Freedom: The Promise And The Challenge

"Freedom to observe, freedom to neglect," in the words of one 19th-century rabbi

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Freedom allowed both the secular radicals and the frum [traditionally observant] to secure a niche in the very town that had been a playground of the WASP gentry and to outlast their bigoted foes. Freedom allowed each faction to indulge its disparate, in fact irreconcilable, versions of identity, community, and belief.

There had been nothing quite like this American free­dom in Jewish history. Until America, political freedom had existed only in periods of Jewish nationhood, and the last of those had ended with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple [in 70 C.E.].

Social freedom--the freedom to dynami­cally engage with a surrounding gentile culture--had flickered only briefly and always ended brutally. In Hel­lenistic Palestine and Alexandria, in Moorish Spain, in Weimar Germany, the golden ages of pluralism and toler­ance gave way to hateful conquerors, and Jews learned with each pogrom and Inquisition and expulsion and Final Solution that their identity was defined solely by their Otherness, that they were the sum of what they were not and would never be permitted to be.

Never Disenfranchised

Virtually from its creation, even before those 23 Jews from Brazil set ashore in New Amsterdam in 1654 [becoming the first Jews in the New World], America offered an un­precedented and almost unfathomable alter­native. Religious dissidents, albeit Christians, founded colonies such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island; other settlements, such as South Carolina, arose as commercial enterprises. Whether for theological or capitalistic rea­sons, then, the New World offered Jews the possibility, if not initially the overt promise, of inclusion.

When the United States declared its independence, it did not need to enfranchise Jews, as the nations of Western Europe would in the 18th and 19th centuries, because it had never disenfranchised them in the first place. In his famous letter in 1790 to the Jewish commu­nity in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington assured the "Children of the Stock of Abraham" that in America, "everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Relatively few Jews trod American ground at the time--1,350in total, constituting 0.03 percent of the national population--and the number did not reach 50,000 until 1850. By then, the initial trickle of Sephardic immi­grants [from Spain and Portugal] was being supplanted by German Jews, who would in turn be overwhelmed by the arrival of East European Jews between 1880 and 1920.

"Our Palestine"

Yet even when their pres­ence was statistically negligible, Jews were availing themselves of dual meanings of American freedom: the freedom to express their Jewishness without fear of persecution and the freedom to participate in the public life of a polyglot country. The first Jewish governor in America, David Emanuel of Georgia, was elected in 1801; the first Jewish senator, David Levy Yulee of Florida, was elected in 1845. Jewish congregations, burial societies, charities, and news­papers emerged by the middle of the 19th century. A  rabbi in South Carolina felt confident enough to pro­claim, "This country is our Palestine."

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Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (Simon & Schuster), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.