Celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in North America

Celebrating 350 years in America: Summer 2005

This is an important year for Jews in America. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in 1654, a small, bedraggled band of Jews sailed into the harbor of Dutch New Amsterdam and sought refuge. They were the leftovers of a major exodus of Portuguese Marranos from Dutch Brazil after Brazil was retaken by the Portuguese. Most of the refugees returned to Holland. Some of the refugees disembarked in Curacao. A few chose North America as their destination. The Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, resisted the entry of the Jews. But the corporate leaders of the Dutch West India Company, including wealthy Portuguese Jews, overruled Stuyvesant’s prejudice. The first self-proclaimed Jews had arrived in North America.

North America was no ordinary desti­nation for the Jews. It was not like arriving in Iraq, Germany, or Poland. America was to become the leading nation of the ur­ban industrial revolution, the dynamo of capitalism and the money economy. Not since the invention of agriculture ten thou­sand years before had a revolution of this magnitude taken place in human develop­ment. The assault of science and technology transformed Western civilization and ulti­mately the world. Although the weary Por­tuguese Jewish refugees who arrived in New Amsterdam had no idea of what would fol­low, they had landed in the place that would change the Jews more powerfully than any other country in which they had sojourned. That change was so powerful that Jews in America today cannot even comprehend what Jewish life and Jewish belief were like three hundred years ago.

America turned into such an attractive destination for Jews that it ultimately became home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The immigration came in waves. First came the trickle of Portuguese Marranos, who settled in the coastal cities of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston. Then came the bigger wave of German Jews, who laid the foundations of American Jewish life and institutions. After the Germans came the overwhelming numbers of Yiddish-speak­ing Eastern European Jews, who created a powerful Jewish presence in the major cities of North America. In the twentieth century refugees from Nazi and Soviet terror arrived. Even a substantial number of Israelis have established a Zionist diaspora in the United States and Canada.

The roots of American culture lie in many places. One is the incredible potential wealth of the continent we live on. Another is the Anglo-Saxon world from which the reality of a liberal democracy first emerged. Still another is radical Calvinism, which despised aristocracy and glorified human equality. Above all, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which coincided with the American Revolution, championed the powerful no­tions of science and progress. This country, like England, was an ideal place for the urban industrial revolution to begin. Prosperity and freedom were the consequences. Toleration and the separation of religion from govern­ment became the law of the land. The social reality of America was radically different from any previous environment in which Jews had found themselves. Secular education and public schools were available to everyone. No pedigreed upper class prevented social climb­ing. In one generation, money and education could lift immigrants from poverty to success. New secular professions, from accountant to psychiatrist, offered niches of influence and status. Technology and leisure lifestyles opened the worlds of the media and mass entertainment. In America, all the Jewish com­mercial skills that the peasants and warriors of Europe had despised were the very skills that every American citizen needed in order to succeed in a free-enterprise economy. No social environment had ever been as friendly to the Jews as that of America.

But the influence of America on Jewish life lies in something more powerful. Not only did American secular education un­dermine the traditional beliefs of the past, but it also transformed the value system that Jews historically had embraced. Most of the immigrants had come from families and communities that were authoritarian, male chauvinist, and archly collectivist, a milieu where reverence for the past and pes­simism about the future prevailed. America presented a radically new alternative. There was the celebration of dignity and personal freedom, the radical assertion that I have the right to choose my work, my residence, my politics, my religion – and even my marriage partner. There was empowerment, the chal­lenging claim that my role in life was not to be passively humble but to find my own strength and to forge my own destiny. There was the right to happiness, a provocative alternative to accepting suffering with faith. There was a strong shift of focus from the afterlife to the wonderful options for happiness in the secu­lar choices of a dynamic economy.

American Jews embraced these new val­ues with enthusiasm even though they were dramatically opposed to the Jewish values of the past – so much so that many Jews today believe that these values are contained in the Torah; so much so that most contemporary Jews cannot imagine an ethical world without them. If the revolution at Sinai had been a real event, it could not have been more powerful than the American experience in transforming the Jewish people.

Now, these new values can be problematic. A free, individualistic world breeds stress, self-absorption, loneliness, anonymity, and weak nuclear families. Marxism, hippieism, and religious fundamentalism have emerged as challenging alternatives. But, for the vast ma­jority of the people in the Western world, this value system, with all its problems, remains the most attractive. Even modern Israel is more American than it is traditionally Jewish.

It is appropriate this year that we take the time to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival in America and to reflect on the revolution that America has provoked in Jewish life. Humanistic Judaism is the child of America.