What is Jewish-American Heritage? It’s a story of immigration, of finding refuge and freedom in a place of infinite hope. It’s a story of building lives, families, and businesses in a new place and, in doing so, becoming an integral part of that country’s story. It’s a love story, really.
My Family’s Jewish-American Story
My grandfather, Kurt Rosenberg, came to the United States in 1938, granted a rare visa by the U.S. government because he’d just finished medical school in Switzerland and the U.S. needed doctors. My grandmother, Trude Stein, arrived in 1940 as a refugee. She and her family (my great-grandparents, great uncle, and a host of cousins, aunts, etc.) fled Germany in 1937 and bounced from country to country (Holland, France, Belgium, Argentina) for years, trying to find a way to enter the United States. My dad grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y., in what was both a quintessential American neighborhood and a haven for Jewish immigrants. My mother, also raised by immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as small children, converted to Judaism in 1982, before my parents married.
This is what a Jewish-American story sounds like – a coming-together of people from different backgrounds and histories to create new stories.
My Jewish-American Story
Me? I’m a dual citizen of the United States and Germany. I grew up in Florida but have lived in New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Germany, and, now, Colorado. I studied Holocaust and Genocide Studies in college, including two summers learning Yiddish and one semester studying nationalism in Germany. I moved to Germany at 25, worked in several museums that dealt with German and Jewish history, then at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. I took Hebrew classes in Berlin for several years, the only Jewish person learning Hebrew with a bunch of German friends. On Friday nights I went to synagogue in a building that was mostly destroyed in World War II, often welcoming Jewish-American tourists and talking to them – sometimes for hours and hours – about Jewish life in modern Germany. I’ve worked for the Museum of Jewish Heritage, HIAS: The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, as a Jewish history teacher at a Hebrew school, and now at Front Range Community College. Throughout my life, being both Jewish and American have been central to who I am and who I aim to be.
Inspiring Jewish Americans
So what is Jewish-American Heritage? It’s a lot of things. Most of all, it is an absolutely essential part of American history. These are some of the Jewish Americans who’ve inspired me in my life, who made me aware that the Jewish-American experience was and is an essential component of American life.
Have you ever wondered who wrote those famous words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Well, it was Emma Lazarus, a Jewish-American poet and author who was born and lived her life in New York City. Her family came to the United States long before the American Revolution. She became interested in the immigrant experience – particularly the Jewish immigrant experience – when violence in Russian pogroms caused a large wave of Jewish immigration in the early 1880s. She wrote “The New Colossus,” the poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, in 1883.
The Barry Sisters
If you’ve never heard a song by the Barry Sisters, you’ve got to Google them. They were popular jazz and swing singers in the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s – who sang in both Yiddish and English. They were famous for their Yiddish versions of popular American songs as well as their own songs. Also the children of Jewish immigrants, their music is a prime example of the mix of American and Jewish cultures and how each influences one another. While most of their songs are upbeat and fun, they were also known for songs that expressed the Jewish-American experience, like “Vi Ahin Zol Ikh Geyen (Where Should I Go)?” which is about the feeling of rootlessness that permeated Jewish life in the years after the Holocaust, and “Eishes-Chayell (Woman of Valor),” a playful song about the ‘ideal’ Jewish wife and mother.
My parents were lawyers and my dad, uncle, sister, and a bunch of other family members attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts, so Louis Brandeis was always a revered figure in our household. The first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court justice and himself a child of immigrants, he advocated throughout his legal career for freedom of speech and the right to privacy. Nominated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, his nomination to the Supreme Court was extremely controversial, mainly because he was Jewish, but also because he’d fought several major cases as a lawyer against corporations and monopolies. His nomination led to the first-ever Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearing.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
My personal hero, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is the second woman (and first Jewish-American woman) to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she shattered a lot of glass ceilings and has been a strong supporter of women’s rights and gender equality. She experienced a lot of sexism in her life, including being demoted early in her career for becoming pregnant with her first child and being asked “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” by the Dean of Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine female students.
Despite frequently facing antisemitism early in his career that made it difficult for him to enter the field of medical research, Jonas Salk went on to develop the first safe and effective vaccine for polio in 1955. This had a huge impact not just in the United States, where polio was a major health threat, but around the world. He saw public health as a moral commitment and not as something from which he could profit.