I'm Kvelling* and Enjoying Nokhes**: May was Jewish American Heritage Month

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May was Jewish American Heritage Month. In another era, I might have had the following conversation with my mother:

Mom: "It's the last day of May already! Gib zich a shokel!***
Me: "Zorg zich night!**** There's plenty of time to recap all the exciting things that happened."

The White House Host Celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month

Instead, I must rely on a handy Yiddish-English guide if I want to come up with juicy Yiddish expressions. I was raised in America, as was my mother. Although the generations before us spoke Yiddish, to ensure that we were good Americans, we were raised speaking only the "main" language of the country to which our relatives fled to give us a better life. They arrived over 250 years after the first Jews stepped on American soil. I'll do my best to provide an entertaining - albeit thoroughly incomplete and utterly random - recap of the past 356 years.

In 1654, the first 23 Jews showed up in the US. While most people think of American Jews as people with Central or Eastern European roots, these refugees came from Brazil. The Portuguese, who had expelled Jews centuries ago, seized Brazil from the Dutch, and they had to flee. The population grew slowly over the years. Peter Stuyvesant tried to throw the Jews out of New York, but the Dutch East India Company says nein. (This all sounds almost to familiar to things that are going on in immigration debates now, doesn't it? But I digress...) When the Revolutionary War broke out, Jews wanted to serve. Initially, they were rebuked, but in the end at least 100 Jews served the Continental Army, many with distinction. Yay! We proved ourselves. Or something.

I bring this up for a few reasons. When I think about Jews, military service does not initially come to mind. However, May 31, 2010 not only concludes Jewish American Heritage Month, but it is also Memorial Day, and I want to point out that Jews are pretty darn patriotic when it comes to helping America out in times of war. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism cites statistics from the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America that "Jews made up 3.3 percent of the population and 5.7 percent of the armed forces [during WWI]. During World War II, 3.3 percent of the population and 4.2 percent of the armed forces were Jewish." We represent a much, much smaller portion of the armed services today, but I did find this article on Jewish women in the military to be extremely interesting.

Speaking of Jewish American women serving our country, The Jewish Women's Archive has an excellent timeline highlighting the contributions Jewish women have made to American society. It's pretty awesome to see this amazing range of activities that American Jewish women have participated in. From arts and literature to government service to leading labor unions, it makes me verklempt. Many Jewish women have worked hard to ensure that all Americans, regardless of ethnicity, sex, class, or gender, can reap the opportunities offered in the US.

Still, Jews in America could not free themselves entirely from anti-Semitic bias. In many parts of the country it was not uncommon for Jews to be barred from restaurants, universities, country clubs, or desirable jobs. For many years Harvard, Columbia, and Yale, and other universities had quotas on the number of Jews they would accept. Signs at various establishments declared, “No Dogs, No Coloreds, No Jews.” It is thus no surprise, as Liz Piper-Goldberg writes, that American Jews were early supporters of the civil rights movement. And my heart swelled when I read Gail Reimar's account of Rabbi Alysa Stanton reading Emma Lazarus's words at the White House reception for Jewish American Heritage Month loaded with other female Jewish leaders. (Rabbi Stanton is the first female African American rabbi. Yay!)

Certainly, not all American Jews are paragons of patriotic goodness working for the common good. But I am extremely proud to be part of a long history of American Jewish feminists and civil libertarians, and I hope to continue to see American Jews be active voices for all Americans. And to anyone who thinks otherwise, I say zol dir vaksen tzibbeles fun pupik.

*Kvell: gush with pride; glow with pleasure
**Nokhes: reap joy or happiness
***Shake a leg; hurry up
****Don't worry about it
*****Onions should grow from your navel.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.

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