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Jewish Journal

10 for the History Books

December 23, 1999 | 7:00 pm

History isn't always the way we remember it. Memory plays tricks, stories grow in the telling, narrators fudge for effect. The passing of a century -- or a millennium -- seems a good time to look back and set things straight.

Granted, this particular millennium isn't much in the scheme of Jewish things. Still, strings of zeroes in calendars induce uncontrollable urges among journalists to summarize. Your correspondent isn't immune. What's especially compelling is the American half-millennium now ending.

It's been a heck of a ride -- for America, the world and the Jews. Not always the way we remember, though. Here are 10 of the most misunderstood or underappreciated events in five centuries of American Jewish history.

1492: First American Jew.

Luis de Torres steps ashore Oct. 12 at San Salvador, the first member of Columbus's crew to touch American soil. Columbus had left Spain Aug. 3, two days after the deadline for Spain's quarter-million Jews to accept baptism or leave. Torres, a last-minute convert, signed on as Columbus's translator, boasting skills in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. Columbus will return home in 1493 but Torres, recognizing a good thing, stays on. Named governor of Cuba, he farms tobacco and writes to other Jews to join him. In 1519 an alarmed Spain opens an American branch of the Inquisition.

1790: First presidential greetings.

Following George Washington's first inauguration in March 1789, every major faith sends him a letter of "felicitation." America's five synagogues decide to write one, but bicker over who will present it. The Savannah congregation finally sends its own letter in May 1790. Newport follows in August, winning a stirring presidential reply: America will give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." In December, Manuel Josephson, president of Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel synagogue, delivers the overdue national missive. Washington's reply, slightly annoyed, mentions all those previous felicitations.

1800: First campaign for Jewish votes.

The 1800 presidential race, the first fought on formal party lines, marks the first attempt to woo Jews away from the Democratic Party. A letter in the Philadelphia Gazette, signed by Moses S. Solomons, urges Jews to oppose Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson as a godless foe of "all religion." Mikveh Israel President Benjamin Nones calls the letter a fraud. "No such man as Moses S. Solomons has ever been, or is now a member of the Hebrew congregation of this city," the synagogue announces. Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic, not for the last time.

1838: First Hebrew school.

Philadelphia community leader Rebecca Gratz, alarmed at Jewish illiteracy, turns to the Protestant model and launches America's first Jewish Sunday school. Previously Jewish youngsters were educated in all-day synagogue schools, learning grammar, arithmetic, Hebrew and Spanish. Gratz, responding to the growing popularity of state-funded public schools, decides to teach Hebrew on Sunday mornings, using texts she prepares with her cantor, Isaac Leeser. Thanks to Gratz, generations of Jewish youngsters will spend Sunday mornings staring out the window, nurturing lifelong resentments of the synagogue.

1840: First American rabbi.

Abraham Rice moves from Germany to Baltimore and takes up the pulpit of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, becoming America's first ordained rabbi. In 1849, despairing over his congregants' rampant apathy, he will resign and open a dry-goods store. "I dwell in darkness without a teacher or companion," he writes to a friend back home. "... I wonder whether it is even permissible for a Jew to dwell in this land."

1840: First rally for Jews abroad.

America's first-ever public protest against foreign anti-Semitism takes place Aug. 17 in New York, demanding freedom for 13 Jews arrested in Damascus in February on false "blood libel" charges. New York's Jews spent months debating whether and where to rally.

By the time they assemble, the State Department has already intervened; it acted on Aug. 14 under pressure from British banker Sir Moses Montefiore.

1880: First Jewish superstar.

Sarah Bernhardt, acclaimed French actress, begins her first American tour with a sensational November appearance at New York's Booth Theater. The tour will launch an entertainment revolution.

Having decided to break her contract with the Comedie Francaise and manage her own career, Bernhardt is about to become the world's first entertainer-as-celebrity, complete with product endorsements and fan magazines. The first to emulate her are magician Harry Houdini and singer Al Jolson. Thousands follow. The star system helps transform theater, movies and popular music into "show business." A century later, frank discussion of the dominant Jewish role in the industry remains largely taboo.

1930: First national Jewish appeal.

The Joint Distribution Committee and United Palestine Appeal announce the first Allied Jewish Campaign, an uneasy marriage forged under pressure from local Jewish federations. It lasts a year. A second attempt in 1935 fares no better. In 1938, horrified by Nazism and Kristallnacht, they try again. The new alliance, renamed the United Jewish Appeal, lasts until 1940 when the Zionists secede, protesting their minority share of proceeds. They rejoin in 1941, having done even worse on their own.

1973: First billions for Israel.

The Yom Kippur War, begun Oct. 6 with an Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack, has Israel reeling and Washington and Moscow at the nuclear brink. On Oct. 16 a bleary-eyed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tells aides Israel must receive a massive aid package to "show the Russians we're serious." He picks a figure of $2.2 billion, later explained as the cost of replacing Israeli weaponry. The multibillion-dollar aid, symbolic of American commitment, will be cited by Arab leaders as a major reason why they give up trying to destroy Israel. Kissinger's aides will recall that he seemed that morning less a diplomat than "a Jew who lost his family in the Holocaust."

1990: First warnings of doom.

The National Jewish Population Survey, commissioned by Jewish federations, shows that 52 percent of American Jews who wed each year marry gentiles, and only 28 percent of intermarried couples raise their children as Jews. The news sparks a national outcry, prompts multimillion-dollar education initiatives and spawns a flood of Jewish doomsday predictions. Finger-pointing over looming disaster fuels bitter conflict; Orthodox rabbis accuse Reform of causing a "holocaust" by condoning intermarriage. By the late 1990s the conflict is turning violent.

At century's end, the federations are sitting on an unreleased study showing the 52 percent figure was wrong, inflated by a procedural error. Most Jews, it shows, still marry Jews. Many who intermarry -- up to two-thirds in some communities -- raise their children as Jews. Luis de Torres had it right.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for the Jewish Journal.

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