Jewish Americans: History, Heritage & Culture

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education with a focus in counseling.

This lesson looks at the Jewish American population and evaluates how they came to be in the US and how they have fared since they came. The waves of immigration are detailed and the issues that Jewish Americans face are discussed.

Jewish Early History

The Jewish people are one of the oldest continuously existent ethnic groups that has a history dating back more than 4,000 years. During that time the Jews, whose homeland is a crossroads between larger nations, have been enslaved and dispersed throughout the world. After Rome destroyed the Jewish temple and banished the people in 70 CE, they roamed the world for more than 1850 years. Only as recently as 1948 has a portion of land been given to them and now approximately a third of the world's Jews live there.

Jewish culture largely revolved around their belief that they are the chosen people of God. They believed that they were either blessed or cursed based on the adherence to their God's laws. The people, made up of twelve tribes, followed ancient customs established by Moses such as animal sacrifice, dietary laws (not eating pork, washing hands, etc.), and family construction. Some Jews, labeled orthodox, still follow these same customs.

Modern Israel

The Dispersion

After Rome defeated the Jews and scattered them abroad, they landed in many different nations. Of the twelve original tribes, ten disappeared and many believe they settled in parts of Africa and Asia. However, many Jews moved north to Greece then northern European nations. European Jews were broken into two groups:

  • The Sephardim who settled in Spain and Portugal
  • The Ashkenazim who settled in Germany and other Germanic countries

These two groups experienced different levels of persecution which led to further emigration. The Sephardim were heavily persecuted during the Inquisition period and dispersed to other areas of Europe to escape. The Ashkenazim were persecuted almost from the time they arrived in the northern European nations, but they managed to carve out a fairly stable life. However, during the latter part of the nineteenth and first two decades of the twentieth centuries, roughly 4 million Jews emigrated from this region to the United States due to European political upheaval (which included the rise of Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia). During WWII, only 150,000 Jews managed to enter the US due to immigration restrictions.

Immigration to the United States

Jewish people had been moving to the Americas long before the United States was a country. A look at census data shows that there were approximately 2,500 people of Jewish ancestry in America prior to the Revolutionary War. The people largely settled in areas with large populations where they also lived and worked as a community.

The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of Jews who came to the US, which only ended with laws restricting the number of immigrants from other countries in the 1920s. By this time, there were approximately 5 million Jews in the United States. As a group, they have stayed in the larger cities along both the East and West coasts.


The Jewish people enjoy a culture that has stood for more than 4,000 years with stable traditions and celebrations. Thus, it was at times difficult for the people to become a part of the larger US culture. However, because they were such a stable influence in the communities they occupied, Jewish customs and the people, have been widely accepted. Like any other group, Jewish Americans became more acculturated as more generations were born in the United States. Despite this, they have maintained a cultural separateness throughout those generations.

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