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Self-Congratulatory Stupor: Celebrating 350 Years Of Jewish Life Shouldn’t Mean Ignoring Real Problems

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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 to stay. 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 life.

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 ins and outs 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 alike.

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.

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 skepticism.

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.

About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.

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