Jews in the USA

Slide 1: Introduction

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish academic, surveys his kingdom, and covets his neighbor’s wife, in A Serious Man, set in 1967 in St. Louis Park (a.k.a. St. Jewish Park), a Minneapolis suburb.
After the film debuted in Minneapolis, Joel and Ethan Coen spoke to the Minneapolis StarTribune about growing up in St. Louis Park.

“Everybody's interested in where they grew up,” said Ethan Coen. “As you get older, you get more interested in it as opposed to fading away.” “It's hard for us to imagine a story unless we have a real specific sense of where it's taking place,” said Joel. And there's no place they know better. Minnesota is “totally part of our identity,” Ethan said. “The combination of being Jewish—specifically Minnesotan—is big and important.” “An actor's body and voice are what they have to work with,” Joel added. “Being from Minnesota is what we have to work with.”

What follows are snapshots of a few Jewish communities, most of which are just waiting to produce a filmmaker like Joel or Ethan Coen to tell their own, singular stories. (That is except for the next one, which is where the Coens hail from.)

Slide 2: Minneapolis, MN

The skyline of Minneapolis behind Lake Cahoun, one of the city’s several lakes.

Minneapolis is a city that was once famous for its anti-Jewish sentiment. In 1946, Carey McWilliams described Minneapolis as “the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.” Today, the Twin Cities is home to one of America’s most stable Jewish communities, and its anti-Semitic past seems far away.

Beth Kieffer Leonard, the managing partner of an accounting firm, is the immediate past president of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and a third generation—and proud—Minnesotan.

“Culturally there is a very Midwestern Jewish identity,” says Leonard. She reasons that because Jews in the Midwest are such a tiny percentage of whatever population they are a part of, if a person identifies as a Jew they are more likely involved with their local community. As a result she says, Jews in the Midwest affiliate with Jewish organizations and give to Jewish causes at a much higher rate than their counterparts on either coast.

That Midwestern identity extends beyond involvement in Jewish or religious community life. “I’ve spent a lot of time working with national Jewish organizations,” says Leonard, “and people say that those of us from the Midwest are a lot nicer, and I think that is because we are more Midwestern. We have adapted to our environment.”

The term for what Leonard is talking about is “Minnesota nice.” Wikipedia defines it this way: “Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of long-time Minnesota residents as being hospitable, courteous and mild mannered. The term is also sometimes used in a derogatory way, to connote a sort of smiling stubbornness, forced politeness, false humility or passive aggressive hostility of people in the Upper Midwest region.”

Slide 3: A Mensch from Minnesota

The alma mater of Joel and Ethan Coen, Al Franken, Thomas Friedman and Norman Ornstein.

The fifth Jew to serve as a U.S. Senator from Minnesota in the past 20 years is Al Franken. Franken grew up in St. Louis Park, an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis that in the 1960s was largely Jewish. Franken’s classmates at St. Louis Park High School included New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, and Joel and Ethan Coen.

Unlike other Jewish communities in mid-size cities, the Minneapolis Jewish community, which numbers about 40,000, is not suffering a population decline. “Most of our children leave between the ages of 19 and 28, and then they all come back,” says Leonard. “Minneapolis is a vibrant city, and there is a lot of opportunity here.”

Slide 4: Charleston, SC

Built in 1841, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. It is the second oldest synagogue in America and the oldest in continuous use.

In 1669, the charter of the Carolina Colony, written by the English philosopher John Locke, granted freedom of conscience to all who came there including “Jews, heathens, and dissenters.”

The first Jew arrived in Charleston, S.C. in 1695. In 1749, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was founded, making it the fourth oldest Jewish congregation in the United States (after New York, Newport, R.I. and Savannah, Ga.) In 1790, the Beth Elohim sent a letter of congratulations to President George Washington, who responded: “The affectionate expressions of your address again excite my gratitude, and receive my warmest acknowledgment. May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregation.”

Reform Judaism in the United States was born in Charleston in 1824, when 47 congregants of Beth Elohim asked that sermons be in English. When the present temple was dedicated in 1841, Rabbi Gustavus Poznanski proclaimed: “This synagogue is our Temple, this city our Jerusalem, and this happy land our Palestine.” However, the congregation immediately underwent a schism—and court battle. The point of contention: the temple’s new church organ and hymnals. Beth Elohim’s assimilationists and traditionalists didn’t reunite until 1866.

Slide 5: Revolutionary Jews

Scottish Rite Masonry was established in Shepheard’s Tavern in Charleston. Founders Israel De Lieben and Abraham Alexander (1769-1804), shown here, were among the signers of this certificate admitting Thomas Napier as a Prince of Jerusalem, one of the “Sublime Degrees” of the fraternal order of Freemasons.

About two-dozen members of Beth Elohim fought in the War of Independence, the most famous of whom was Francis Salvador, a Sephardic Jew who was born in London. At the age of 27, Salvador was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina Provincial Congresses of 1775 and 1776—although at the time Jews could neither vote nor legally hold office. He was killed in an ambush shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 1800, South Carolina was home to more Jews than any other state—more than 1,000 (20 percent of those in the United States). And in 1800, Charleston was the first place in the United States to allow Jews to vote. What’s more, four Beth Elohim congregants were among the 11 founders of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry, which was established in Charleston in 1801.

Slide 6: Jews in the South

In 1905, two black girls at the Old Goose Creek Plantation near Charleston, S.C. An African-American man in Charleston votes for the first time in the Nov. 2, 1948 presidential election.

Of course, prior to the Civil War some Jews in Charleston owned slaves. And 100 years later, during the Civil Rights era, some Jews in Charleston didn’t know what to do. “The Jewish community was vulnerable at that point,” Rabbi Gerald Wolpe told NPR. “It was small. You know, on the one side the black community was threatening to boycott Jewish stores if they didn’t take this position. Yet on the other hand, white citizen groups were saying, ‘Hey wait a minute—you’ve been here five generations. How come you don’t think the same way as we do?’”

Slide 7: Keeping the Interfaith

A Jew and a non-Jew in Charleston enjoy a mixed marriage on the Beth Elohim website.

Today, the Jews of Charleston worry about their community surviving the loss of a younger generation, as more and more youth head off to college and then on to life in more exciting urban centers. To stave off the population decline, more and more small-town congregations around the country embrace mixed marriages. The Beth Elohim website explains: “The makeup of today's modern Jewish family is vastly different from the ‘typical’ Jewish family of a few decades ago. Statistically, one half of today’s marriages are interfaith unions. This modern phenomenon has created a rich tapestry of issues that many families face and sometimes struggle with on a day-to-day basis.  KKBE welcomes interfaith families!”

Slide 8: Richmond, VA

“Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap,” by George Caleb Bingham (1951).

In 1783, two Jewish merchants and Revolutionary War vets from Richmond, Va., Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob Cohen commissioned Daniel Boone to survey thousands of acres of land in what came to be Kentucky. On the back of the receipt Boone signed in exchange for his cash payment, Isaacs noted and dated the translation in Yiddish. At one point in their partnership, Boone wrote Cohen, “No Dout you are Desireous your Land bisness Should be Dunn, but that is a thing imposible without money.” He asked Cohen to give the “smart sum” of 22 pounds, 10 shillings and 8 pence to his nephew Samuel Grant, who was carrying the letter. Boone wrote, “I will be accountable for any money put into his hands, inless kild by the Indians.”

Slide 9: New Orleans, LA

Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State and Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America, pictured on a $2 bill.

The first Jews, Portuguese traders, arrived in Louisiana early in the 1700s.

Other Portuguese Jews followed. But in 1724, the Code Noir (Black Code) decreed that only Catholicism could be practiced in the Louisiana colony and some Jews were expelled. In 1828, the first Jewish congregation was established in New Orleans.

One of New Orleans most famous Jews was Judah P. Benjamin, who after attending Yale Law School moved to Louisiana and married into a wealthy Creole plantation-owning family. A strong supporter of slavery, he became a U.S. Senator. During a debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Benjamin Wade (R-Ohio) referred to Benjamin as “a Hebrew with Egyptian Principles.” To which Benjamin replied, “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.” Benjamin would go on to help finance the Civil War, and serve as Jefferson Davis’ Secretary of State and Secretary of War.

Slide 10: King of the Jews

Rex, a.k.a. Lewis J. Solomon.

The first Rex of Mardi Gras, Lewis J. Solomon, was crowned in 1872. King Solomon was the first—and last—Jewish King of Carnival. Though New Orleans Jews were often members of upper class Mardi Gras krewes, no Jew was ever again Carnival royalty.

Slide 11: Keeping Kosher with Gators

Alligator meat is not a Kosher delicacy.

Spike Herzog told historical researcher Cathy Kahn that he had no real trouble growing up Jewish in the small Louisiana town of Providence. “We didn’t feel different because we were Jewish,” he said. “We felt different because we didn’t have two first names. All my friends were Tom Ed and Connie Ray and Bobby Lee. We just had one first name.”

Hyman Salz is a fifth-generation German Jew from Morgan City. An hour west of New Orleans, in the years after World War I, the town had a Jewish population of 220. But when he was a child, so few Jews lived in Morgan City that his parents brought in an itinerant Hebrew teacher from New Orleans to prepare Hyman for his Bar Mitzvah. “I grew up with swamp mud between my toes,” Salz told Kahn, describing how he hunted alligators and sold the meat, which is not kosher, to local townspeople.

Not all stories of assimilation are so charming. One Louisiana Jewish legend tells of a merchant who had assimilated so seamlessly into his community that he was invited to join the local Ku Klux Klan. He declined, though finally understanding why his store was selling so many white sheets.

Slide 12: Bagels for Mardi Gras

During Mardi Gras, 1999, a member of the Krewe du Jieux parades as the Anti-Christ.

For generations, in New Orleans, the city’s Jews, who now number about 13,000, tried to blend in. In recent years that assimilationist tendency has met a backlash from a younger generation, who fear their heritage was being watered down. In the early 1990s, the first private Jewish school in Louisiana was founded in New Orleans. At around the same time, younger Jews founded Krewe du Jieux, a satirical marching club that affiliated with Krewe du Vieux, the famous French Quarter parade. As they march, members of the club, dressed like an anti-Semites worse nightmare hand out gilded bagels and Mardi Gras beads.

Slide 13: Galveston, TX

Galveston’s Rosanna Dyer Osterman, 1809-1866, served the Confederacy as a spy.

In 1816, Brothers Jao and Morin de la Porta, Portuguese Jews, founded the first European settlement on Galveston Island. In 1818, the privateer Jean Laffite, who had relocated from New Orleans to Galveston, appointed Jao to be in charge of all trade with the Karankawa Indians.

The most famous Jew to hail from Galveston was Rosanna Osterman Dyer. Born in Germany in 1809, Rosanna married Joseph Osterman in Baltimore in 1825. They moved to Galveston in 1937 and set up a mercantile store that did business throughout Texas. The couple prospered, building the first two-story building in Galveston
During the Civil War, while many Galvestonians fled the island, she remained and in 1862 turned her house into a hospital, where she nursed injured soldiers, first Union and then Confederate. She also worked as a spy for the Confederacy, carrying messages from Union-controlled Galveston to Confederate-controlled Houston. Intelligence she provided is credited with enabling the Confederacy to recapture Galveston on Jan. 1, 1863. In 1866 she drowned when the Mississippi steamboat she was riding on exploded near Vicksburg, Miss. She was buried in the family plot in the Portuguese Cemetery in New Orleans.

The obituary in the June 26, 1866, Houston Weekly Telegraph remembered her this way: “Every one resident in Galveston during the war, whether soldier or civilian, knows that among the very foremost in deeds of kindness to our suffering, sick and dying soldiers, one to whom the poor Confederate soldier never applied in vain, one whose heart overflowed with all the kindliest active charities, was a Jewess, equally distinguished for her piety and careful observance of all the ceremonial duties of her religion.”

Slide 14: Shalom, Y'all

The congregation B'nai Israel built this temple in 1870, but has since moved to a more modern temple.

In her will, Roseanna Osterman Dyer left money to build a synagogue in Galveston. B’Nai Israel, the second Jewish congregation in Texas, was founded in Galveston in 1868. Its most notable rabbi was Henry Cohen, who convinced the Galveston Public Schools to ban Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Slide 15: The Galveston Program

For many years, immigrants arriving in Galveston were processed in warehouses meant for cargo storage. The newcomers wore tags that identified their destination and helped ensure they would be put on the correct train. (Photo courtesy Galveston County Historical Museum.)

In the early years of the 20th Century, Rabbi Cohen working with New York banker Jacob Schiff helped found the Galveston Movement, which sought to encourage Jews fleeing from pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe to enter the United States through Galveston rather than Ellis Island.

At the time, many assimilated Jews, who had emigrated from Western Europe, became concerned that the influx of more religious Russian and Eastern European Jews into the cities of the Northeast might spawn anti-Semitism. So they sought another port of entry. Charleston, S.C., said it wanted only Anglo Saxon immigrants and New Orleans was beset by Yellow Fever, so it was left to Galveston to receive the unwanted Jews.

Between 1907 and 1911, about 10,000 Jewish immigrants set foot on American soil in Galveston, from whence hey were shipped to out-of-the-way places like Pine Bluff, Ark. and Fargo, N.D. The Galveston Program didn’t last. Local merchants feared competition and local industrialists were upset that observant Jews refused to work on Saturday. As for the Jews who moved to the American hinterlands, isolated from their religious community, many became assimilated into the dominant culture, with some joining Protestant churches.

Slide 16: Milwaukee, WI

At the turn of the century, one journalist wrote in the Houston Post, “Germany seems to have lost all of her foreign possessions with the exception of Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.”

In the 1850s, Germans—Protestant, Catholic and Jewish—poured into Milwaukee. By the turn of the century, Milwaukee, also known as the Deutsches Athen (German Athens), had more German speakers than English speakers, more German newspapers than English newspapers.

And Milwaukee, where Germans were united by a common culture, was known for its lack of anti-Semitism. German Jews, who numbered about 1,000 by 1875, were integrated into the city society. “Milwaukee's early Jews had found a comfortable niche among the educated German elite of the community,” writes historian Steve Byers, “Milwaukee was considered a good place for Jews. It was a religiously tolerant community.”

Slide 17: A Semi-Asiatic Existence

Lizzie Black Kander, a member of a prominent German Jewish family in Milwaukee, devoted her life to helping less fortunate Jews, or as she called them “our downtrodden and shiftless poor.”

Although Milwaukee was the hometown of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and novelist Edna Ferber, the Milwaukee Jew who had the greatest impact on American life was Lizzie Black Kander.

The security of the German Jews in Milwaukee society was threatened by the arrival of Jews from Russia and eastern Europe, who brought with them strange things like dietary restrictions and religious observance. “The split between the older and newer Jewish immigrants was especially rough in Milwaukee,” writes historian Steve Byers.
The Ladies Relief Sewing Society in Milwaukee was established after a Rabbi asked the women in his congregation “to come together in a more unified benevolence movement” to “civilize” immigrant families so they would not “succumb in isolation” to “their semi-Asiatic existence.”

In a report prepared for the Ladies Sewing Society, Lizzie Black Kander said, “We must uplift our downtrodden and shiftless poor, not alone for their own sake and for that of humanity, but for the reputation of our own nationality. Their misdeeds reflect directly on us, and every one of us, individually, ought to do all in his power to help lay the foundation of good citizenship in them.”

Slide 18: A Jewish Melting Pot

Kander thought that the best way to civilize the immigrant community was by Americanizing family life.

James “The Dean of American Cuisine” Beard (1903-1985) was born two years after Lizzie Black Kander published the first edition of The Settlement Cook Book: The Way to a Man’s Heart. When a New Yorker reporter asked Beard to name his favorite cook book, he replied, “Actually, if I consult a cookbook at all, it is likely to be by one of these sensible, flat-heeled authors like the famous Mrs. Kander.” Proceeds from Kander’s The Settlement Cookbook, which sold millions of copies, helped fund The Settlement (and its successor, The Abraham Lincoln Settlement House) in Milwaukee. Historian Angela Fritz writes that it was there, under Kander’s guidance that “multiple generations of Jewish immigrants had learned to abandon their traditional cooking practices, and adapt and assimilate to middle-class customs and values.”

Slide 19: Join the Club

Brynwood Country Club is loosing members as a younger generation of Milwaukee Jews join formerly all-gentile country clubs.

Julius Atkins, born in Milwaukee in 1917, says he knew Lizzie Black Kander “well.” His wife, Mildred Atkins, who moved to Milwaukee form Minneapolis in 1929, says that while people have retained their religious affiliations, national identities—Irish, Polish, German and Italian—are disappearing. “We haven’t heard people talk about being German for years and years,” she says.

And religious affiliation matters less and less says Mildred. “In the same way a lot of Catholics don’t only seek out Catholics, today the college educated Jewish community blends in with the college educated community from every background. It is only by going to a temple or belonging to a synagogue that you keep in contact.”

As a result, says Mildred, one Milwaukee’s Jewish institutions “which is not doing so well” is the Brynwood Country Club. It was founded in 1929, a time when the gentile clubs didn’t accept Jews as members. Julius explains, “A number of younger Jewish people are joining formerly all gentile clubs.”

Slide 20: Deli Diplomacy

The only condiment served at Jake’s in Milwaukee is mustard.

One Jewish institution in Milwaukee that is thriving is Jake’s, a deli founded in 1935 in what was then one of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods. “I can slice it for you however you want,” Michael Kassof, the son of one of the owners, told one restaurant critic. “A little fatty, all fat, all lean.”

In the ’60s, Julius Atkins and three friends, one of whom is Bud Selig, the former commissioner of baseball, bought the deli. “The corn beef is good,” says Mildred, who adds that when her daughter visits from Manhattan “she usually takes some back to New York.” Ditto for her son in Illinois, who “thinks it is better than what they have in Chicago.”

“As good at Katz in NYC,” writes one anonymous critic on the Web. Another waxed on: “The corned beef and pastrami sandwiches at this authentic old-school Jewish deli on Milwaukee's North Side are legendary … Only King David knows exactly when this deli opened its doors, but way back, when North Side was a Jewish shtetl, this was the place to nosh on a gezunter of a sandwich. Well, the demographic has transformed dramatically (bring your glock), but this landmark persists like a stubborn old bubba clinging to a shmata full of latkes.”

Slide 21: A Poultry Existence

Chix Carriage, circa 1920, was part of a Butter and Egg Day celebration in Petaluma where resident dressed as chickens and eggs. (Courtesy of Petaluma Museum.)

Among the more singular Jewish communities were Jewish chicken farmers of the Northern California town of Petaluma, Calif., most of whom were socialists and communists. Their story is documented in Bonie Burt’s film, A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma. While the Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma were originally raised Orthodox in Eastern Europe, they lived secular lives, celebrating their Jewishness at holidays and through cultural events. One of the chicken farmers kids explains that for them “intermarriage was when a kid of the left married a kid of the right.”

Petaluma’s Scott Gerber says, “To me, being real class conscious and caring about people who don't have much, that's very Jewish. To me, being a cowboy is Jewish. My ancestors were socialists or communists, and as a Jew and an American, I'm part of the working class.”

Slide 22: All American Jews

Lil Fishman Krulevitch, in the 1930s, holding a chicken on her chicken ranch in Petaluma. Krulevitch, who is featured in A Home on the Range, recalls Nazis marching down Mainstreet in Petaluma in the 1930s. Scott Gerber, a descendant of Petaluma chicken ranchers, works as a cowboy in Petaluma and sings Yiddish and cowboy songs.

Reviewing the film for the Jerusalem Post, Sue Fishkoff writes, “Ironically, while the original chicken farmers strongly opposed building shuls (synagogues) or being religiously observant—even though they valued Jewish culture—many of those grandchildren are now deeply involved in synagogue life. … In telling the story of the Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma, [filmmaker Bonnie] Burt chronicles the arc of Jewish history in the twentieth century: a first generation of poor immigrants from Eastern Europe who had been raised Orthodox and had a strong Jewish identity; a second generation who assimilated, often became financially successful, and wanted to identify as Americans; and a third generation who became so much a part of American society that many intermarried—while also seeking a meaningful Jewish identity.”

By the 1970s, only a few of the chicken farmers remained in Petaluma. Most went bankrupt, driven out of business by big agribusiness.


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