The Jewish influence in America began in 1654 when a small ship carrying 23 Jewish refugees sailed into the port of New York City, then New Amsterdam. But though they sought asylum from oppression in the Old World, they faced it again in the New. The existing colony of Dutch settlers simply didn’t want them. Bowing to pressure from local merchants and the local Dutch Reformed Church, Colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant wrote the Dutch West India Company asking for their assistance in expelling the newcomers, “that the deceitful race—such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ—be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony.”
Thanks to the influence of several influential Portuguese Jewish merchants in the company, however, the Jews were permitted to remain, albeit with palpable reluctance, as the letter in response to Stuyvesant indicated: “We would have liked to effectuate and fulfill your wishes and request that the new territories should no more be allowed to be infected by people of the Jewish nation, for we foresee therefrom the same difficulties which you fear, but… after many deliberations we have finally decided and resolved to [approve]... a certain petition presented by said Portuguese Jews that these people may travel and trade to and in New Netherland and live and remain there.”
And remain they did, followed by millions over the ensuing centuries—and, Governor Stuyvesant’s fears notwithstanding, to the great benefit of America.
“The story of America was written, in part, by Jewish-Americans.”
In honor of the Jewish pioneers who persisted and persevered in those early days—and to those who came after them and excelled as thinkers, activists, scientists, entertainers, leaders, healers, jurists, writers, artists, innovators, and humanitarians and a host of other fields—the month of May was designated by Congress as Jewish-American Heritage Month (JAHM). The Presidential Proclamation marking this year’s JAHM states, “The story of America was written, in part, by Jewish-Americans… Inspired by Jewish American communal leadership, our Nation’s first President pledged that our Government will ‘give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’ Inspired by Jewish American poetry, our shores have welcomed millions with the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.’”
The story of the Jewish people is the ultimate allegory for perseverance. With origins almost as old as history itself, the Jews, through millennia of privation and persecution yet endured and prevailed. Met with hostility, suspicion, derision and oftentimes government-sanctioned carnage from the likes of Spain, Portugal, Russia and Germany among others, the Jews have in almost every case rewarded degradation with enhancement, and abuse with achievement, flourishing in environments calculated to kill.
Though Jews are often called a “nation,” for most of its history, Judaism had no territorial home. Though Jews are often called a race, the Jewish people are a diverse global community, proudly counting among them Black and Asian Jews. And though often identified as a religion, who or what exactly is a Jew? The bearded, black-garbed patriarch? The staunch atheist with a Masters degree in Comparative Religion? The modern Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jew who may look alike but whose philosophies of observance are as conflicting as day is to night? The individual who attends synagogue once a year on Yom Kippur to atone for the last 12 months of misdeeds? The practicing Jew who attends synagogue thrice daily, seven days a week? The “Jew for Jesus” who identifies as Jewish while rejecting a central tenet of the religion, namely that the Messiah has NOT arrived just yet? Or the member of any one of the literally dozens of hyphenated Jewish groups and groups within groups, all claiming to “do” Judaism right?
The answer is—all of the above. Why? How can it be that so many conflicting sects, groups, divisions and interpretations from so many diverse races and ethnic backgrounds can all exist under one tent? It is because the Jewish people are the only race/religion/people/nation to trace themselves back to a tribe. The founder of Judaism, the patriarch Abraham, passed the faith on through his son Isaac who, in his turn, passed it on to his grandson Jacob, and thence to Jacob’s 12 sons who became the fathers of the 12 tribes comprising the children of Israel. The name “Judaism” literally comes from the tribe of Judah, the one surviving remnant of the 12 tribes.
In reality, everywhere the family of Jews have “walked the Earth,” hung their hats and made a home has been the better for their presence.
The Jewish people thus are most accurately referred to as a tribe, a family, if you will. And it takes all kinds to make a family—peace-makers, mediators, conservatives, rebels and nonconformists. To observe that this family—the Jewish people—have been hit hard throughout history is a statement so vapid and obvious as to elicit an eyeroll from virtually any Jew one mentions it to. One out of every three Jews in the world perished in the Holocaust, a devastating loss to an already small population in comparison to the other major faiths—Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. By way of example, there are 173 Christians and 138 Muslims for every individual Jew on the planet. But despite comprising less than 2% of the global population, Jews have had an enormous impact on civilization.
An ancient antisemitic refrain that has found a home in almost every civilized nation on earth through literature and the fine arts is the legend of the Wandering Jew, a shoemaker who taunted Christ and refused to let him rest against his door as he carried his cross to Calvary. The shoemaker, the legend goes, was cursed to walk the Earth, homeless and despised through the centuries until the Second Coming. The viciousness of the legend is that it fuels and perpetuates the most ancient antisemitic calumny—that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ—an accusation that Pope Paul VI categorically repudiated over half a century ago.
In reality, everywhere the family of Jews have “walked the Earth,” hung their hats and made a home has been the better for their presence. The lie has been put a thousand times over to the so-called “curse” of the Wandering Jew.
But it’s difficult to quantify just how much impact Jewish individuals have had on world culture in general and American life in particular. Just go through an average day and count your blessings. Do you get your morning coffee at Starbucks? Thank its CEO, Howard Schultz. Do you have something to tell the world on Facebook? Thank its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. On your way to work, do you play the music to West Side Story? Thank Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. If you’re school-age, do you sing “God Bless America” at the start of the day? Thank Irving Berlin. Need to Google something online? Thank Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Want to unwind tonight with an action-packed Marvel movie? Thank Marvel’s creator, Stan Lee. The list goes on and on.
Jews have, as a point of historical fact, been a continual blessing.
America honors its share of that blessing this month.