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A people and a religion

What is a Jew?

What is a Jew?:  Marc Lee Raphael says only a Jew would ask the question.

The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America.

Columbia University Press

The Jewish presence in what is now the United States began in 1654, with the arrival of 23 refugees in what was then New Amsterdam, stepping off the boat from Brazil, of all places.

The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America...“We actually know the names of the 23 Jews that came from Brazil,” said Marc Lee Raphael. “This community had lived under the Dutch in Brazil, but the Portuguese took over Brazil and brought the Inquisition. And the Jews left.”

Raphael, the Sophia and Nathan S. Gumenick Chair of Judaic Studies at William and Mary, is the editor of The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America. Published in early 2008, the book is the first one-volume history addressing both the Jewish people and Jewish religious life in America.

“So far, every historian has written about one or the other. In fact, overwhelmingly they wrote about Jews because that’s more interesting than religion,” he said. The term “Jewish,” he noted, is singular in America, because it refers to an ethnic group as well as a religion.

“Let me tell you sort of a joke: What’s the definition of a Jew? The definition of a Jew is someone who asks what is the definition of a Jew,” Raphael said. “And that has a lot of truth, because non-Jews don’t ask the question. There is no definition of a Jew that has universal acceptance. Less than half the people in the U.S. who say ‘I’m Jewish’ also say ‘I go to a synagogue.’ So you have Jews who don’t go to the synagogue, but could be ethnic, who like to go to Jewish films or eat Jewish food or read Jewish books.”

Not an auspicious start

America’s first Jewish community didn’t have it easy, Raphael said. Dutch New Amsterdam became English New York within a decade, but it would take much, much longer for the Jewish presence in America to grow in influence and affluence, eventually producing cultural icons such as Leonard Bernstein, Woody Allen and—as Raphael, an L.A. native, is sure to mention—Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.

“The Dutch governor did not like Jews and so those people were persecuted by the Dutch governor like they would have been by the Portuguese,” he said. “They struggled to survive. It took another almost 100 years for anything that we would call a Jewish community to emerge in New York.”

In America, Raphael said, Jews found the opportunities that were utterly absent in Europe. If they found some doors closed to them, he said, America was big enough for Jews to create their own opportunities.

“Whatever example you might give me of discrimination, what Jews could do in this country was go somewhere else,” he said. “That is, if the country club down the street excluded you, you were free to create your own country club. And so we had Jewish country clubs and Jewish fraternities and sororities. And if the law firm said you couldn’t be a partner, then we’ll just create a Jewish law firm. If Cornell Medical School wouldn’t take you, then we’ll go to Ohio State—or Wisconsin or Illinois or Case Western.”

The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America consists of 18 essays by scholars on America’s Jewish people and the several varieties of the Jewish religion. Six of the essays address chronological periods; the remainder are topical, speaking to subjects as varied as Holocaust consciousness, Jews in the South and the nexus of feminism and Judaism. Raphael said he had the chapter topics roughed out before pitching the book idea to the acquisitions editor of Columbia University Press in a Manhattan pastry shop.

A progressive tradition

Raphael said one of the more important Jewish contributions to American life is a tradition of civic involvement and progressive thought, a legacy of Jewish activism in the Ashkenazi communities of central and eastern Europe.

“Especially in Poland and Russia, Jews overwhelmingly supported liberal causes, and were active in things that translate into ideals of the Democratic party more than the Republican party in the U.S.,” he said. As a result, Jewish Americans have supported such issues as environmental action, civil rights and union organization in disproportionate numbers. Raphael recalled his own experience as a freedom rider in 1962 or 1963.

“When the bus first left Los Angeles to go to Mississippi, I knew almost everybody on the bus,” he said. “They were all from Jewish youth groups in L.A.”

The outlook for Jewish life in America is mixed, he said. The glass-half-full outlook is that Jews are more interested in learning about their heritage and religion and the spread of Jewish studies programs in academia makes it more possible for them to do so.

“On the other hand,” he said, “the half-empty sign would be that every year there are fewer Jews in the U.S. The percentage of Jews in the U.S. declines; even the absolute number of Jews declines.”   i