Jewish odyssey in America

January 13, 2008|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

The Jewish Americans

Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America

By Beth S. Wenger

Doubleday / 388 pages / $40

The product of a working-class family from the Bronx, Bess Myerson declined to change to a less Jewish-sounding name for the Miss America contest of 1945. "Now, Besseleh," her father repeated, "don't forget who you are out there." When she became the first Jew to wear the crown, Myerson gazed at the crowd at the Warner Theater "and saw all the Jewish people hugging each other, congratulating each other, as though they had won." Her ego trip had been derailed. "I didn't want to be their beauty queen," Myerson remembered. "But if I was -- and I surely was -- I didn't want to disappoint them."

Like Myerson, many Jews prospered in the free, open and relatively tolerant society of the United States, maintaining their Jewish identity while assimilating into American culture. In The Jewish Americans, Beth Wenger, a professor of history and director of the Jewish studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells their stories, supplementing her narrative with first-person accounts of prominent and little-known Jews, including Louis D. Brandeis, Abraham Cahan, Hank Greenberg, Albert Einstein, Stephen S. Wise, Betty Friedan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A companion volume to a current six-hour PBS documentary, The Jewish Americans is lavishly illustrated. It is a splendid synthesis of a history that is, at once, inimitably Jewish and classically American.

Wenger's study is organized into four sections, each of them pivoting on the struggle of Jews to retain their religious and ethnic character while becoming active and accepted citizens of their adopted land. "They Came to Stay" (1654-1880), follows the early settlers as they spread across America. These Jews, Wenger demonstrates, lamented religious laxity and the absence of "Yiddishkeit" in their communities. But by the middle of the 19th century, they had built scores of synagogues across the country. And they felt sufficiently secure to speak up for their rights. In 1787, Jonas Phillips, a German-Jewish merchant in Philadelphia, wrote to members of the Constitutional Convention to protest a Pennsylvania law requiring office-holders to take an oath attesting to their faith in the New Testament. Three years later, the Jews of Newport, R.I., asked President George Washington to assure them equal treatment.

"A World of Their Own" (1880-1924) tells the familiar story of the emigration of 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States. As they struggled for economic security, and coped with the prejudice of Protestants and the indifference of "German Jews," the "greenhorns," Wenger emphasizes, "aspired to mainstream American lifestyles and values." To illustrate, she includes an exchange in The Bintel Brief (bundle of letters), a popular column in The Jewish Daily Forward, in which editor Abraham Cahan recommended that an 18-year-old bookkeeper, whose immigrant parents had "no idea as to my intellectual needs," read Jack London, William Dean Howells and Upton Sinclair. She reprints as well the Forward's unintentionally hilarious attempt to explain "in plain, `unprofessional' and `unscientific' Yiddish," the fundamentals of the quintessentially American game of baseball.

"The Best of Times, the Worst of Times" (1924-1945) is a poignant account of restrictions on immigration that reduced to a trickle the flow of Jews into the United States. As they became more comfortably middle-class, the second generation became more estranged from the world of their fathers and mothers. And they watched, anxiously, as a riding tide of anti-Semitism emerged abroad and at home. The pleas of Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of the Treasury, to rescue the Jews of Europe from extermination largely fell on deaf ears. Little wonder, then, that Ruth Gruber, a special assistant in the Interior Department who helped settle Jewish refugees in Oswego, N.Y., "realized that every one of them was alive through a miracle."

"Home" brings the story into the 21st century. Having gained unprecedented acceptance, prosperity and pride of place in American culture, Jews wrestle anew with individual and collective identities. Rates of intermarriage have skyrocketed, throwing into question the future of "the race." Orthodox and secular Jews appear to have less and less in common. Israel presents an alternative homeland. The Jewish community in America, Wenger concludes, "defies neat categorization." But, her wonderful book also reveals, the community remains vibrant, bringing honor to people who used to be denigrated as "hyphenates."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

Note: The PBS series will continue at 9 on Wednesday evening, Jan. 16, and at the same time on the following Wednesday, Jan. 23.

EXCERPT

"Life in the New World offered some the first opportunity to live openly as Jews. Aaron Lopez, one of the most successful merchants in Newport, had been born a Catholic to a family living under the Portuguese Inquisition, but once in the colonies reclaimed his Judaism, submitted to circumcision as an adult and faithfully practiced Judaism throughout his life. The value placed on Jewish observance can be seen in the number of Jews who journeyed across the ocean with cherished ritual objects, such as Shabbat candles and Kiddush cups."

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