Three hundred and fifty years ago an ancient people first took haven in a new land. From those beginnings until today, Jewish life in America has presented both opportunities and challenges. In the early years, Jews fought to be treated like everyone else, seeking the "equal footing" that was theirs by law but not necessarily in practice. More recently, like other minorities and ethnic groups, they have asserted their right to be different and to have those differences accommodated and accepted by society-at-large.
Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the Jewish community has been to find ways of maintaining its group identity in an open and free society. To this end, American Jewry has created uniquely American Jewish religious movements, institutions, and associations suited to an ever-changing American scene. When millions of East European Jews arrived between 1881 and 1924, American Jews set up networks of organizations to settle and "Americanize" the new arrivals. And when confronted with prejudice and discrimination, Jews responded by creating organizations that fought for tolerance and acceptance.
Fifty years ago, the American Jewish community celebrated its tercentenary. At the culminating event of that celebration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a stirring address in which he called the arrival of the Jews to New Amsterdam in 1654 "an event meaningful not only to the Jews of America, but to all Americans--of all faiths, of all national origins." Then Irving Berlin, himself a Russian Jewish immigrant, sang his patriotic hymn, "God Bless America." In so doing, he put into words the deep gratitude that he felt towards the United States, which had been to him, and to countless new Americans like him, first a haven and then a home.
Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" in His Own Hand
Irving Berlin, who emigrated from Siberia in 1893, originally composed "God Bless America" in 1918, but set it aside. In the fall of 1938, as war was again threatening Europe, Irving Berlin decided to write a "peace" song. He recalled "God Bless America" written twenty years earlier. With some alterations to reflect the different state of the world, "God Bless America" was introduced by singer Kate Smith during her radio broadcast on Armistice Day, 1938. Berlin told reporters he wrote "God Bless America" to express his gratitude to America for the opportunities it had given him.
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The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp
This Hanukkah lamp incorporates Statue of Liberty figurines as holders for the candles that are lit to mark the eight days of Hanukkah, Judaism's annual commemoration of the second century B.C.E. victory of the Maccabbees over the Syrians. In linking America's quintessential symbol of freedom and opportunity with Judaism's celebration of freedom from oppression, this menorah represents a perfect metaphor for the twin sensibilities that give American Judaism its unique character.
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Three Anniversary Medals
Marking the 250th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America a medal was presented to President Theodore Roosevelt "in recognition of his humane endeavors on behalf of the Jews oppressed in other lands." The medal commemorating the 300th anniversary bore the inscription: "Man's Opportunities and Responsibilities Under Freedom." On the obverse of this newly created medal to celebrate the 350th anniversary is an extended excerpt from George Washington's reply to Newport's Hebrew Congregation: "May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
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Isidore Konti (1862-1938). 250th anniversary commemorative medal . Reverse side. Bronze struck medal. Courtesy of the HUC Skirball Cultural Center Museum Collection, Los Angeles. Gift of Helen D. Golden (235)
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