When it Comes to Being Jewish, There’s Still Nothing Like America

The U.S. has been good to Jews.
August 23, 2023
Tony Shi Photography / Getty Images

Let me take a step back before I’ve even begun. When it comes to being Jewish, it goes without saying that there’s nothing like Israel, the only country in the world where Jews aren’t a minority. There’s no greater thrill than bumping shoulders with countless Jews on the street or looking up to see that nearly all the signs and storefronts are in Hebrew. It’s great. It’s a miracle, in fact. 

But a little less than half of all the world’s Jews live in Israel. That means the rest of the global Jewish population lives in diaspora, as a minority in other countries, with most living in the United States—nearly half the world’s Jews, as a matter of fact.

The U.S. has been good to Jews. It wasn’t always easy—consider tenement living in New York City’s Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Jewish immigrants lived on top of each other, in squalor and often without indoor plumbing as they slaved away in sweatshops and garment-making factories, everyone trying to grasp just one shred of upward mobility. In the decades leading up to 1920, before restrictive immigration laws were enacted in 1921 and 1924, more than two million Eastern European Jews fled persecution and lack of economic opportunity in their home countries to make it to America. As bad as it was in the tenements, it was still better than staying behind in Eastern Europe and facing the pogroms. 

And as the 1930s rumbled in and Nazism rose in Germany and spread across Europe—and as death camps built with the precise goal of exterminating Jews popped up all over Poland and Eastern Europe—the new American Jews would realize that no matter how difficult it was in the so-called land of opportunity, there was no question that being in America was a gift. It was every bit the miracle of Israel.

The Jews made it out of the tenements and achieved success and upward mobility—but not without a cost. Making it in America often meant assimilating quickly, shedding tell-tale Yiddish accents and strange Jewish religious and dietary traditions. Tefillin and mezuzot were symbolically cast overboard as the ships pulled into the New York harbor. It meant forgetting about keeping Shabbat, instead working around the clock to show the other Americans that the Jews were just as eager and just as capable as everyone else when it came to making it in the land of milk and honey.

Nearly a century later, given such circumstances one would expect Judaism, in all its manifestations and incarnations, to be a bygone relic: an ancient artifact traded in for something more gleaming and relevant, a transfer complete. But that’s not what happened. 

If you live in Los Angeles, for example, all you need to do is drive through the Pico-Robertson neighborhood to know that Judaism is alive and well. Even outside the primarily Jewish neighborhood, various shuls and Chabad houses are sprinkled in every corner of LA. Want to kick it up a notch? Drive over to the Fairfax area on a Friday evening and witness the paradoxical spectacle of black-hatted and shtreimel-wearing ultra-Orthodox Jews nearly bumping shoulders with hipsters and other young people, scantily-clad if it’s summer time, headed to bars and trendy restaurants in the same neighborhood. In this same area, Canter’s Deli flaunts religious dietary restrictions as a “Jewish-style deli,” almost to remind us that Jewish life is a kaleidoscope; it looks different every time it’s turned. All Jews are welcome here.

Antisemitism ebbs and flows, but it’s impossible to deny that Jewish life has flourished in America no matter where we are in the wave’s movement.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2008, I was in awe when I discovered that little Fairfax world. It was such profound proof that America has always been a haven for Jews. Antisemitism ebbs and flows, but it’s impossible to deny that Jewish life has flourished in America no matter where we are in the wave’s movement.

These days it’s common to hear that antisemitism is on the rise. People cite a flurry of surveys as well as troubling incidents from stars like Kanye West and Jamie Foxx. These moments provoke alarmism and tap into our tendency to see the bogeyman around every corner. But as troubling as they may be, they’re a far cry from what Jews were escaping when they came to America, and the harsh and difficult new American life they were willing to sustain when they arrived is testament to this.

I found myself thinking of early iterations of Jewish life in the U.S. when I was in New York last week. We decided to stay in the Lower East Side. I planned to give my 10-year-old son the ultimate Jewish tour: the tenements, the pickles, the knishes, bagels and lox at Russ and Daughters, Delancey and Hester streets, the Jewish Museum, and on and on. I was going to immerse him in all things turn-of-the-century Jewish. 

Of course, stepping outside of our trendy hotel on Allen Street was a reminder that, while there are traces of Jewish life scattered about, Jews have mostly moved on from this area, which is now relegated mostly to bars, clubs, and trendy food. The air is filled with the smell of pot everywhere you turn, and at night people flock to the area for parties and live music. Instead of knishes on the corner, there’s an edgy churro place where you can order a cringe-worthy “horny unicorn” soft-serve ice cream.

But even in the largely revamped and reconfigured Lower East Side, Friday afternoon still hits a bit differently. I had stayed behind to work while my husband and son went to have lunch with our family in Far Rockaway. Around 3pm I realized I had been working so much that I’d forgotten to eat, and so I ordered some food to be delivered—another perk of living in America is that anything you want to eat will come to you with the push of a button. 

When I ran downstairs to get my food, there was a small crowd outside of the hotel. Three Lubavitch Jews were standing on the sidewalk chatting with passers-by. One Israeli Jewish guy stopped and agreed to put on tefillin and say a few brachot, right there on the sidewalk. It was extraordinary.

It’s not that I’ve never seen it. I have, plenty of times. But having lived in Europe for two years, I’ve gotten used to not seeing these spectacles of Jewish tradition out in the wild. I felt so much excitement watching three visibly Jewish men hang out on the sidewalk and interact with people like it was no big deal, that I stood there holding my bag of greasy frites for close to an hour, just observing and basking in the brazen display of Jewishness. It felt so good to watch, to see Judaism uninhibited while people of different races, ethnicities, and religions paraded by. Some were curious and took photos. One red-bearded white guy wearing a sports jersey and a giant cross necklace was particularly interested. He asked if he could take a photo with them, and if they’d speak some Hebrew for him. Lots of high fives followed. A group of Black guys hovered nearby, watching—wondering what was going on. One snapped a photo of the Israeli guy wearing tefillin, and soon both groups were talking together. A few incognito Jews walked by as well, offering a nod of recognition and a quiet but unguarded “Shabbat shalom” as they passed.

As it grew later and the crowd dwindled, I knew the Lubavitchers would be packing up to go home and prepare for Shabbat, so even though I was wearing yoga pants and a faded sweatshirt, I edged in with a big smile and said hello, and told them I am Jewish, and how happy it made me to see them out there. A mitzvah, I thought, though surely not the one they intended.

We talked for a while, and when I mentioned I now live in Italy and that my son learns Hebrew with Chabad of Tuscany, one of them told me his uncle is a Chabad rabbi in Bologna. “Do you know him?” he asked. “I don’t,” I said, “but I can get to Bologna in about 30 minutes on the train. I’ll look him up.” The young guy’s face lit up and he gave me his uncle’s number. “We’re all one big family,” he said, “one big Jewish family,” he added, before handing me a pocket-sized photo of Rabbi Schneerson.

This is America, I thought to myself as I went back up to my room with my bag of now cold food. Through all the ups and downs, there’s still nothing like it.

Monica Osborne is a former professor of literature, critical theory, and Jewish studies. She is Editor at Large at The Jewish Journal and is author of “The Midrashic Impulse.” X @DrMonicaOsborne

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