Starting in 1881, some 2.5 million desperate, destitute eastern European Jews washed up on American shores to connect an ancient text to a young nation’s sense of its own special destiny. For the implacably confident citizens of the surging United States, these exotic newcomers provided new perspective on three mystical Genesis verses that had resonated with their forebears since the earliest days of British settlement.

“Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God commands Abraham (still called Abram at that point in the text). The Almighty reassures the puzzled patriarch by pledging a world- changing outcome to this directed journey into the unknown: “And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”

The Pilgrims and Puritans prayed for similar benedictions and connected their own “errand into the wilderness” with Abraham’s fateful mission to build a new, godly life in a promised land he hadn’t even seen. Proudly identifying themselves as “New Testament Hebrews,” they also cherished the biblical idea that the other tribes of earth would one day earn reward or punishment based on their treatment of the new nation God had decreed into existence. “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse,” the Lord assures Abraham and, by implication, his descendants, far into the future. “And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Genesis 12:1–3).

With this formulation in mind, many of the radical Protestant doers and dreamers who ultimately planted a new civilization in North America embraced the notion that their cosmic purpose involved the protection of the children of Abraham—an idea they expressed in sermons and scholarly treatises long before any actual Jews turned up in their struggling New World outposts.

In 1648, for instance, a member of Parliament named Sir Edward Nicholas wrote an influential pamphlet that blamed England’s present problems on “the strict and cruel laws now in force against the most honorable nation of the world, the nation of the Jews, a people chosen by God.” This startling new attitude and Sir Edward’s bold description of the Jews as “our brethren” represented a striking departure from the well-established medieval view that they constituted “the spawn of Satan” and were worthy of torture, genocide, and expulsion.

Nicholas and like-minded thinkers pressed their arguments as necessary atonement for the ghastly treatment of Jews by earlier generations of Englishmen, who had expelled them from Britain in 1190 and barred their return for more than 350 years. According to the arguments of Puritan leaders, putting an end to such persecution could win for Britons the spiritual and material blessings explicitly promised to those who dealt kindly with descendants of the biblical patriarchs.

When English Puritans crossed the Atlantic with dreams of building holy refuges on a wild and desolate continent, they took these philo-Semitic attitudes with them. In New England, the influential theologian and charismatic pastor Roger Williams pleaded incessantly for acceptance, and even the welcome, of the widely despised and persecuted Jews. When he found himself expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for his defiant insistence on congregational autonomy, he proceeded with his followers to found the new colony of Rhode Island, with its capital pointedly designated as “Providence.” During a visit to England in 1652, Williams petitioned Parliament on the issue of welcoming Jewish immigration to all corners of the British world: “I humbly conceive it to be the duty of the civil magistrate to break down that superstitious wall of separation (as to civil things) between us Gentiles and the Jews, and freely (without their asking) to make way for their free and peaceable habitation amongst us.”

Four years later, Parliament made the fateful decision to accede to that request and to permit a reestablished Jewish presence in Britain; just two years after that, Roger Williams welcomed the first Jewish settlers to his own New England colony of Rhode Island. By the time of the American Revolution, the pioneering community in Newport, made up of the descendants of Sephardic Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal, had grown to 30 families.

One of the ways in which the Puritans sought to connect themselves to biblical directives was through the study of Hebrew. The Cambridge-trained historian Nick Bunker notes that William Bradford, the longtime governor of Plymouth Colony, “fell under the influence of Judaism, its rabbis of the Middle Ages, and their manner of interpreting the Bible and the vagaries of human life.” In Making Haste from Babylon (2010), the historian Nick Bunker affirms that “Hebrew possessed a special appeal for Puritans. They wished to swim back up the stream of learning and to absorb the wisdom of the Bible from as close to the source as possible, free from what they saw as Roman Catholic duplicity or errors in translation.”

Bradford struggled to teach himself the language in which “God, and angels, spoke to the holy patriarchs of old time,” as he put it. He used a book he had brought with him in the turbulent voyage across the Atlantic, and, amazingly, his painstaking Hebrew exercises have been preserved for nearly 400 years, scribbled in his own hand on the blank spaces of many pages. Bunker even argues that Bradford and his colleagues based their celebration of the first Thanksgiving on the traditional Judaic practice of Birkat HaGomel: a prayerful expression of gratitude after a perilous journey or other life-threatening experience. The early New England settlers most certainly knew of that ancient formulation, and “A Blessing for Deliverance” would have seemed as natural to them as it is for observant Jews to this day.

In the next three generations of New England leadership, the most prominent scholars and magistrates brought even greater focus and passion to their obsessive identification with the children of Abraham. John Cotton (1585–1652), the preeminent theologian of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, believed that the residents of this model godly commonwealth should follow Old Testament law “because God, who was then bound up in covenant with [the Hebrews] to be their God, has put us in their stead and is become our God as well as theirs and hence we are much bound to their laws as well as themselves.”

Cotton Mather became the most influential American Hebraist of his day. He quoted regularly from his encyclopedic knowledge of rabbinic literature, going beyond the Tanach and Talmud to include Maimonides, Nachmanides (his special favorite), Midrash, Rashi, and even mystical, kabbalistic volumes like the Zohar. Several sources report that Mather adopted the habit of wearing a skullcap as he pursued these studies at home and even began calling himself “Rabbi” at age 33 in 1696. No wonder that Mather’s contemporary Peter Folger (a Baptist missionary, a pioneer settler of Nantucket Island, and Benjamin Franklin’s grandfather) proudly observed: “In New England they are like the Jews, as like as like can be.”

Despite this intense identification with ancient Israel, few Americans ever got the chance to explore either the wisdom of the past or the prospects for the future with their Jewish contemporaries. One of the exceptions was Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), the seventh president of Yale and an influential minister and scholar. Before assuming his most celebrated position in New Haven, Connecticut, he spent 20 years pastoring a major church in Newport, Rhode Island. During that time, Stiles made a point of frequent visits to the small, struggling synagogue that had managed to survive for more than a hundred years despite the lack of meaningful growth in the Jewish population. At these services, Stiles made the acquaintance of an esteemed visiting rabbi from the Holy Land. Raphael Haim Isaac Carregal had been born in Hebron, not far from the reputed burial site of Abraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. Stiles recorded the substance of each one of their 28 extended meetings, and after the rabbi’s departure they maintained a lively correspondence in Hebrew.

Unlike Cotton Mather, who expressed the hope that even the religious Jews he so passionately esteemed would ultimately find their way to Christ, Stiles expected Rabbi Carregal to remain fully Jewish and became excited by visions of what Jews and Christians might achieve together. He commissioned a portrait of his friend to display at Yale and encouraged publication of two of his sermons in English translations from the original Spanish. In particular, Stiles believed that the ultimate “return of the twelve tribes to the Holy Land” might well occur at any time, igniting an explosion of faith that would enable believers “to convert a world.”

While praying for the prophesied redemption of an ancient people, Stiles played a prominent role in the miraculous birth of a new nation in North America. As a fearless advocate for the cause of independence, this patriot-preacher delivered a famous sermon after the Revolution’s triumphant conclusion, titled “The United States Elevated to Glory and Honour.” Near the climax of his argument, the Christian scholar reasoned that part of the purpose for that elevation involved a presumed American role in efforts to “recover and gather” the children of Israel “from all the nations.” At that point, “the words of Moses . . . will be literally fulfilled; when the posterity of Abraham shall be nationally collected, and become a very distinguished and glorious people.”

During the Revolutionary War, Jewish participation intensified the impulse of the founding generation to link the fate of America to that of Israel. Haym Salomon, a Polish-born financial broker, arrived in New York on the eve of the Revolution and immediately involved himself with the radical Sons of Liberty. Imprisoned by the British after they occupied the city in 1776, he managed to escape only to be arrested again for active support for the rebellion against the crown. He escaped one more time, after intense suffering in captivity, and made his way to Philadelphia, where he played a crucial role in selling the bonds and bills of exchange that kept the infant Republic’s shaky finances afloat. At the end of eight years of toil and turbulence, the struggle for independence had broken his health, both physically and financially. When he was 44, he died of tuberculosis, just two years after the war’s formal conclusion, and his generous, unsecured loans and outright bequests to leaders of the cause left him in poverty at the time of his demise.

The Jewish community never numbered more than 2,500 through the course of the war, representing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall colonial population of nearly 3 million. Nevertheless, contemporaries looked with admiration on the overwhelming percentage of Jews who backed the fight for independence, in contrast to the bitter divisions in the population at large.

With these contributions in mind, in the second year of his presidency under the new Constitution, Washington made a special point to honor and praise the Republic’s tiny Jewish communities. In a celebrated letter to “The Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” (at the time the nation’s largest, with nearly 200 souls), the president declared: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

In 1790, the suggestion by the president of the Republic in a public proclamation that Jews might be considered “good citizens” in any sense would have struck other nations as shocking, radical, dangerous, and unprecedented.

In Great Britain, it took another 68 years and a long, bitter, polarizing fight before Parliament at last agreed to eliminate the “civil disabilities” burdening the Jewish population and accepted a duly elected Jew as an MP. (Future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli had entered Westminster 20 years earlier, but he had been conveniently baptized a Christian at age 12.) “Jewish emancipation” didn’t arrive in France until 1806 (under Napoleon), reaching Austria-Hungary only in 1867, Brazil in 1890, Spain in 1910, and Russia (with the revolution) in 1917.

At the time that Washington wrote his remarkable message to the Newport congregation and through them to the Jews in the rest of the world, no other nation on earth even came close to offering Jews equal access to citizenship and public office. Nevertheless, the first president concluded his missive with a hope for the future that read like a benediction, replete with references to Hebrew scripture: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

In another 1790 message to an even smaller Jewish community (the tiny, struggling synagogue in Savannah, Georgia), Washington expressed similar sentiments and explicitly linked the fate of the new Republic to the distinctive destiny of the children of Israel. He wrote, “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”

As these comments indicate with their open-hearted emotion, the early leaders of the United States identified the American experience with the story of the ancient Hebrews in the Bible, and they had done so since the days of the Pilgrims and Puritans. When Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson faced the task of designing the first official seal for the new nation in 1776, they each came up with images depicting the children of Israel escaping from Egyptian slavery under God’s miraculous protection, as the Lord split the sea or guided them through the wilderness with pillars of cloud and flame.

As David Brooks wrote in 2017, “the story Americans told about themselves was a biblical story—an exodus story of various diverse peoples leaving oppression, crossing a wilderness and joining together to help create a promised land.” The idea wasn’t that Americans would replace the covenantal relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish people but might somehow replicate it, or join in it, to share the special blessings of heavenly favor.

John Adams, the second president of the United States, enthusiastically embraced that notion in a letter to one of the most prominent Jews in the country. In 1819, eighteen years after leaving the White House, the former chief executive decided “to let my imagination loose” in correspondence with Mordecai Manuel Noah, a tireless journalist, playwright, and diplomat who, as consul to the Kingdom of Tunis, became the first American Jew to win a notable federal appointment. While assuring Noah of his “respect and esteem,” the “Atlas of Independence” mused: “I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites indeed as well disciplin’d as a French army—& marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it—For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”

Eleven years earlier, Adams had already begun expressing the philo-Semitism so typical of the Founders. “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation,” he wrote. “If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. . . . They are most glorious nation that ever inhabited this earth.”

Encouraged by such attitudes on the part of some of the most revered figures in the Republic, Mordecai Noah launched a grandiose plan to prepare for Israel’s restoration by establishing a designated refuge for persecuted Jews under the jurisdiction of the United States. He planned to build his colony on Grand Island in the Niagara River, not far from Buffalo. He began buying up land for that purpose (at $4.38 an acre) and designated the new settlement “Ararat”—just as the biblical Noah brought his ark to rest on Mount Ararat after a flood of suffering and horror, so the modern-day Noah would provide a safe haven on his Ararat for the masses of Jews threatened by persecution and deadly violence.

His utopian plan drew far more enthusiastic support from sympathetic Christians than it ever did from his fellow Jews, and on September 2, 1825, a crowd of several thousand marched to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Buffalo for the dedication of the new settlement. Though the building could barely handle the eager throngs, Noah managed to lead the crowd in singing psalms in Hebrew before presenting the ceremonial cornerstone he meant to plant on the island refuge over which he would preside as, “by the grace of God, Governor and Judge of Israel.” This 400-pound rock had been inscribed with the Hebrew words of the biblical Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) and then the English proclamation: “Ararat, a City of Refuge for the Jews, founded by mordecai manuel noah in the Month of Tishri, 5586 (September, 1825) and in the Fiftieth Year of American Independence.”

The island colony of Ararat never built anything more substantial than that massive foundation stone, the only remnant of an American dreamer’s soaring scheme to draw vast hordes of Jewish refugees a full half-century before those huddled masses actually began to arrive.

The farsighted patriots during America’s first hundred years of independence had been right to anticipate the way America would help to shape a new destiny for the Jewish people. But none of them predicted that the Jewish people would reciprocate in playing their own role in molding the modern United States, with a sudden mass migration that took both the wayfarers and their destination by surprise.

Beginning in 1881, the impoverished eastern European communities that had shown limited interest in relocating to the old promised land began migrating en masse to the new land of promise. On prior occasions, Jews had abandoned their longtime homes, fleeing as desperate refugees from Spain in 1492, or from the German states in the Middle Ages, or from ancient Israel itself on several occasions. But each of these instances saw them scatter, dispersing to so many different new locations that their historical condition came to be known as the Diaspora—the dispersion.

This time, the Jewish migrants moved in mostly the same direction and with a greater sense of purpose, sharing an ardent expectation that their new exodus could mean their redemption as well as their survival. In addition to running from death and danger, the journey to America also offered life and hope. Of the more than 2.5 million Jews who fled disparate nations in a single generation, more than 80 percent went to the United States, with far smaller numbers finding their way to western Europe, South Africa, Canada, Argentina, and Australia; a few made it to the struggling settlements in Palestine that hoped to reclaim the ancient homeland in the Middle East.

This new exodus began with a single act of monstrous, senseless savagery that bore no apparent connection to either the downtrodden Jewish masses of eastern Europe or their new refuge in the New World: the assassination of Czar Alexander II. His murder led to a series of pogroms that convinced a huge number of Russia’s 7 million Jews they had to run for their lives.

The specific timing of the czar’s assassination helped make the mass migration to America possible, even logical. Had earlier attempts succeeded in felling the emperor, American conditions after the devastation of the Civil War would have provided a far less compelling lure than the booming, rapidly industrializing economy of the 1880s and ’90s. The rocketing rise of commerce and manufacturing also helped to bury the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment that had played such a potent role in American politics and culture before the war for the Union. The Jews and other migrants who jammed the transatlantic ships of the period faced little discouragement from complicated paperwork or bigoted bureaucrats: America needed workers.

To the immigrants themselves, and to the unprepared Americans who watched their mass arrival in amazement, the sudden explosion in the American Jewish population seemed miraculous, inevitably suggesting biblical analogues. In December 1881, just as desperate Jewish refugees began to pour into New York and other cities on the eastern seaboard, the satirical magazine Puck ran a striking cartoon depicting Uncle Sam as “The Modern Moses.” In the image, the smiling national symbol, with rays of light extending from his top hat, stands atop a rock, extending a rod labeled “Liberty.” Below him, a crowd of destitute Jewish families, most of them depicted with stereotypical beards and hook noses, carry their children and meager possessions through a blessedly parted Red Sea toward safety in their new promised land. The walls of water threatening to engulf them, held back by Uncle Sam’s genial but supernatural power, have been labeled “Oppression” and “Intolerance.”

The fateful arrival of hordes of eastern European Jews transformed the United States just as dramatically, and even more instantaneously, than it changed the immigrants themselves. In 1881, the year of the czar’s death, the Jewish population of New York City stood at 80,000. Twenty years later, the number had risen to 510,000—an increase of more than 600 percent.

In one of those strange coincidences that so often illuminate our nation’s history, the final stages of construction and fundraising for a gigantic statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” unfolded at virtually the same moment that the massive Jewish emigration from eastern Europe captured international attention.

Originally, the huge figure in the harbor had nothing to do with immigration of any kind. An ardent French abolitionist proposed the statue to commemorate Union victory in the Civil War, the end of American slavery, and the common commitment of the United States and France to the cause of liberty. The finished work, more than 150 feet tall from her sandaled toes to the topmost flame in her torch, finally took its place on Bedloe’s Island (later Liberty Island) in 1886 at the very moment that the flood of Jewish humanity toward the United States was reaching its high tide. One ardently Jewish poet, who advanced the idea of a preordained American role in the rescue and redemption of her people, gave passionate voice to the great lady of the “silent lips.”

Emma Lazarus was raised in a cultivated Sephardic Jewish family that had prospered as New York merchants for nearly 200 years. At age 18, she published her first book of poems, and her work quickly attracted encouragement and friendship from the New England eminence Ralph Waldo Emerson. Fluent in French, Italian, and especially German, Lazarus also published translations of poetry by Goethe, Heine, Victor Hugo, and many others, placing her poems and observations in prestigious magazines in all the world’s capitals.

While establishing a truly international reputation, Lazarus focused scant attention on her own Jewish heritage, but when she was 31, the vicious pogroms following the assassination of the czar sparked a passion for self-discovery. She translated the zealous Hebrew lyrics of the medieval mystic Yehuda Halevi, who wrote of his yearning to journey to Israel and participate in its miraculous rebirth. She also organized charitable efforts to aid the penniless Russian hordes who began washing into New York City, providing them with relief and survival supplies, while teaching the basics of American history and culture and defending them, fiercely, from anti-Semitic taunts in the public press. Her contact with these destitute dreamers fueled her pride in the Jewish past and her visions for a grandiose future, as her poetry suddenly burned with exhortation and purpose:

Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
The glorious Maccabean rage
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Oh, for Jerusalem’s trumpet now,
To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,

And rouse them to the urgent hour!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Oh deem not dead that martial fire
Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,
Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,

She raised the banner herself by founding the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews, with the goal of inspiring a mass exodus from Europe and, ultimately, the United States, to take possession of the ancient homeland. She wrote to a friend that the prospect of a reconstituted Israel “opens up such enormous vistas in the past & future, & is so palpitatingly alive at the moment, that it has about driven out of my thoughts all other subjects.”

Even so, she managed to make a contribution to an auction of art and manuscripts in 1883 that would raise money for the final stages of the construction and installation of the Statue of Liberty. The resulting handwritten sonnet simultaneously expressed her tenderness for the desperate new arrivals fleeing starvation and the czar, while exulting in the epochal role of America as refuge and redeemer. The Jewish view of the United States as a supernatural sanctuary in a harsh, hostile world has never been expressed more movingly or memorably:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The haunting phrase “Mother of Exiles” seemed particularly resonant for Russian Jewish immigrants who, more than the other new arrivals from literally a hundred other nations, had been deliberately driven from their longtime homes. Twenty years after its composition, and 15 years after her untimely death, Emma Lazarus’s poem was inscribed on a burnished plaque at the base of the statue whose meaning she had defined, forever, with her words.

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