I am watching the PBS documentary series The Jewish Americans which is for me a fascinating look into the complex history of the Jewish community in the United States, with all the fights for survival, the identity dilemmas, the achievements and the contributions to the overall evolution of the American society and culture. The episode I reached talks about the first decades of the 20th century, and it amazing to see how the situation of the Jews in the US by that time was similar or maybe worse then of their brothers in Europe. Henry Ford’s antisemitism was a model that Hitler mentioned with admiration in Mein Kampf, numerus clausus was limiting the number of Jewish students in the major American universities prior to WWII, and ‘no Jews and dogs allowed’ was a common and legal restriction in many hotels, restaurants or social institutions in many American states.

source www.pianoparadise.com

Two major figures drew my attention in this episode. One of them was born in Russia in 1888 as Israel Irvine Beilin one of the eight children of a cantor. The Jewish music that he heard as a child can be felt in many of the compositions of the man who came in America as a five years kid to become one of the greatest American composers under the name of Irving Berlin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj3ogtzFEz0

(video source heeter71)

Starting his career in the sizzling Jewish musical theater atmosphere of the Manhattan Low East End,  Berlin became known in a few years by his dance compositions which combined Jewish and black musical elements in the popular ragtime style of the epoch. E.L. Doctorow’s novel with this name Ragtime is a wonderful rendition of the period. What better musical illustration than Alexander’s Ragtime Band sang here by Judy Garland?

(video source TheEdSullivanShow)

By the time the United States entered World War I Berlin was famous. He was however conscripted, but did not see too much action beyond waking up his fellow soldiers at the sound of his trumpet. Yet, he had time to write a musical to raise the moral of the soldiers. One of the pieces written for the musical but not included in the representations was a song that was to be premiered later and sang first at the 20th anniversary of the armistice in 1938 – God Bless America. Here is Berlin (who lived 101 years) singing this second hymn of the United States at the Ed Sullivan Show.

Louis Brandeis - source www.hillyer.org

If Irving Berlin was born in a traditional Jewish family in Russia and made his way through the American cultural and social establishment becoming the model of the American composer, the second personality I met in the episode walked to a certain respect the opposite path. Born in a family of Jewish emigrants who came to America in the first half of the 19th century, Louis Brandeis was a secular Jew, who encountered little discrimination as a young and talented lawyer. His judicial skills and strong social beliefs made him famous as ‘the lawyer of the people’ and the cases he fought for contributed to the creation of the workplace rules, insurance and anti-monopoly legislation in the first decades of the 20th century. However, when president Wilson nominated him as the first judge of Jewish origin at the US Supreme Court, the nomination was a shock for the whole judicial and political white protestant establishment of the time. For years at least one of his colleagues at the Supreme Court did not greet him, referred to him with disdain and even boycotted the traditional annual photo opportunities of the High Court. As a Supreme Court judge Brandeis is remembered for his rulings in defense of the constitutional freedom of speech.

It is however his Zionist activity that makes him remarkable in my eyes. ‘The highest Jewish ideals are American’ Brandeis is quoted to have said, and he saw no contradiction in being a faithful American and at the same time a strong and open supporter of the rebirth of the Jewish nation and of the formation of a Jewish state. He was a leader of the Zionist Organization of America , contributed to the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, was part of the American delegation at the Peace Conference in Paris  and visited Palestine. The kibbutz Ein Hashofet (Spring of the Judge) is named after him.