People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Jewish Americans Part 1

About the Jewish Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Jewish-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: The Jews' immigration to America was one of a long series of migrations to escape persecution. Major immigration waves came from Spain and Portugal (via South America) between 1654 and 1790; from western and central Europe between 1815 and 1880; and from eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924 (the year U.S. immigration quotas were enacted). And 1935-1950 saw a major influx of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Since 1950 most Jewish immigration has been from Latin America, the Middle East, and Soviet-dominated Europe.

Why They Left: Persecution sparked the move, and economic opportunity determined the destination. The earliest immigrants were escaping the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. They fled to South America and, when the Inquisition followed, continued to the American colonies. The German and central European immigration of 1815--1880 was largely part of the mass migration of central Europeans to the New World. However, discriminatory German laws and post-1848 nationalistic fervor played a role in the Jews' alienation. The events triggering eastern European Jewish emigration were oppressive regimes in Russia and Poland, pogroms, and, later, political instability in eastern Europe, a result of W.W. I and the Russian Revolution. Underlying these events were the explosion of eastern Europe's Jewish population from 1.75 million to 6.75 million between 1800 and 1900 and the physical problems caused by the relatively small area in which Jews were allowed to live, the Jewish Pale, established by Catherine the Great in 1792. A general trend toward urbanization and the arrival of the railroad and telegraph in small Jewish towns played a role as well, as did the Nazi holocaust during the 1940s.

Where They Settled: Jewish settlement of the U.S. began in early September, 1654, when 24 refugees arrived in New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil. Formerly a Dutch colony, Recife had been reconquered by the Portuguese, who brought with them the reinstatement of the Inquisition. These were not the first Jews in North America, however. Louis de Torres, Columbus's navigator and the first European to set foot on American soil in 1492, was Jewish. He had been baptized only one day prior to sailing with Columbus to escape the Inquisition's flames. There is some scholarly speculation that Columbus himself was (or had been born) Jewish.

Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam, did not welcome the refugees and even made some effort to force them to leave. Officers of the Dutch West India Company prevailed, however (the company had influential Jewish investors in Holland), and the Jews were allowed to remain. By the beginning of the 19th century, Jewish communities were established up and down the east coast.

The German and central European immigration of the first part of the 19th century saw Jews moving westward with the country. Jewish settlements rapidly arose in the cities along the Erie Canal and on the Great Lakes. By 1860 there were Jewish communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. There were few Jews in New England, although a community had existed in Boston since 1842. Small Jewish communities were also scattered throughout the South.

By the time of the "great migration" of 1880--1924, New York City had become the major port of entry for almost all incoming immigrants, and most Jews settled in New York's Lower East Side at least temporarily. New York rapidly became, and still is, the world's greatest Jewish community, joined by Los Angeles in more recent decades.

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