The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then...passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was...All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.
- Mark Twain, Concerning the Jews
Three hundred and fifty years ago, in September 1654, twenty - three impoverished Jews arrived by ship in New Amsterdam after having been expelled from Recife, Brazil. Adding insult to injury, Governor Peter Stuyvesant tried to expel them when they arrived. They refused to leave, successfully appealing Stuyvesant's order to the board of the Dutch West India Company. However, they were not allowed to build a synagogue, serve in the militia, vote or enjoy other rights accorded to New Amsterdam's citizens. This was the less than auspicious beginning of the Jewish experience in America.
ONLY IN AMERICA, shows the progress of American Jews from this trickle of poor immigrants to today's thriving community of six million. ONLY IN AMERICA is organized around themes, historical periods and individuals that illustrate important aspects of American Jewish history.
Our goal is to show all public radio listeners - Jew and Gentile - that the story of American Jews is the story of immigrants in America: how they have changed America and how America has changed them. Our title, ONLY IN AMERICA, reflects our belief in American exceptionalism - that the spectacular rise of American Jews over more than three centuries could only have happened here. Freedom, equality and opportunity, eventually transcending class and religion, are uniquely American. Nothing like it ever happened in Europe, even after the emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century. Gustav Mahler had to convert to Christianity to become Music Director of the Vienna Philharmonic. In comparison, Leonard Bernstein was openly Jewish when he became director of the New York Philharmonic.
After generations of hard work and struggle, most American Jews now enjoy prosperity and success. Today, Jews occupy high positions in government, the professions, academia, business, entertainment, sports, and the military. ONLY IN AMERICA is full of stories and personalities of Jewish women and men, from the present and the past, who have achieved success, including:
- Asser Levy, one of the original 23 Jews. He became the first Jew in New Amsterdam and North America to have the right to serve in the militia, engage in retail trade and own a home.
- Levi Strauss, a Jew from Germany, who started in America as a peddler. He created the riveting method to secure denim pants which are now known around the world as Levi's. This same path from German - Jewish peddler to clothing magnate was taken by the founders of Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Sears.
- Rebecca Gratz, a philanthropist who created the first Jewish Sunday School and the first Jewish orphanage in America.
- Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor, one of the greatest composers of American popular music. His songs were influenced by synagogue and Yiddish music. Also George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
- Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of humanity.
- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who overcame sexism and antisemitism on her journey from working class Brooklyn to the Supreme Court.
Along with the many high points, one program, "No Dogs or Jews Allowed" also includes some dark moments in American Jewish history: the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman falsely accused of killing a gentile woman; General Ulysses Grant's Order #11, expelling Jews from the territory occupied by the Union armies under his command during the Civil War (immediately reversed by President Abraham Lincoln); and the anti-Semitism that started in the 1880s and peaked in the 1930s and 40s, when most Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were denied American visas.
Non-Jewish listeners, almost all of whom come from immigrant backgrounds, can see aspects of their own history reflected in American Jewish history: the struggle for success and acceptance; the conflict between assimilating and maintaining one's religious and ethnic identity; and the fight against discrimination (Irish, Poles, Italians, Latinos and Asians have a similar story). Our series looks at the major questions affecting American Jewish life today - assimilation and intermarriage. Dr. Jonathan Sarna, a leading Jewish American historian, framed it best:
Many questions face American Jews as they mark their 350th anniversary on American soil. Should they focus on quality to enhance Judaism, or focus on quantity to increase the number of Jews? Embrace intermarriage as an opportunity for outreach, or condemn it as a disaster for offspring? Build religious bridges, or fortify religious boundaries? Strengthen religious authority, or promote religious autonomy? Harmonize Judaism with contemporary culture, or uphold Jewish tradition against contemporary culture? Compromise for the sake of Jewish unity, or stand firm for cherished Jewish principles?
ONLY IN AMERICA is produced in an exciting, sound rich, entertaining way. The programs come alive with archival sound from historical events; original interviews with people (or their descendants) who made American Jewish history and music from each historical period plus actors reading original documents and diaries. Examples include:
- Actor John Lithgow reading George Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport, extending the hard won freedoms of the new nation as a matter of right, not as a grant from the state, including religious tolerance, to "the children of the stock of Abraham."
- An interview with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the sixth Jew on the Supreme Court of the United States.
- Philip Roth reading an excerpt from his "Operation Shylock," "God Gave Us Irving Berlin,"and he gave us White Christmas and Easter Parade."
- Sound clips featuring The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, Al Jolson belting out songs from The Jazz Singer and other Jewish entertainers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
- Readings of letters from Abigail Franks, a well - known Jewish colonial woman, to her son about life in New Amsterdam.
- An interview with Ambassador John Loeb Jr., who can trace his lineage back to the colonial Jews.
Dr. Sarna is our primary historical consultant to ensure historical accuracy and provide critical insights. Also, many other leading Jewish experts and organizations have advised us on the series.
ONLY IN AMERICA has been heard on over 200 NPR stations nationwide.