“Keep ancient lands your storied pomp,” wrote the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, in words now inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free.”
As with many who came to this country, for most Jews, their American experience began in the late 19th and early 20th century. Long subjected to poverty, brutal persecution and insecurity, they left Europe in staggering numbers; between 1880 and 1920, more than 3 million Jews joined Russians, Poles, Italians, Germans, the Irish, and more, all making their way to the promise of America. They brought little but a yearning for safety, prosperity and peace.
Our family was no different. My maternal grandfather arrived at age 12, one of seven, and the head of the household. As with many new immigrants, he began his American life pedaling on the streets of New York City. He eventually moved to Omaha, Nebraska and from there to the wide-open spaces of the Dakotas. He sold eyeglasses farm to farm, calling himself “Dr. Van Wolf.” Of course, he was no doctor.
By the time my mother was born, he had fulfilled his American dream, becoming a successful businessman in Chicago. He left his large family a legacy of prosperity; in addition, he had a hand in building two synagogues for a thriving Jewish community.
I am sure my paternal grandfather wore traditional garb when he got off the boat at Ellis Island: a long black coat, a kippah covering his head, tzitzit dangling from his waist and payus twirling down the sides of his face. The son of a rabbi from a line of rabbis that stretched back at least eight generations, he fulfilled his yichus, his lineage, in a very American way by shedding his payus, going to public school and then Rabbinical School, not in the yeshiva, but at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He took his first and only pulpit in Louisville, Kentucky — about as far as one can go, both literally and figuratively, from the shtetel in Pinsk, Poland.
He too prospered. He married, raised a family, and built a synagogue. He was the rabbi there for more than 50 years, and when he died, the streets were lined with mourners as the funeral procession made its way from the synagogue to the cemetery.
My family’s story seems a classic American success story, but of course our freedom and prosperity faced challenges, perhaps best summed up in a sign my father saw when traveling as a kid for a family vacation to Florida: “No N------, Dogs or Jews.” My father did not outlive his revulsion.
The history of anti-Semitism in America dates to the arrival of the first Jews, refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, in 1654. Gov. Peter Stuyvesant at first denied them entry into New Amsterdam until their relatives in Holland petitioned the Dutch West India Company, whom Stuyvesant represented. During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, accusing the Jews of “profiteering,” issued the infamous Order No. 11, which expelled the Jews from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. Abraham Lincoln rescinded the order a year later, only after the damage had been done.
There has always been a difference between the vision of America and American reality, but nowhere has the Jewish community been freer, safer or more prosperous than here.