Blogs > Cliopatria > 350 Years and still "Jewish American"

Sep 7, 2004 11:31 pm

350 Years and still "Jewish American"

Jonathan Edelstein is celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival in New Amsterdam in now-classic blogger fashion, with a blogburst (or is that Carnival) of articles on American Jewry past, present and future. I'd like to add something small.

I've written in the past about being a Liberal Jew, and about being an American Jew, and the tensions involved in both. It's not terribly surprising, I suppose, that Jews have been in North America almost as long as any other Westerners and still remain"quintessential outsiders" while being fully integrated into almost every aspect of American life. It's happened before, almost everywhere Jews have lived. It is arguably integral to Jewishness, starting with extensive commandments to"be different." And even when we are not being obviously different, identity still matters.

Israel Zangwill, eminent Jewish historian, wrote that"History, which is largely a record of the melting of minorities into majorities, records no instance of the survival of a group not segregated in space or not protected by a burning faith as by a frontier of fire." (cited in Abraham Cohen, Everyman's Talmud, p. xxxv) And yet, our recent history provides plenty of examples of resurgent nationalism, of the enduring character of relatively small ethnic identity groups. Why then are Jews so worried about assimilation?

Perhaps because so much energy, over the last few thousand years, has gone into trying to assimilate Jews? Perhaps because Judaism is not just an ethnicity but a religion with a world-reforming mission? Perhaps because it is natural to be proud of oneself and heritage, and to want that pride shared and reflected on? Being Jewish is a difficult thing to define: religion, ethnicity, nationality, culture, ethos....

Perhaps that's what makes being an American Jew so much fun. (You didn't think this was going to be a depressing post, did you?) Being American isn't well-defined, either. Not now, and never has been. In fact, there are lots and lots of other groups that have the same dual identity problem, to the point that it's pretty hard to find people who don't have some complexity to their identity. With the possible exception of Israel, it is more fun to be Jewish in America now than at any time or any place in the past. We have choices, we have allies, we have freedom, we have resources to draw on and build on, we are experimenting and growing and interacting with more different people and ideas than ever before. Yeah, it's complicated. But that's fun.

350 years and still"Jewish American." But that's OK by me, if it's OK by you. Happy Arrival Day!

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 9/8/2004

Interesting: So, from the start American Jews probably couldn't pray together....

I don't know if I'd call it a theological attachment, but I do think that there is a strong strain of American religious/political culture in contemporary American Jewish culture, particularly the Liberal varieties. American ideological/mythology (and its practical applications)is very important to American Jews, I think.

David Lion Salmanson - 9/8/2004

Stanley Hordes makes a pretty nice living giving lectures on this topic to various congregations around the world. It does seem like many Crypto-Jews made it to New Mexico, but their identity as Jews diminished over the years. However, a Hispano friend from New Mexico recounted to me that growing up in the fifties people talked behind each other's backs about which families were Jewish and which weren't, with public revelation being social suicide.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 9/8/2004

The first Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam already reflected the "American melting pot". They were: (1) Jewish, (2) Spanish: they blended into the uneasy world of the Convivencia, (3) Portguese: went underground in Portugal as Crypto-Jews, emigrating and revealing their Judaism after they had been well-established in some other parts of Europe, (4) Northern Europeans: helped to establish Jewish communities in the United Provinces, (5) Latin Americans: founded colony at Recife before they were kicked out.

There are questions, however, about the identity of contemporary Jewish Americans that I find difficult to resolve: are we as attached to the United States as much as the Sephardim were to Spain? Does America have a special place in Jewish theology?

Nathanael D. Robinson - 9/8/2004

No consensus has yet appeared about the settlers of New Mexico. At best the customs of the Hispanic communities resemble Jewish practice, suggesting that rituals were practiced in secret by people who descended from Conversos. But the communities did not "reveal themselves" as other Crypto-Jews did in the early modern period (like the Jews of Provence).

James W Loewen - 9/8/2004

Weren't some of the Spaniards who settled in New Mexico in the late 1500s Jewish? More or less, anyway?
There were some convincing reports in the early 1990s. Then they got contested, and I don't recall the scholarly consensus if one appeared.

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