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Jews in America: An Overview

It makes sense America was an attractive destination for European Jews. Europe was not especially welcoming. In Eastern Europe anti-Semitism was rife, and the promise of a land where religious freedom was an essential part of the culture was a draw for a people who were barely tolerated and side-lined.

Early American Jews

By 1700 there were only 200 – 300 Jews mostly, and not surprisingly, from Portugal. But by 1720 the picture had changed as Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe fled from persecution. The Plantation Act on f1740s Britain allows Easter European Jews to become British citizens and with that, emigration to America was a possibility.

By the 1880s the trickle had become a stream and American Jews were here to stay. By the late 19th Century up until 1924 around 2,000,000 Jews had settled in America, often not going much further than New York City and the surrounding areas. In 1915 a Yiddish newspaper in the city had a circulation of half a million daily.

Jewish Population in America today

The only place in the world today with a greater Jewish population is Israel. Not all American Jews consider themselves to be religious, but at a count, 6.2 million Jewish Americans account for 2.1% of the total American population.

The days of the New York Metro area are gone

While New York still has the biggest concentration there are Jews in every state including Hawai’i. After New York, the next largest community is centered in Miami and accounts for about 3% of Florida’s population.

The numbers carry through into all aspects of life. 33% of the student body at New York University is of Jewish heritage, as is 19% of the University of Florida.

Adopting American culture

It is more correct to call it American culture rather than Jewish American culture. But the American dream applies as much to Jews as it does to any other large immigrant group.

The song ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ happened to have been written by Yip Harburg but it is the quintessential depression song, and for all who loved it, it was American to its very roots. Few other than Jewish Americans would have paid much attention to the roots of the lyricist.

Now Americans of Jewish heritage exist and are noteworthy in every walk of American life. Bernie Sanders and Jared Kushner stand at opposite sides of the political spectrum. Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin make the case for music. Frank Gehry carries the modern architecture flag, Mark Zuckerberg the technology one.

Irving Berlin who wrote ‘God Bless America’ perhaps is the example of the attitude American first, everything else second. Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll in 1959, and there really is nothing that says America more than Barbie.

We sometimes forget in these times where issues are so contentious and times are so politically charged that the thing that makes America what it is, it is a sense of accommodation. American dreams are made of diversity.