“From its beginnings, America has been a liberating experience for Jews. Yet there have always been paradoxes in this remarkable story. For alongside the heady air of freedom, there have existed the pressures to conform and to be part of the larger mass,” Lachman begins.
And yet, the new United States was thought of as a Christian country, where in many states non-Christians were denied full rights, where, Lachman writes, “The concept of a truly pluralist America was slow in developing during the 19th century.”
“History shows, therefore, that like other minorities, Jews had also very difficult times maintaining and perpetuating their own value structure in the free marketplace of the New World,” he writes. “As early as 1783, Haym Salomon wrote home to Poland complaining that there was ‘zer wening Yiddishkeit (very little Jewish life)’ in America.”
As of his writing, 43 years ago, Lachman attributes an upswing in Jewish commitment to two events: “the utter despair and tragedy of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel that followed shortly afterward.”
But Lachman wasn’t totally optimistic about the survival of Judaism in what he saw as an increasingly secular society. “Yet, as we approach America’s Bicentennial, American Jewish life presents a very spotty picture — certainly better than at the time of America’s centennial in 1876, but perhaps not sufficiently strong, secure, and committed to face another century of life in our highly assimilative society.”
Nevertheless, even though Lachman bemoans the dangers of secularization and intermarriage, he ends the piece optimistically, urging Jews to “rock the boat,” by emphasizing their differences rather than their similarities with “the civic religion and popular values of our nation.”
“Only then will we be confident of not only contributing to the American Bicentennial, but looking forward to an even greater contribution as American Jews in the third century, or Tricentennial of the American Democracy.”