The American Romance with the Jews, from Cotton Mather to Emma Lazarus

October 24, 2019 | Michael Medved
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When Puritans settlers first arrived in New England, they brought with them a passion for the Hebrew Bible and a desire to model themselves after the ancient Israelites—and, moreover, a belief that contemporary Jews, as God’s chosen people, deserved their respect and tolerance. Michael Medved traces the various manifestations of this sentiment from English Puritans to John Adams. Perhaps the most striking example he cites is that of Ezra Stiles:

Despite [their] intense identification with ancient Israel, few Americans ever got the chance to explore either the wisdom of the past or the prospects for the future with their Jewish contemporaries. One of the exceptions was Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), the seventh president of Yale and an influential minister and scholar. Before assuming his most celebrated position in New Haven, Connecticut, he spent twenty years pastoring a major church in Newport, Rhode Island. During that time, Stiles made a point of frequent visits to the small, struggling synagogue that had managed to survive for more than a hundred years despite the lack of meaningful growth in the Jewish population.

Unlike [the earlier Massachusetts theologian] Cotton Mather, who expressed the hope that even the religious Jews he so passionately esteemed would ultimately find their way to Christianity, Stiles expected [Jews] to remain fully Jewish and became excited by visions of what Jews and Christians might achieve together. . . . In particular, Stiles believed that the ultimate “return of the twelve tribes to the Holy Land” might well occur at any time, igniting an explosion of faith that would enable believers “to convert a world.”

To Medved, the notion that the fates of America and the Jews were intertwined took on a new life, and a new meaning, when masses of European Jews began coming to the U.S. in the 1880s, inspiring the country’s best-known Jewish poet:

While establishing a truly international reputation, Emma Lazarus focused scant attention on her own Jewish heritage, but when she was thirty-one, the vicious pogroms following the assassination of the tsar sparked a passion for self-discovery. She . . . organized charitable efforts to aid the penniless Russian hordes who began washing into New York City, while . . . defending them, fiercely, from anti-Semitic taunts in the public press. Her contact with these destitute dreamers fueled her pride in the Jewish past and her visions for a grandiose future, as her poetry suddenly burned with exhortation and purpose: “Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day/ The glorious Maccabean rage . . .”

[One] handwritten sonnet simultaneously expressed her tenderness for the desperate new arrivals fleeing starvation and the tsar while exulting in the epochal role of America as refuge and redeemer. The Jewish view of the United States as a supernatural sanctuary in a harsh, hostile world has never been expressed more movingly or memorably.

That handwritten sonnet, of course, is “The New Colossus,” inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

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