A few weeks ago, I found myself at the Maryland Historical Society. I’ve always liked Baltimore. As a suburban Marylander from Montgomery County, I suppose I should have some sort of enmity towards my ever-so-slightly northerly neighbor, but I like your town. I’m so Maryland that I once sat in the Annapolis harbor and tried to take a “shot” of Old Bay — the handful of powder quickly suffocating my taste buds as I laughed in disgust and glee. No matter where I am, I’m always a Marylander and a Jew through and through.
What, then, brought me to this interesting archive? A simple question: What is the future of American Jewry? Or, on a more primal level, my passion for archives. What’s hidden in history’s past that can en-lighten our present and stabilize our future?
I learned an interesting lesson. The ambiguous, if fruitful, relationship between Jews and the rest of America has its roots as far back as our state’s founding. And that if we want to understand the trajectory of our people, we need to know our local history as well as we do our Torah, our tikkun olam or our favorite falafel stand in Tel Aviv.
In 1826, the Maryland General Assembly passed what is commonly called the “Jew Bill.” Fifty years after independence, our beautiful black, red, gold and white state was the last one where Jews couldn’t legally serve as legislators. It’s a notion difficult to understand. In a country marked by the separation of church and state, how is it that our enlightened sliver of beach, mountains, ports and piedmont could deny our community the right to serve?
Oddly enough, the debate raged. Some argued against our rights, some for. I had the great blessing of holding some of these original documents in my hands, including the very statements by both our opponents and our supporters made before the assembly.
What struck me most is how the case for us was made. One of our most ardent supporters, Mr. H. M. Brackenridge, made his case for us based on our Americanness. In an argument that would grate on the ears of some today, he argued that American Jews should be able to serve because we’ve assimilated American values. That we were superior in character to the “Jews of Portugal and Turkey.” But there is a bit more to this argument.
In fact, Mr. Brackenridge, who wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in today’s “gotcha” culture, was making a sophisticated argument, if one that bodes a bit poorly for our future here. He argued that when a culture oppresses its Jews, the Jews become more deficient. He even said, “Will one seriously compare the Jews of England of the present day with the same people a few centuries ago, when degraded and op-pressed by the British kings?” In other words, while I find fault with the assumption that western countries were inherently more enlightened towards their Jews than eastern ones (indeed, history shows that was not always the case), he has an interesting framework, that if he overstates his culture’s “enlightenment” of our people (after all, we contribute to the societies we’re in too), he is arguing that oppression of Jews is wrong. America’s openness to our people is precisely what improves our condition to the point where we are suitable members of the legislature, having Americanized, yet retained our Jewishness in a manner that necessitates changing the law to include us.
In the end, what remains is a fascinating paradox. American Jews are worthy, in Mr. Brackenridge’s argument, by virtue of our Americanness. But also because of our Jewishness. In his words: “[Is there] nothing in the Jewish race … in the religious doctrines which necessarily disqualifies the Jew from discharging the duties, and fulfilling all the obligations of a citizen of Maryland?” For him, the answer is no. We are entitled to serve just as anyone else. Both by virtue of us being thoroughly American(ized) and because our Jewishness is seen as acceptable. Our similarities and differences are the source of our rights. If it was a simple issue of civic equality, then there’d be no need to make an argument based on our Judaism — why not simply say all religions are welcome? And if it was a matter of including us because of our acceptable Jewish values, why vouch for us in terms of our Americanness?
These are complicated questions. I don’t have easy answers. Mr. Brackenridge, as I see it, is making a difficult argument that continues to grant us both privilege and pain in this country. That our positive uniquely Jewish essence makes us good potential Americans, and that our assimilation into American society makes us better than Jews elsewhere. It’s a paradox that today sometimes manifests itself in questions about our loyalty. Because our perceived fidelity to American values is what makes people like Mr. Brackenridge grant us the very rights that make us free to be different.
In other words, our right to be different is contingent on a certain level of assimilation, which creates endless opportunities for us on a level not experienced in any other civilization. But it also creates a tension that can undermine our ability to preserve our distinct traditions in peace.
All of this was best summed up by my conversation with a cab driver the other day. When I said how I loved being in Israel, surrounded by my culture, he asked “well isn’t American culture your culture?” It is. But it’s not my only culture. I’m thoroughly American and thoroughly Jewish. It’s what makes us rich contributors to both civilizations.
In a phrase you’ll hear a lot in Israel, we’re “gam vegam.” Both this and that. And that will continue to confound people who try to put us in boxes. But it’s a dual and overlapping identity worth preserving, for the sake of our peoples, American and Jewish.
Before my visit to the archives, I can’t say I knew much about Maryland Jewish history. But I know this — handling it myself and reading the words in my own way has opened up new inquiries and ways of understanding myself, and new questions to probe and perplex.
If you find yourself curious about where we’re heading as Jews and Americans, perhaps a visit to your local archive will shed some light, or at least keep you entertained and engaged on a rainy afternoon in Charm City. I wish you a fruitful exploration.
Matt Adler is a Montgomery County native and dual citizen of Israel and the United States. He blogs regularly via plantingrootsbearingfruits.com