Freedom: The Promise And The Challenge

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

Reprinted with permission of the author from Hadassah Magazine.

If the essence of the Jewish encounter with America were to be tele­scoped down to a single location, the epicenter would not be the Lower East Side [of Manhattan] or Hollywood or Cincinnati or Tin Pan Alley or Miami Beach or the Borscht Belt or Crown Heights, important as each of those places has been to 350 years of intertwined tribal and national history.

The emblematic point just might be a former resort town in southern New Jersey named Lakewood, a spot seemingly not so Jewish at all. In Lakewood’s prime, John D. Rockefeller and Grover Cleveland wintered there as “millionaires trod the wooden sidewalks, and went fox-hunt­ing in the pines,” one chronicler recorded.

When Lakewood’s half-century heyday as a tourist destination ended in the 1920s, however, the Jewish chicken farmers began to arrive. Fresh from the Pale of Settlement, perhaps with a midway stop in the tenements and garment factories of Lower Manhattan, they came to own land because they had been banned from doing so in the Old Country. They came to work the land because proving themselves physically capable and economically self-sufficient was part of their commitment to throwing off centuries of oppression. Their language was Yiddish, their culture was agnostic, and their faith was socialism, and for all those reasons they attracted the antagonism of new enemies from the Ku Klux Klan to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

A generation after the chicken farmers ap­peared, there materialized in Lakewood an even less likely newcomer, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi named Aharon Kotler. Until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he had served as the rosh yeshiva [head of a school of advanced Jewish learning] of the renowned religious aca­demy in Slutzk, and his journey to America had traced a furtive refugee’s path to Vilna, then Siberia, then Shanghai, then San Francisco, then New York, and finally to a backwater in southern Jersey, where the prevailing style of Jewishness was anathema to all Rabbi Kotler embodied. Undeterred, he went ahead and in 1943 established a classical yeshiva for 15 stu­dents. Over the decades to come, it grew 50 times as large.

Jewish-immigrant children wave at the Statue of Liberty. Photo credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum


To appreciate the Jewish experience in America is to understand how two such dissimilar species of American Jewry could flourish in the same improbable soil. What each required and each received was that rarest of condi­tions in two millennia of exile: freedom.

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.”

Yet it was never quite that simple, as even some of those fortunate American Jews understood. For all the horrors of the golus (exile), it had relieved Jews of the responsibility to determine for themselves the basis of identity and the obligation of community. Whatever vi­cious rifts had rent Jewry in the Old World–Hasidim versus Mitnagdim [Orthodox Jews who vehemently opposed the Hasidic movement] in Poland and Lithuania, Reform ver­sus Modern Orthodox in Germany, freethinkers like Mendelssohn and Spinoza against Judaism itself–re­mained irrelevant to the impermeable barrier between Christian and Jew.

Freedom to Observe or Neglect

“In countries where we have lived for centuries,” Theodor Herzl wrote, “we are still cried down as strangers.” That barrier, as much as Talmud and To­rah, maintained the concept of Klal Yisrael [the community of Israel]. But as early as 1893, well before the bulk of Jewish immigration and nearly a century ahead of the peak era of assimilation, a Reform rabbi named Maurice Harris delivered a remark­ably perceptive prophecy about the mixed blessing of American freedom:

Those Jews are emancipated in America in the fullest sense; we are an integral part of the nation, sharing its duties and its rights, and at times indistinguishable from the Gentiles. In the large cities there are self-im­posed Ghettoes, it is true, but they are created by pover­ty rather than religion, and their ranks are serried by many agnostic and atheistic exceptions, who, neverthe­less, pass uncriticized. The religious freedom for which we have fought 3,000 years is ours at last. But there are two sides to freedom–freedom to observe, freedom to neglect. In the Ghetto, it was easier to observe; in the larger world, it is easier to neglect.

Those words echo through the decades and indeed the centuries. It is true that America has been a Promised Land for Jews, the re­joinder not only to the Dreyfus Affair, the Kishinev pogrom, Stalin and Hitler, but al­so to the Zionist precept that Jews could only live a nor­mal life in a Jewish state.

At this juncture in time, Jews hold more than 30 seats in Congress while accounting for less than two percent of the population. In the Ivy League universities that before World War II maintained anti-Semitic quotas, Jews now account for 20 to 30 percent of their student bodies and faculties. The most successful musical in Broadway history, at least financially speaking, is that quintessential example of edgy, outsider Jewish humor, Mel Brooks’ The Producers. And when Joseph Lieberman was named Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, the first Jewish candidate for vice president on a major party; Time magazine ran the cover headline “Chutzpah!” in the serene assurance that its tens of millions of non­-Jewish readers would get the joke.

It is also true, though, that there are “two sides to free­dom.” Nowhere else in history have Jews been as eager and as successful in shedding their Jewishness, not as a life-saving act of conversion but as a willing selection in the cafeteria of American identity. Many hands have been wrung, many calumnies uttered, much ink spilled on the subject of the intermarriage rate, as if intermarriage were a disease with a cure rather than the logical outgrowth of our tribal love affair with America and America’s with us. The thoroughgoing assimilation of post-war America, the emergence of Jewishness as just another brand of white ethnicity that can be halved or quartered, attests most profoundly to Oscar Wilde’s aphorism to be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.

And yet Rabbi Harris, neither the first nor the last Cassandra on the subject of American Jewish survival, worried too much. Even as a substantial share of Amer­ican Jewry leaps from the marital altar into the melting pot, another portion enjoys a religious renaissance that derives its energy and many of its models from the Or­thodox sector. From day schools to Hasidic praise songs, from daf yomi Talmud groups [that study a page of Talmud every day] to glatt kosher bistros, this revival touches observant Jews in every denomination.

Three hundred fifty years from the beginning, we have learned that American freedom is capacious and indis­criminate enough to enable virtually anything the Jews of Lakewood–or for that matter–Brookline or Great Neck or Skokie or Pico-Robertson or Buckhead–have in mind.

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