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American Jews and the birthpangs of the messiah

It was the dawning of a messianic era.

So it seemed to the earliest Jews to establish synagogues in the new settlements of North America. That’s according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, author of the award-winning American Judaism: A History, and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

“It’s not an accident that all the synagogue names are messianic terms,” he said, pointing to Shearith Israel – founded 1655 in New York, and literally meaning the remnant of Israel; Jeshuat Israel – founded in 1658 in Newport, Rhode Island, meaning the salvation of Israel (later renamed the Touro Synagogue); and Mikveh Israel, meaning the hope of Israel, the name of synagogues founded in the 18th century in Savannah, Georgia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Sarna will be speaking at the Davar Institute in Teaneck on Shabbat, and this messianic strain in colonial American Judaism will be one of the topics.

“Everybody has heard the story of 1654 and the 23 Jews” who first settled in New Amsterdam as refugees, fleeing the Inquisition. “In addition to that story, which is a true story, there’s also another story about a mystical belief that coming to the New World was really the harbinger of the messiah. Many of these Sephardic Jews really believed the expulsion from Spain was the birth pangs of the messiah; it was the only way they could justify the calamity.

“Colonial Jews carried those beliefs with them. They weren’t just economic figures. The belief in the imminent coming of the messiah was important in the earlier colonial days of American Jewry.”

Among the evidence Sarna cites for this messianic orientation is the writings of Ezra Stiles, an 18th century Protestant minister in Newport who later became president of Yale.

“Stiles reports that during heavy thunderstorms, Jews open the windows and call out for the messiah. It turns out that there was a belief that Jews would be returned on a cloud to the land of Israel, and in a thunderstorm you have these fast-moving clouds,” Sarna said.

Standard histories focus on the economic role of the Jews of Newport, pointing out such figures as Aaron Lopez, the richest man in Rhode Island. “But these Jews who made so much money in shipping – and sometimes in slavery – they believed the messiah was pretty imminent. It’s a lesser known story from the Colonial era,” Sarna said.

Next week will mark the 236th anniversary of American independence. And if – at least as of press time on Wednesday – the messiah has not actually arrived, still the American Jewish experience has had its redemptive and history-shattering moments.

A key moment is being noted this week as the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia opens its exhibit on George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport. In the letter, written in 1790, the new president famously said that America doesn’t offer Jews “toleration … as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people,” but rather all “the rights and immunities of citizenship.”

The government of the United States, Washington wrote, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

The letter had not been displayed publicly for a decade, following the closure of B’nai B’rith’s museum in Washington.

“One has to be very happy that after many years when nobody saw it, it’s again to be displayed as part of a very significant exhibit,” Sarna said.

The letter, he continued, “was an explicit promise that all of the high-minded ideals found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution directly applied to Jews. It made it clear that religious liberty for Jews was an inherent natural right, something that can’t be taken away.

“The letter is enormously significant. It’s one of the great documents of modern Jewish history. When the document was issued in the 1790s, nobody was saying those things. That’s what made America distinctive in many ways for Jews.”

Sarna said that in the early years of the country, Independence Day was celebrated in synagogues. “Just as Christians would go to church and hear a stirring patriotic sermon, there were cases where Jews would go to synagogue and hear stirring patriotic sermons.

“When the Constitution was ratified in Pennsylvania, you have a remarkable moment when Jews join in the celebration of the day. The rabbi, ‘the minister of the Jews,’ dances with his Protestant counterparts. At that time, that notion was astonishing. We’re used to ecumenical waltzes; they had never seen such a thing.

“At the same time, we are told ‘the Jews repaired to a table of their own to participate in a celebration of their own.’ The practice in 18th century society was that you would set up a special kosher table so Jews could participate. Jews were a part of, not apart from, the society. In a lot of ways that set a pattern for what American Jews have striven for: To be part of America and at the same time to maintain their distinctive identity.”

Sarna’s most recent book concerns one of the moments that were the exception from the story of American Jewish inclusion. When General Grant Expelled the Jews, published by Nextbooks earlier this year, tells of a unique time when Jews were singled out for persecution as a group by the American government.

“The first part of the book tells an extraordinary story of Jews as a class being expelled from General Grant’s territory during the Civil War. It’s a reminder, a timely one perhaps, that during moments of tension and warfare human rights and liberties sometimes are seen as secondary with grievous effects,” he said.

Grant’s General Orders 11 singled out Jews in an effort to stop widespread smuggling in the area under his command. It was issued on December 17, 1862 and quickly reversed by President Abraham Lincoln, acting as the army’s commander in chief.

The second half of Sarna’s book tells a more uplifting story.

“To see the Grant presidency is to see how much he had learned, how much he had repented that order. He had a Jewish advisor. He appointed Jews to public office – perhaps more than any previous presidents.

“When Jews are persecuted in Russia and Romania, he goes out of his way to speak out on their behalf. He sends a Jewish consul to Romania with a kind of explicit sense that this Jewish consul will be working to aid Jews in distress. He writes, ‘The United States, knowing no distinction of her own citizens on account of religion or nativity, naturally believes in a civilization the world over which will secure the same universal liberal views.’

“It was pretty amazing for the 19th century.

“Grant is an unusual case study of anti-Semitism where by the end of the story Haman turns into Mordecai. It’s a story of how people grow and change and learn from their mistakes. There’s something very wonderful about that lesson on July 4.”

The seeds of the book were planted 30 years ago, when Sarna lectured on the topic to mark the 120th anniversary of Grant’s order.

“I mentioned that Grant’s own father had been engaged in smuggling with the Macks of Cincinnati, who were important clothing manufacturers. No sooner did I say those words than chairs began to move uneasily. Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, the pioneering American Jewish historian, who was in the audience, covered his face with his hands. I knew I had said something terrible. At the end of the talk, a man gets up. He says, ‘that was my great grandfather you were talking about.’ There was a kind of a long pause, and he continues. ‘And it’s all true.’

“It taught me that there’s more to the story. The family knew it, but others didn’t.”

Going back to those earliest Jews of the Colonial era ““ how would they react if they could see today’s American Jewish community?

“Everything about it would be amazing,” said Sarna. “The notion that this tiny New World community would today be the largest diaspora Jewish community by far, that there would be more Jews in the new world than in Europe – it would be unbelievable to them. They could not possibly have envisaged this tremendous migration which in many ways saved the Jewish people. Had those several million Jews not come to the New World before the Shoah, who knows what would have happened.

“The sheer numbers would have been astonishing to them. The fact that America has become a great center of Jewish learning would astonish them as well. Their sense was that they were absolutely remote from the center of Jewish learning. There was not one ordained rabbi living in America – the first to settle here was Abraham Rice in 1840.

“The idea that you would have two centers, one in North America and one in Israel – neither of those could possibly have entered their heads.”

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