Thanksgiving services–Beth Wenger on Jewish American Heritage

Tomorrow starts my holiday weekend, so I probably (or hopefully) will not be as close to the computer as usual. I still have a few posts, mainly about Pope Benedict that need to get posted this week to get me to summarize the material for professional purposes. I even have an eight grade day school reunion this week. There were several long posts last week, too many for some to read, the break will give everyone a chance to catch up. In the meantime here is some Thanksgiving material.

Give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose love endures forever. —Psalm 118:1

Last year, I posted the Thanksgiving Day service as done in the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. (I know there is a page missing from the pdf., if you have it then please forward it.) This year, this was an interfaith service at the Hampton Synagogue. Here is the service of Psalms and responsive readings and here is a description of what occurred. Here is the program. (Also take note of the new blog …VaAni B’Sof HaMizrach written by a former elder of the Protocols blog.)

Below is a nice review of Beth S. Wenger’s recent book on Americanism and democracy. In Poland, we created myths of our relationship to Polish nobility, in contrast in Bratslavia the Hatam Sofer saw himself as a medieval serf of the Royal chamber, owned by King. But here in the US, we painted ourselves as part of the original melting pot and as a religion of democracy. In America, we saw ourselves as part of the ideals of America. There are lots of great Thanksgiving sermons out there if anyone wants to send me some from Hebrewbooks.org

History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage by Beth S. Wenger Princeton University Press, Review by By Robert Rockaway

When I attended Hebrew school, growing up in Detroit after World War II, my peers and I were taught that Judaism and America shared similar democratic values; that America’s early Puritan settlers had been inspired by the Hebrew Bible; that a Jew, Haym Salomon, had bankrolled America’s war for independence; and that the Spanish navigator Christopher Columbus had connections to Jews and Judaism. The notion that Jews and their heritage had played a key role in America’s founding fascinated us, and we uncritically accepted these stories as true. They inspired us and became part of our identity as Jews and Americans.

Years later, when I was in college, I understood that while biblical Judaism contains great moral and ethical values, Judaism and democracy are not necessarily compatible.

The concept that Judaism and American democracy share the same set of values was an idea fashioned by American Jews. Beth Wenger, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written the first full-length study that explains how and why American Jews manufactured and perpetuated the view that the Jewish religion and culture were compatible with America’s democratic ideals. Utilizing a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Wenger demonstrates that by the end of the 19th century, American Jews formulated this idea to demonstrate that Jews belonged in the United States and that from the nation’s beginning, they had been unequivocally and organically part and parcel of America’s social and cultural fabric.

Wenger shows that this was no conspiracy hatched by a select group of Jewish leaders, but something that evolved over time, as generations of Jews acculturated and adjusted to life in the United States. She writes: “Through fledgling historical societies, from the pulpit, and within emerging Jewish organizations,” as well as “through individual reflection and talks around the dinner table,” American Jews sought meaning for their experience in America. Wenger cites the philosopher Horace Kallen, the Zionist leader and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, philanthropist Oscar Straus, and Reform Rabbi Emil Hirsch as playing key roles in American Jewish efforts to manufacture a collective history in the United States. Ultimately, they and others “produced definitions of what the United States meant for Jews as well as what Jews meant to the United States.” Through the narratives they created, “Jews wrote America into Jewish history and Jews into American history.” Although democratic ideals and Jewish ideals don’t always overlap, the idea persisted for generations and became a part of the American Jewish heritage and the effort to convince the host society that Jews belonged.

Although Jews in Poland, France and Germany had also devised myths to explain how they came to live in those countries, the American environment offered something different from what Jews had experienced in Europe. America lacked a medieval past and legacy of Jewish persecution. Jews in America never experienced mass expulsions or violent pogroms. The federal government never passed any law that specifically targeted Jews. The United States offered them citizenship without any prolonged debate over emancipation. Separation of church and state meant that Jews enjoyed freedom of religion and freedom from religion. No religious test to hold political office on the federal level meant that they could run and be elected congressmen, senators and even president. As a result, American Jews were fond of exclaiming that “America is different.”

Similarly, Jewish leaders used American holidays and America’s two most hallowed presidents to emphasize the intimate connection between Jewish and American ideals. They compared July 4 (the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776 ) to Passover
Read the rest here

3 responses to “Thanksgiving services–Beth Wenger on Jewish American Heritage

  1. “Give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose love endures forever”

    That’s why we eat “tarnegol hodu”

  2. Anyone interested can see the full program of our Thanksgiving Interfaith Service here

  3. Freedom and Democracy overrides halacha. Rule and authority can be based only on two things: Reason or consent. The greatness of Torah in a yeshiva environment is that it is based on consent and a has well defined, mutual goal.
    But though you are right that democracy and Torah are not necessarily mutually compatible there is still something very clear–the abject absolute miserable failure of up to bottom systems imposed by some halachic elite. No self respecting Jew can or should give to any self elected strata of rabbis authority over ourselves in religious or any other matters. –though we should learn and keep the Talmud but that should be with the understanding that there are limits to the validity of the Talmud.
    This should not be taken as an insult. Everyone has limits to areas of validity. even Socrates who was perhaps one of the most admirable human beings that ever existed had limits. His close students were not a very moral bunch. And as much as it might be fun for us to poke fun at him and pretend that we are so much more superior but we should be aware that our own moral system would not survive a ten minute conversation with Socrates.

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