Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was not Jewish.
Sure, Adam Sandler, Goldie Hawn, Kirk Douglas, Alan Greenspan and Bill Goldberg are. So is Madeleine Albright (though she forgot about it for a long time), as were (at least to start) Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Disraeli and Jesus.
But alas, fellow Jewish Americans, George Washington is not. No Jewish property holder would sit on 400 acres in suburban Washington without once calling a developer about carving it into house lots.
So I’m afraid our first president never attended a minyan. But he was a believer when it came to religious freedom.
America, the New Zion founded by those quirky Puritans, has provided a flourishing home for Judaism. The founders envisioned their brave new world with all the sanctity of Jerusalem. They were a rare breed, having an affinity for Zion because they were Old Testament believers and choosing to leave England because the Anglican Church wasn’t up to their theological snuff
Their basic idea was to introduce religion into every facet of their life. Like it or not, church and state were one to them.
In a way, they were the hasids of Christianity — without the joyfulness. They prayed more than they played. They spent more candlelit New England nights studying Leviticus than playing stud poker.
In the dull old days when public schools taught American history instead of hot-air ballooning, every high school freshman knew that those prim Puritans had a strong Old Testament core. The famous English historian Thomas Macaulay tells us that they “began to feel for the Old Testament a preference … which showed itself in all their sentiments and habits.”
They were not frivolous folks.
These were the forebears of the long-dead white men who signed the Declaration of Independence that epochal July 4, 1776.
Who would have thought that the proclamation of the Continental Congress on that hot day in Philadelphia would affect the wandering tribes of Israel? But it did.
A little over 100 years later, the dispossessed of Israel flocked by the hundreds of thousands to the New Zion. They knew a good thing when they saw it.
Our team missed the Mayflower by a couple of centuries. We also missed the Queen Mary. There were no deck chairs on the cattle boats that brought our ancestors to the New World of golden streets paved with dreams. They were stuffed into the hold like pickles in a jar and probably didn’t spend the eight-day crossing mourning what they left behind: the poverty, hunger and persecution that ruled the masses of Eastern Europe, Jew and gentile alike.
There’s a deep ache in our hearts when we think of the Old World they left behind because a few decades later it was consumed in the ovens of the Holocaust.
What would those martyrs — pious and profane alike cleansed by sacrifice — say about America in 2017? What would they think to see our cars and homes and DVRs and bulging pantries? What would these cultural loners say to our integration into a warm, tolerant society?
For our ancestors, the grim Old World receded in the rearview mirror of the good ship Hatikvah, steaming for the shining city on the Hudson where the only king was Abie, the corned beef king of lower Hester Street.
They poured out of their ships onto the sidewalks of New York, which they found to be of concrete, not gold. But concrete was better than the muck and mud of Polish villages.
Sweatshop bosses had hearts as hard as the concrete sidewalks, but they couldn’t kill you or take your daughters for pleasure and your sons for their army. The charter of the New Jerusalem prevented that.
They could only fire you. And right around the corner was another who’d give you the same handful of silver that bought lots of bread and vegetables and even meat.
There was too much work and not much leisure. But nobody starved. And if a family jammed into a cheap flat collected their silver into a single pile, eventually they could transform themselves into the nobility of this brave new world. Here, it took only money, for goods and education.
It was a game they knew how to play: Suffer now; prosper tomorrow. A small price compared with that paid by those they left behind. L’chaim!