal job security, such as the the [sic - omit second "the"] new moviemaking industry. (See the footage of these early movies in the video.) Blocked from other, more stable opportunities, they were willing to take risks in these new ventures.
By the late 1920s, as American Jews and other immigrants were gradually moving out of their original settlements, the world depression hit the United States, and many Jews, along with other Americans, found themselves out of work. The future seemed a bit cloudy. Still, American Jewry had achieved a high degree of social and economic integration into American life that was impressive from the perspective of American society in particular and Jewish history in general.