Everybody likes a good party. And there's nothing like a nice round number to
serve as an excuse for one. The number in question is 350. As in 350 years
ago this month, 23 bedraggled Jewish refugees arrived in New Amsterdam and asked
The Jews were thrown out of the settlement of Recife, Brazil, after the Dutch
colony there was conquered by Portuguese troops, who reintroduced the
Inquisition to that corner of the new world. Despite anti-Semitic remarks about the
new arrivals made by Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of the province that
would ultimately be renamed New York 30 years later, the stockholders of the
Dutch West Indies Company (among whom were a number of Jewish merchants) told
him to shut up and let them settle down.
This small incident marks the beginning greatest Jewish community in the
history of the Diaspora.
Three-and-half centuries isn't much in terms of a people whose history can be
traced about 3,000 years further back than the arrival of those 23 Jews in
North America. But in this relatively small space of time, Jews have gone from
being a tiny group of marginal figures into the political and cultural
phenomenon that justly sees itself as being as the center of contemporary American
There is, of course, much to celebrate, in the history of American Jewry.
Placed in the context of Jewish history, the dramatic achievements of Jews here
is nothing short of remarkable. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) famously
said when he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for vice president four
years ago, "What a country!"
Yes, it is. When compared with any other period of Jewish history even the
supposed good old days of the "Golden Age of Spanish Jewry," the much-lauded
medieval interregnum of relative security and freedom we quickly realize how
much every other haven for Jews pales in comparison to our situation here.
But in celebrating this history, a focus on the list of famous Jewish
overachievers such as all the senators, Congress members, Supreme Court justices,
movie stars, playwrights, novelists, Nobel laureates, etc. would be to
fundamentally misunderstand things. What made America different was that in a
country where individual freedom was the cornerstone of civic culture, Jews were
free not to be defined by their group identity.
As professor Jonathan Sarna writes in his new and definitive history American
Judaism, published to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the landing, "to
study the history of American Judaism is, among many other things, to be
reminded anew of the theme of human potential; in our case, the ability of
American Jews … to change the course of history and transform a piece of their world."
American Jews are different because America is different, shaped as it is, as
Sarna puts it, by "the canons of free market competition, the ideals of
freedom and the reality of diversity."
Sarna's book is a comprehensive tale of the in's and out's of how Jewish
life was forged here from our humble colonial start to the impressive and
powerful Jewish world that so grips the imagination of admirers and anti-Semites
He reminds us, more than anything else, that this history has been one of
unpredictable cycles of decline and revitalization. As he relates in his
introduction, traditional thinking saw American Jewry as inevitably doomed to
extinction via assimilation, the history of this remarkable community has proven the
doom-and-gloom crowd wrong more than once.
But will that always be the case?
The hoopla over the anniversary notwithstanding, there is plenty of reason to
throw cold water on this celebration. As the controversies over the 1990 and
2001 Jewish population studies proved, the increase in intermarriage and
assimilation, combined with a decline in American Jewish fertility rates, has given
many of us reason to doubt that the next 100 years of Jewish history in this
country will be as glorious as the last century.
Secular achievements for Jews were coupled with a growing ignorance of our
own heritage. The very freedom that gave us the ability to flourish here also
gave us the liberty to abandon our identity, as many other Americans had done.
As Sarna rightly points out, this sense of our own mortality has helped fuel
the recent revitalization of American Jewish religious life. This "bipolar
model" of Jewish life where many drop away while others embrace Judaism more
fervently than ever has created an interesting dynamic.
MONUMENTS TO OUR VANITY
But this point and counterpoint of competing Jewish trends, which, as Sarna
illustrates, is really nothing new, also leads me to look at the orgy of
self-congratulation that the 350th anniversary has fomented with more than a little
It's marvelous that so many people care about Jewish history. But the recent
emphasis on creating more and more museums and memorials to our own vanity is
also a bit off-putting.
Even as it became apparent that there was literally no role in American
society to which a Jew could not legitimately aspire, it also became clear that the
current generation of American Jews was probably the most Jewishly illiterate
in our history. This is, after all, a community that has proven unable to
create a system of affordable and comprehensible Jewish day-school education for
its children. If that doesn't change, then we might as well build more museums
to celebrate our past greatness, because such institutions may be one of the
few places where anything like a coherent Jewish community will be found when
the next round number of our history is encountered.
Yet the story of American Jewry is far from finished. It is entirely
possible, as Sarna writes, that, "as so often before, American Jews will find creative
ways to maintain and revitalize American Judaism. With the help of visionary
leaders, committed followers and generous philanthropists, it may still be
possible for the current 'vanishing' generation of American Jews to be succeeded
by another 'vanishing' generation, and then still another."
So let's lift a glass to 350 years of achievement, and then say a prayer that
Sarna is proven right. But if that vision is to be realized, we need to spend
less time patting ourselves on the back about our past glory and more time
thinking seriously about the future.