|Arriving to New York|
Exactly 350 years ago, on Sept. 12 1654, a small vessel named the Ste. Catherine sailed into the port of New Amsterdam, present-day New York. Many of the ship’s passengers — “twenty-three souls, big and little,” according to a contemporary record — were disheveled Jewish refugees expelled from Recife, Brazil, when the Portuguese recaptured the colony from the Dutch. These Jews, who were seeking a new home, became the founding members of what would grow into the North American Jewish community.
What was the Hebrew equivalent of Sept. 12, 1654?
You guessed it: It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah of the year 5415. On Rosh Hashanah, 350 years ago, a diaspora people laid its roots and built a home more comfortable and secure than almost any other in its history.
Technically speaking, the Recife refugees were not the first Jews to arrive in North America. From 1585 onward, small numbers of Jews, mostly brave merchants bent on trade, made brief stops at American ports to conduct business. The “big and little” refugees from Recife, however, differed from the Jews who preceded them. Though without funds, they were determined to rebuild their lives by beginning a permanent Jewish community in North America. They petitioned for the right to "navigate and trade near and in New Netherland, and to live and reside there."
They did have some help. Fellow Jews in Amsterdam, some of them "principal shareholders" in the Dutch West India Company that controlled New Amsterdam, helped them overcome numerous political and legal obstacles. The worst of these was the anti-Jewish governor of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant, who tried to expel what he called "blasphemers." But the fledgling Jewish community won the right to live in New Amsterdam, on the condition that "the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community (1)."
The three waves of immigration
The first immigrants to arrive wereto arrive to this land in 1654 were Sephardic Jews. Their numbers continued to grow, and during the American Revolution, between 1000 and 2,500 Jews lived here.
Between 1820 and 1840, America’s Jewish population increased fivefold, from 3,000 to 15,000. Between 1840 and 1860 it increased another tenfold, to 150,000. By the time the first “official” census of the American Jewish community took place, in 1877, the American Jewish community’s numbers had ballooned to about 250,000. Most of these immigrants came from Germany.
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw the mass Jewish immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe that ultimately brought some two million Jews to America’s shores. Immigration was halted during World War I, and though it resumed afterward, it was drastically restricted by the quota legislation of 1924, which reduced the flow of Jewish immigration to the United States to a trickle.
This Rosh Hashanah, 350 years later after the first arrivals, is an appropriate time to reflect on our journeys in this blessed country.
A bizarre story in the Midrash might capture the Jewish-American story.
Yusta the Tailor
The Midrash relates the following episode (2):
In the days of the Roman Empire, in the city of Tzipori, a town just west of Tiberias in the upper Galilee, lived a simple man named Yusta. He served as the local tailor, sitting and sewing all day at his spot along the main street of the town.
During a visit to Rome, this simple man managed to encounter the emperor and found favor in his eyes. As a gesture, the emperor offered to grant Yusta any wish. The tailor asked to be appointed governor over his native city.
When Yusta, now the newly appointed governor of the city, returned to Tzipori, the townspeople began to argue: Was the new governor actually their old tailor? Some said it was Yusta, while others maintained such a thing was impossible.
One wise man suggested a simple test: While parading through the city marketplace, the new governor would pass the place where Yusta once sat and tailored clothing. “If the governor turns his head to gaze at that spot, we will know that he is Yusta,” said the wise man. “If he passes by without looking, we will know that he is not.”
The next time the governor passed down the main street, those watching saw him turn and look at his old workplace, and everyone knew that the governor was, alas, Yusta the tailor.
In reading the narrative, a simple question comes to mind: Having lived with Yusta for many years, why were the townspeople suddenly unable to recognize the face of their old landsman? If they were unsure of his identity, they did not need to contrive a scheme. They could have simply asked him, or one of his entourage, who he was.
Also, the Midrash, being a part of Torah, is not merely a book of historical tales. By identifying itself by the name Torah, which means “teaching,” the Torah defines its own genre. It tells us what happened in the past only when events that occurred then have a bearing on what we need to know now. What can we learn from the episode about Yusta the tailor (2)?
The corruption of power
One may suggest that the debate among the townspeople concerning the identity of the new governor was not whether he was, in fact, Yusta. Most likely, that was obvious to all who beheld him.
The argument involved the far deeper question of whether the new governor still possessed the fine qualities he’d once had as a simple tailor. Had the humble Yusta retained his integrity upon rising to power, or had good old Yusta been replaced by a pompous, self-centered and egocentric politician?
This explains the test suggested by the wise man. We must determine, said he, if while parading through the city as its new master, Yusta looks back to where he came from, recalling his former life as a tailor. For this is the test of a genuine leader: Can he recall what was precious to him before he attained power? Can he still see himself as a simple and vulnerable human being? Can he still appreciate authentic relationships, founded on mutual candidness and transparency?
Yusta passed the test. Even as governor, he never forgot where he came from. Looking back upon that place where he once sat and sewed, he remembered his humble origins. The power did not go to his head. Even with the gift of authority, Yusta did not bid farewell to his soul.
How is your soul?
This is the primary theme of the High Holidays. It is the time to reflect on whether our life’s successes and pressures have robbed us of our humanness and realness. Have we become self-made men who worship ourselves, or can we still look deep inside to the true Creator of man? Are we living a life loyal to the inner rhythms of our soul, or are we busy protecting our egos and covering up our errors? In short, are we living a real life or a fake life?
This, I believe, is also one of the important questions the American Jewish community ought to ask itself on its 350th birthday, this Rosh Hashanah.
This country has been good to us, in more than one way. Never in our long and horrific exile history have we, the Jewish people, felt as comfortable and safe as we have on these blessed shores, in a country founded upon the unyielding faith in the dignity of human life and liberty granted to every individual by the Creator of man. America's powerful support to our eternal homeland, the Land of Israel, is something that makes us proud to be citizens of this moral and kind country.
As the years progressed, many of our kin successfully integrated into the great American Dream. The culture and lifestyle of the “goldene medinah” (the golden country) – as the U.S. was described on the other side of the Atlantic — deeply impacted our our own lifestyle and self-definition. Conversely, Jews and their culture helped define this country’s national psyche (Jeremy Eichler elaborated this point well in a recent New York Times article on Sept. 3, 2004). Over time, many Jews rose to positions of power and prestige that their grandparents never dreamed of attaining. Like Yusta, they replaced their grandparents’ humble shops on the Lower East Side of New York with lucrative careers in business, politics, academia and the arts all across the country.
But have we lost something in this process?
In "Avalon," Barry Levinson poignantly depicted the tragic disintegration of his Baltimore Jewish family when the secular culture of America infiltrated a once unified, loving and vibrant family. It is a gut-wrenching story, one that has recurred, in one way or another, among countless Jewish families. The outer lure and temptation of American culture and progressiveness proved to be more powerful than, say, a Sabbath gefilte fish dinner (if our grandparents would have only served sushi instead of gefilte fish, things might have turned out different). The promise of full integration and success compelled many Jews to turn away from values and traditions that defined us for thousands of years. In the process, they have become alienated from that which once mattered most to them. By the time they sobered up, it was usually too late to regain what has been lost.
Jewish falk singer Moshe Yes captured this process in his beautiful song titled "My Zaide" (Yiddish for grandfather):
My Zaide lived with us in my parents’ home,
He used to laugh, he put me on his knee.
And he spoke about his life in Poland,
He spoke, but with a bitter memory.
And he spoke about the soldiers who would beat him;
They laughed at him, they tore his long black coat.
And he spoke about a synagogue that they burned down one day,
And the crying that was heard beneath the smoke.
But Zaide made us laugh,
Zaide made us sing,
And Zaide made a kiddush Friday night;
And Zaide, oh, my Zaide,
How I love him so,
And Zaide used to teach me wrong from right.
His eyes lit up when he would teach me Torah,
He taught me every line so carefully.
He spoke about our slavery in Egypt,
And how G-d took us out to make us free.
But winter went by,
Summer came along,
I went to camp to run and play.
And when I got back home, They said, “Zaide’s gone,”
And all his books were packed and stored away.
I don’t know how or why it came to be,
It happened slowly over so many years,
We just stopped being Jewish
like my Zaide was,
And no one cared enough to shed a tear.
But many winters went by,
And many summers came along,
And now my children sit in front of me.
And who will be the Zaide of my children,
Who will be their Zaide, if not me?
Who will be the Zaides of our children,
Who will be their Zaides, if not we?
Like Yusta the tailor-turned-governor, we, too, must muster the courage to turn around and deeply gaze at the spot where our grandparents — new arrivals at Ellis Island — labored, and recall the moral and spiritual power that for thousands of years have sustained and guided our people, and reclaim their belief that ordinary people through their daily acts could build a fragment of heaven on planet earth. We must make it our critical priority to infuse ourselves and our children with the richness of Torah and its mitzvos. This is the way to ensure that that in 350 years from now, our grandchildren will fondly recall the story of Rosh Hashanah 1654.
1) Most of this information is taken from an essay by Jonathan D. Sarna, in JTA March 2, 2004.
2) Midrash Rabah, Shir Hashirim, end of section 6.
3) Literally, this part of the story serves only as an introduction to the end of the Midrashic story in which the tailor himself also expressed astonishment over his appointment, to which the people of the town applied to him the declaration in the Sons of Songs (6:12), "I know not why my soul was placed in a chariot."
However, to convey the astonishment of the tailor and the verse applied to him, there was no need to relate how the residents of the town figured out that their new governor was indeed Yusta. The fact that the Midrash chose to record this part of the story as well, demonstrates that it contains timeless gems of moral inspiration, as does every other story and idea in Torah.
My thanks to Rabbi Nir Gurevitch, spiritual leader of the Australian community of Surfers Paradise, for turning my attention to this Midrashic episode and its moral lesson. My thanks to Professor Jonathan D. Sarna for much of the historical information included here. My thanks also to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.
Part of this article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Kosher Spirit. (www.kosherspirit.com)