The Jewish Americans

My family is Roman Catholic and my ancestors have been Roman Catholic as far back as I’ve been able to trace my family history. Still, my family has been greatly influenced by our Jewish neighbors and friends.

The communities in which my ancestors lived had significant Jewish populations. My grandfather Dańko was born and grew up in Nienadowa, Galicia and attended church at the parish in Dubiecko. The Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i Innych Krajów Słowiańskich (The Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavonic Countries) reports that in the late 19th Century, 690 Roman Catholics, 114 Greek Catholics, and 700 Jews lived in Dubiecko, suggesting that my ancestor’s lives were influenced on a day-to-day basis by the Jews who lived near him. After the Holocaust, few if any Jews remained in Dubiecko.

When my grandfather immigrated to America in 1905, he stated that he was planning to stay in New York City with Isaac Flichtenfeld, a Jewish umbrella maker who emigrated from Galicia in 1892. The first place my grandfather stayed in America was probably Isaac’s home at 35 First Avenue in New York City. I can only guess why my grandfather stayed with a Jewish immigrant when he arrived in New York. My grandfather may have known Isaac, but he may have simply contracted to stay with the Flichtenfelds until he found suitable accommodations for himself.

Growing up in Albany, New York, my own life frequently intersected with the Jewish community there in my neighborhood and in my after-school activities. On a number of occasions, I attended services at one of the local Synagogues.

And so, it was with some interest that I watched the first part of the PBS miniseries “The Jewish Americans” tonight.

Tonight’s episode was entitled “They Came to Stay; A World of Their Own”, which documented the history of Jewish Americans up until the early 20th Century. While New York City is well known for its Jewish community, the first Jews to settle in what was, at the time, known as New Amsterdam were almost turned away by Peter Stuyvesant who viewed their presence as undesirable. Stuyvesant’s superiors in the Netherlands overruled him, deciding that the settlement would benefit from the skills and culture of the Jewish immigrants.

These first Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam were refugees from Spain and Portugal at about the time of the Inquisition. Had they not left their homes for America, they would have been forced to convert to Christianity or die. In America, they discovered that their lives were nothing like they had experienced before. They were largely accepted.

Still, in some American colonies, Jews, like Catholics and Quakers, could not vote or hold office.

Upper-class Jews freely mixed with upper-class Christians, so much so that many found it difficult to hold on to their Jewish heritage. Many Jews married Christians and ties with their Jewish families were severed. As America grew, Jews migrated to the west where there were few connections to their culture or religion.

In time, many more Jews immigrated to America. They migrated to every state and, in the American Civil War, Jews fought on both sides of the conflict. In the South, Jews owned slaves, at the same time teaching their children about the escape of their ancestors from bondage in Egypt.

Some Jewish immigrants were spectacularly successful in America. The names Levi Strauss (of Levi Strauss and Company) and Joseph Spiegel (of the Spiegel Catalog Company) are well known. Many others were spectacularly unsuccessful. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was home to many poor Jews who maintained Jewish customs even if they didn’t practice their religion.

The Lower East Side was also a center for Yiddish Theater, a popular art form of the time that gave rise to such performers as Eddie Cantor, Edward G. Robinson, and Sophie Tucker.

I look forward to watching the second episode “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times” and the third episode “Home”, both airing later this month.

Copyright © 2008 by Stephen J. Danko

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2 Responses to The Jewish Americans

  1. Donna Hague Wendt says:

    Thanks for the information. I saw the first episode of “The Jewish Americans” and found it very interesting. In Hawaii it is broadcast on Wednesdays. 2nd Episode is Jan 16th at 9pm on PBS.

  2. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in the Borscht Belt and as a child I became very familiar with the Jewish holidays (we had them off for school) and customs. I too watched the PBS show and I can’t wait for the other parts.

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