Just the other day, a congregant asked me whether I thought that Christopher Columbus was a Jew. Truth be told, I really don’t care. Of far greater concern to me was, if Columbus did indeed discover America, then what did the largest influx of Jews to this country discover? With Columbus Day having been commemorated earlier this week, perhaps it’s time to look back and bring to mind what the two million plus Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe discovered. Aside from “streets paved with gold,” it may very well be that our Eastern European ancestors discovered three things … about themselves.
Despite our romanticized view of the shtetl where every Jew was a devout, pious, G-d fearing individual, Eastern Europeans, discovered that observance-wise, their Judaism was not in any way as unshakable as they conceived it to be. Working on the Sabbath aside (far be it for us to sit in judgement), our Eastern European (female) coreligionists quickly and quietly disposed of wearing a sheitl and immersing themselves in the mikvah. To be sure, the two observances cannot be equated, in that the sheitl was visible to all and the mikvah was both personal and private; nevertheless, it is difficult to see why the sheitl, or especially the mikvah, would be an impediment to securing employment in the new world. It is difficult to understand how their discarding of both the sheitl and the mikvah could have been for financial success. As for their male counterparts, in so many cases, neither their yarmulkes nor their tallis and tefillen seem to have made it off the ship, once that ship docked at an American port city. Working on Shabbat and Yom Tov is one thing; fitting in a fast mincha and ma’ariv is quite something else.
If religious fervor waned, then nationalist fervor waxed. As much as Eastern European Jews viewed the Czar with disdain and prayed that HaShem bless the Czar and “keep him far away from them,” Eastern European Jews, particularly those who settled in the northeast of this country – discovered that they loved the American president even more – especially if his name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So much so that they coined the Yiddish phrase that when it comes to “velt” (Yiddish for “world”), there are three: this velt, the velt to come, and Roosevelt. American Jews may have hidden their Judaism, especially when it came to anglicizing their family names (Vinchevsky became Winston, Lipschitz became Lipton, Yankelevitch became Jackson) but they proudly displayed their Americanism. Aside from being sworn in as American citizens, the greatest accomplishment for many Eastern European Jewish immigrants was being able to join an “All-American” club, with the piece de resistance (for the upwardly mobile) being voted in as a member of the country club.
And yet, despite their infatuation with “Columbus’ Medinah” (Columbus country), a good many American Jews discovered that when all was said and done, they possessed an unwavering nostalgia for the shetl. They may not have missed the poverty, but they longed for the incomparable fruit they fondly recalled eating. They may not have had a yen for the pogroms, but they fondly remembered the various personages that continued to live on in legend. It is of little wonder that that Landsmanschaften (compatriot clubs) sprang up in American cities of sizeable Jewish populations. In addition to monthly meetings and end of the year galas, where Jews from, say, Ludvipol (Poland) could get together with landsleit (compatriots) more often than not to reminisce, exchange notes and get caught up (landsleit were often related – however distantly), these Landsmanschaften purchased tracts of land at cemeteries, offering plots to their members at affordable prices, as well as “free loans” – that is to say, loans at more favorable rates than other institutions.
As of late, Columbus Day has gone the way of other institutions in this country that are now being seen as hurtful and offensive to certain groups. American Jews, particularly those from Eastern Europe, have good reason to associate Columbus Day with discoveries that were off the charts as far as the Italian explorer was concerned.