The Greatest Adventure in World Jewish History
By Kevin Proffitt
As we prepare to commemorate Independence Day on July 4th, we are reminded that the American Jewish community – nurtured within the constitutional rights and freedoms of the U.S. – is unique to any Jewish community before it. Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995), the founder of the American Jewish Archives, called American Jewry ‘the greatest adventure in world Jewish history.’
Marcus often recalled two examples of the importance of America’s founding documents to its Jews. The first centered on a visit he made to the New York office of noted book collector A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952). Seeing there all the rare and valuable materials Rosenbach had amassed, Marcus asked to see any significant manuscripts pertaining to Jews. Taking Marcus into a locked vault, Rosenbach pointed to an old document lying on the floor. ‘That,’ Rosenbach said, ‘is the most important Jewish document I own.’ Picking it up, Marcus saw that it was an original copy of the Bill of Rights.
The second example dates to April 1777 – 14 years prior to the passage of the Bill of Rights. That year, the state of New York adopted its own constitution. The significance of this little-known document, according to Marcus, is that it contained a clause that ‘completely emancipated’ the Jews in the Diaspora for the first time in history:
This convention doth further in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State ordain, determine, and declare that the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship without discrimination or preference shall forever hereafter be allowed with this State to all mankind.
Marcus also spoke frequently of how American Jews were zealous in protecting their freedoms and vigilant in challenging their government to live up to its lofty ideals. A case in point: In 1840 William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) was elected as the ninth president of the United States. At age 68, Harrison was the oldest elected president up to that time (surpassed only by Ronald Reagan, who was 69 when elected in 1980). In part to refute charges he was too elderly to undertake the presidency, Harrison delivered a nearly two-hour inaugural address (without a coat or hat) on a cold, rainy, March day. He promptly contracted a cold, which turned into pneumonia. He died a month later, the first president to die in office.
New President John Tyler (1790-1862) issued a proclamation asking all citizens, as “a Christian people,” to mourn the passing of their fallen leader. After hearing of this, a Jew in Richmond, Virginia, by the name of Jacob Ezekiel (1812-1899) took it upon himself to write to President Tyler:
I as well as others were somewhat surprised to find…that the Chief Magistrate of this Union…[should] address a ‘Christian people’…no doubt forgetting that during the Revolution of this country blood of all denominations was shed for its freedom [not asking] whether it was Christian, Jewish or Pagan blood that flowed freely for the liberty we all now possess.
Three days later, Tyler wrote back to Ezekiel, in longhand:
In speaking…of the duties of a Christian people, I meant in no way to imply that similar duties should not be performed by all mankind….For the people of whom you are one, I can feel none other than profound respect. This wisdom which flowed from the lives of your prophets, has in times past, and will continue for all time to come, to be a refreshing fountain of moral instruction to mankind, while holy records bear witness to the many instances of divine favor and protection to the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, God of the Christian and the Israelite, to his chosen people.1
(Interestingly, Jacob Ezekiel – the father of famed sculptor, Moses Jacob Ezekiel, was an admirer of Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Union for Reform Judaism. In 1876, Ezekiel moved to Cincinnati and served for more than 20 years as the secretary of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College.)
As Dr. Gary P. Zola, Executive Director of the American Jewish Archives, has written, ‘American Jewish history is, at its core, the study of how the lives of individual Jews have interrelated with their ethnic-religious community in America.” On this 4th of July, we are reminded by these stories – and by many more contained in the files of the American Jewish Archives – that American Jews have, from the beginnings of this country, participated in, benefitted from, defended, and reveled in the freedoms of American democracy.
1. The originals of these letters, together with materials on the other events mentioned here, are located at The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Kevin Proffitt is the Senior Archivist for Research and Collections at The Jacob Rader Marcus Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has worked at the American Jewish Archives since 1981.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah