What Brings Us Together As Jews?

Gordon Haber

It’s Jewish American Heritage Month. Our friends at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History have fantastic resources and events here. — Ed.

In September of 1654, twenty-three Jews disembarked from the Ste. Catherine to shores of New Amsterdam. They were a ragged group comprised of two widows, four married couples, and thirteen children. They had been at sea for months after fleeing Recife, a Dutch colony in present-day Brazil, that was reconquered by the Portuguese.

Portugal had expelled its Jews in 1496, and its colonies were not safe for Jews. Neither apparently was much of the New World. The Jews were forced to move on from Spanish-held Jamaica and Cuba. Pirates attacked the ship. Still, they expected a less hostile welcome from the Dutch.

But New Amsterdam was not the Dutch Republic. If a relative kind of tolerance existed in Amsterdam and the Hague, the colonies of the Dutch West India Company had a burgeoning slave trade and a history of massacring indigenous peoples. Peter Stuyvesant, the war-hardened, one-legged governor of New Amsterdam, took a dim view of Jews, claiming in a letter to his superiors that the Jewish people’s “customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians” would be disruptive to the colony.

The company directors, in their response, sympathized with Stuyvesant’s view. But considering Jewish losses in Brazil—and that Jews had “large amount of capital invested in shares of this company”—it would be “unreasonable and unfair” to kick them out of New Amsterdam. The Jews could remain, “provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community.”

This was the first Jewish community in what would become the United States—two dozen Portuguese Jews dependent upon their distant co-religionists, restricted by the authorities in their sphere of trade, and forbidden from having a visible house of worship.

The Way We Live Now

This month marks Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM), which is why I’ve been thinking about those Jewish refugees disembarking onto the muddy shores of New Amsterdam. The contrast between their situation and ours is astonishing.

For one, there are the numbers: that tiny community of 23 has grown to a population 7.5 million. The restrictions of previous centuries are gone: the U.S. has more than 3700 synagogues. American Jews tend to have more education and higher incomes. We are politically and culturally engaged as Americans, with virtually no profession barred to us.

Another difference: the community has splintered. In the 17th century, everybody knew what a Jew was. You wouldn’t find much disagreement about how to live and worship as a Jew. (Yes, Spinoza was a contemporary of our Portuguese refugees, but the rabbis of Amsterdam sent him packing.)

In contrast, the Jewish community of the U.S. is marked by its disagreements. Reform Jews feel they have little in common with Orthodox Jews, and so on. The vicious political fights of the American polity are splitting the Jewish community as well.

This is a tough moment for optimism, but I’m going to try anyway. Because there’s another way of looking at it—that divisiveness is a kind of negative mirror of diversity.

The American tradition of religious liberty has allowed a remarkable range of Jewish religious expression, from the 25% who identify as “culturally” or “ethnically” Jewish to the more established denominations: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox, and the various sects of Hasidim. The diversity is also reflected in how we view our own ethnicity, with Jews of Color asserting their presence.

American Jews do still hold some crucial ideas in common. First there is concern about rising antisemitism. It’s saddening to note that American Jews of every stripe feel less secure than they did five years ago, but we seem to be experiencing this as a community.

Another aspect is more encouraging—that the most popular Jewish practices involve arts and culture. A majority of Jews, whether they attend synagogue or not, learn about and experience Judaism through food, literature, film, music, museums, journalism, and art. If many American Jews are not on the same page religiously or politically, we still share a deep interest in exploring Jewish cultural expressions and asking ourselves what it means to be Jewish. (This desire to find meaning through heritage is also a point of overlap between Jews and other American communities.)

CANVAS is proud to help the arts and culture field as it engages with these questions and keeps our communal conversation going. It’s easier to point out what divides us as Americans and Jews; the harder work is in emphasizing what we have in common.

As Americans, we’re still struggling with the colonial legacy that began with the Spanish and the Dutch. But as American Jews, we can look at one part of that legacy with a certain pride: Shearith Israel, or the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which was founded by those refugees from Recife, and is still a thriving New York City congregation.  

Canvassing the CANVAS Community

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month (and in reaction to yet another politically contentious week), I asked members of the CANVAS community to talk about a positive aspect of Jewish American life. Unsurprisingly, I got a range of fascinating responses:

The artist I think of immediately is Eva Hesse. Her work is so bold, uncompromising, and just funny—qualities that remind me of all the powerful Jewish people in my life.
Sam Mogelonsky, Kultura Collective

Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, and George Oppen, for the brilliance and beauty of their work and for the depth of their commitments to solidarity and activism.
Maia Ipp, New Jewish Culture Fellowship

Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center. Aaron and his army of young zamlers (book collectors) rescued books from dumpsters and collections from older Jews whose families did not want, or could not read, works of Jewish literature, history, activism, and enlightenment. Today those books are being translated and digitized. That is Aaron’s gift, and his inspiration to so many, and to the way we think of what’s possible here at CANVAS.
Lou Cove, CANVAS

There are so many people in the rich past of the Jewish people who have brought value to our lives through music, film, visual arts, literature and more. It is that body together that impacts us. Art influences our world…enriches our lives…brings us together in such a profound way. It is the greatest weapon against so many of the issues we are facing (tyrants, fascists, and war criminals excluded), because it can be used to educate and inspire, to create movements and to offer masses of people digestible ways of thinking differently. And it does this through the joyous celebration of imagination and human potential. 
David Katznelson, Reboot

Touro Synagogue (and its surrounds) in Newport, Rhode Island!
Melissa Yaverbaum, CAJM

One thing that makes me proud of American Jewish culture is the way it responds to changes through the ritual. To wit: Seder just happened, and we did most of what we normally do. But we did not sing Go Down, Moses, because at this moment in American life, the singing of a traditionally Black spiritual by a predominantly white group did not sit right.
David Winitsky, Jewish Plays Project

Here’s my personal favorite:

We nominate David’s Brisket House, a 50-year-old Brooklyn deli founded by a Slovakian Jew and now run by a Yemeni Muslim family. The eaters are completely diverse, and the recipes haven’t changed. We love the idea that Jewish culture can remain authentic while part of our larger society, and that it does not remain hermetically sealed. Our second choice is Stephen Sondheim.
Rebecca Guber, The Neighborhood and Asylum Arts

If there’s something positive about Jewish American heritage that you’d like to share, let us know. We’d be happy to hear from you.

Image: The ceiling of the Shearith Israel synagogue, New York City. Photo: Jeremy Seto, via Flickr.

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