Jewish American Heroes
Rosh Hashanah, October, 2005
When I was a child, I loved to read biographies, especially about sickly kids who overcame great obstacles to become athletes like Roger Bannister, the man who broke the four-minute mile. Teddy Roosevelt as our 39th President didn’t impress me nearly as much as his feats in the wilderness; he had spent much of his childhood in bed.
Reading about these great people who were once small and inexperienced, as I was, encouraged to not to give up when I felt defeated. They helped me to imagine the kind of person I wanted to be. Most inspiring were not their achievements, but the difficulties that they had to overcome.
When I began writing, my first book was a biography for children about Tom Seaver, the baseball pitcher. As I researched what was written about him, I found that the adult books were most interested in cutting him down to size by revealing his flaws.
Once upon a time the effort, prowess, good sportsmanship, and team loyalty of athletes represented a behavior that could be applied to life. Now we live in a time where only the most naïve believe in heroes. We’re so disillusioned that we mistrust good, perhaps even fear it, and believe that we are wiser if we know the “truth” about people, and the truth is understood to be the worst in us. This Hobbesian view about people has not only taken away heroes, it has taken away a celebration of the best in us.
Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio is an important question for our time, and it’s not just about baseball. It’s about us. If DiMaggio played today, would his gentlemanly grace and reserve be celebrated as much as his awesome statistics? If we teach children the only thing that matters is the score, we make character irrelevant and heroism determined only by who wins the most games.
One Friday night last year, I asked you to share your heroes with us at services. Besides offering well-known figures such as Bella Abzug, Amy Goodman, and Lenny Bruce–does this say something about our community?–many of you told stories about parents, grandparents, a neighbor, or a friend who were examples of selflessness, courage, and compassion. They not only revealed the values of the speaker but they also showed how much influence we have on one another, and how we must treat this influence as holy.
I’ve just finished writing a book for young people about Jewish American heroes. I can’t imagine a better time for such a book. Heroes are in short supply and Jews can use all that they can claim. Children need help in learning the difference between heroism and fame, and between celebrity and greatness.
For 350 years Jews have enjoyed remarkable opportunity in shaping American culture. This country, founded on religious freedom, has offered us social and political freedom as well. American Jews have enriched music, entertainment, art, politics, science, sports, education, and business. Many of them have been passionate about social justice.
Of the twenty I chose to profile, most were not religious but lived lives that reflected the Jewish value of making an unfair world fairer. I looked for individuals who had the courage to speak the truth when it was unwelcome and those who risked ridicule by doing something new to make the world better. They set examples of excellence and they worked not only for themselves but also for others.
For most Jewish Americans, the story begins with immigration–their own, their parents, or grandparents. Despite their varying connections to Judaism and the Jewish people, those about whom I wrote were proud to be Jews. Most came from poor families, experienced subtle and not so subtle anti-semitism, and women bore the extra burden of gender prejudice. Despite these challenges, they were heroes who not only honored themselves in their achievements, they were people in whom we take special pride as being part of the eternal family of Israel.
Many of you helped me to choose my subjects and the criteria for selection. My father asked if he were among the 20. He is always at the top of my list for his abiding presence, his cheerful, welcoming nature, his wisdom, and his support. I didn’t include you, Dad, not because you’re any less than these heroes but because I didn’t want to brag about my good taste in choosing you to be my father. You’re the best!
The twenty I chose are: Chaim Solomon, Levi Strauss, Emma Lazarus, Louis Brandeis, Ray Frank, Henrietta Szold, Lillian Wald, Harry Houdini, Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hank Greenberg, Leonard Bernstein, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Steven Spielberg, Judith Resnik, and Daniel Pearl. I’d like to tell you about three of them.
Few Americans, let alone Jews, know about Haym Salomon, the man who financed the Revolutionary war. In 1772, Salomon, the first Polish Jew in America, arrived in New York penniless but ecstatic. After thousands of miles and years of traveling, he had finally found a place where a Jew could work towards a better life free of prejudicial taxes, segregated neighborhoods, and pogroms. At last, at 32, he was in the promised land of religious and economic opportunity.
Bright and ambitious, he joined the Sons of Liberty, a group of young people fighting to free America from British rule. He soon made enough money to open a store that sold everything from blankets to flour, and the back room became a secret meeting place for the revolutionaries.
Because he spoke ten languages, he saved himself twice from execution by speaking German to the Hessian prison guards hired by the British. He convinced them that there was nothing better than freedom, and that they could have it by joining the fight for independence.
He became very wealthy, married Rachel Franks, the daughter of a well to do Sephardic Jewish family, and became the chief lender to the Continental Congress, the new government of the Colonial America. Whenever the government was short of money for food, clothing, and weapons, they went to Salomon for a loan of precious gold, for which they gave him paper money in exchange.
On Yom Kippur 1775, George Washington sent an urgent message to Salomon, who was leading the service in Philadelphia, that the army needed money to feed its soldiers. Salomon stopped the service and asked the congregation for pledges of money, and when they had raised enough, he continued the service.
Working day and night, he exhausted himself to death at 45, proud of his great contribution to the new country and confident that his young widow and four children would not starve. The government would surely repay its debt of nearly $350,000. But the debt was forgotten, and not until 1941, when Chicago erected a statue of him standing beside George Washington, was there any recognition of his patriotic sacrifice.
Emma Lazarus, born in the mid-nineteenth century into a prominent Sephardic family that had been among the first settlers to arrive in America in 1654, was for most of her short life–she died at 38–a writer first. Judaism meant little to her creatively or socially. Published at 17, her early work reflected her passion for nature; letters to her from Emerson and John Burroughs reveal their admiration and respect for her. Emerson wrote in his diary that she was the first Hebrew he’d ever met.
At 30, when she began hearing about the pogroms in Russia, her sheltered life ended. Volunteering to meet Jews fleeing Europe opened her eyes to a very different Jewish experience from her own. To her amazement, she felt kinship with them and began to understand herself differently. She began to study Hebrew and Judaism, and saw Shabbat, with its promise of rest even for the poorest, as a celebration of justice.
Her newfound love and respect for Judaism and its people that she now claimed as her own, awakened a creative power that has made her words immortal. Her sonnet at the base of the Statue of Liberty speaks to every hopeful immigrant: æGive me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me: I life my lamp beside the golden door.”
The last profile in the book is Daniel Pearl, the young reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who was beheaded by fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in 2002. He grew up in Encino, California, a nice, smart boy who had dreams of doing something big in his life. Adventurous, ambitious, and curious, he was a senior correspondent when his newspaper sent him to Karachi, Pakistan, to learn about the shoe bomber, Richard Reid. Our government suspected that he worked with violent Pakistani militants. Always careful and cautious, Daniel Pearl was even more so now that he and his wife were expecting their first child.
His passion had been learning about people, especially those very different from him; politics was secondary. His fairness, truth, and playfulness won him friendship even with those who disagreed with him. After September 11, he began to realize how many Pakistanis hated Americans and Jews. He kept his Jewishness very quiet in Karachi.
His enemies thought he was a spy for Israel and kidnapped him. Millions saw him beheaded on the videos his captors released, and the words he spoke moments before his death both inspire haunt us: “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, and I’m Jewish.”
It would have been easy for his family and friends to turn against Muslims, but they knew if they did, they would be giving victory to hatred and fear. Instead they created the Daniel Pearl Foundation to help people of different cultures better understand one another.
Imagine America without its Jews and imagine Judaism without America. American Judaism may one day be described as another golden age for our tradition, and America’s cultural life bears our imprint. May the memory of the first Jew who came to this country, the memory of our grandparents, and our own lives, be blessings for this country and for Judaism.
Perhaps because I’ve wrestled with this question for years, I got help. I found an e-mail in my junk mail from a children’s book editor with whom I’d done a book years before. Would I be interested in writing a book for middle-aged children about Jewish-American heroes?
Three big questions: heroes, Jews, America, and what they have to do with one another? My research into the subject not only absorbed me, it uplifted me. Tomorrow I’ll offer a fifteen-minute tour of some of the people I met and who I chose in the Jewish American 350 year adventure. Tonight, however, is the time to define what we mean as Jews when we say hero.