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The Pot that Didn’t Melt

The first Jews to settle as a group in what is now the United States arrived at the frontier outpost of New Amsterdam in 1654, broke and unwanted, but unable to make a living back in Holland. A century and a half passed with relatively little change. A few prospered; most remained petty merchants or artisans. In 1812 New York contained about fifty Jewish families. Philadelphia, the largest American city, had about thirty. A conservative estimate puts the total Jewish population of the United States in 1820 at 2,700. Culturally, the Jews were as insignificant as they were in numbers and social importance. Religious indifference prevailed; intermarriage was common. A gloomy Jewish observer predicted that none of the existing synagogues was likely to survive for very long.

A century later, after World War I, the United States contained the largest Jewish population in the world, nearly half of whom lived in the city that began as New Amsterdam. Writers, scholars, artists, publishers, jurists, and philanthropists of peerless distinction were just emerging. By World War II Jews were becoming, in Arthur Hertzberg’s words, “the most educated, culturally creative element in America.” Within another twenty years they had built one of the most powerful and greatly feared lobbies in Washington.

It is a fabulous story—fabulous in every sense of the word—but difficult to tell. Histories of ethnic groups, like those of nations and churches, are written either by insiders or outsiders. The insider draws on a special empathy, an inward familiarity that the outsider may never attain. The outsider, however, takes less for granted, and may therefore bring to bear a more critical attitude, a more demanding standard of judgment, and a wider range of reference. Readers, of course, want both empathy and critical detachment, not just the illusion of one and the authority of the other. But when a book, such as the one under review, addresses both insiders and outsiders, the writer crosses a mine field of rival sensibilities and his own particular vulnerabilities become glaringly apparent.

The celebratory mode that is characteristic of insider history understandably prevails in the general histories of American Jews. How could it not, in view of the astounding contrast between the fate of this people in Europe and their accomplishments and esteem in America? Arthur Hertzberg, a lifelong student of Jewish culture, for years the rabbi of a New Jersey congregation, and a leader in Jewish affairs, is almost the ultimate insider; and his book, which is a product of lived experience as well as wide reading, springs from dedication rather than detachment. It is certainly an affectionate narrative of achievements and of the notable Jews identified with them. On another level, however, Hertzberg’s concern rises above the familiar record of ethnic progress. He wants to know at every turn how faithful the Jews have been to their own traditions. The question gives a critical edge to some of his findings.

Where American Jewry has conspicuously failed over most of its history, Hertzberg suggests, is in the cultivation of piety and religious culture. Until the Nazi era, most of the Jews who came to America were among the poorest and worst educated of their own people and also among the poorest of European immigrants.1 They brought with them little by way of formal culture and scant respect for religious obligations. They wanted mainly to make money and look after their families. One consequence was a widespread distrust of rabbis and an unwillingness to invest them with the kind of authority they enjoyed in the Old World. Accordingly, rabbis stayed away—American synagogues had none at all in the colonial and early national periods—and from their seats of authority in Europe excoriated America as a godless, soul-destroying land that should be avoided by all who value learning and piety. This hostile propaganda tended to perpetuate throughout the nineteenth century the lack of intellectual leadership and the erosion of religious life in the American Jewish community. When the first yeshiva-trained rabbi in America died in 1862, after supporting himself for years by keeping a store, his eulogist declared that

since the downfall of the Jewish monarchy there has been no age and no country in which the Israelites were more degenerated…than in our own age and in our country.

On the other hand, these money-grubbing American Jews demonstrated from the outset an extraordinary concern for one another’s welfare and an accompanying willingness to assume major philanthropic obligations, which eventually extended far beyond their own ranks. In America all the other religious injunctions of traditional Jewish law might be disregarded in favor of personal convenience, but centuries of indifference or hostility in the outside world had unforgettably reinforced the Jewish commandment to look after their own poor. This powerful obligation made the very first North American settlement possible, since the bedraggled fugitives who found themselves in New Amsterdam in 1654 were allowed to stay only because leading Jews in Holland promised to take care of any of the immigrants who might not prove to be self-supporting.

By the nineteenth century the philanthropic imperative could become a substitute for the religion that had inspired it. Judah Touro, son of the prerevolutionary cantor in Newport, Rhode Island, helped to maintain the grounds of his father’s old synagogue after the congregation dissolved and long after he himself had abandoned any participation in religious services and moved to New Orleans. At his death in 1854 this wholly secular merchant gave away the largest sum anyone in America had yet donated to charity, endowing Jewish institutions in seventeen American cities and in Palestine along with non-Jewish agencies in New Orleans. “Such biographies,” Hertzberg comments, “would recur again and again among future generations of American Jews.”

Another form of pan-Jewish mutual help emerged in 1840, when American Jews raised their first public protest against mistreatment of less fortunate brethren in other countries. On this occasion protest meetings in several cities appealed to US authorities to express American disgust over an incident in Damascus where medieval suspicions of ritual murder, replete with allegations that Jews used Christian and Muslim blood for the baking of matzoth, had led to the jailing and torture of Jews. (Even before the protestors reached President Martin Van Buren, he learned of the case and lodged a protest.) Other such representations followed in the 1850s and after, with varying responses from the American State Department. Jews called on the United States to uphold their right to travel in countries that excluded them; to intervene in the abduction of a Jewish child by papal police in Italy; to condemn pogroms in Russia and Romania; to leave immigration unrestricted; and to support the creation of a national homeland in Palestine. These pleas in behalf of other Jews in faraway places, like the concomitant outpouring of communal charity in American cities, made a scattered and divided people feel they were connected. A highly activist sense of collective responsibility that took the form of giving money and was dramatized by political effort has remained—Hertzberg tells us—the principal adhesive force in American Jewish life.

Third, American Jews at least since the eighteenth century have demonstrated a passionate desire to be included in civic life: a determination to climb over, go around, or flatten any external barrier to acceptance as Americans. Hertzberg writes understandingly about the soft, accommodating strategies for winning acceptance as well as the more abrasive strategies of confrontation and protest. Accommodation was evident, for instance, in the super-patriotism of the first Jewish-American politician, Mordecai Manuel Noah, and in the conservative disposition of Jewish voters throughout the nineteenth century. After the Irish took over Tammany Hall in the 1820s, Noah switched to the new Native American Party, formed to oppose foreign influence, and claimed that Jews were exceptional among immigrants in their adaptability to American institutions.2 Until the early twentieth century Jewish politicians, regardless of party, adapted their political allegiances to those of the most influential non-Jews in their region or locality. They did not, therefore, stand out as reformers or radicals, but instead ardently pursued success.

The pursuit of success, the earnest desire for citizenship, and the yearning for acceptance were inseparable: first among German Jews in the nineteenth century, then equally among Eastern European Jews in the twentieth century. Hertzberg says that Jews “needed acceptance in America more than any other minority” because they alone had no homeland to return to. Here his position as insider plays his sharply observed facts false. Even if it were true that Jews alone had no homeland (one thinks of Africans, Ukrainians, Armenians, Volga Germans, and millions of other homeless, victimized peoples), that fate would seem simply to require survival in America, not any special acceptance or success. For Jews as a community, survival has indeed been indispensable; but the passion for success and acceptance has hardly been less strong. Therein lies an enduring dilemma for American Jews: the headlong pursuit of success in business and acceptance in community life entails a degree of assimilation that weakens the ties that give the group its identity and has often seemed to threaten its survival.

How have Jews coped with this dilemma, this deep division in the heart between a desire for complete inclusion in the American system and a desire for some inviolable separateness? In a particularly intriguing chapter, Hertzberg argues that the Jewish mother had a heroic part, at least among Eastern European immigrants, in limiting the disorganizing effects of assimilation. Assimilation characteristically weakens an ethnic group by alienating children from parents and thus disrupting the bonds of family. Among Jewish immigrants the struggle first to survive and then to succeed obliged women and children to toil unremittingly for their family’s livelihood. Fathers who could not earn enough to sustain the accustomed respect of their children often became demoralized. Their ineffectiveness, and even outright desertion of their families, provoked rebellion among the young. But the Jewish mother stepped into the breach. As the protector of the children, Hertzberg writes, she became the source of family loyalty and the guardian of ethnic continuity. She could encourage her sons to reach for success in the larger world—to do for her what her husband failed to do—while binding them to her and to their heritage with ties of love.

Another way of dealing with the strains that success and assimilation place on ethnic identity is to act collectively, outside the family, in public life. Instead of merely adjusting its own social and religious life to conform to what the larger society favors, an ethnic group that hungers for success can also, if it is bold, make demands that its members not be treated invidiously and that they must be given a share of power and prestige, whether in party politics or bureaucratic appointments or civic honors. When such demands are met the ethnic dilemma becomes less acute since the goals of a wider “recognition” and inclusion are won through a struggle that also builds the internal solidarity of the group. Without making the point explicitly, the later chapters of Hertzberg’s book can be read as a narrative of transition from a predominance of accommodation to an increasing resort to protest and power.

A combative attitude on the part of Jews appeared sporadically as early as the mid-nineteenth century. It surfaced initially in Jewish opposition to Christian prayers and Bible reading in the public schools, in resistance to efforts by Christian missionaries to convert them, and in a campaign for appointment of Jewish chaplains in the Union armies during the Civil War. Before long, insistence on their own rights involved Jews in wider claims to secure the rights of others and in movements to realize them. Despite the general conservatism of the German Jews, the official program of their Reform synagogues, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, proclaimed a religious duty to “participate in the great task of modern times,” that of solving the mounting problems of social injustice. This led in the early twentieth century to the rise of a new generation of liberal rabbis, pacifists, and such champions of interracial equality as Lillian Wald and Joel Spingarn, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Simultaneously Jews assumed the leadership of a coalition opposing immigration restriction. For the first time a Jewish vote on a national issue had an impact on American politics, and the first Jewish defense organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, were formed.

Strategies of protest and power received a tremendous impetus after 1910 from the rise of the Eastern European Jews, who brought with them to America a passion for equality and social justice. Initially such feeling and commitment flowed into the Socialist party and into powerful new unions in the clothing industry. Through the unions (largely neglected in Hertzberg’s narrative) the Yiddish-speaking masses battled the German Jews who employed them. Then, beginning with World War I, the Zionist movement became a major vehicle for Eastern European assertiveness. Largely opposed by the assimilated German Jewish leaders, Zionism, with its claims that a national homeland outside the US was necessary to save threatened Jews, became the means by which Eastern Europeans gained the upper hand in the organizations representing American Jewry.

Hertzberg has many vivid pages on American Zionism. Under the leadership of Louis Brandeis, it deviated from European Zionism in its preoccupation with practical action—with fund raising and political pressure—and its indifference to the making of a national Hebraic culture. Once again American Jews chose a characteristically American activism rather than an effort to work out an explicit ideology. This kind of Zionism left American Jews secure in their American homeland, yet tightly bound together in prodigious labors for the survival of Israel.

The overwhelming importance of Israel in American Jewish life during the 1970s and 1980s was built partly on the confidence and political realism gained through antidiscrimination and civil rights campaigns in the immediately preceding decades. Pressure exercised through the courts, rather than mere appeals to good will, opened the doors of American colleges and universities fully to Jewish students. The major Jewish organizations competed with one another to help in the strenuous legal battles that the Urban League and the NAACP waged against segregation. In these struggles Jews no longer tried to stay in the background. They were bent on power, and were rewarded with prominent places in the Kennedy administration and in the great march on Washington at the height of the civil rights movement. When, after 1965, black nationalists broke away from the interracial alliance, Jews were ready, if need be, to stand alone for Israel.

Ordinary American Jews would surely not have risked this unprecedented level of political mobilization if general American opinion had remained as unsympathetic as it was in the early twentieth century toward unmelted ethnic groups in general and Jews in particular. A new, multi-ethnic tolerance, spreading from intellectual circles to ever wider segments of the population, gave militant minorities a latitude they had never before enjoyed. During the middle decades of the twentieth century the relation of ethnic groups to America was gradually redefined. The claim that the US was the great melting pot of the world was heard less and less following World War II and now is seldom made. Instead, in the rhetoric of civic rituals and public education, America was increasingly represented as a nation of enduring subcultures, through which an amicable diversity would and should prevail. The point about the pluralist vision of America that needs to be made here is that Jewish intellectuals such as Horace Kallen and Mordecai Kaplan were foremost in conceiving it and highly important in propagating it. This was, in a sense, the ultimate strategy for reconciling total inclusion with enduring separateness. Whatever inner strain the Jewish mother fails to relieve, and whatever disadvantage political pressure leaves untouched, could now be understood as a hangover of repressive and conformist forces from a bygone era.

As a blueprint for America, the cultural pluralism of Kallen and Kaplan had just enough truth to undermine the preeminence of an Anglo-Protestant elite and just enough plausibility to cast a patina of idealism over the ensuing struggles for ethnic power. Objectively speaking, the invention of cultural pluralism was an extraordinary ethnic achievement: an exercise of mind that abolished any claims of white Protestants to constitute a rightful majority and defined us all as minorities and all minorities as equal. It was not, however, an achievement that Hertzberg cares greatly to applaud. Cultural pluralism, he points out, trusts too much in the superficialities of ethnic identities, which in fact tend to fade in America over the long run. It also relativizes the importance of the true uniqueness of the Jews. Not mere group feeling but religion forms the backbone of a people; not Jewishness but Judaism is the key to survival. Hertzberg writes that if a “spiritual revival” does not take place, “American Jewish history will soon end.”

From an outsider’s perspective what remains unanswered in this lively and courageous narrative is why America proved such a good place for a people whose experience in Europe was exclusion and persecution. Hertzberg attributes the relatively receptive milieu in this country to the protection the Constitution gives to minorities—a protection institutionalizing an earlier dispersal of power through a society “too fragmented and untidy for persecution to work.” The decentralized, libertarian character of the American polity has of course been fundamental to the safety of all minorities. But the Protestant and American antipathy toward centralized power has served some minorities better than others. Why, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, did Jews have an easier time in America than Catholics, and an easier time than Japanese in the first half of the twentieth century?

This is not the kind of question that appeals to insiders. Insiders are usually content to assume that merit and prowess can adequately explain the gains that their own people have made. Also, for reasons already suggested, many Jews need to feel that trusting in the outside world can dangerously relax their vigilance. From a comparative point of view, however, it is difficult to ignore the strong congruence that has always existed in this country between Jewish and Anglo-American values.

Like the American revolutionists, Jews were a scattered people, dwelling in separate communities that were bound together only by a common consciousness, not by subjection to a remote worldly authority. Conspiratorial theories concerning their slavish subservience to a foreign tyranny, although carried to this country by other immigrants, usually seemed less credible to American Protestants than similar fears of Catholics and Asians. Moreover, Jews have been a commercial people and America a commercial republic, strongly given to truck and barter, more ready to indulge clever chicanery than some other vices and more appreciative of initiative and enterprise than some other virtues. So long as Americans were mostly provincial and rural, the symbiosis of values was far from complete. But the United States in this century has become a worldly, cosmopolitan place, in which the intellect, expressiveness, and anxiety in Jewish life are ungrudgingly esteemed. If, as Arthur Hertzberg claims, it is still not easy to be a Jew, to most of the rest of us the problem seems familiar.

  1. 1

    Although generally true, this judgment needs some shading. There were, for instance, well-to-do Jews who paid for cabin-class accommodations in crossing the Atlantic. They avoided altogether the processing and counting that immigrants who traveled by steerage underwent at Ellis Island and other US depots. Our statistics are based only on steerage passengers.

  2. 2

    Noah is better known for a grandiose but empty scheme in 1825 to colonize Jewish immigrants on an island in the Niagara River, where—with himself as governor—they would await their ultimate ingathering in the Holy Land. For this and equally fruitless fund-raising schemes to pay for the return of the Jews to Palestine, Noah is often hailed as an early American Zionist. See the excellent though sympathetic biography by Jonathan Sarna, Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (Holmes and Meier, 1981).

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