Your RDA of Irony

Torah and Tory

(I was asked to conduct the Sabbath service on July 4th.  I aware that the attendance would be theoretical, but how could I refuse?  Me and a pulpit…never underestimate my megalomania.  As for the topic of my sermon, the choice was obvious.)

Torah and Tory

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Independence Day!
Since this is not an Episcopalian Church, I would guess that most of our ancestors missed the actual event and didn’t even hear about it until we got past Ellis Island.
Yet, in 1776 there were Jews in the Thirteen Colonies: approximately twenty-five hundred. At the time, there were 2.5 million people in the colonies. So we were a meager one-in-a-thousand. I doubt that you could find a minyan in New Hampshire or old Virginia, but there were congregations in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
What was it like to be a Jew in the Thirteen Colonies? In the words of either Maimonides or Larry David, it could have been worse. Our lives and property were protected by English law. An act of Parliament had guaranteed Jews the same legal status as Methodists. That was not quite an English compliment but–trust me–that was better than being a Roman Catholic. So, our situation was slightly snubbed but definitely not persecuted. The Cordozos of New York and the Gratzs of Philadelphia could lead prosperous, enjoyable lives, even if their kids weren’t welcome in the Ivy League.
Compare that to Jewish life elsewhere in North America. That is easy–there was no Jewish life there. Spain forbid Jews in its colonies; it forbid anyone of Jewish descent! If you had one Jewish great-grandparent, your presence was a capital offense. Ferdinand and Isabella could not have met that standard.
What about France’s colonies? In Canada, definitely NON. No matter how much you would have liked being the ancestor of William Shatner, the French government would not have permitted it. There were Jews in France–40,000 in the mid-18th century; but immigration to Canada was limited to Roman Catholics–and even they had to meet an exacting system of quotas. The aspiring emigrant had to fill a specific job awaiting him in Canada. If you were a baker, and Montreal did not need one…well, you could always lie and claim to be a trapper. It was easier getting into the Sorbonne than into Quebec. Louisiana was slightly more tolerant…or lazy. There were five Jewish families in New Orleans. Of course, their existence was against the law–but who ever enforces the law in New Orleans?
So, you can see the Jews of the British Empire enjoyed an unequalled degree of security and liberty. What more could a Jew expect or dare want? Why would they risk the Crown’s guarantees for the lofty promises of the Declaration of Independence? Because those promises addressed an unexpressed longing and age-old fears. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Here was a commitment to freedom, and not just the gift of tolerance.
The New World was no longer just a geographic term; it would be the fulfillment of our hopes. Our liberties were not the favor of a monarch or the concessions of a Parliament. Freedom was not even an English privilege. We all were entitled to those rights by birth, by our humanity. That idea was the American Revolution, and what we honor today.
Shabbat Shalom.

  1. Leah says:

    I only wish the rabbi at our most recent synagogue could give such a good sermon.

  2. k lawler says:

    i didn’t know they were some people who maintained their names and faith i figured the Jewish people took on a diff persona after the 1492 edict. cool. k

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      But Leah, my Hebrew is so bad that it is Unitarian.

      Thank you, Michele and Peg.

      Kathy, Many Spanish Jews chose not to join the parish. A number went to the Netherlands; so ended up n England and others in New Amsterdam. Of course, there also were the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, the ones who spoke Yiddish and ended up all those Emmys for comedy. (No one thought that Spinoza was funny?)

  3. Michele says:

    Educational, Eugene. Your knowledge of history always impresses me.

  4. Peggles says:

    I don’t believe I’ve ever read of America’s essential promise so eloquently. Bravo!

  5. Hal Gordon says:

    A most witty, thoughtful and erudite sermon, Rabbi Finerman. Thank you. By the way, did you see this recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal:

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you, Hal. Unfortunately, the WSJ would not permit me to read the article. Perhaps it could smell the Times’ ink on my fingers.

  6. Rene says:

    Ooo, I wish I could have been there. Instead, I was at the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada, awaiting the fireworks celebration; blissfully unaware I was to experience a death ride through a desert storm the next day.

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