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Giving Thanks in America

How Jewish immigrants showed love for their new country

Jenna Weissman Joselit
November 25, 2019

When Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot, a theatrical salute to the power of love in modern-day America, made its debut on Broadway in 1908, it brought down the house. How could it not? The production’s melodramatic staging of New World promise had something for everyone—family tension, musical bravura, patriotism, romance—and a host of visual clues to anchor it. Act I, for instance, featured a prominently displayed American flag in the home of a recently arrived Jewish immigrant family—you couldn’t miss it even if seated in the cheap seats—while the drama’s concluding coup de theatre involved the Statute of Liberty.

In the course of their daily lives, America’s immigrants didn’t have too many opportunities to demonstrate their love of country in a forum that felt true, unforced, and from the heart. The Melting Pot provided them with one.

The celebration of Thanksgiving furnished the nation’s newest Jewish arrivals, as well as those of long standing, with yet another. The two communities took eagerly to this most American of holidays, both on its own terms and, most especially, in relation to what some of their number defined as its biblical pedigree. Long before the New World gave rise to Thanksgiving, the Israelites of the ancient Near East, it was proudly said, had celebrated a national “day of gratitude”: Sukkot.

Now and again, flag waving and Thanksgiving went hand in hand. Jewish organizations that helped to familiarize immigrant children and their families with American culture often made a point of linking the two. In 1900, for instance, New York’s Educational Alliance held a “special Thanksgiving service” at which 50 young boys and girls, each bearing two small American flags “crossed on their breast,” marched in formation to the head of the auditorium. One young girl, “slightly larger than the rest,” or so the New-York Tribune reported, then waved an equally large flag, after which the children “in concert” recited the following pledge: “Flag of our great Republic, inspirer in battle, guardian of our homes, whose stars and stripes stand for Bravery, Purity, Truth and Union, we salute thee!” No sooner had they concluded this verbal display then they were once again put through their paces by engaging in a series of calisthenics without dumbbells—proof, it would seem, of their newfound physical dexterity as budding Americans.

Even when it wasn’t Thanksgiving, much was made of Old Glory on the Lower East Side and in other American Jewish immigrant enclaves. At graduation exercises and comparable public assemblies, educators and civic reformers were given to extolling the flag in the hope that those in the audience would come to understand that it wasn’t a “mere piece of bunting,” but a benefaction. “Every time you gaze upon it, every star and stripe should cause you to reflect upon what it means to those thousands of our people who, driven from their homes by persecution, find actual physical shelter beneath its folds,” declaimed the Honorable N. Taylor Phillips, a highly pedigreed New York Jew (his forbears fought in the Revolutionary War) and a dedicated public servant, at one such gathering in 1903. “Order your lives that you will shed lustre upon it in gratitude to the blessings which it gives you.”

Prosperous, middle-class American Jews also indulged in considerable flag-waving, especially when commemorating an institutional milestone. Throughout the late 19th century, no synagogue celebration was complete without the presence of the stars and stripes in one ornamental form or another. When, in 1886, Chicago’s Sinai Temple celebrated its 25th anniversary, the national flag “gracefully deck[ed] the Ark,” reported the American Israelite. A few years later, in 1892, Newport’s Touro Synagogue marked Columbus Day amid a surfeit of red, white, and blue flags. They hung from the sanctuary’s brass chandeliers, enveloped the pulpit and “stretch[ing[ from the ten commandments [sic] above the Ark fell in graceful folds to the platform beneath,” according to an eyewitness. And if that weren’t enough to dazzle the eye and lift the spirits, Touro commissioned and set front and center a 4-foot flag made entirely of flowers.

Sometimes, though, the flag occasioned more of a kerfuffle than visual pleasure or patriotism. In 1912, the Joseph B. Carr Circle of the Grand Army of the Republic bestowed on the Third Street Temple of Troy, New York, an Old Glory fashioned out of silk. In years gone by, when in need of the national flag, the congregation had borrowed one from a neighboring institution. By 1912, however, it decided that it would be most “fitting” to have its own flag and asked the GAR if it would be willing to contribute one. The patriotic women’s organization “gladly complied,” setting in motion plans for a dedicatory ceremony to take place at the temple’s Friday night services one evening in June.

But things didn’t quite work out, generating fireworks rather than goodwill. In the course of the ceremonial proceedings, Miss Sarah K. Hollis, speaking on behalf of the GAR, lost her bearings—or something. She couldn’t help referring to America as a “Christian nation,” the Constitution as a “Christian document” and, for good measure, from pointing out that the occupant of the White House was expected to be a “Christian man.”

Her comments did not go over well with those in the pews. As one observer related, Miss Hollis “managed to crowd into [her speech] quite a number of things which had better been left unsaid in a Jewish house of worship and in speaking to an audience composed largely of Jews.”

Rising to her defense, a second man on the scene acknowledged that while the GAR’s representative might have been “tactless,” her intentions were good. Besides, he was quick to add, let’s not lose sight of the big picture: The flag is a “unifying influence among both Jews and Gentiles.”

True enough. What’s more, Old Glory went on to become a steadying as well as a unifying influence, eventually taking up permanent residence on the pulpit where, in many congregations across the country, especially those affiliated with the Reform movement, it remains upstanding even today. For some time now, Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and the dedicated steward of American Jewry’s patrimony, has been researching how this phenomenon came to pass. Drawing on both documentary and visual materials, from rabbinic responsa to confirmation photographs, he points to WWI, and the outpouring of patriotism it engendered, as the tipping point.

From then on, the American flag became as much a part of the synagogue’s ritual furniture as the lectern: present and accounted for, but largely unnoticed. Standing quietly, unobtrusively, off to one side or another of the sanctuary bimah, this physical acknowledgement of America’s blessings and of its sovereignty made no waves. But when, years later, the Stars and Stripes was joined by the blue and white of the Israeli flag, a flap ensued within Reform circles, prompting the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1954 to declare the latter out of bounds.

Twenty years later, it reversed course, permitting the two flags to share the stage on the grounds that both were to be considered religious rather than national symbols. Orthodox circles, meanwhile, welcomed neither one. As that community’s leading rabbinic arbiter, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, would have it, all national flags were “nonsense” (hevel veshetut).

Whether you think the Jewish communal display of the American flag is an exercise in silliness or in sanctity, inappropriate or fitting, it reminds us all of the visual power of symbols and their capacity to stir the emotions—and the pot.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.