Survey Jewish American Predicament by Royichan Antony

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A Short Historical Survey of the Jewish American Predicament

By – Royichan Antony


Henry James, one of the founding fathers of American realist Fiction, wherein he says that “life is a predicament that precedes death.” It upholds the commonly held view that human life is neither a spectacle that one can sit back and enjoy, nor, a sumptuous feast to relish, but a predicament that one should boldly face and overcome. In common parlance, a ‘predicament’ means an unpleasant, troublesome, or trying life situation, from which, the process of extrication calls for an extremely determined and consistently concerted effort. Any such predicament can be individual or communitarian in nature, having social, political, cultural economic, religious and sometimes even racial overtones.

This article is an attempt to trace the origin and growth of the ‘Jewish American predicament’. Any attempt to construct a Jewish American predicament, calls for a deconstruction of terms such as “Jews,” “Jewish,” and “Jewish American” etc. Therefore, I would like to begin by defining the constituting terms in the title “the origin and growth of Jewish American predicament”. It is done with a pre-notion that to understand the real ‘Jewish American predicament’  we need to have a clear-cut notion of who is a ‘Jew’, what it means to be ‘Jewish’ and what is understood by ‘Jewish American’ etc.

In simple term, a ‘Jew’ is a member of the people or the nation of Israel. The word has its origin in the Hebrew word ‘Yehudi’ that stands for bene` Yisra`el which can be translated as ‘children of Israel’ or ‘sons of Israel’ (Yacov Newman and Gaviel Sivan, Judaism A-Z: Lexicon of Terms and Concepts, 84). They are a nation or better still an ethno-religious group originating from the ancient Near East. Going by Jewish tradition, Jews trace their ancestry back to the biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who lived in an around the land of Canaan around eighteenth Century BCE. Though Abraham was born in the ‘Sumerian’ city of ‘Ur`kasdim’ tradition has it that later on he, along with his family migrated to ‘Eretz Kena`an’(the land of Canaan) popularly known as ‘Eretz Yisra`el’ (the land of Israel). In this sense the term Jews stands as an original designation for Judeans or the people of the two tribes that survived the Assyrian conquest of Samaria, and dispersal of northern kingdom’s Israelite population in 721 BCE. (Newman and Gaviel Sivan, 7). Apart from Jewish tradition, going by history, it would be easier to establish that Jews had evolved to a great extent from the tribe ‘Judah’ and ‘Simeon’, and there are also evidences to suggest   that they were also from the Israelite tribes of ‘Benyamin’ and ‘Levi’.  Yehoshua M. Grintz, speaking about the semantics of the word ‘Jew’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, is of the opinion that  the final combination of both these groups together formed what was known as the ‘kingdom of Judah’, irrespective of their tribal status (Y.M Grintz, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 253). Mention may be made that Jewish ethnicity, nationality and religion are inter-related and strongly inter-connected, and it entails a conclusion that Jews are the proclaimed descendents of the Biblical patriarchs of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, belonging to the land of Israel, having Judaism as their religion.

After having defined the term ‘Jew’, now the next most fundamental issue is to address the ‘Jewish person-hood’  before I go further to analyse the ‘Jewish people hood.’ The issue that I discuss here has a wide range of ramifications as it has to deal with personal, genealogical, cultural and religious overtones.  Definition of Jewish person-hood depends on various factors. One of the major aspect to be taken care is to find out who is defining it, whether it is by the Jews themselves based on their religious norms and statutes aimed at self-identification, or by non-Jews, for religious ,social or ethnic reasons. As per the definition for self-identification, a person is a Jew by birth, or can become a Jew through the process of religious conversion. Even at this level, there are conflicting opinions as there are problems with regarding the application of the given definition. Halakhah, denotes the legal portion of Talmud as well as the subsequent codifications in contradistinction to the non-legal narrative (Newman and Gaviel Sivan,60). It is the collective corpus of religious laws for the Jews inclusive of Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic laws. Halakhah incorporates the customs and traditional practices of the Jewish society, as Judaism make no distinction in its laws between religious, national or racial aspects, it guides not only religious practices and beliefs, but also almost all aspects of Jewish day today life. Halakhah was true to its literal meaning-‘the path’ or ‘the way of walking’ as it showed the path to proper Jewish way of living in its entirety. In halakhah , there are clear-cut instructions as to who is a Jew and who can be considered a Jew and what are the ways by which one can become a Jew.

Generally speaking, answering the question ‘who is a Jew’ brings in a threefold answer.  Firstly, anyone who is born to a Jewish family, whether or not they follow Judaism. As per the Halakhahi Definition, a person to be called a Jew, one should be born to a Jewish mother (Raphael Posner, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 254). Only such a person is called ‘Jew by birth’. Here what is important is to note, that a mere acceptance of the principles and practices of Halakhah does not make a person ‘Jew’. Similarly, those born Jewish   do not lose that status by non-observance, or by an adoption of other religious practices. Secondly, anyone who has a Jewish lineage or ancestral background, and thirdly, anybody who without any Jewish background or lineage, but have formally converted to Judaism, can be called a Jew.

If first parameter, by which one is identified as a Jew, is birth to a Jewish mother, the second one is a formal conversion to Judaism. The initial dilemma begins here, as there exists a kind of vagueness regarding the valid process of conversion. There are also other related issues such as the absence of proper awareness regarding the status of one’s parent’s identity, the status of those people who have got converted themselves to other religions etc. Fred Skolnik writing about the Jewish Identity in Encyclopaedia Judaica, considers , conversion as a formal religious ritual  act undertaken by a non-Jewish person (ger), having the desire to be recognized as a full-fledged member of the Jewish community(Fred Skolnik, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 295). Talmud sets out the requirements for a formal conversion to Judaism, wherein it requires the witness and affirmation of the Beth din -(Rabbinic Court) comprising of three Jewish males above the age of thirteen (Newman and Gaviel Sivan,19). The process of formal conversion includes Brit Milah (circumcision) for males and Mikveh (immersion) and Korban (an offering of sacrifice) for both males and females. After these requirements are fulfilled the Beth din issues a certificate of conversion, by which one becomes a full-fledged Jew officially (ibid).

In the first chapter of the book on Judaism in the World Religions Series, Martha Morrison and Stephen F. Brown, introduces Judaism as one of the oldest and smallest but one of the most influential religious traditions of the world (Martha Morrison and Stephen F. Brown, 8). This ancient religion arose in the Near East some 3,500 years ago, in the mid-second millennium B.C.E. It has played an extremely important role in the development of Western and Near Eastern civilizations, even though, Judaism as a religion, has always had a relatively small number of believers. Christianity was built on the foundation of Judaism, and Islam, another great monotheistic tradition, was influenced by Judaism. Moreover, the Jews have made significant contributions in every area of society. It is important to know that the Jews have made their contributions in the face of enormous difficulties, for their history has been a struggle for survival in an often hostile world. Only a tenacious adherence to their beliefs, their customs, and their identity accounts for their continued existence (Morrison and Stephen F. Brown.5).

Jacob Neusner, in highly influential book Judaism: The Basics opines that any Religious communities form cultural systems with an ethos or a way of life, an ethics or worldview, and a theory of the origin and character of the community or an ethnos (Neusner, Judaism: The Basics,1). Judaism is a religion like any other. In this-worldly, social perspective, any religion (or religious tradition) forms a cultural system that is comprised by three components, (1) its worldview, (2) its way of life, and (3) its definition of the community of the faithful (Neusner,p.2). “Ethos” refers to the worldview, “ethics” to its way of life and definition of virtue, and “ethnos” to the social entity (“community,” “church,”“holy people”) that takes shape among the believers. Judaism is more often than not, a term denoting, in the widest sense, the entire cultural, social and religious system of the people of Israel.  But in a specific religious sense, it is the biblically inspired faith or belief in one God-creator and ruler of the universe-by whose divine will the Ten Commandments, Torah and precepts were given to the Jewish people through the revelation at Sinai. It is a religion that guides its adherents both in beliefs and practices, and as such it is popularly described as ‘not a religion, but a way of life’. As such it becomes a difficult proportion to draw a distinction between Judaism, Jewish culture and identity. This faith or religion demands the individual Jew’s adherence and conformity to a wide range of laws customs and practices. Throughout the history, we find cultural phenomena that have developed which are typically Jewish, without having any specific religious characteristics. This is an easily manifested characteristic feature of Judaism manifested from the very beginning of Jewish history as early as the Hellenistic world, Europe, the Islamic Spain and Portugal, India, China and even to the contemporary United States.

Exile, which is a separation from one’s country and home, either by choice or by force, and its consequential alienation and suppression, and ultimate assimilation into the alien culture, leading to a loss of self identity, is one of the focal points in the political history of the Jews. In the words of Moses, considered as the spokesperson of the Jews in their early political and religious history, “I am a stranger in a foreign land,”(Ex.2:22) we can hear the echoes of the plight of the early Jews in the land of Midian, south of Canaan, exiled from both Egypt and the Hebrew community that lived there. His statement epitomizes the situation of the Jews from earliest times to the present.

Since exilic situation was one of the earliest life situations encountered by the Jews, the history of Jewish diasporic existence is one of the longest and most complex ones in the pages of human history. In contrast to the biblical presentation of Jews as Segulah-a treasure (Ex.19:5), the story of Jews has been a tale of rejection, isolation, expulsion and persecution. But there is also the idea of ‘chosenness’, a subject of perennial controversy among the non-Jews, exemplified in the book of Deuteronomy, where it says, ‘now therefore if you will hearken unto my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be mine treasure from among all the peoples… for thou art a holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen you to be His own treasure out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth’(Deut.14:2). This could be used to explain a record of cultural achievement and commercial success that the Jews have attained in the midst of all these disquieting and antagonistic life situations. Understanding such contradictory situations itself becomes an inextricable predicament for anyone who studies the Jewish history.

The term Jewish ‘Diaspora’ officially  stands for the historical exile an dispersion of Jews from the region of the kingdom of Judah and the Roman Judea around 6th century B.C.E. But the history of Jewish Diaspora can be traced back to the Biblical Patriarch Abraham himself. First Abraham and his family wandered in lands that were not their own. Then the Hebrews were in bondage in Egypt. The exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses took them to the land of Canaan. The development of kinship, division of the twelve tribes into two kingdoms and foreign captivity and exiles etc., are very well known historical facts. The patriarch Abraham is described as a nomad who wandered from Ur in Chaldea, through Syria and Canaan to Egypt, and then back to Canaan. He led a tribe that moved with the seasons in search of pasture for its flocks. The biblical book of Genesis describes the nomadic lives of Abraham and the other patriarchs and tells how they interacted with peoples settled throughout the lands where they wandered.

Here I would like to present a brief history of the exilic or diasporic condition of the Jews. For a better and easy understanding, I would like to divide the political history into various stages such as; Babylonian period, Persian period, Grecian period, Ptolemaic period, Syrian period, Maccabean period, Hasmonian period, the Roman period, and the period after 1948 till today.

In 597 B.C, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, ended the Jewish independence by conquering Judea and capturing Jerusalem. Jewish king along with his family was deported to Babylon(Giuseppe Ricciotti, History of Israel,p.11). Though Zedekiah, who was installed by Neduchadnezzar to rule on behalf him, later asserted his independence and dabbled in political intrigue with Egypt. This opposition from Zedakiah was destroyed in 586 when he captured the city of Jerusalem and took many of the devout and competent Jews into captivity in Babylon. But in 539 B.C Cyrus, king of Persia, captured Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, thus ending the Jewish captivity in Babylon. But most of the Jews remained in the more prosperous surroundings of Cyrus’s kingdom (Ricciotti,vol.II,p.62), but there was a mass return to Jerusalem under the charismatic leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, who remained faithful to God’s demands despite the deceptive pressures of Hellenism (Ricciotti, 111).

The Grecian period begins from 331 B.C when Alexander the great of Macedonia defeated the Persians in the battle of Arbela.  Though the Greek influence over Palestine was already there even during the Persian rue, it was with the coming of Alexander that Hellenistic culture took deep root among the Jews. Alexander the Great, who was tutored by the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had great appreciation for Hellenistic culture which he tried to implant among the Jews. After his death his four of his generals divided his kingdom among themselves, making two separate empires, the Ptolemaic empire in Egypt having its capital in Alexandria, and another in Syria, having Antioch forts capital. The rulers here were called as Seleucus or Antiochus. There was constant fight between the Egyptians and Syrians and most of it was fought in the Palestinian soil, in the year 198 B.C the Syrians asserted their supremacy and it led to the end of Egyptian hegemony over Palestine.

The Syrian period that began from 198 B.C faced a divided response from the Jews. There were two groups, the pro-Egyptian Oniads and the pro-Syrian Tobiads. Antiochus, assuming the name “Epiphanes” wanting to use the funds from Palestine and especially from Jerusalem Temple, negotiated with Jason, brother of Onias III, the then High Priest, and introduced Hellenistic customs into Jerusalem. This led to the establishment of Gymnasium with race tracks in Jerusalem where Jewish boys exercised in the nude, creating outrage among the traditional Jews. Antiochus made may attempts to capture Egypt, which was prevented by the then Roman Legate, Polilius Laenas. It was during this time that he decreed preventing Jewish worship in Jerusalem, where practice of circumcision, observation of Sabbath and other religious festivals invited capital punishment. This kind of a ruling from the Syrian ruler brought about sharp protest from the orthodox Jews under the leadership of Mattathias, a priest from Modin near Jerusalem. The offer of wealth and position was rejected by Mattathias, and after his death his son Judas took over the protests and his military exploits against the much stronger Syrian army earned him the title of Maccabeus, “the hammer”        ( Ricciotti, vol.II, 237). During This period, religious freedom was regained, the temple was purified and this is celebrated by the modern Jews as the Feast of Lights or Hanukkah. This period in the Jewish history is known as the Maccabean period.

From 142 B.C, although those Jewish rulers were Maccabees, they were known as Hasmoneans as these were descendents of Maccabeaus but had different agendas from their forefathers. This period in Jewish history was characterised by a corrupt tendency for power, murder, deceit and treachery and general chaos that attracted attention of Rome, leading to the invasion of Palestine by the Roman general Pompey. It saw the reduction of the Jewish territory of Judea into a Roman Province by 63 B.C. The Romans used local rulers to carryout Roman policy in Palestine. But in 70 AD Titus destroyed Jerusalem Temple and during the reign of Hadrian (A.D.117-138) a pagan temple was erected in the place of the Jewish temple and again banned the practice of circumcision.  The Jews revolted under the charismatic leadership of Bar Kokhba, but after the initial success, the Romans ultimately crushed the revolt, rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman city, and banned Jews from entering the city. Then on, Jewish nation lost any significant political existence until it appeared again in 1948, with the establishment of the new state of Israel.

Jewish Diaspora in the middle ages was broadly categorized into three. This was organized mainly under geographical groupings. They were the Ashkenazi Jews, the Shepardi Jews, and the Mizrahi Jews.  The first group were mainly the Jews who migrated to the central and Eastern Europe; Shepardi Jews were the ones who settled in Iberia (Spain and Portugal) and later to the North Africa, and the Mizrahi Jews who remained in Babylon.  There was a large scale migration of the Jews to the United States of America in the early 20th Century and today it is the America that has the largest diasporic Jewish population, reaching to almost 5.75 million.

Though the Jews in Diaspora had enjoyed a great deal of commercial success and financial affluence along with financial influence in the field of trade and commerce, all along they experienced a great deal of persecutions over a wide chronological periods and over a wide range of geographical locations. These came mainly in the Middle East and Europe. From the Seleucid rulers on wards they were confronted with Hellenism, enforcement of pagan practices, banning of Jewish festivals and religious practices etc., In the Middle Ages they had to face the Christian anti-Semitism, especially, regarding the religious beliefs and the Jewish culture. As far as religious practices were concerned they were accused of deicide, and as to their culture they were accused of acquisitiveness, larceny lying manipulation and their questionable and usurious business practices.

Moving on to the high Middle Ages there were ample instances of Blood Libels, Forced Conversions, Inquisitions and Crusades, ultimately ending with the Holocaust. They were expelled from England in 1290 C.E. and from France in 1306. In 1492 Jews in Spain were forced either to become Christians or to be expelled. Jews were emancipated with the 18th-century Enlightenment. In an effort to gain full, equal citizenship, many called for a reform of and updating of Jewish attitudes and values to make themselves more acceptable to the new secular culture.

So far we have seen that from the times of the Pharaohs of Egypt to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler in Germany, Jewish history was a combination of exile and exodus, migration and expulsion, inquisition and holocaust. This led to the predicament in the mind of the Jews, the predicament of reconciling the biblical promise of the Chosen Race and Promised Land and the contradictory existential exilic situation of expulsion and the phased extinction. Since a major chunk of these were from the religious and nationalistic frontier, there have been   constant attempts from the side of the Jews to reform and adapt their religious beliefs and practices on the one hand, and a conscious effort either to assimilate or to adopt the local culture by a re-interpretation of the Halakhic laws and regulations. This is reflected in various reform movements among the Jews having various degree of acceptance. Such difference of acceptability of the reform proposals for adoption ad assimilation resulted in the emergence of various types of Judaism such as: Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Re-constructionist Judaism and Humanist Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism consist of those Jews who believe that the Torah, containing 613 commandments; inclusive of both written and oral, is divinely ordained and is binding on all Jews. Reform Judaism refers to a section of Jews who does not believe that the Torah is divinely ordained. They instead believe and propagate that it had a human origin and which was compiled later (

This group of Judaism came to existence when a group of Jews tried to attain a middle path between the Orthodox and Reform Judaism. It was a reaction to the absolute liberalism advocated by the reformist group. The conservative group upheld that the torah comes from god, but it is transmitted through humans and it contains human components and therefore the laws and practices can be adapted to the predominant or local culture without losing the original Jewish tradition. While re-constructionist Judaism belongs to those who believe that Judaism is an “evolving religious civilization” and rejects the idea of divine origin of the torah. They rather favour incorporating the inherited Jewish beliefs and traditions in the mainstream culture (

Faced with the exigencies of secular diasporic world, Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine offered a non-theistic alternative to the Jewish life, which is today known as the humanistic Judaism. It speaks of creating a secular Jewish life based on the humanistic values n place of a divinely ordained Torah (

The story behind the Jewish Diaspora in American soil is one of expulsion and re-admission. It is the story of the promise of the “Great American Dream,” and its challenges.  Over the centuries historians have traditionally divided the Jewish immigration history into three distinctive periods. They are Shephardic, German and Eastern European periods. Each of these periods are named not for exclusivity but based on dominance or predominance.

The first group to have arrived in America was the Shephardi Jews. Fearing the Portuguese inquisition many of the Shephardic Jews fled Portugal with the plan of taking refuge in Holland where there was already a Shephardic community who fled the Spanish Inquisition much earlier (Encyclopaedia of Jewish American Literature, ed . Cronin, Gloria L. and Alan L.Berger, p.xiii). But when they ran short of money they were forced to land at the Dutch colony of Recife, in Brazil. But when the Portuguese conquered this colony, the Jews there forced to move to a new place, and in 1654 they moved to North America, where they could practice their religion in a relatively non-discriminatory environment.

Migration of German Jews to America in a significant way started in the 1840s. It was due to the mounting religious persecutions and socio-economic restrictions that the German Jews migrated to America, purportedly a land of economic and social opportunity and religious tolerance.  They settled in and around the city of Cincinnati, which later became the seat of American Reform Judaism.

Eastern European Jews migration to America in a significant way began from 1880. It refers to the large scale migration of Jewish population from Russia, Austria-Hungary, Romania etc., this migration was precipitated by the existing overpopulation and its allied poverty coupled with the social oppression in Eastern Europe.  They too were attracted by the prospect of social and economic advancement.  Unlike the German migrants, the eastern Europeans settled in the cramped and squalid neighbourhood of major cities engaging themselves in factories and construction sites.

So far in this short historical survey, I have tried to pen picture a short history of Jewish predicament in general, as their history has always been a prolonged saga of socio-religious oppression, expulsion and persecution. In an attempt to extricate themselves from such situations Jews had always migrated from one place to another, seemingly netter and safer places abroad. Jewish migration took place in a big way to the Americas too.  As I have mentioned earlier, we have seen in the last section of this chronological investigation that the Jewish migration to Americas took place from three different geographical locations, namely, Spain and Portugal, Germany, and the Eastern European countries.

In America, they had to face many newer social, economic and religious predicaments. Though all of them were Jews, they were all practicing different forms of Judaism each unique to the pre-migratory locations, and unique in its interpretation and practice of torah, as result of which the pressing need for them was how to reconcile these differences, or which one was truer or better etc., socially too, there was the need to reconcile the modern manners of the American life with the age old Jewish tradition. Another impending dilemma was to settle and reconcile the intra- religious differences among themselves first, and then the inter-religious and cultural gap. Along with the socio-cultural predicament that the Jewish diaspora had to face in the land of Great Amrican Dream, the most monstrous predicament was to build the generational divide that existed between the first and the subsequent generation Jews.






Works Cited:

Cronin, Gloria L and Alan Berger. Encyclopaedia of Jewish American Literature. New York:

Facts On File Inc. 2009. Print.

Grintz, Yehoshua M. “Jew.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Second Edition, Vol.11, ed. Fred Skolnik. New York: Thomson Gale.2007. Print.

Morrison, Martha A and Stephen F. Brown. Judaism. New York: Chelsea Home publishers. 2009. Print.

Neusner, Jacob. Judaism: The Basics. London: Routledge.2006. Print.

Newman, Yacov and Gaviel Sivan, Judaism A-Z: Lexicon of Terms and Concepts, Jerusalem: Ahva Cooperative Press,1980. Print.

Posner, Raphael. “Halakhi Definition.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Second Edition, Vol.11, ed. Fred Skolnik. New York: Thomson Gale.2007. Print.

Ricciotti, Giuseppe. The history of Israel, Vol I&II. Fort Collins: Roman Catholic Books. 1955. Print.

Skolnik, Fred. “Jewish Identity.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Second Edition, Vol.11, ed. Fred Skolnik. New York: Thomson Gale.2007. Print.

Books Referred:

Austin, M.M.  The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981. Print.

Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976. Print.





Introduction to the Author:

Royichan AntonyAt present a PhD research scholar in St. Joseph (autonomous) College, Trichy, under Bharathidasan University. Gold medallist in MA English Literature from St. Aloysius College(autonomous) Manga lore, Has Written many articles in international peer reviewed journals, presented papers in National seminars. A religious priest and a missionary.

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