web analytics
March 31, 2015 / 11 Nisan, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

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


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, where this first appeared. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Self-Congratulatory Stupor: Celebrating 350 Years Of Jewish Life Shouldn’t Mean Ignoring Real Problems”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Photo from President Barack Obama's past visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu’s View of Obama: Trust and Consequences
Latest Indepth Stories
Photo from President Barack Obama's past visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

{Originally posted to author’s website, FirstOne Through} TRUST Trust is the bedrock of a functional relationship. It enables one party to rely on the other. A trust that includes both intention and capability permits a sharing of responsibility and workload. The relationship between US President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu started off badly and further […]

jabotinsky with sword

Jabotinsky said “Go To Hell” was a good retort to opponents of the Jewish people; fitting for Obama.

Obama Racine

Obama pulled off one of US history’s greatest cons,twice fooling a gullible electorate and most Jews

Auschwitz Entrance

While in Auschwitz I felt a tangible intensity. I could sense that I was in a place of sheer evil.

Obama needs to wake up. The real enemy is not Netanyahu but Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad,IS

My beliefs & actions have led to numerous death threats against me; my excommunication by my church

In November 2014, Islamic Relief Worldwide was classified as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates.

Too rarely appreciated for its symbolic weight; it can represent freedom and independence.

Erica Pelman is a spiritually-driven woman. She is founder and director of “In Shifra’s Arms” (ISA), an organization that offers aid to pregnant Jewish women of all religious backgrounds practically, financially and emotionally. Its arms are open to any pregnant woman in need whether single, divorced, separated, or from a financially-strapped family. “Presently, we are […]

Many so-called “humanitarian NGOs” frequently abuse Israel by applying false moral equivalencies

Israeli history now has its version of “Dewey Defeats Truman” with headlines from 2 anti-Bibi papers

In God’s plan why was it necessary that Moses be raised by Pharaoh, away from his own family&people?

In their zechus may we all come to appreciate that life is a fleeting gift and resolve to spend every precious moment of it as if it were the last.

In any event, Mr. Netanyahu after the election sought to soften his statement on Palestinian statehood and apologized for what he conceded were remarks that “offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli Arab community.”

More Articles from Jonathan S. Tobin
Tobin-012315

The abuse following publication proved a cautionary tale: no one followed in Peters’s footsteps

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem at the President's Residence, February 2014 (archive)

Anti-Semitism has returned to the mainstream of European society and Israel has become its focus.

One of the key talking points by apologists for Hamas in the current conflict is that it isn’t fair that Israelis under fire have bomb shelters while Palestinians in Gaza don’t have any. Among other factors, the lack of shelters accounts in part for the differences in casualty figures between the two peoples. But somehow […]

How will all this end? Hamas seems to think it will be Netanyahu who will blink first.

Nothing short of a stroke that will decapitate the leadership of this group will convince the Arabs that Hamas has made a mistake.

Z STREET will have the ability to compel IRS officials to testify as to their practices and produce all records.

“Death of Klinghoffer” opera frames the issue as Israel’s existence being the real crime.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/self-congratulatory-stupor-celebrating-350-years-of-jewish-life-shouldnt-mean-ignoring-real-problems/2004/11/10/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: