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Small beginning, big impact

(Page 2 of 2)

"There was a guy who traded vegetables on both sides of the Rhine," says the professor of Slavic studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "And in the late 1840s there was a revolution and the currency [was greatly devalued]. He immigrated to Cincinnati and picked up exactly the same thing - trading vegetables. Within a generation a Jewish community had sprung up in Cincinnati, and out of that came my family."

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His grandfather and father both became involved in the world of horse racing, which elevated their family into a different, more formal world.

When Dr. Weil's father became Cincinnati's first Ford agent, he was confronted by Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Co., who didn't think that having a Jewish agent would be good for business.

"Ford came to my dad and said, 'Look, you're Jewish, you've got to get out. I can't afford to have my name associated with a Jew,' " Weil recounts. His father told Ford to take him to court if he wanted him out, and Ford backed off.

"But through it all," says Weil, "he kept a certain basic kind of optimism and stubbornness. He had quite an impact on the general community and an enormous impact on the Jewish community. If a guy didn't give what he should have to charity, [my father] would give him trouble."

Giving to charity and getting a good education were of paramount importance to Jews and to the maintenance of a strong Jewish community.

Dr. Groopman's grandmother immigrated to the US from Russia at the turn of the 20th century and worked at a garment factory while she took night classes to learn English. Eventually her three sons became a dentist, a pharmacist, and an engineer.

"In that family, religion was important, but education was especially important, and so all three of their children went on to professional schools," Groopman says.

Upward mobility

"That's a very typical story," he adds, "in which a relatively uneducated immigrant parent not speaking the language put a tremendous amount of whatever family resources there are - usually time and energy - into the education of the children and their social mobility."

Jews have not only contributed to the belief that hard work and a solid education allow Americans to climb the social ladder, he says, but they've also helped emphasize the importance of being able to amend laws, and change customs and ideas.

"There's a tradition in Judaism of arguing with God," Groopman says. "Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and argues Him down. It's a strand in Jewish culture and Jewish history of not accepting what's given. In its contemporary American form, it takes the form of questioning accepted wisdom, which in some fashion leads to development and creativity."

Working for reform

This trait has played a role in various quintessentially American movements - such as labor reform and civil rights. It was Samuel Gompers, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor and a Jew, who famously said, "Our movement is of the working people, for the working people, by the working people.... There is not a right too long denied to which we do not aspire in order to achieve; there is not a wrong too long endured that we are not determined to abolish."

Jews later played prominent roles in the NAACP, and many marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to protest segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"Jews have brought to America the notion that a society where people are treated equally, where nobody is discriminated against, and where there isn't want and so on, would be a better place for Jews," Sarna says. "So in a peculiar way, Jewish self-interest was strengthened by advocating for a more just society."

Weil is careful to keep the Jewish influence on America in perspective, but he does admit to "a sort of sentimental pride."

In overallJewish history, he points out, 350 years is "an instant." But in America, "it stands for something. One should not be arrogant, but it's fair to take a certain amount of pride in it. We've achieved something. There's a beauty in this."