When we talk about the Jews, we talk about a group of people rather than a distinct race or ethnicity that is mainly bound together because of their religion, Judaism. However, one need not be religious to be a Jew as there are Jewish atheists and agnostics as well. Generally speaking, a person can be considered a Jew as long as he/she is born of a Jewish mother. Anyone who converts to Judaism is also regarded as a Jew.
Now, Jewish communities in the States have been present since colonial times. In the beginning, Portuguese and Spanish Jews formed the bulk of America´s small Jewish population. During initial times, they were not regarded as first class citizens, with many being denied the opportunity to hold office in local jurisdictions or even vote.
Following the American Revolution, a war in which around a hundred American Jews are known to have fought, the Jews were then granted equality under the law owing to the enactment of the US Federal Constitution in 1787 and Bill of Rights in 1791.
The Jewish’s population wasn´t significant in the 17th and 18th century. However, that changed in the 19th century. Large-scale Jewish immigration took place with most of them being German’s Jews. The mass immigration took place mainly because of anti-Semitic laws and restrictions of the Jews in their countries of birth. The migration increased tenfold after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and as a result of persecution, and economic hardship in parts of Eastern Europe. The new wave of Jewish immigrants who were close to two million in numbers were mostly Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who arrived from poor communities of the Russian Empire and the Pale of Settlement, located in modern-day Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Moldova. During this time, a large number of Ashkenazi Jews also set foot on American lands from Galicia. They immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire largely to escape their impoverished lifestyle.
California Gold Rush
The discovery of gold on January 24, 1848, in California by James W. Marshall played a major factor in enticing tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants. The Jews were primarily drawn to California by the same tales of easily obtained wealth that attracted people of other race and religious groups. The California gold rush coupled with the discoveries of other minerals all over the West in the latter half of the nineteenth century truly had an alluring effect to the Jewish men who were either pushed from Europe due to the political reaction following the revolutions of 1848 or were simply envisioning of a higher standard of life. The typical mining camps of the yesteryears were filled with a large number of Jewish men who were literally hoping to strike gold. They had a huge hand in overseeing the success of the mining industry, setting up shop to aid the industry. Some of the popular business endeavors included small-scale manufacturing, general retailing, and clothing merchant.
Soon enough, the Jews prominently established themselves on the West Coast, primarily in Oregon, Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco. In fact, the city of San Francisco became the second-largest Jewish city in the nation. The Jews preferred the Western states as opposed to the Eastern regions because of the opportunities for philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and civic leadership. During those times, everyone was a newcomer in the West and the Jews were also welcomed wholeheartedly with few signs of discrimination. One of the primary reasons the Jews migrated to the West is pure because of greater acceptance compared to other parts of the country.
The Jews Americanized and assimilated to the West quite easily, with few Jewish activists even winning election to public office. They started becoming prominent in municipal and state policies as well.
First class citizens
However, it was truly only after the appointment of American Zionist leader, Louis Brandeis, in 1916 as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice that gave the Jews the belief that they could ascend to the highest levels of government and serve the nation. The appointment was a significant moment for American Jews, who were overwhelmed and took great pride in the achievements of one of their own.
The rise of Florence Kahn, the first Jewish congresswoman, who represented California, also played an instrumental role in catapulting the Jews, especially Jewish women, to the upper echelons of the then developing nation.
Many historians are also firmly of the opinion that the participation of the Jews in World War II helped give them the confidence to not accept second-class citizenship and instead fight for their rights in the States.
It didn´t take Los Angeles long to become the second-largest Jewish base in the United States with the city achieving the feat in the 20th century. Most of the Jewish newcomers in the city then started taking an interest in Hollywood, where Jewish producers soon started pulling all the strings in the film industry after 1920.
Presently, there are close to a million Jews living in California, with most of the Jewish communities found in Los Angeles, especially Westwood, Beverly Hills, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
American Jews Today
American Jews are no longer classified as second rate citizens. They worked hard to gain success and respect in many fields. According to reliable reports, prior to World War I, over 80% of Jews in America were listed as manual factory laborers. Fast forward to the present, the Jews in America have upgraded from a lower class minority to consistently being ranked richest or second richest ethnicity in America. They have the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the States, at around double the average income of non-Jewish Americans.
Currently, most of the American Jews regard the States as the de facto home of the Jews, with Israel only regarded as “Little America” because of its similarities to the States. Although Jews only account for less than three percent of the entire American population, the Jews have a disproportionately larger representation in American government, business, academia, and entertainment.