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October 05, 2004

Jew in America

The United States has been the most hospitable country for Jews in the entire two-thousand-year history of the Jewish diaspora. Any suggestion to the contrary is sheer lunacy.

The Torah says we are created "b'tselem elokim" – in the image of God. Invoking a strikingly parallel notion, the Declaration of Independence announces that all men are endowed by their Creator with "unalienable rights." And the U.S. Constitution applies that principle. Under the Constitution, Jews are born with the same unalienable rights that belong to every citizen of any faith, of any race, color, or creed. What's more, religious tests for office are prohibited; there is no official religion; and the free exercise of religion is protected.

In 1790, replying to a letter from the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington wrote:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

We have now reached the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam from Brazil. In an essay entitled "The Citizen Stranger" on the op-ed page of the New York Times (Sept. 12, 2004), Jonathan Rosen observed that it is a fiction that we can celebrate 350 years of Jewish American life; in fact, "there has been Jewish American life for only 228 years, because that's how long there's been an America." Although this might sound like a smart-aleck riposte that an 11-year-old would offer at the dinner table, Rosen was correct in an important way. We should in fact measure from 1776, because the creation of this country was not just one of the most important events in the history of mankind. It was incidentally one of the most important events in Jewish history as well.

While I don't share Rosen's ambivalence about Jews in America, he is surely correct that the date of Jewish arrival

doesn't really matter anyway because of the nature of America, which in this regard has something uncannily in common with Judaism, a religion that maintains that all Jews stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah; even if they are converts, their souls are retroactively invested with a kind of primary authenticity. America does the same for its citizens, whenever they become citizens. Everyone, naturalized or born here, is the inheritor not only of the rights and freedoms of the place, but its responsibilities too – whether or not one's ancestors were here to perpetrate past injustices or fight for greater equality. In this sense America itself is like Mount Sinai, which is hardly surprising, given the biblical inspiration of its founders.

* * * * *

I am not trying to say that it has been an unwavering straight line from the Declaration, through the Constitution and Washington's letter, to the present. I am not denying the existence of Leo Frank, Father Coughlan, or Crown Heights. I am not suggesting that there has never been anti-semitism here or that all anti-semitism has departed America forever. I am simply pointing out an incontrovertible truth that under our law, under our fundamental law, under the natural law principles of the Declaration, every Jew born or naturalized in America is 100% pure American. As George Washington wrote, all citizens – including Jews – "possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship."

Full citizenship was a unique status in Jewish history. A few months ago, Ed Koch was interviewed in Hadassah magazine (March 2004) and compared the status of Jews in America to that of Jews in the Spain during the Golden Age: "If you were to compare this experience to anything, you'd have to go back to the Golden Age in Spain, where Jews were treated respectfully and equally and were permitted to rise to heights unknown in the rest of the world. That is what we have today in the United States." I am quite certain that Mayor Koch meant this as a tribute to America, but I am even more certain that he got it fundamentally wrong. In medieval Spain under Muslim rule, the Jews were treated very well, but that assessment is subject to the old joke – "compared to whom?" Compared to the treatment of the Jews during most of the diaspora, the Golden Age of Spain was indeed an idyllic period. While Jews were permitted to participate in society – Maimonides is a perfect example – Jews were dhimmis under Muslim law. They were respected as "people of the Book," but they were nonetheless second-class subjects. Nothing of the sort has existed in the history of the United States.

This has always been a Christian country in nearly every respect short of establishment. Jews today are about two percent of the population, while Christians are about eighty percent – higher if those who don't identify with a religion are excluded. But as George Washington recognized, the Jews are not merely "tolerat[ed]" by this Christian country; they have been full citizens from the start.

* * * * *

My grandmother was born in a small town in the Ukraine in 1895 and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. One of the stories she told about her childhood in the Ukraine – and told at great length – had to do with her yearning for an education. In her community, so the story went, the school was empty. The local peasants wanted their children to work on the farm, and the Jews were prohibited from attending school. One year, a new teacher came to her town. According to my grandmother, he didn't know much about how the school worked, but he quickly discovered that he had virtually no students in his classroom. One day, he stopped in at my great-grandfather's store and got to talking with the local Jews. The Jews hired him to teach their children in secret. This arrangement lasted until a peasant passed by the store, noticed what was going on, and alerted the authorities. My great-grandfather and others were fined a large amount. ("For what?" my grandmother always asked. "For the crime of wanting to teach their children about their country?") The history of our family is somewhat unclear, but there seems to be some truth to the story that my great-grandfather left the Ukraine and came here because he was unable to pay the fine assessed by the authorities.

Whenever my grandmother told this story, she always let us know that when she came to the United States, she loved this country. The reason she always gave us was that while Jews in her part of the Ukraine were prohibited from attending school, this country gave her children a free education.

The epilogue to my grandmother's story is that my grandmother accompanied my aunt and uncle to Washington for a year when she was in her eighties. During that year, my sister made a phone call to my grandmother and in the course of the conversation asked her how the weather was. Now, in response to the question about the weather, my grandmother launched into the familiar tale about her childhood in the Ukraine when she wasn't allowed to attend school. My sister had heard it many times, of course, and all she could think of was that my grandmother had completely lost her marbles. What did that story have to do with the weather? My grandmother's story went on and on and on, as usual. Eventually, after quite some time, my grandmother reached the point about getting a free education for her children in America, which was usually the end of the story. This time, she said to my sister, "And I always said that if I ever got to Washington, I would kiss the ground that the Capitol is on. But I haven't been feeling very well, and I haven't gotten out, so I don't know what the weather is."

* * * * *

When observant Jews pray in the morning, they recite a series of 15 blessings. Three of those blessings are existential; they thank God for having made us who we are and who we are not. An Orthodox Jew blesses God for having not made him a gentile. He blesses Him for having not made him a slave. An Orthodox man blesses Him for having not made him a woman, and an Orthodox woman blesses Him for having made her according to His will. Conservative Judaism has modified these blessings so that they focus on the positive. A Conservative Jew blesses God for having made him an Israelite (a Jew). He blesses God for having made him a free person. And the third blessing is no longer bifurcated. A Conservative Jew (man or woman) blesses God for having made him in His image (sheasani b'tzalmo).

In Judaism, prayer is formalized in both time and substance. Jews are required to pray three times a day, and within each branch and tradition of Judaism, the liturgy is wholly standardized. It is quite unusual for Jews to choose one from Column A and one from Column B.

But the standardized liturgy may be supplemented by individuals who wish to speak personally to God, and it really is long past time for American Jews to reflect on their own God-given good fortune in being Americans. Yes, it's true that in many Jewish congregations, we recite a prayer for our government on the sabbath. But some common versions of the prayer are quite old-fashioned and might just as well have been wishing God's blessing on a medieval king or sultan. These versions of the prayer don't reflect the relationship between a Jewish citizen in America and the government, which George Washington noted over 200 years ago. They almost sound as if we are subjects in a very tenuous position in the kingdom and are beseeching the ruler to be nice to us, when we really should be praying as citizens for the nation's leaders to do what is right on behalf of this country.

I suggest that American Jews reflect on their fortune and thank God for having given wisdom to our Founders who established this nation; thank God for having blessed this nation with judgment, strength, and a willingness to repent for our sins; and, finally, thank God for having given our parents, grandparents, or more distant ancestors the courage, like Abraham, our forefather, to leave their homelands and start a new life in America. In short, I think it is time for American Jews to say:

"Thank you, God, for having made me an American."