NIGHT ONE: THEY CAME TO STAY/ A WORLD OF THEIR OWN
In the 1700s, a small number of Jews came to America, struggling to hold fast to their faith and heritage while becoming part of the emerging nation. Though they fought in the American Revolution, they were at best tolerated, at worst shunned — becoming ready scapegoats in times of crisis. Even after the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, states had the power to prevent Jews from voting, and their status remained uneasy.
During the 19th century, German-speaking Jews arrived from central Europe, becoming peddlers, selling provisions to farmers and those heading west. The Civil War found Jewish Americans fighting on both sides of the struggle, while coping with anti-Semitism in both the north and south. By the 1870s, 250,000 Jewish Americans had settled across the country. Some were attempting to adapt Judaism to America with a movement called Reform Judaism. But the mood of the country shifted and, as immigrants began flooding into the country, anti-Semitism erupted again.
In the early 20th century, drawn by the promise of America, more than two million eastern European Jews fled poverty and oppression — gravitating to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Poor, and faced with innumerable confusing choices, they struggled to adapt their Jewish traditions to their new lives. Wealthy German Jews who lived uptown reached out through charitable organizations, even though these new, unsophisticated Jews made them uneasy. Life on the Lower East Side was hard, and a few Jews turned to crime. But the vast majority of the immigrants went to work, most of them in the garment industry, where they not only dominated the work force but owned many of the factories. Working conditions were dismal and Jewish American workers spearheaded the drive to form unions.
Meanwhile, on the Lower East Side, Jewishness permeated the very texture of everyday life — in magazines, music, poetry, books and theater. Jewish Americans developed their own unique cultural institutions and the Yiddish theater became enormously popular.
NIGHT TWO: THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES
As Jewish Americans tried to enter the mainstream of American life, they were frustrated by anti-Semitism even as they developed their own resources, often succeeding in businesses on the margins of American life. Irving Berlin, an immigrant from Russia, began writing tunes just as Tin Pan Alley was taking off, transforming himself into one of America’s greatest songwriters with iconic songs such as White Christmas and God Bless America. But in 1918, the year God Bless America was composed, America was closing its doors to foreigners and anti-Semitism was on the rise. Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, faced anti-Semitism in his confirmation hearings and then on the Court itself. Leo Frank, a Jewish American living in Atlanta, was unjustly convicted by a Georgia court of murdering a 13-year-old girl and lynched. Henry Ford, one of the most powerful men in the country, published strident attacks on Jewish Americans. And America’s elite colleges and universities limited the number of Jewish students they would admit.
Facing a wave of worldwide anti-Semitism and shut out from much of American life, Jewish Americans developed a parallel universe all their own — establishing Jewish fraternities and sororities, summer camps and community centers, hospitals and schools, neighborhoods and vacation resorts — and venturing into new businesses. The Catskills resorts provided an opportunity for Jewish comedians such as Sid Caesar to hone their skills, which they would use one day to reach Americans throughout the country. In the 1920s, Jewish immigrants came to dominate Hollywood, creating the Hollywood studio system and imagining movies enacting their version of the American dream. Jewish Americans found opportunities in radio, too, with shows such as The Goldbergs created by Gertrude Berg, which appealed to Americans all over the country, Jews and gentiles alike.
For Jewish Americans, the Depression in the 1930s was a dual misery. Not only did tens of thousands face unemployment, other Americans — from Father Coughlin to Charles Lindbergh — blamed them for the country’s problems while Jewish Americans struggled desperately to rescue Jews from fascism in Europe.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times also describes the Jewish response to Hitler and the Holocaust, focusing on the relationship between Jewish leaders — in particular Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. — and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It details the reaction of Jewish Americans to the stories of the death camps that emerged after the war. Nearly all of European Jewry had been destroyed, and American Jews suddenly found themselves the largest and most powerful Jewish community in the world.
NIGHT THREE: HOME
With Hitler defeated and six million European Jews murdered, American Jews were fighting despair. However, by 1946, with the return of Jewish American service men and the crowning of the first Jewish Miss America — Bess Myerson — a new spirit of optimism emerged. In 1948, Jewish Americans actively supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine — Israel — but few chose to live there. By the 1950s, discrimination against Jews in daily life began to abate as quotas at universities and restrictions at resorts and housing gradually disappeared. Jews entered professions such as medicine, law and banking in record numbers, and Jewish American culture went mainstream as Jewish comedians came to dominate the new medium of television. But for all the progress, the old anxieties and vulnerabilities continued to bubble just beneath the surface. The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, two Jewish Americans indicted on charges of stealing atomic secrets, sent shock waves of fear through the Jewish community.
By the 1960s, Jewish Americans were directing their political energies elsewhere and a fragile but sometimes untenable alliance for civil rights was forged with African Americans. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, as Americans began thinking about race, gender and ethnicity, Jewish Americans explored their own concerns with these issues more openly than they ever had before. Jewish women began to question Judaic customs and rituals that had excluded women for thousands of years and they fashioned new ceremonies to give voice to their spiritual lives, focusing on the ordination of women rabbis. Jewish Americans actively worked to help nearly two million Jews in the Soviet Union who were suffering imprisonment, deportation and the brutal denial of their human and religious rights.
By the turn of the 20th century, as Americans of other faiths began exploring the limits of their religious traditions, many Jews begin experimenting with innovative spiritual practices as well, bringing Buddhist meditation into their own religious practice while Orthodox Judaism was thriving as it never had before. And the youngest generation of Jewish Americans developed their own “hip” Jewish culture, which included a special connection to Jewish music gone mainstream. Matisyahu — a Hasidic Jew with songs blending hip hop, reggae, and esoteric Jewish musing — rose to the top of the charts. Today, Jewish Americans continue to weave themselves into the social, cultural, economic and political life of the country. There are a bewildering number of ways of being Jewish, but the age-old issue of negotiating Jewish and American identities remains.