American Jewish Achievements

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Achievements of the American Jewish Community:  Four Fruits of Freedom


   It is customary to list numerous achievers, such as Nobel Prize winners, whenever the achievements of any ethnic group are mentioned. We are then always proud to note that among us there are a disproportionate number of achievers who carry such labels. This may be instructive, but is not very useful because there are so many people with considerable achievements who never won a prize and never carried an honorific title because they did not engage in the politics these distinctions usually imply.

    Therefore I shall confine myself here to the great achievements of the Jewish people in America as a group, as a whole, as a community.

    Among these achievements is first and foremost the development of Conservative Judaism. Unknown in Europe, Conservative Judaism is an American development. Since its inception late in the 19th century, Conservative Judaism sought to adjust traditional Judaism to the American lifestyles. Founded by Solomon Schechter, the Conservative Judaism movement is based on the Historical School of Judaism. That “historical school” was an effort by late nineteenth century American Jews to find a compromise between the Orthodox view that Jewish Law is absolutely binding because it is the product of divine command, and the Reform movement which taught that the moral purpose of the law was and is the only truly important issue in Judaism and that the form which Judaism takes is not that important. From the historical school arose the Conservative Movement seeking to preserve the Torah, the Hebrew language, the Talmud and a prime concern for the land and the people of Israel.

   If all of this interests you, please read the book by Moshe Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism.

   A second major contribution of American Jews has been the pre-eminence of Jews in the field of popular music. It can be said without hesitation that almost all of the American songwriters of the 20th century were and are Jews. The exceptions to this rule were a few composers like Victor Herbert and Cole Porter, who were not Jewish. The list of Jews in musical productions is so long that it would take a whole book to list and discuss them all. Consider only Irving Berlin, whose best know song is “White Christmas”. Of course, he might have considered writing “Green Chanuka” but he did not.  George Gershwin, a giant among composers, wrote much more than “Rhapsody in Blue”, for which he is best remembered. Then there is Yehudi Menuhim, the great violinist,  and Isaac Stern, also a world famous violinist.

    Add to this imposing list the immense achievements of Jewish Americans in the theater and in the motion picture industry. The fact is that the entire motion picture industry was founded by Jewish immigrants from Goldwyn to Mayer and beyond. Not only that, but the number of Jewish actors is equally impressive. There is of course the great Issur Danielovitch Demsky, “The Ragman’s Son” known to the world as Kirk Douglas. His son, Michael Douglas, is no doubt a good actor, but suffers from an inevitable comparison to his father.

     Consider Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, the Metropolitan opera star Roberta Peters, the immortal Al Jolson, and such earlier actors as Ladislav Loewenstein or Peter Lorre, Dinah Shore,  the daughter of a rabbi, Frankie Vaughn, the singer, Harry James and Artie Shaw, the bandleaders, and the outstanding American composer Aaron Copland. We could go on and on. Suffice it to say, the American theater is a truly great contribution of the Jewish community to this country.

    A third area of achievement which is unquestionably the product of Jewish genius is the retail industry as we know it.  That industry was begun by the German Jews who came here in the 1840’s and peddled clothing and household items from door to door all over the South. These peddlers moved all the way from New York to the Santa Fe trail and settled in remote areas of New Mexico and Utah. There they established department stores, a Jewish invention of the greatest consequences for American life, ipso facto. When the great Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigration came here after 1881, these Jews expanded these enterprises and became the founders or developers of such enterprises as Sears, Roebuck, which was indeed founded by Richard Sears but reached its  eminence through the genius of Julius Rosenwald. Both Gimbel’s and Macy’s are legendary Jewish success stories.

   Then there were the Jewish storekeepers and department store founders who not only became wealthy but who were elected governors of their states. Included were the governor of Idaho, Moses Alexander, Arthur Seligman of New Mexico, and, believe it or not, Simon Bamberger of Utah, and  Herbert Lehman of New York  Successful Jewish merchants were also elected to the U.S. Senate in the 19th and early 20th century.  David Levy Yulee became senator from Florida as did Ernest Gruening, the territorial governor and the first senator of Alaska.  Again, the list goes on and on. Consider also that the stock market as we know it today was largely founded by Jewish immigrants who came here with nothing and created enormous wealth, not only for themselves but for America generally.

   A fourth area which owes a great deal to Jewish enterprise in America is our scientific development. Included are, of course, the great Albert Einstein who was voted Man of the Century at the beginning of this year. His achievements in physics and the achievements of Neils Bohr, Edwin Teller, Leo Szilard, James Franck, Eugene Rabinowitch, Hy Goldsmith, Hans Bethe, Harold Urey and J. Robert Oppenheimer, administrator of the atomic bomb project,  make it possible to say that the atomic bomb was a Jewish invention and that the atomic age was introduced to the world by Jews. What is true of this country is also true of Russia. The Russian atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb were also invented by Jewish physicists.

   Again, we could go on and on. In medicine, in engineering, in the basic sciences and in computer science the Jewish contribution is enormous. We did all that even though we are only 1.8% of the American population. Of course, we must never forget that this country allowed us opportunities which no other land on this earth has ever afforded the Jewish people. For this we are ever grateful as we continue to participate in the great American experiment with democracy despite our ridiculous politicians. May it ever be so, l’dor v’dor, bimhero v’yomenu.

    Shalom u’vracha.


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