History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage by Beth S. Wenger Princeton University Press, 296 pages, $35
When I attended Hebrew school, growing up in Detroit after World War II, my peers and I were taught that Judaism and America shared similar democratic values; that America's early Puritan settlers had been inspired by the Hebrew Bible; that a Jew, Haym Salomon, had bankrolled America's war for independence; and that the Spanish navigator Christopher Columbus had connections to Jews and Judaism. The notion that Jews and their heritage had played a key role in America's founding fascinated us, and we uncritically accepted these stories as true. They inspired us and became part of our identity as Jews and Americans.
Years later, when I was in college, I understood that while biblical Judaism contains great moral and ethical values, Judaism and democracy are not necessarily compatible. Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, when classical Judaism held sway, authoritarianism ruled. Ancient Israel, with its hereditary monarchy and priestly class, was hardly a democratic republic.
The concept that Judaism and American democracy share the same set of values was an idea fashioned by American Jews. Beth Wenger, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written the first full-length study that explains how and why American Jews manufactured and perpetuated the view that the Jewish religion and culture were compatible with America's democratic ideals. Utilizing a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Wenger demonstrates that by the end of the 19th century, American Jews formulated this idea to demonstrate that Jews belonged in the United States and that from the nation's beginning, they had been unequivocally and organically part and parcel of America's social and cultural fabric.
Wenger shows that this was no conspiracy hatched by a select group of Jewish leaders, but something that evolved over time, as generations of Jews acculturated and adjusted to life in the United States. She writes: "Through fledgling historical societies, from the pulpit, and within emerging Jewish organizations," as well as "through individual reflection and talks around the dinner table," American Jews sought meaning for their experience in America. Wenger cites the philosopher Horace Kallen, the Zionist leader and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, philanthropist Oscar Straus, and Reform Rabbi Emil Hirsch as playing key roles in American Jewish efforts to manufacture a collective history in the United States. Ultimately, they and others "produced definitions of what the United States meant for Jews as well as what Jews meant to the United States." Through the narratives they created, "Jews wrote America into Jewish history and Jews into American history." Although democratic ideals and Jewish ideals don't always overlap, the idea persisted for generations and became a part of the American Jewish heritage and the effort to convince the host society that Jews belonged.
Although Jews in Poland, France and Germany had also devised myths to explain how they came to live in those countries, the American environment offered something different from what Jews had experienced in Europe. America lacked a medieval past and legacy of Jewish persecution. Jews in America never experienced mass expulsions or violent pogroms. The federal government never passed any law that specifically targeted Jews. The United States offered them citizenship without any prolonged debate over emancipation. Separation of church and state meant that Jews enjoyed freedom of religion and freedom from religion. No religious test to hold political office on the federal level meant that they could run and be elected congressmen, senators and even president. As a result, American Jews were fond of exclaiming that "America is different."
Connections to Columbus
The efforts of American Jews to link themselves to the country's founding began at the end of the 19th century. In 1892, a group of prominent Jewish citizens established the American Jewish Historical Society. Shortly thereafter, the society commissioned Meyer Kayserling, a Jewish historian in Budapest, to explore the connections between Jews and Columbus. Kayserling uncovered many previously unknown interactions between the explorer and the Jewish people. His study, published in 1894, provided a scholarly basis upon which Jews could rest their claims.By the 1930s, some amateur historians had taken the next step and were hypothesizing that Columbus himself may have had Jewish antecedents. They suggested that because the explorer employed uniquely Hebrew dates and phrases in his writings, he knew Jewish history and traditions. For the fall of Jerusalem, for example, he used the Hebrew expression "the destruction of the second house." In the upper corner of his letters to his son Diego, he wrote the Hebrew letters bet hey, the abbreviated forms of be'ezrat hashem ("with God's help" ) and baruch hashem ("blessed be God" ). In the margin of a note dated 1481, he wrote 5241, the Hebrew equivalent of the Christian year. And he boasted that he was related to King David. Although the interpreter he used to communicate with the Indians, a converted Jew named Luis de Torres, was the first man to go ashore in the New World, and converted Jews helped finance his voyage, the evidence for Columbus being Jewish is mostly anecdotal. As Wenger notes, by mid-century, most scholars dismissed the allegation that Columbus was a "closet Jew." But historical accuracy was not crucial. The purpose of the Columbus narrative was to install Jews solidly within the discovery of America. But in fact, the first verifiably Jewish settlers to appear in North America arrived in New Amsterdam, later New York, from Brazil in 1654. To further insert Jews as central players in the American saga, American Jews emphasized the role played by the Hebrew Bible in inspiring the nation's political tradition. This aspect of the story concerns the Puritans, and is based on historical fact. Arriving on the continent in the 17th century, these English Protestants closely identified with the ancient Hebrews and associated their own experience with biblical events. Puritans equated their struggle against James I with that of the Hebrews against Pharaoh and their departure from England with the Exodus. They studied Hebrew to better understand the Scriptures; gave their children biblical names like Jacob, Samuel, Sarah and Rebecca; made the study of Hebrew mandatory at Harvard University; and gave biblical place names such as Salem, Shiloh and Zion to towns they founded. This reflected the Puritans' intimate bond with Hebrew and the Bible and their belief that in coming to the New World they had come to a New Canaan, a Holy Land, the Land promised by God to his chosen people.
American Jews employed these examples to demonstrate that the nation's ideals had their origins in Jewish teachings, thus reinforcing their contention of a Judeo-American relationship and their right to belong in America.
Similarly, Jewish leaders used American holidays and America's two most hallowed presidents to emphasize the intimate connection between Jewish and American ideals. They compared July 4 (the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776 ) to Passover