Although a majority of the early settlers and those arriving later as immigrants were Christian, religious minorities — including Jews — have had a profound effect in shaping America.
Peter Manseau, a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution now curating its first exhibit on early American religious history, focused on the “special moments” in American-Jewish history during his “retelling of American history through a Yiddish lens,” held March 21 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Though many faced intolerance and discrimination, “religious minorities have shaped American culture far more than we think,” said the author of One Nation Under Gods.
Manseau said followers have often felt like outsiders, and that many, particularly Jews — perhaps because of that — have joined the ranks of those who have “recognized injustice and fought against it.”
From the persecution of “witches” in Salem, to the Chinese Taoists and Buddhists who built America’s railroads only to have Congress put limits on immigration from China, to the current wave of vandalism targeting mosques, religious minorities have faced significant and often painful struggles.
Yet, Manseau noted, their presence has managed to permeate the larger society. Some of the democratic principles held by the nations of Native Americans likely influenced the revolutionary founders of the United States, he said, and it was Hindus who provided early suffragettes with an alternative cultural framework for attaining women’s rights.
Multi-religious influences have played a large part in Manseau’s own life. The son of a former nun and a priest who never renounced his vows (which made him technically a priest under suspension), he said his academic focus is “bashert.”
The author of several books, he won the National Jewish Book Award and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature. Manseau described himself as the first “French Irish Catholic Yiddish” novelist.
For his first job, at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., he traveled up and down the East Coast, collecting texts and immersing himself in Jewish culture. He would write his doctoral dissertation on Jewish literature.
In Manseau’s talk at Anshe Emeth, he focused on three individuals: Jacob Lumbrozo, a 17th-century physician who fled Portugal for Maryland; Jonas Phillips, a German immigrant who appeared before the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to argue against requiring a Christian test to hold federal office; and Abbie Hoffman, the 1960s antiwar activist and Yippie movement founder.
Since Maryland welcomed all denominations of Christianity, Lumbrozo settled there, assuming it would tolerate other religious beliefs.
“In fact their tolerance was only for those professing belief in Jesus Christ,” said Manseau. “The penalty for not professing a belief in Jesus Christ was death.”
When confronted in 1658 by a proselytizing Quaker, this “proud Jew” said he believed Jesus was just a man, his miracles were performed “by the art of magic,” and his body had probably been stolen by his disciples.
Lumbrozo, who was also a lawyer, defended himself against the blasphemy charges that followed by countering with other biblical texts, said Manseau. No Jew was ever tried again for blasphemy in Maryland, although it took until 1826 for the state to grant full freedom of religion.
Phillips, who served in the Revolutionary War, was so devoted to the patriot cause that in 1776 he sent a letter to his cousin in Amsterdam extolling the strength of revolutionary forces and requesting that certain items be sent so he could sell them for the war effort.
Manseau said the letter was noteworthy for two reasons: It was written in Yiddish and contained a newly minted copy of the Declaration of Independence. The letter was intercepted by the British who assumed the strange language was “a secret code.”
Hoffman based his counterculture activities on his Jewish consciousness, Manseau said, adding that it was Hoffman who created what became an enduring symbol of the antiwar movement. In 1967, Hoffman declared he would levitate the Pentagon using psychic energy. Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg led Tibetan chants to assist in the effort.
“Allen Ginsberg may have been chanting in Tibetan, but he grew up speaking Yiddish in New Jersey,” said Manseau. “He too saw America through a Yiddish lens, and even wrote a protest song in Yiddish.”
The Pentagon didn’t rise, but 100,000 people showed up and were met by 30,000 armed troops. The protestors responded by placing flowers in the barrels of the guns pointed at them.
Manseau said photos of that image left an impression, “demystifying” the Pentagon and drawing supporters to the movement.