Freedom: The Promise And The Challenge

"Freedom to observe, freedom to neglect," in the words of one 19th-century rabbi

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Reprinted with permission of the author from Hadassah Magazine.

If the essence of the Jewish encounter with America were to be tele­scoped down to a single location, the epicenter would not be the Lower East Side [of Manhattan] or Hollywood or Cincinnati or Tin Pan Alley or Miami Beach or the Borscht Belt or Crown Heights, important as each of those places has been to 350 years of intertwined tribal and national history.

The emblematic point just might be a former resort town in southern New Jersey named Lakewood, a spot seemingly not so Jewish at all. In Lakewood's prime, John D. Rockefeller and Grover Cleveland wintered there as "millionaires trod the wooden sidewalks, and went fox-hunt­ing in the pines," one chronicler recorded.

When Lakewood's half-century heyday as a tourist destination ended in the 1920s, however, the Jewish chicken farmers began to arrive. Fresh from the Pale of Settlement, perhaps with a midway stop in the tenements and garment factories of Lower Manhattan, they came to own land because they had been banned from doing so in the Old Country. They came to work the land because proving themselves physically capable and economically self-sufficient was part of their commitment to throwing off centuries of oppression. Their language was Yiddish, their culture was agnostic, and their faith was socialism, and for all those reasons they attracted the antagonism of new enemies from the Ku Klux Klan to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

A generation after the chicken farmers ap­peared, there materialized in Lakewood an even less likely newcomer, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi named Aharon Kotler. Until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he had served as the rosh yeshiva [head of a school of advanced Jewish learning] of the renowned religious aca­demy in Slutzk, and his journey to America had traced a furtive refugee's path to Vilna, then Siberia, then Shanghai, then San Francisco, then New York, and finally to a backwater in southern Jersey, where the prevailing style of Jewishness was anathema to all Rabbi Kotler embodied. Undeterred, he went ahead and in 1943 established a classical yeshiva for 15 stu­dents. Over the decades to come, it grew 50 times as large.

Jewish-immigrant children wave at the Statue of Liberty. Photo credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Coexistence

To appreciate the Jewish experience in America is to understand how two such dissimilar species of American Jewry could flourish in the same improbable soil. What each required and each received was that rarest of condi­tions in two millennia of exile: freedom.

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Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (Simon & Schuster), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.