Learning from our Past, Building our Future

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10 Responses

  1. Reb Yid says:

    Other important lessons from colonial Jews:

    Being proud Americans
    Not becoming an impermeable enclave–engaging with their neighbors
    Improving Judaism by selectively adapting the finest features from the surrounding community

    Early colonial Jews, including the observant Asser Levy, fought for the right to serve guard duty like all other Americans. After the inauguration of George Washington, there was a special kosher table set up during the reception.

    Women’s sections in synagogues were expanded, since in America both men and women attended religious services. Visiting others houses of worship was common–this also led to many Americans (including Benjamin Franklin) donating to the construction of new synagogues when they were built.

    And some important early Jewish communal institutions, such as Sunday Schools and Hebrew Benevolent Societies, were formed (in this case, by the observant and highly acculturated Rebecca Gratz) by borrowing these concepts from wider American society and integrating them into the American Jewish experience.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “Shvertz azayan Yid”

    – wondering, is this a Sammy Davis Jr. Reference?

  3. Raymond says:

    I have two thoughts in reaction to the above article. First, something that I have sometimes observed in the Orthodox Jewish community, is that while their actions are in line with religious Jewish law, that their everyday conversation, reading habits, and movie watching may be completely secular. It is as if their bodies are Jewish, but their minds are not. It seems to me that part of what being Jewish is all about, is thinking like a Jew. In fact, I will go a step further on this, by wondering if perhaps the purpose of doing the Torah’s commandments in the first place, is precisely to develop a Jewish mindset. The mitzvot are like props to the goal of having a mind that simulates that of G-d.

    It seems to me that rather than removing oneself from the world, that one should instead engage in the world, but do so through Torah eyes, which leads to the second point that I want to bring up here, and that what should be our relation to the gentile world. One extreme says that gentiles are no better or worse than we are. At the other extreme, are those who divide the whole world into Jew vs gentile, strongly implying that Jews are always good, and the gentiles are always bad, primitive, and so on. Perhaps a kind of middle approach between those two extremes would make more sense. More specifically, perhaps one can reason that since our Torah is by far the most influential book in all of human history, that it has indeed influenced almost every culture on Earth, and the more any given group of people embrace our Torah in one way or another, the more they are worthy of our respect. Conversely, Jews who have completely turned their back on Torah values, are perhaps not so worthy of our respect. And so in that light, I would say that the groups most worthy of holding in positive esteem are traditional Jews and pro-Israel gentiles.

  4. SA says:

    I’m sorry, but at this stage in Jewish history any lessons about “building our future” without Eretz Yisrael as part of the picture will be a lesson sorely lacking. Obviously things like attitude towards Yiddishkeit must be carefully cultivated here, too, but the environment …. oh, the environment….

    Awaiting Part 2. Perhaps you will refer to it there.

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    I wonder how many Jewish children go
    off-the-derech because they were hurt
    by rumors that were spread by Jews.

  6. Leslie Ginsparg Klein says:

    The above comments bring to mind the fundamental question of how to conceptualize Judaism. If you view it as a religion, in the modern sense, then it becomes one of the many aspects of a person’s life. It can be easily compartmentalized. But I would contend that Judaism is not meant to be a religion; it is meant to be an all-encompassing lifestyle that informs every aspect of your life, from how you tie your shoes to your choice of profession. So yes, when we look at the world, it should be through Jewish eyes. When we absorb the culture and ideas of the greater world, it should be through a Jewish filter and only include those aspects which contribute to the end goal of personal and communal growth. That was the ideology of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, who also presented Orthodox Judaism in a positive light (even as he discredited Reform Judaism and the like).

  7. Reb Yid says:


    A comment about your interesting piece:

    It is remarkable that the intermarriage rate in colonial times was only 25%, if even that high. Only 2,000 Jews were in all of the colonies put together. Percentage-wise, Jews were under .05% of the entire colonial population, and scattered among numerous colonies.

    You correctly mention different ways of conceiving of Judaism. Certainly, at that time Judaism was not primarily thought of as religion, but rather as a race (“La Nacion”). It was the blood ties that kept the scattered Jews united and married to each other–certainly moreso than any notion of frumkeit.

  8. Leslie Ginsparg Klein says:

    Jewish Observer, according to various online English-Yiddish dictionaries, the correct spelling is “Shvertz azayan Yid,” and as we all know, the Internet is never wrong. But I understand and respect that Yiddish is a very sensitive subject. If you would dare pronounce bird as “fiygel” instead of “faygel” in my very sweet mother’s house, she would probably throw you out.

    For those legitimately unfamiliar, “Shvertz azayan Yid,” or the more correct “Shver tzu zein a Yid” is a Yiddish expression which means, literally, “It’s hard to be a Jew.” It’s been used in response to tragedies that befell Jews because they were Jews and to the difficulties of living a frum life (eg. in early 20th century America, being fired every Friday for keeping Shabbos). While I have never seen this in print, I have heard that Rav Moshe Feinstein held this expression (and its accompanying attitude) responsible for the mass assimilation of the immigrant generation. The older generation said it and it turned off the younger generation to frumkeit.

    But since you brought it up, I assume the question about Sammy Davis, Jr. results from the similarity of “Shvertz” to another racially-directed Yiddish expression. Let me take this opportunity to suggest that along with excessively pejorative uses of “goyim,” even baser racial expressions be removed from our communal vocabulary. They lead our children to sound prejudiced and even more unintelligent.

  9. Nachum says:

    In fairness, lots of people were intermarrying in those days, including the children of great and committed Jews, even in places with many, many Jews.

  10. Raymond says:

    Concerning Rav Hirsch, I think that he had the exact correct way for how we Jews should relate to the world at large. I just wish that he had written his works in shorter, simpler sentences, as he was far too sophisticated for my simple mind. L’havdil, it reminds me of trying to read the works of 19th century American novelist Henry James. Both individuals may be worth reading, but doing so can be an intellectually exhausting experience.

    As for what we should call non-Jews, I think that both the terms “goy” and “non-Jew” is too derogatory to describe the non-Jewish world. “Gentile” to me sounds a whole lot more respectful, while still maintaining our necessary separation from the non-Jewish world.

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