So at last I was going to America!
Really, really going at last! The boundaries burst. The arch of
heaven soared. A million suns shone out for every star. The winds
rushed in from outer space, roaring in my ears, "America,
Mary Antin, The Promised Land (Houghton Mifflin, 1912)
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It is surely no coincidence that these words, engraved on the
base of theStatue of Liberty, are from the pen of a Jewish poet,
Emma Lazarus. In all the lands of the Diaspora, never has there
been a country in which Jews have had such freedom and security
as they have had in America.
Indeed, some of the thirteen American colonies were founded by
religious minorities seeking havens from persecution. These communities
also attracted others, including a small number of Jews seeking
freedom and the chance for a new life. The colonies were especially
attractive for two reasons: they had not produced an entrenched
system of social privilege, such as that which existed in Europe,
and they offered fertile ground for the spread of Enlightenment
ideals of reason and tolerance. These concepts influenced many
colonial leaders, some of whom would become Founding Fathers.
As the newly independent United States expanded in the 19th century,
it attracted millions of immigrants. The decades before and immediately
after the Civil War witnessed a huge influx of immigrants from
Ireland and from German-speaking countriesthe former fleeing
the effects of the terrible famine and the latter escaping poverty
and political turmoil. Among the German-speaking immigrants were
approximately a quarter of a million Jews, moved by the same impulses
as their neighbors, but with the added incentive of escaping anti-Jewish
laws. Following the general pattern of immigration, most of these
Jews arrived on the East Coast and traveled all over the American
continent, settling in cities, in small towns, or on the frontier.
A far larger wave of immigration to the United States took place
between 1880 and 1920, as 26 million predominately Eastern and
Southern European immigrants, including two million Jews, flocked
to Americas shores. This was an era of rapid and sweeping
change. The very fabric of American life was altered by the new
and varied immigrant population, the closing of the frontier,
the growth of industry and cities, the rise of the labor movement,
and the spread of socialism. The immigrants formed the backbone
of American industry and made the United States a richer, more
diverse society than it had ever been before. Social change, however,
also created tensions, fear, and opposition to immigration.
Jewish immigrants lived and worked in crowded city slums like
New York Citys Lower East Side. They played their part in
the transformation of American society, and in turn, were transformed
by it. For them and for other minority immigrant groups, America
was a true haven, free of the persecution they had known in Europe
and offering hitherto unknown economic and educational opportunities.
Still, America was not perfect: the Declaration of Independences
promise of the inalienable right to "life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness" was yet incomplete. American Jews,
drawing on both their ancient prophetic heritage and their new,
democratic one, would play a prominent role in the effort to realize
the American ideals of freedom and justice.