Lecture: When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant Expelled the Jews from U.S. territory under his command.
Jonathan D. Sarna tells the full story of Abraham Lincoln’s extraordinary relationship with Jews.
350 years in the lives of Jews who have struggled for acceptance in America.
Part 3 of the PBS presentation: "The Best of Times, the Worst of Times"
In Part 4, "Home," barriers begin to fall and Jewish Americans find a voice.
In September 1654, twenty-three Jews, fleeing the Portuguese conquest of Dutch Brazil, arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York City) and established the first Jewish community in North America. Over the next century, other Jews migrated to New York, Newport, Savannah, Charleston and Philadelphia. By 1775, perhaps 2,500 Jewish men, women and children called the American colonies their home.
In the more than 350 years since, Jews have played an integral part in creating the fabric of modern-day America.
The American Jewish Historical Society has created a detailed, interactive timeline that traces the extensive contributions of Jews to American society.
President Donald Trump on Friday proclaimed May 2017 Jewish American Heritage Month, marked annually since 2006 across the United States and preceded each year with an announcement by the sitting president.
In a statement Friday, Trump said he will mark the month with a celebration together with his family, “including my daughter, Ivanka, my son-in-law, Jared, my grandchildren, and our extended family [of] the deep spiritual connection that binds, and will always bind, the Jewish people to the United States and its founding principles.”
“In every aspect of the country’s cultural, spiritual, economic, and civic life, American Jews have stood at the forefront of the struggles for human freedom, equality, and dignity, helping to shine a light of hope to people around the globe,” the statement read.
The Jewish people, said Trump, “have left an indelible mark on American culture,” adding that “today, it is manifested in the towering success Jewish people have achieved in America through a unique synthesis of respect for heritage and love of country.”
“The achievements of American Jews are felt throughout American society and culture, in every field and in every profession,” he continued, adding that the White House expressed “our Nation’s gratitude for this great, strong, prosperous, and loving people.”
A New York Historical Society exhibition offers a sampling of synagogue eulogies following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. “We should regard Abraham Lincoln,” said Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore, “as a son of Israel.”
Another eulogist was Lewis Naphtali Dembitz of Louisville, uncle of the future Supreme Court justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis and a Republican leader so devoted to Lincoln’s political creed that he named one son after Henry Clay, the young Lincoln’s political idol, and another after Lincoln himself. Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, of Cincinnati, who had initially jeered at Lincoln’s election (“one of the greatest blunders a nation can commit”), only to become an ardent admirer
(“the greatest man that ever sprung from mortal loins”), claimed that Lincoln had once confided to him that he was “bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh” and supposed himself “a descendant of Hebrew parentage.”
If the living Jews of the time felt an unusual connection with Lincoln, it is no less clear from the letters, official papers, personal notes, and artifacts gathered here that he seemed to feel a similar connection—one that contrasts starkly with the regnant attitudes of his time. This association, not often examined, may also reveal something about Lincoln’s vision of the world.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, director of the Judaic Studies Program at George Washington University, spent the summer of 2007 as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at The Library of Congress, wrapped up her research with a 2007 lecture titled "Holy Moses! A Cultural History of the Ten Commandments in Modern America."
While a scholar at the Kluge Center, Joselit investigated the variety of forms in which the Ten Commandments appeared in American culture, including synagogue and church architecture, Sunday school pageants and Cecil B. DeMille's legendary movies.
According to Joselit, the Ten Commandments cast a long shadow over the body politic these days. Angry words about the appropriate role for the commandments in 21st century America fill the air as proponents and opponents square off. Have the Ten Commandments always been the stuff of controversy, or is this a new phenomenon--the consequence of a rapidly changing world?
You can read more by Joselit on her blog.
Live programs, lectures
The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of Jewish Americans who have helped form the fabric of American history, culture and society.
Although the events take place in and around the nation's capital, most are viewable online, either through live streaming or archived video!
The following are excellent resources to tap into your Jewish American pride:
Ways to Celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month (Suggestions for activities)
National Observation and Resources (Compilation of various government agencies’ activities)
The Jewish Americans (PBS series)
A Portrait of Jewish Americans (Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life)
Jews in America (Jewish Virtual Library)
Jewish American Hall of Fame (American Numismatic Society)
By Marli Porth
Director of Community Relations and Leadership Development,
Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando
May is Jewish American Heritage Month! Established formally in 2006, this celebration of Jewish achievements and contributions to the United States was first conceived right here in Florida. Though variations of the idea had been implemented since 1980, The Jewish Museum of Florida worked with various community leaders to introduce the concept of a month-long commemoration to various members of Congress. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania took the lead in urging the president to proclaim a month that would recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture.
The resolutions passed unanimously, first in the House of Representatives in December 2005 and later in the Senate in February 2006. There is now a presidential proclamation each year. As President Barack Obama said in 2015, “From our Nation's earliest days, Jewish Americans have been a critical part of our story. Their relentless spirit and remarkable achievements have enriched our country, stirred our conscience, and challenged us to extend the miracles of freedom and security.”
Many of us are familiar with the contributions of the Jewish Americans who have made lives healthier and safer, made our legal and political system more just, fought for civil rights, entertained us, educated us, and steered some of our most esteemed national institutions.
From its earliest days, when Haim Solomon helped finance the American Revolution, Jews have been an integral part of America’s success. Wise
justices, from Louis Brandeis to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have guided our society’s rules and social mores.
The social and economic justice work of Samuel Gompers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Betty Friedan, and Harvey Milk helped pave the way for a fairer America. Our hearts, minds, and souls have been touched by the films of Mel Brooks, Steven Spielberg, and J.J. Abrams, the voices of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Adam Levine, the performances of Lauren Bacall, Leonard Nimoy, and Natalie Portman, and the humor of Gilda Radner, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart. We’ve marveled at the passing skills of Sid Luckman, the coaching of Red Auerbach, and the grace of Aly Raisman; been inspired by Superman, Spider-Man, and the many other heroes created by Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; and chuckled at the advice of Dear Abby and Ann Landers.
The research of Nobel Prize winners too numerous to list has led to life-changing innovations in health and medicine. Where would this country, and indeed the world, be without Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine, for which he declined a copyright so that humanity would benefit, denying himself millions of dollars of profit? American icons like Barbie (invented by Ruth Handler), blue jeans (invented by Levi Strauss), and Ben and Jerry’s (invented by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield) are part of our society’s fabric. “Colossus,” the sonnet at the base of the Statue of Liberty, was written by Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus; “God Bless America" was written by Jewish American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando will be paying tribute to Jewish Americans on this page throughout May, so be sure to check back often for updates!