Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part VI

Still more history - imagine that!

Part 6 starts out with the French Revolution.  The motto of liberté, egalité, fraternité extended to the Jewish community, marking one of the first times that Jews were accepted into the mainstream of society.  This was due to the intellectualism of the time, exemplified by the works of Voltaire, Condorcet, and Rousseau.  On September 28, 1791, Jews were declared to be equal to all other citizens of France, so long as they considered themselves Frenchmen first and pledged to defend France.  Jews were also permitted to any job which suited their talents, which was another first.

In Germany, the Age of Enlightenment brought good times for Jews...kind of.  They practiced voluntary baptism, which some Jews saw as forced conversion and spiritual death.  Others saw it as a ticket to acceptance by the mainstream.  Reform Judaism appeared for the first time, although in a different form to the Reform Judaism practiced in the United States today.  Moses Mendelssohn (father of Felix Mendelssohn) worked to make the Jews more German and get them out of the ghettos, but without losing their religious identity.  It worked to some extent, but both of his sons converted to Christianity.  And the Jews invented communism.  It was an attempt to make a secular society based on Jewish values, but it failed miserably.  Still, Jewish genius flourished in Germany.

In England, Jews had a difficult time overcoming stereotypes.  Shakespeare's Shylock is a reflection of a common example of that.  The Rothschilds were a family of political leaders at the time who helped to create social reforms to allow acceptance of office.  Benjamin Disraeli did a lot to dispel the stereotypes of Jewish people, but he converted to Christianity in order to do so.

As for the United States, one of the first settlers was a Marrano Jew.  He went along for the ride with Christopher Columbus, who believed that he would encounter the Lost Tribes of Israel when he got where he was going and wanted to have a Hebrew interpreter.  Since the Jews had recently been expelled from Spain, the interpreter stayed behind in America.  Since the USA was being founded based on religious freedom, Jews found tolerance and acceptance in the new country.

These days, one can find Jewish people in almost every corner of the world.

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