Judaism in America


On Dec. 24th, Jewish communities across the country begin celebrating Hanukkah. The annual holiday celebrates the victory of the Jews over the Greeks, and marks the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC.  Roughly 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish, but the influence of American Jews far outweighs their relatively small numbers. In this episode of BackStory, the hosts (along with guest host Joanne Freeman of Yale University) explore the history of Judaism in America.

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. In 1825, a Jewish American businessman named Mordecai Noah had a dream.

ERAN SHALEV: He was reading about the persecutions and the pogroms in Europe. And he decided that the solution to their misery was a colony in New York State.

ED: Now, European Jews never came to his new Zion, but half a century later, tens of thousands of Jews began seeking refuge in America. They settled in cities and communities across the country.

Today, on BackStory, we’ll explore the place of Jews in American history. We’ll also look at how America has shaped Judaism, from Yiddish pop music to Hanukkah.

DIANNE ASHTON: In Atlanta, for example, they wrap the Torah in an American flag for one of their celebrations.

ED: A history of American Judaism today on BackStory.


PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the [INAUDIBLE] Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And we’re happy to welcome Yale historian Joanne Freeman to the show today. She’s filling in for Peter Onuf.


ED: Hi, Joanne.

BRIAN: Hey, Joanne. We’re going to begin the show on August 17, 1790. That day, President George Washington and his entourage paid a visit to the seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island.

JONATHAN SARNA: There is a wonderful welcome, naturally, for George Washington, who was a hero everywhere.

BRIAN: This is Jonathan Sarna, an historian at Brandeis University.

JONATHAN SARNA: And four addresses as they were called, kind of open letters, are read out to him. That was per the custom. The town is, of course, the first to welcome him.

BRIAN: Then the Christian clergy made a speech. That was followed by the Masons.

JONATHAN SARNA: Finally, came the Jewish or, as they called it, the Hebrew congregation.

BRIAN: Sarna says there were only about 2,500 Jews in the entire country in 1790, maybe 1/10 of 1% of the population. Newport had a small but prominent Jewish community, which was why its members were invited to address the president. The warden of the Newport synagogue, a man named Moses Seixas, spoke on their behalf.

ACTOR PLAYING MOSES SEIXAS: Sir, permit the children of the stock of Abraham to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport.

JONATHAN SARNA: Jews, although they had more rights in colonial America than they had in most places, certainly did not have full rights.

BRIAN: In Rhode Island, at least two Jews had been denied citizenship because of their religion. Many of the colonies, now states, tied citizenship to a Christian oath, which meant Jews were often denied the right to vote or hold office. Standing before the president, Seixas chose his words carefully. He knew the policies of the new federal government were still being fleshed out in 1790.

ACTOR PLAYING MOSES SEIXAS: Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now, with deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty, disposer of all events, behold a government erected by the majesty of the people, a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generous–

JONATHAN SARNA: I think that Moses Seixas is very hopeful that the revolution is really going to be a revolution for every one, including Jews. What he wants, I think, is to hear this directly from the president.

BRIAN: And Washington, well, he got the message loud and clear. A few days later, he wrote back to the Jews of Newport. The letter he penned is now considered one of the founding documents of American Religious Freedom, written even before the First Amendment had been ratified.

ACTOR PLAYING GEORGE WASHINGTON: Gentlemen, all possess, alike, liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance–

JONATHAN SARNA: It’s a beautiful phrase. That indeed is what George Washington said reassuring the Jews that their hope was in fact also his hope, indeed his assurance.

ACTOR PLAYING GEORGE WASHINGTON: May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit in–

JONATHAN SARNA: I am not familiar with any other country that was providing those kinds of rights to Jews at that time. This is a much more radical statement about religious liberty. It’s not a matter of toleration, which, you know, means, well, maybe I shouldn’t do it, but I sort of tolerate you even though you don’t deserve it. It is a matter of right. It is a policy.

BRIAN: But Washington didn’t stop there. His staff reprinted the letter in newspapers, throughout the young republic, so everyone could read it. Washington was deliberately setting a precedent, one that subsequent generations of Americans have referenced to defend religious freedom. His letter has even been cited in several Supreme Court cases.

ED: Now, it might seem obvious that Jews are entitled to the same rights as other Americans. In fact, that’s Sarna’s point. He sees a strong connection between George Washington’s promise and the place of Jews in America today. It’s been a story of gradual acceptance and assimilation, the moving from outsider to insider.

JONATHAN SARNA: That’s really the American story. And if we want to understand the moment when three presidential candidates can have close Jewish associations, one is Jewish and two of them have Jewish sons-in-law, well, we need to look at letters, like George Washington’s letter, to help us understand what the great ideals are that help to shape the American dream.

ED: Today on the show, we’re marking this year’s Passover by exploring the history of Judaism in America. We’ll hear about two rabbis in Cincinnati who have made Hanukkah a more American holiday. We’ll also explore New York delis. They offered a lot more than just schmaltz and belly lox to Jewish immigrants. And we’ll hear how the lynching of a Jewish businessman in the early 20th century galvanized American Jews across the country.

JOANNE FREEMAN: But first, let’s travel to 19th century, upstate New York. Now we just heard about Jews embracing America’s promise of religious freedom. Well, on September 25, 1825, a very public spectacle in Buffalo took that idea one step further. Thousands of people filled the streets accompanied by a marching band. They were celebrating the dedication of a city of refuge for the world’s Jews on a nearby island.

ERAN SHALEV: And they all started walking in line, headed by the self-proclaimed judge of Israel, Mordecai Noah, clothed in judicial robes of crimson silk, trimmed with ermine fur, and wearing a medal of embossed gold.

JOANNE FREEMAN: That’s historian Eran Shalev. He says the man leading the parade, Mordecai Noah, was the most prominent American Jew in the early 19th century. Noah was a flamboyant newspaper publisher, playwright, and New York City sheriff, who’d also been the US Ambassador to Tunis. This new Jewish colony was his idea. Noah called it Ararat, after the mountain in Turkey where another Noah, the guy in the Old Testament, landed his ark.

ERAN SHALEV: Was that a pun calling his city Ararat? Or was it a sign of megalomania? It might have been both. I mean, you know, he’s the guy that walks around with a crimson robe and with fur and with a golden medal on him, calling himself the judge of Israel.

JOANNE FREEMAN: There was just one, small problem. Ararat, this Jewish colony, didn’t exist yet. Noah still needed to raise money for it. He also had to persuade Jews to move there.

ERAN SHALEV: I think he was reading about the persecutions and the pogroms in Europe that were occurring regularly in Europe and in the Levant. And he decided that the solution to their misery was a colony, inside the United States, in New York State.

JOANNE FREEMAN: But so what was it, to Noah, about the United States, in 1825, that led him to think, hah, this is the ideal country for a Jewish city of refuge.

ERAN SHALEV: The zeitgeist, within the United States, was one in which the Old Testament had a huge place within the American imagination, and the idea that the United States was a reincarnation of the biblical Israel. Those notions were as old as the Puritans were, who were saying that they were fleeing the British pharaoh and crossing the Red Sea and arriving at the promised land. But after the American Revolution, there was a second life of that kind of thinking in which the American states were seen as an analogy of Israelite tribes.

JOANNE FREEMAN: So in creating this refuge city for Jews, was Noah trying to help Jews integrate? Or was he trying to create a place for them to be a people apart?

ERAN SHALEV: His plan is fragmentary. We’re not sure, exactly, what he was planning for the hundreds of thousands of Jews he was expecting or hoping for.

I think he wanted them to be a people apart, perhaps something along the lines of a shining city upon a hill, to the American gentiles, to have a sacred community for the American world to see. Because if he just wanted them over, he’d call them over without congregating them on one island.

I mean, the tension he was working with was, on the one hand, he wanted some kind of autonomy. That’s clear from what he says. But on the other hand, he knew that he needed to sell that plan to American Protestants. There were hundreds of people in that procession, but there were very few Jews if any– I mean, you know, a handful of them.

JOANNE FREEMAN: But that’s really interesting, though, that there’s this big procession. They’re dedicating a Jewish community. And then most of the people, who were there watching, are not Jewish. So what was bringing those people? How did American Protestants feel about this plan?

ERAN SHALEV: Well, New York, in the 1820s, was a special place. It was, what we refer to as, the burnt over district, that just saw waves of religious groups, from the Millerites, who became the Seventh Day Adventists, to the Mormons. So seeing a guy clothed in crimson and proclaiming himself a judge of Israel was part of the reality. This all comes together and makes sense of a plan that, on the face of it, is very bizarre.

JOANNE FREEMAN: So let me ask you a really basic question here. I grew up in New York. And I’m pretty sure that there isn’t an Ararat in upstate New York. So what the heck happened? Why did this all fall apart when it seemed to have such dramatic beginning?

ERAN SHALEV: Well, first of all, the Jews didn’t come. So that’s on the pull end. But on the push end, the very potent republicanism did not tolerate a guy proclaiming himself a judge and amassing political power without being elected. And they immediately start calling him a prince, who wants to amass powers that are not his to begin with.

JOANNE FREEMAN: We’re talking the scary, evil, bad thing of the early republic, which is– gasp– monarchism.

ERAN SHALEV: And Noah is aware of that. So he repeatedly says that he will be working within the framework of the American Constitution and under the American Constitution. But that is not enough to quell the fears of contemporaries.

JOANNE FREEMAN: So that’s really interesting. It sounds like you’re saying– well, some people thought this was wacky. And maybe they had a reason to think this was wacky. But also, some people protested it, not because it was going to be a Jewish community, but because it was going to be a community that was testing some of the bounds of the Constitution and its sense of whether a nation within a nation was a feasible thing.

ERAN SHALEV: Right. There was very little– I mean, there was some hinted antisemitism but very little. There were a good few thousands of Jews, back then, in the United States, but nothing like the Jewish American community that would grow out of the big migration waves of the late 19th century.


ERAN SHALEV: So the vast majority of Americans have never laid eyes on a Jew. But Jews and Israelites and the Old Testament had a huge place in the American political and national imagination.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Would you say that Noah was articulating an early kind of Zionism? Is he a man who’s ahead of his time?

ERAN SHALEV: Well, he senses the pain and the troubles that eventually give rise to Zionism. So he is considered a proto-Zionist. But the solution he found was one that, even decades later, would not have worked the way he thought it will.


ERAN SHALEV: Because the children and grandchildren, of the people he wanted to bring over, eventually did come, but never seeking some kind of autonomy or a colony or an empire within an empire, but just to be American.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, Just the opposite. They were searching for just the opposite in a sense.



JOANNE FREEMAN: Eran Shalev is an historian at Haifa University in Israel and the author of American Zion, The Old Testament as a Political Text, From the Revolution to the Civil War. Earlier, we heard from Jonathan Sarna, an historian at Brandeis University. He’s the author of American Judaism, A History.


ED: We just heard about an attempt to create a Jewish colony, in upstate New York, in 1825. And at the core of that interview was the question of the competing impulses of separatism and assimilation. So Brian, I’ve heard you talk about those issues in your own family.

BRIAN: Yeah, you and Joanne know that I come from a middle class Jewish family. And my parents’ generation and their family just seemed always to be trying to fit in, basically assimilate into what they viewed as America, which wasn’t a particularly Jewish America, rebelling against parents who quite literally had come over, in my case, from Russia and from Hungary, where Yiddish was spoken, where religion prevailed. Now, if you fast forward to my experience shortly after college, I ended up working in New York City. And all the young Jewish people I knew were rediscovering their Jewish roots.

ED: And when was this?

BRIAN: This was in the late 1970s and early ’80s. So is this something that repeats itself throughout American history or have I just described a 20th century phenomenon?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, I won’t speak for Ed. But for the 17th and 18th century, I don’t think you can say Jews rediscovered their identity. Because to rediscover, you have to lose in the first place. And in the New World, as opposed to the Old World, they were better able to ultimately integrate into society. I don’t think that’s the same thing as assimilate. No matter how much they were in the community and contributing to the community, fighting during the revolution, helping to fund the revolution, I still think that the Jewish community felt like the Jewish community.

ED: So, Joanne, where did the Jews, who came to America in these periods, come from?

JOANNE FREEMAN: These early Jews were Dutch. Some of them came from England. The first Jews that came to New York, which then was New Amsterdam, they actually were Dutch, but they had been in Brazil. And when Portugal took over Brazil, they were not really happy about having Jews there, so they moved.

BRIAN: So, I gather, when a significant number of Jews arrived anywhere, they went to work building a synagogue.

JOANNE FREEMAN: You would think that. But no, actually. The first thing that Jews normally tended to, when they felt that really were going to settle someplace, was a cemetery and not a synagogue. Because what really mattered, of course, was the people who they we’re going to leave there for eternal rest. It mattered where they would be. And they needed a separate burial ground. So that was the first thing that was tended to. And you know, when you sort of look across the coast, there, and you see different Jewish communities, you know that it’s when they find and start to create a cemetery that they’re starting to think that they’re going to plant roots.

ED: I think knowing the subsequent history of Jews in America, it’s surprising how many of them settled in the American South. I mean you’d have found one of the largest communities in Charleston, others in New Orleans– suddenly pop to my mind, the Jewish section of the Confederate cemetery, in Hollywood Cemetery, in Richmond. It’s so puzzling, because we just don’t have in our minds, in the story of Jewish Americans, what the heck they’re doing, A, in the South to begin with, and then, second, siding with the Confederacy, and then, third, dying for the Confederacy, and then, fourth, being buried alongside Confederates.

BRIAN: So I think that when you say, we don’t have it in our minds, I think that relatively recent memory was fixed, in a way, by the perhaps overly romanticized alliance between Jews and African Americans in the fight for desegregation and anti-discrimination in the 1940s and 1950s. But I’m curious to know what it was really like. Were Jews discriminated against all that much in the South?

ED: Not so much before the Civil War, which raises hard questions about Jews and slavery– obviously, a part of the fundamental Jewish identity of being delivered from that. And I think that the studies have shown that Jews did not have a particular position relative to slavery. They were neither the largest slave traders or owners nor were they excluded from it or felt that that was not something they wanted to participate in.

BRIAN: So in that regard, they were typical Southerners–

ED: They were white

BRIAN: –vis-a-vis slavery. Typical white Southerners.

ED: Yeah, that’s right.

JOANNE FREEMAN: That’s interesting. Because, of course, they would be sitting down at Passover, every year, praying thanks for being released from slavery.

ED: But what’s striking is, in between serving for the Confederacy and that period of alliance with Africa Americas, you’re talking about Brian, is that the South became much less Jewish. Because all these waves of new immigrants, who came in, avoided the South. Because, A, it was poor, and, B, there was competition with African Americans, who were very busily trying to create their own economic structures and so forth.

JOANNE FREEMAN: So Brian, continue the pattern here. What’s the pattern as far as Jews arriving or departing or being in America over the course of the 20th century?

BRIAN: I would start, Joanne, with immigration restriction in the 1920s. That really, in many ways, forced a lot of ethnic groups to turn inwards towards their own identities. And the second really important shock in this story was the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany. As that story began to come out, after World War II, it changed the very meaning of what it meant to be an antisemite.


JOANNE FREEMAN: One of the most violent acts of antisemitism in America took place in Georgia in 1915. Back then, Atlanta had a thriving Jewish community.

STEVE ONEY: Atlanta’s Jews were German. Many of them had been there at the time of the Civil War. Many of the fathers and grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy. So there was never any sense that there was antisemitism in Atlanta.

JOANNE FREEMAN: This is a writer Steve Oney. A note to our listeners, the following story is graphic. If you have young children listening, you may want to turn down the volume.

ED: It all began when a 13-year-old factory worker, named Mary Phagan, was found murdered on April 27, 1913. Authorities soon arrested her supervisor at the National Pencil Factory, 29-year-old Leo Frank. He was an Ivy League educated engineer, who was also Jewish. Oney says the state’s star witness was an African American janitor from the factory named Jim Conley. Conley claimed that Frank had spent years preying upon the girls he supervised. And he also testified that Frank had asked for his help in disposing of Phagan’s body after he had murdered her. While Oney says the evidence against Leo Frank was weak, Conley’s lurid testimony shocked the courtroom.

STEVE ONEY: Conley was a great storyteller. And in the midst of his testimony, he alleged that Leo Frank not only seduced his young female workers, but that Leo Frank practiced what would have then been thought of as perverse sexual acts on these girls, and that he did so because he was, in Conley’s words, not built like other men. Now, that phrase had to do with circumcision. And this brought into the open court the idea that, because Leo Frank was Jewish and had been circumcised, he was a devotee of oral sex. He was not just seducing these girls, but he was introducing them to kind of wild, European profligacy that, in Georgia, in 1915, seemed exotic at best and sinful and evil at worse.

ED: So, was antisemitism a theme in the coverage of the case when he’s brought to court? How quickly does its surface in sort of the public conversation?

STEVE ONEY: Antisemitism does not become an explicit part of the conversation until the very end of the trial when one of Frank’s lawyers, in his closing argument, said, look at this. Had Leo Frank not been a Jew, he never would have been prosecuted. So he stated, overtly, for the first time, that Frank was being prosecuted because he was a Jew. And Frank was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. It was utterly anomalous in the history of the Southern courts that an all white jury would convict a white man on the testimony of a black man. And shortly after his conviction, various, powerful, Northern Jewish leaders began to rally Americans to this case, which soon became a call celeb about antisemitism.

ED: So Frank is found guilty. He’s sentenced to death. But then he goes to appeal. And in some ways, it’s during this time that a lot of this debate really spins up is my understanding. Is that right?

STEVE ONEY: That’s exactly right. In the teens in America, immigration and the pressures of social change brought by immigration were very much on everyone’s mind. And so there was an uprising of antisemitism at the time. And Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the New York Times, who grew up in the South, he decided that he understood the South, and that if he could just acquaint Southerners and all Americans with what he saw as the facts of the Leo Frank case, which he believed exonerated Leo Frank, then they would come to their senses and Frank would be granted a new trial based on new evidence. And the New York Times experimented with advocacy journalism. And it did not just editorialize in favor of Leo Frank. It reported in favor of him on its front page. And this set off a firestorm down South of reaction against what Southerners called “outside interference.”

ED: Oney says that Georgians fought back with their own publications, setting off a war words between North and South. The most explosive rhetoric was penned by a Georgia politician and publisher named Tom Watson. Watson went after the Northern newspapers saying they were run by Jews. He also said that Jim Conley’s testimony proved that Frank was a Jewish predator, who preyed on Gentile girls in his factory. I asked Oney whether these antisemitic charges camouflaged other anxieties among Southern white men at that time.

STEVE ONEY: Yeah, there was a lot of unstated shame.

ED: Right.

STEVE ONEY: And Atlanta was a boom town. Atlanta was the capital of the New South. Atlanta was already the shining success in Dixie. And poor Southerners would come in, from the hill country or from the flat lands, and think they would find success. But instead, they would find a really brutal economic reality that ended up forcing them to send their kids to work in factories. So there was a real feeling of having been taken advantage of and also of not protecting your children. In this instance, there was just deep shame.

ED: So the appeal process goes on. But the guilty verdict still stands. The Governor of Georgia actually decides to commute the sentence. He’s not going to set Frank free, but he’s not going to insist that he be executed. And my understanding is that this leads to a remarkable series of events.

STEVE ONEY: Well, Governor John Slaton did commute Leo Frank’s death sentence in late June of 1915. That decision, by Slaton, so inflamed Georgians that the next morning a mob took over the state capital, another mob marched on Slaton’s mansion. He had to call out the National Guard. And Tom Watson, who had been the firebrand driving the attack against Frank, all along, editorialized in his paper that the state had been shamed and abused by these outsiders and these Jews. And Watson said, it’s time for lynch law to take hold. And I’ll just read a bit of it.

“Jew money has debased us, bought us and sold us and laughs at us. Bought and sold, Mary Phagan, pursued and tempted and entrapped and then killed, when she would not do what so many other girls had done for this Jewish hunter of gentile girls. In the name of God, what are the people to do?”

ED: Well, that’s pretty direct. And that sort of weaves antisemitism into all the themes that would rouse men to lynch somebody in the early 20th century South. Can you briefly tell us how that turned out?

STEVE ONEY: After Watson issued the order that Frank be lynched, the citizens of Marietta, Georgia, which is about 20 miles north of Atlanta and was Mary Phagan’s hometown– and the leading citizens of Marietta worked to create a conspiracy to abduct Leo Frank from the state prison. They abducted him on the night of August 16th, 1915. And then, in a mission of considerable daring-do, drove him back, in the dead of night, in a caravan of automobiles. And 150 miles later, they get to an oak grove across from Mary Phagan’s ancestral home. And there’s a table awaiting them there in the grove. And they put Frank on the table. And they put a rope around his neck. And they hang him to death. And they disappear. It was a hideous denouement.

ED: So, do we have the sense that Jews all across the country were galvanized and alarmed by this case down in Atlanta?

STEVE ONEY: Yes. There were mass meetings, in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, in the aftermath of Frank’s lynching. There was crying and [? schrei-ing ?] and a great deal of public dismay. And no one was ever prosecuted for the Leo Frank lynching. As it happened, the Anti-Defamation League, which is an organization that lobbies for justice for American Jews, had been formed in 1913. But it was driven to start seeking justice for American Jews.

ED: And my understanding, too, is that not only did this sort of lead to the birth of the Anti-Defamation League, but it also led to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. How would that be a result of this?

STEVE ONEY: Well, 1915, the year of the Leo Frank lynching, was kind of fraught year. It just so happened that the D.B. Griffith movie, Birth of a Nation, premiered that year. And Birth of a Nation glorified the original Klan. The combination of this movie and the lynching of Leo Frank was the spark that ignited the Klan. And that’s why the Leo Frank case is such a touchstone, because you have these two polarly opposed forces in American life, the ADL and the KKK, that really grew out of it.

ED: Does the Leo Frank case mark some kind of pivot in the history of Jews in America?

STEVE ONEY: American Jews always felt that America was, in the famous phrase, the great exception, and that the antisemitism that had marked Russian and Europe would not be found here. And the lynching of Leo Frank just galvanized all these racial and regional differences that are, in some ways, still out there as the topic of our polarized conversation.


ED: Steve Oney is the author of And the Dead Shall Rise, The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.


JOANNE FREEMAN: This week, Jewish families are sitting down to a Passover Seder. It’s one of many holidays on the Jewish calendar. There’s also Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish new year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Sukkot, Feast of Booths, the list goes on.

ED: There’s one Jewish holiday that is particularly American in the way that it’s celebrated, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. For most of its history, Hanukkah has been a relatively minor religious holiday. But scholar Dianne Ashton says that in the 1860s Jewish leaders, in Cincinnati, Ohio, started thinking about the holiday in a new light.

DIANNE ASHTON: Cincinnati became a place that was actually very important for American Jewish history, where Reform Judaism grew up. There were two rabbis in particular, Isaac Mayer Wise, who was really the big institution builder for Reform Judaism, and Max Lilienthal, also a rabbi, very good friend of Wise.

ED: They believed that the religion should be simplified and that traditions, like keeping kosher or not working on religious holidays, weren’t the most important parts of the faith.

DIANNE ASHTON: And those kinds of modifications, this made Judaism easier to do in the US, where the big challenge to Judaism was the clock, the demands of work that really interfered with so many Jewish rituals that really ask you to stop work and pay attention to the religion.

ED: So that sounds, as you say, that they would suit this for America, very well. But Wise and Lilienthal were concerned that something else was being lost in the process, right?

DIANNE ASHTON: They weren’t bringing young people into these congregations. They just weren’t getting the youth. And so Max Lilienthal, he was invited to speak at a church. And he noticed that the churches were doing things to keep their children, as he called it, in happy expectation of religious events. And so he decided that Reform Judaism needed to do something for their children, as well. And so he and Isaac Mayer Wise developed a Hanukkah celebration, in the synagogue, for the children of the religious schools that they supervised.

ED: I thought it was very interesting, in your book, when you talked about the lack of proselytizing among Jews and so that securing the children’s sense of connection to the faith is very important. It seems to be maybe of heightened significance in the Jewish tradition.

DIANNE ASHTON: Oh, I think that’s true. Jews had never been allowed to proselytize since, I think, before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. But certainly, once Christianity became the dominant religion, Jews were never allowed to proselytize. Jews are also not allowed to proselytize in Muslim countries.

ED: And there’s a great sense of responsibility for the rabbis, who see all these new congregants coming, and they want to be sure that the children are secured in their faith.

DIANNE ASHTON: Yes. And they wanted children to develop a warm feeling towards the synagogue.

ED: Right

DIANNE ASHTON: And so this Hanukkah celebration was something that they could really, easily adapt for children. It’s a small ceremony. So they could elaborate upon it, with things that children would like, like songs. And, of course, they would treat children to something sweet to eat, in those days, things like oranges or maybe ice cream. The blessing is very brief. There are eight little candles, one lighted each night. And so it’s not a holiday that requires a lot of time. It doesn’t require you to change your schedule.

ED: So this sounds great. It looks as if everybody benefits from this, right? Everybody enjoys seeing children being happy, children enjoy being happy. Did it spread quickly? Was this a hard sell?

DIANNE ASHTON: Oh, it was a very easy sell.

ED: And tell me how it spread, then. So we’re in Cincinnati, which, I think, if we had a quiz and asked people where the version of Hanukkah that they know came from, Cincinnati might not have been their first guess. And then how does this spread from there?

DIANNE ASHTON: Well, both Lilienthal and Wise edited newspapers, national newspapers, which was really helpful in helping them spread their ideas. So congregations around the country could read about what different congregations were doing. In Atlanta, for example, they wrapped the Torah in an American flag for one of their celebrations. In Denver, they had boys and girls do special kinds of marches and dancing around the synagogue. So each local community created a festival that they thought their kids would like. And then they shared that in their newspapers. And this really helped the idea to spread around the country.

ED: So it sounds as if Hanukkah was both a very welcome connection to longstanding tradition, but also a way to kind of ease the Americanization of all these immigrants who were coming into the country.

DIANNE ASHTON: Yes. And the complaint that has been heard, among Jews, about religious practices in the US, for centuries is that Jews were not doing enough. In this country, where Jews are free to be Jewish, they are also free to neglect religious obligations if they want to. And so Hanukkah gives the example of a religious obligation and a religious event that became more popular and more likely to be celebrated in America and kind of reassure them that they can be successful in both being American and being Jewish in the US.


ED: Dianne Ashton is professor of religious studies at Rowan University and the author of Hanukkah in America, A History.


We’re going to turn now to an iconic symbol of Jewish culture, the deli. Its heyday dates to the 1920s and ’30s, where there were 1,550 kosher delis in New York City alone. Those delis were important gathering places for the children of recent Jewish immigrants. And over the course of the 20th century, they kickstarted a new, secular Jewish American identity. To get a taste of that culture, we sent BackStory producer Kelly Jones to a deli in Washington, DC. She broke bread with a historian, who literally wrote the book on delis.

KELLY JONES: Ted Merwin knows what a Jewish deli should feel like– lines at the counter, made-to-order food, grumpy staff, sausages hanging in the windows.

TED MERWIN: The whole place would be perfumed and permeated with the aroma of these foods that were mostly pickled and smoked and spiced.

KELLY JONES: That is not this place. We’re at an upscale sit-down restaurant in DC’s DuPont Circle that calls itself a “next generation delicatessen.” The walls are exposed brick. The menus have a crisp, clean typeface. It’s less historic Brooklyn, more hipster Brooklyn. But that’s OK. The proof should be in the pastrami, right? And these sandwiches have been on Merwin’s radar for a while.

TED MERWIN: I keep kosher, so I don’t tend to eat in non-kosher delis like this one. I had to get a special dispensation from my rabbi to be able to eat here, on the condition that I bring him home a sandwich.

KELLY JONES: Merwin is kidding. As we settle in, I ask Merwin to order the standards, whatever we would have eaten in New York in the 1920s.

TED MERWIN: Could we have the pickles, please, the chopped liver, the potato latkes.

KELLY JONES: Merwin’s connection to delis runs deep. Growing up in New York, his family deputized him to pick up Sunday dinner from their local deli.

TED MERWIN: And within five minutes, there was not a speck. There was not a morsel. There was not a crumb of food that was left on that table. It was like the plague, that we’re going to be reading about, during the Passover Seder, of the locusts that come and devour everything in sight. It was like our Judaism came in like a wave and overwhelmed us and made us feel like we had this tangible connection to our roots.

KELLY JONES: As a historian, Merwin’s research is more than gastronomical. He’s curious about what the deli, as a cultural space, meant in its heyday. In the 1920s and ’30s, the children of Jewish immigrants had one foot in the Old World and one foot in the New World.

TED MERWIN: So, the deli was really the primary space in which Jews could create a kind of way station on the path to Americanization. Because they weren’t yet in a position to make the jump from the immigrant experience to being fully American.

KELLY JONES: Sunday nights at the deli replaced Friday nights at the synagogue. The deli was a place where Jews could relax into their new, secular American Jewishness.

TED MERWIN: They could kind of let their hair down. They could eat with their hands. I think that was a big part of the appeal, for Jews, of sandwiches. Jews had often been stereotyped as being vulgar and uncouth and not really ready for prime-time in terms of their participation in society. And eating out was, itself, seen in those days as being a kind of American thing to do, and that they could do it in a Jewish context.

KELLY JONES: We’re interrupted by the arrival of a plate of pickles, half-sours as well as pickled carrots and cauliflower. It’s followed by a huge stack of potato latkes, with a side of apple preserves, and glass gravy boat with a hefty scoop of chopped liver.

TED MERWIN: And it’s topped with red onion marmalade. So this is definitely not sort of my grandparent’s delicatessen.

KELLY JONES: Merwin tentatively nibbles at each dish. And the chopped liver wins him over.

TED MERWIN: But it’s really good. It’s really creamy. And it’s hard to stop eating once you start eating it. So these are very newfangled versions of traditional Jewish dishes. This is kind of the new wave of the Jewish deli.

KELLY JONES: Merwin says the first wave of the Jewish deli coincided with the rise of Jewish celebrities on stage and screen. Those stars helped popularize delis in the hearts, minds, and stomachs of Jews and gentiles alike.

TED MERWIN: Al Jolson, who was the biggest Jewish star of the day, in the 1920s, after his performances, at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway, would invite the entire audience back to Lindy’s for a sandwich. And the delis became places where both Jews and non-Jews could soak up this stardust atmosphere, almost like it was the brine in the barrels of brisket on their way to becoming corned beef and pastrami.

KELLY JONES: But Merwin’s quick to point out that the early 20th century was not a golden era for American Jews. Discrimination and antisemitism were very real.

TED MERWIN: So there was a kind of fiction, that the delis promoted, that because of this celebrity atmosphere, that Jews had already attained their aspirations in America. And the irony was that they really hadn’t yet. That was for the next generation. That was for the post-World War II generation.

KELLY JONES: Merwin says that fully assimilated generation would witness the delis’ decline. They just didn’t need a way station anymore. Which is why, when our pastrami finally arrived, Merwin inspects it thoroughly, turning it 360 degrees, lifting the top slice of bread, looking for hints of authenticity.

TED MERWIN: It has that really rosy colored meat. You can see the lines of fat. You can see the pepper and the spaces that are used to spice it, the rye bread slathered with mustard. Mm, it’s delicious. It’s really kind of melt-in-your-mouth good. It tastes just like a pastrami sandwich should taste from a traditional New York deli.

KELLY JONES: That taste is important. It’s solid. It’s memorable. And if you grew up with it, it can transport you to another time. But Merwin’s left hungry for a place that can’t be recaptured.

TED MERWIN: I don’t think there really are very many of those kinds of places anymore, where Jews of all different backgrounds can get together and celebrate being Jewish in public.


ED: That story was produced by our Kelly Jones.


BRIAN: Ted Merwin is professor of Judaic studies at Dickinson College and author of Pastrami on Rye, An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.


ED: One prominent theme this hour has been the push and pull between assimilation and the desire to preserve Old World traditions. An example of this push and pull is Yiddish entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. Yiddish was the language spoken by Central and Eastern European Jews. And starting around 1890, Yiddish language newspapers, literature, and theater all enjoyed huge audiences thanks to the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. In the 1920s, Yiddish language radio programs began broadcasting theater, advice columns, and music. And one of the most beloved Yiddish crooners was a fellow named Seymour Rexite. He sang on the radio for the better part of four decades. His repertoire included traditional klezmer music, but he was best known for American show tunes translated into Yiddish by his wife.

BRIAN: Radio producers Henry Sapoznik and David Isay visited Rexite, at his Manhattan apartment, before his death in 2002. Surrounded by stacks of tapes featuring Rexite’s performances, they captured these memories.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Here is Seymour Rexite and the Melody Box, brought you to by kosher and parve Brillo.

BRIAN: Listen.


The Melody Box.

SEYMOUR REXITE: [SINGING IN YIDDISH] Yes, sir, that’s me. This is Seymour Rexite. Since I was in the radio, it’s been quite a few years. But I have all the tapes of all the programs for many, many years. And I’d like you to hear it.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Buitoni Spaghetti [YIDDISH] Melody Box [YIDDISH] Seymour Rexite [YIDDISH] piano.



I started on Yiddish radio in the 1920s. My wife and I, Miriam Kressyn, were around for about 40 years. We were on for so many years, we didn’t have enough material for Yiddish. So I said to my wife, let’s do English songs in Yiddish. You’ll get both. You got the English crowd. You’ll get the Yiddish crowd. It became a very, very big success.


Oh, yes, that’s one thing I never forgot is all the lyrics from all the songs. And you know how many there are? Oh, don’t ask. I got to play these for you.


Any song that you can think of, any song that you want in English, we did in Yiddish.

(SINGING) Love and marriage, love and marriage [SINGING IN YIDDISH] a baby carriage.

Somebody translates, ah, they put in a word. But my wife, she was not that type of translator. Each word that was translated as the word that should have been there.


SEYMOUR REXITE: Whatever we heard, wherever we went, we heard a song, we did it in Yiddish. We went to see Porgy and Bess. And Miriam said, oh, this is something. I said, yeah, but I’d like to do “Summertime” in Yiddish.


I did an interview with Irving Caesar. I said, Irving, how did you write “Tea for Two? ” And he says, why should I tell it to you? You would do it in Yiddish better than I did it in English. Please sing it for me.


Oh, it became a very big hit. I had English sponsors. I had the Barbasol program on Saturday night. I’ll play it for you.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: [YIDDISH] Barbasol brushless shaving cream, [YIDDISH] Seymour Rexite [YIDDISH].


Sure, I use it every day, in the morning or in the evening. Another jingle that I did was Ajax.


Oh, it was a great, great hit.


We had many, many listeners. I used to get letters, wonderful, wonderful letters. Oh, we heard you today, and you sang wonderful, wonderful. Keep it up. Keep it up. Girls used to wait until I got through singing, then they mobbed me like they did Sinatra.


It’s very sad, but nobody cares for Yiddish radio anymore. But I still have my tapes, hundreds of tapes of all the songs that you can think of. I have two, three machines going all day. And if you’re anxious, give me a call, and I’ll invite you over so you can listen, too. All you have to do is mention a name, and we have it in Yiddish and in English.


RADIO ANNOUNCER: Tomorrow, Seymour will sing–


I’m Seymour Rexite. And thank you for listening.


JOANNE FREEMAN: That’s Yiddish singer Seymour Rexite. He died in 2002 at the age of 91. This piece was part of the Yiddish Radio Project, a documentary series produced by Henry Sapoznik and David Isay. We’ll have links to more of their stories on our website, backstoryradio.org.


ED: So we covered a lot of ground today. Do we see themes that would unify these stories?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, you know, I think one of the themes that comes out, in a lot of the conversations that we had today, is that Jews were very much insiders and outsiders at the same time.

ED: What do you mean, Joanne?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, I mean, we’ve talked a lot about assimilation. We’ve talked about a lot of different ways in which the Jews are Americanizing a variety of different aspects of Judaism. And yet, at the same time, we also are talking about a people who always, at least, feel, to some degree, a little bit on the outside.

BRIAN: One of the things that does strike me as being distinctive, it seems like numbers matter. I mean, they’re very, very small numbers of Jewish people for a very long time. And even to this day, it’s one of the smallest minorities in the United States.

ED: Yeah, Brian, that’s right. And yet the influence of Jewish American seems far larger than their numbers, alone.

BRIAN: No, absolutely. I mean even if we look at the most superficial, pop cultural measures, the bagel has certainly become a part of American life, every bit as much as the taco, for instance. But the numbers are much smaller.

JOANNE FREEMAN: How much do you guys think that has to do with Jewish identity?

ED: Yeah, if you think about American pop culture, in many ways, the dominant tone of our humor has been sort of a gift from Jewish Americans, all the way from Milton Berle to Lenny Bruce, through Seinfeld, to Jon Stewart, now to Larry David impersonating Bernie Sanders.

BRIAN: Yes. And you left out Mel Brooks.

ED: Yeah, and Mel Brooks, right. See, you’re just making my point, Brian. And so it’s like– it’s hard to imagine America without that. And I think what the gift is, is that– playing with what Joanne was talking about– this sense of being inside and outside at the same time. There’s a great affection for American culture, but we can also see just how funny this situation is in a way you might not quite appreciate on your own.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, it really does rely on being an insider and an outsider. Truly, you have to be enough of an insider to sort of know what’s going on, but enough of an outsider to step back and point a finger at something.

BRIAN: And I do think there is one more element. And this is a gross generalization. But I think, for much of the history of Judaism in the United States, the vast majority of Jews have wanted very much to be American. And I think that kind of love of America and desire to be American has been reciprocated.

ED: And that burning desire, at the same time, not accompanied by a desire to lose your identity.

BRIAN: Well put.


That’s going to do it for today. But you can continue the conversation online. Head to our website where you can tell us what you think about today’s show. While you’re there, we’re taking questions for our upcoming shows on the history of gambling and America’s relationship with foreign royalties. You’ll find it all backstoryradio.org or send email to backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, at BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

JOANNE FREEMAN: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, and Emily Gadek. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Diana Williams is our digital editor with help from Brianna Azar. Melissa Gismondi helps with research. Special thanks this week to Isabel Torres and Nick and Dave Weissman at DGS Deli. Rob Vaughn and Elliott Majerczyk were our voice actors. And thanks to the folks at BackStory for letting me fill in for Peter Onuf this week.

ED: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the [INAUDIBLE] Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UBA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


ED: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

View Resources

Judaism Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

The teaching materials that follow will help students develop History’s Habits of Mind. They are grouped according to the three waves of Jewish immigration.

  • Part One: “To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance” features the first wave of Sephardi Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Part Two: “A Jewish Identity Within a Christian Country” recounts the second wave of Jewish Immigration, that of German Jews in the mid-19th century.
  • Part Three: “The “Largest Jewish City in the World” tells a story with which students may be more familiar. This is the classic story of the huge wave of immigrants to America in the post-Civil War industrial age.

These lessons have implications for understanding challenges of the present. As America again discusses the importance and restriction of immigration, as we struggle with accommodating, integrating and assimilating new religious and ethnic groups into a nation whose motto is E Pluribus Unum, these lessons can help students develop perspective on their own times.