The Colonial Scene
by Abram Vossen Goodman.
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947. 265 pp. $3.00.
This volume is a valuable contribution toward the materials out of which the history of Jews in America will eventually be written. Like the original researches of Lee M. Friedman, Mr. Goodman’s book is a collection of historical bits and incidents told interestingly and amusingly. The author, however, gives his narrative some unity by centering it around the struggle of the early Jewish settlers for full religious and civil rights on American soil.
It is most refreshing to read a treatise about discrimination against Jews that does not discuss the subject as if it were a peculiar phenomenon unrelated to the prevailing mood of the time and place. Too often the persecution of Jews is described as if it were an isolated outburst of malice in an era and area otherwise dominated by good will. Mr. Goodman’s book is a wholesome reminder that, as a matter of history, the persecution of Jews has always been part of a larger cruelty and oppression.
In American Overture we see this subject properly related to the aggressive bigotry of the age both in Europe and the American settlements. At that time the world was filled with vigorous persecutions of one sect by another, rendered more effective by the prevailing union of church and state. Non-conformists of all kinds were heartily hated and feared. In this atmosphere, discrimination against Jews was natural and inevitable.
Nevertheless, it is a historical fact, marked by Mr. Goodman, that in some early American settlements Jews were not oppressed to the same degree as were other sects such as the Catholics or the Quakers. The author suggests that this may have been due to the small number of Jewish settlers. However, the most liberal attitude toward Jews was shown in Georgia where their proportion was highest. Another area of relative tolerance was Puritan New England. Is there not, perhaps, a more likely explanation?
For entirely different reasons, New Testament influence was very weak in both Georgia and the land of the Puritans. The prevailing spirit in the Southern colony was irreligious, if not atheistic; the Puritans were almost exclusively devoted to the Old Testament. Now the belief that “the Jews killed Christ” stems entirely from a distortion of the crucifixion story in the New Testament. It is entirely possible, therefore, that this strange similarity of attitude in irreligious Georgia and deeply religious New England is some proof of the efficacy of the “Christ-killer” myth in creating prejudice against Jews.
Nevertheless, Mr. Goodman performs a real service in calling attention to the small number of Jews among the early settlers. He estimates that there were probably no more than a thousand Jews among three million colonials, and that the famed Newport Jewish colony in its hey-day probably totaled about one hundred and fifty souls. It is obvious that such a tiny proportion of the population, scattered as it was from New England to Georgia, could not, unless ghettoized, long maintain a distinctively Jewish existence either in the original settlements or in the places to which their children moved. No sound conclusion, therefore, as to the survival of Jews as such in the United States can be drawn from the fact that today we can identify very few of the descendants of these Jewish colonials. The sturdy and still flourishing Jewish communities founded by the mass immigration of the g9th century throughout the Middle West, the South, and the Far West, afford more reliable material for this sort of speculation.
Although few in number, the early Jewish settlers were not deterred in the least from waging a spirited and sustained battle for full civil and religious liberties. They went even further and demanded, as of right, the responsibilities of citizenship, including the obligation to stand guard and serve as soldiers. Like their Christian counterparts, these pioneers were not at all cowed by the experiences of persecution in Europe. They came to this country to live the lives of free men and women and they intended to carry out their purpose. Stuffy dignitaries and fanatical bigots tried in vain to stop them. In their rather successful fight for their own integrity, this handful of Jewish pioneers played an important part in creating that most vital of all American traditions, civic equality.
Books like American Overture also offer Jewish scholars an excellent opportunity to test some of their assumptions about Jewish life in this country. Surely, the rich experience of three centuries in a free society is worth more in forming opinions about this subject than the past in Poland, Moorish Spain, or ancient Alexandria. Let us take, for instance, the theory, currently advanced by a number of Jewish scholars, that Jews constitute and are bound together by a single secular “culture.” American Overture would seem to indicate the contrary and suggest that Jews who come to these shores from different countries may actually have been held apart from one another because of their varying cultural backgrounds. In 1733 two shiploads of Jews arrived in Georgia, one almost wholly Ashkenazim, the other almost entirely Sephardim. Shortly thereafter a group of Lutheran refugees from Salzburg settled in the colony. The Ashkenazim and the Lutherans, despite the wide gap between Orthodox Judaism and Evangelical Christianity, found it easy to establish warm social contacts, being drawn together by a common language and memories of childhood in Germany. The social relations between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, on the other hand, were so bad that they became a public scandal.
Is not this early Georgia experience a test-tube demonstration of what has happened a thousand times in America? Jews who come to this country from various parts of the world are at first divided by cultural differences. Then, just as the shared experience of American life tends to bring together different ancestral groups, so, within the Jewish group itself, it accomplishes a similar purpose. Once in the common current of an evolving American civilization, far from having their unity splintered by their environment, as is often stated, American Jews find a new fellowship with one another based on a sense of like spiritual values and community responsibility.