Monday, January 14, 2013

The role of Jews in American history


Rabbi Lance J. Sussman has written an intriguing critique here of Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln, in which he notes the missed opportunities for highlighting the presence of Jews in the U.S. during the Civil War. Rabbi Sussman makes the point that too few Americans know that Jews have lived in the U.S. since its beginnings. I would take that argument further. Jews have not only lived in North America since the 16th century, they were instrumental in shaping American history.

Readers of Hope of Israel and Legend of the Dead regularly comment that they had no idea there were Jewish communities in New York (formerly New Amsterdam) and Newport, RI in the 17th century. It is amazing to me that students learn the name of the first man (a free black man) shot during the Boston Massacre but they don't know Asser Levy of New Amsterdam/New York who started out as an impoverished butcher and built a successful fur-trade business. Levy's story of standing his ground on Manhattan's wall for the right to bear arms and trade as a burger has all the elements of a great American hero story. And yet no one knows who he is other than historians. And what of Aaron Lopez and Isaac Touro, who took different sides in the American Revolution, but whose bravery and self-sacrifice during the war preserved the Jewish community of Newport, RI? Shouldn't these men have a mention in history textbooks or pop culture films?

Rabbi Sussman is right to point out how Jews lived in the U.S. before the pograms of Europe drove masses of them to American shores. It is long past the time when we should be telling their stories.

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