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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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Statue of Liberty 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, 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 countries—the 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 America’s 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 City’s 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 Independence’s 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.


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