Page 35 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 12

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HEBREW L ITERATURE IN AMERICA
AT THE TERCENTENARY
By
E
i s ig
S
i l b e r s ch l ag
,”p H E three-hundred-year-old literary record of American Jews
־*־ does not match their high achievements in the field of eco-
nomic and philanthropic endeavor. Modest beginnings have
reached a phase of modest accomplishments. T ha t is all th a t can
be said with justice on the eve of the tercentenary.
The fragmentation of intellectual effort and energy in three
main languages — English, Yiddish and Hebrew — and in a few
subsidiary ones may account for the slow growth of our literature
in this country. But there are additional causes: paucity of Jews
in the first two centuries — there were probably not more than
16,000 Jews as late as 1825 — economic pressures and social
compulsions which drove Americans of all creeds and persuasions
to concentrate on the material development of their country rather
than on cultural refinements.
II
Hebrew literature in this country must be viewed within the
context of world literature including Anglo-American literature
and Hebrew literature in its predominant centers. Neglect of these
factors can only result in parochial appraisal and distorted evalu-
ation.
Colonial America had a religious interest in the Hebrew lan-
guage. The Old Testament, so dear to the Puritans, was more to
them than a divinely inspired document: it was the alpha and
omega of knowledge and wisdom, the guide in personal habits and
social relations, the inspirational force in ju s t government. Re-
spect for the “divine authority of the Sabbath,” reference to
Boston as the “Jerusalem of this land,” reference to New England
as the “New English Canaan,” names of towns like Salem, names
of persons like Israel and Samuel, Abner and Melchizedek, a ttes t
to love for the Bible — love which was fostered by temporal and
spiritual rulers, by schools and colleges.1
1
Six centers of learning were established before 1760 — Harvard, William and
Mary, Yale, the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), King’s (later Columbia)