To write a 900-word article about the Jewish contribution to American culture is impossible. There are volumes of books in every field of art and science, that detail all those men and women who have made tremendous contributions to our society, so I will only briefly touch upon three areas of influence.
One idea that permeates the Torah and Jewish thinking, and is reflected in much of our art: being a stranger in a strange land. We are reminded 36 times in the Torah about that, and for much of our history that truth has prevailed.
Eventually, America gave Jews a home. The wandering Jews had finally found a place where they could change neighborhoods and live on a better side of town, if they so desired. That theme of a restless journey, from old to new, has dominated Jewish contributions to American culture.
In a 1998 piece in the LA Times, writer Josh Getlin points out how much of our storytelling reflects this journey from one world to another. But it also mirrors the stories of other immigrants who have always sought to improve their lives.
He writes, “Consider ‘The Jazz Singer’ the 1927 film in which Al Jolson made history by talking in a movie for the first time. It was a stark portrayal of the tensions facing Eastern European Jews who were leaving behind the stifling ghettos of their American youth.”
Rabbi Arthur Hertzburg, a historian, philosopher and Talmudic scholar who has written widely about the development of Judaism, notes that “In ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ and other novels by Philip Roth, Jews are caught between the tug of ethnic identity and a rush to assimilate. The same is true of major works by composer George Gershwin and playwright Arthur Miller.”
In “Porgy and Bess,” the main character wants to escape Catfish Row. “But,” comments Hertzburg,” the underlying story mirrors Gershwin’s own journey from the Lower East Side to the pinnacle of Manhattan society. He left behind an immigrant ghetto to become an American swell.”
Hertzburg also points to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” when “Willy Loman tells his son: ‘You’ll get along with the goyim only if they like you.’ But the son is already too American. He asks: ‘Why should I kiss their ass?’”
As Jews began to become part of the American society, Jews faced sometimes insurmountable odds when they sought higher education. Interestingly though, we can see the Jewish emphasis on the importance of education as far back as America’s origins. The Massachusetts Bay Colony required that parents teach their children to read and understand the basic principles of religion and capital laws. All towns in New England with a minimum of 50 households were required by law to establish schools and appoint teachers.
In insisting on education for all, the Puritans were following Jewish law. (The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides admonished: “Appoint teachers for the children in every country, province and city. In any city that does not have a school, excommunicate the people of the city until they get teachers for the children.”)
Education for all thus became a hallmark of early America.
As a result, their Biblical education affected the American founders’ attitude toward not only religion and ethics, but most significantly, politics. For example, the struggle of the Hebrews against the wicked Pharaoh came to embody the struggle of the colonists against English tyranny.
Did you know that the first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing the Red Sea with the motto around the seal read: “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God?” Or that the inscription on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia is a direct quote from Leviticus (25:10): “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof?” Benjamin Rush, in his editorials denouncing the Tea Act, was inspired by the Torah: “What did not Moses forsake and suffer for his countrymen! What shining examples of patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabees and all the illustrious princes, captains and prophets among the Jews.”
Even the basic framework of America clearly reflects the influence of the Bible and power of Jewish ideas in shaping the political development of America. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While these words echo John Locke‘s idea of “the inalienable rights of man,” their origin is biblical.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his book “The State” acknowledges:
… The Laws of Moses as well as the laws of Rome contributed suggestions and impulse to the men and institutions which were to prepare the modern world; and if we could have but eyes to see… we should readily discover how very much besides religion we owe to the Jew.
Sources: WorldPerfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization, ORIGIN: www.aish.com/literacy/jewishhistory/America_and_Jewish_Values.asp
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.