Page 17 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 34

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The Jewish Writer in America:
First Century
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ha r v e st
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Jewish literature in America during the first
century of American independence is meager when compared
with the rich harvest, qualitatively and quantitatively, in the
second century. During the latter period Jews burst into amazing
creativity in three languages. Hebrew writers in the United States
numbered more than a hundred before the founding of Israel
and played a significant role in the revival and rejuvenation of
this ancient tongue. After World War I, New York assumed the
hegemony over Yiddish literature that Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa,
and Kiev had earlier sought to maintain. Jewish writers in Eng­
lish created many best sellers and attained a position of tremen­
dous prestige and influence, far in excess of the Jewish propor­
tion of the American population.
During the first century of American independence, however,
Jews preferred to be mute and inconspicuous. In 1776, the total
Jewish population of the thirteen colonies did not exceed three
thousand. Despite considerable immigration in the course of the
following half century, which brought millions of Europeans to
America’s shores, the number of Jews did not increase, because
the arrival of new Jews was counterbalanced by the assimilation
and disappearance into anonymity of native Jews.
The century after 1776 can be divided into two halves. During
the first half, Sephardic Hebrews dominated the American Jew­
ish scene, and during the second half German Israelites were
more numerous. The Sephardim, who were the earliest Jewish
settlers, bore memories of their Marrano past and were grateful
to the land which offered them freedom and equality. They
preferred not to stress their distinctiveness. Their adventurous
young men, peddlers or trappers, who pioneered along the fron­
tier, had the choice of intermarriage or no marriage at all, be­
cause of the paucity of Jewish girls. Dissociation from the Jew­
ish community did not occur because no association was possible,
so few were the frontier Jews. But even along the Atlantic sea­