"If you will, it is no legend … all the deeds of mankind are only dreams at first."                                                                                      

-Theodor Herzl, Altneuland, 1902

Finding Refuge in America, chromolithograph by Joseph Keller, New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1909.  Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The dawn of the twentieth century saw a continuation of population transfers on a massive scale with the most well-worn path of migration leading from Eastern Europe to the United States. Most of the millions of Jews borne by this wave of immigration were poor Russian Jews who were both running towards economic opportunity and fleeing increased religious persecution. Through a concerted emphasis on education and with the help of philanthropic coreligionists, many of these early twentieth century immigrants would, in the ensuing decades, succeed in raising themselves from abject poverty to a middle class life that they could never have achieved in Eastern Europe. 

In Europe, Jewish soldiers fought on both sides of the First World War, serving valiantly in the armies of their respective homelands. By the end of the war, the map of Europe had been radically reshaped as disparate populations of once-powerful empires created new states. The newly formed “League of Nations” parceled out the territories of the defeated powers, conferring them as mandates to the victors. The British mandate comprised the Jewish ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel and raised hopes among Zionists that the foundation of a Jewish State was imminent.

The decade of considerable prosperity that followed the “War to End All Wars” was swiftly and dramatically reversed with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The resulting global economic collapse and a series of international political crises and localized wars shattered the fragile peace that had been maintained in Europe for two decades. The world found itself once more plunged into the abyss of global conflict.

While the armies of dozens of nations around the world battled along front lines that spanned the globe, in the section of Central and Eastern Europe where most of the world’s Jews still lived, a secret war of annihilation was methodically being carried out. Jews were systematically herded into ghettos and concentration camps across the continent, where the Germans and their allies murdered six million of them—children, women, and men. By war’s end, more than a third of the Jewish People had perished.

The sudden decimation of world Jewry led to a growing recognition by Jews the world over that the time had come for a state of their own. Jews in the Land of Israel worked tirelessly for the creation of an independent Jewish state and the eviction of the British mandatory authorities. The combined political pressure exerted by international Jewry and the military pressure applied by members of the Jewish underground in the Land of Israel itself eventually compelled Great Britain to give up the mandate. In 1948 with the blessing of the new “United Nations” organization, the State of Israel formally declared its existence and Jews returned to sovereignty in the land first glimpsed by Abraham more than 3,500 years earlier.

Temple Emanuel Synagogue on Fifth Avenue, New York City, USA.  © ZealPhotography / Alamy.

The declaration of Statehood was met by an attack by the combined armies of five Arab nations, who vehemently opposed the idea of a Jewish State. After a bloody war of independence and the negotiation of a shaky ceasefire, absorption of immigrants became the highest priority of the new nation. The very first legislative act of the new state guaranteed Israeli citizenship to any Jew in the world. They flooded in from all over the Jewish world, most of them, at first, from the ashes of the destroyed communities of Europe. They were soon joined by tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from numerous Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s independence. More recent waves of immigration have included the Jews of Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. More than three million Jews from around the world have immigrated to the State of Israel since its founding in 1948, and it is home to more Jews than any other country on earth. Though Israel has since made peace with some of its neighbors, a comprehensive and lasting peace remains an elusive goal. Among the unique challenges faced by Israel is its desire to retain its identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state.  As it matures as a nation, the State of Israel continues to undergo the growing pains that are the hallmark of democratic society.

American Jewish life has also changed greatly since the Second World War. The destruction of former centers of Jewish life in Europe made America home to the largest Jewish community in the world (until that distinction recently passed to the State of Israel.) Having ardently participated in the fight against Hitler— America’s and Jewry’s common foe—American Jews were now fully confident in their broad participation in American society. Many took advantage of postwar prosperity and a decline in prejudice to work in new areas in the economy and to reach unprecedented heights of success.

Israeli Paratroopers after Capture of Wailing Wall.  Photographer: David Rubinger.  ©David Rubinger/epa/Corbis.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Jews around the world and especially in the two largest population centers, Israel and the United States, continue to grapple with what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. To be certain, traditional Judaism is a strong and growing force in both these centers, but for many, the issue of identity seems especially complex in an era of great diversity in Jewish life. In Israel, some equate being Israeli with being Jewish. Others insist that Jewishness must be more than a national identity. In America, some Jews are seeking to imbue Jewish ritual and theology with a renewed emphasis on spirituality. Others seek to define for themselves a secular Jewish identity, turning to their cultural, rather than spiritual, patrimony as a source of inspiration.

The history of the Jewish People in the twenty-first century has yet to be lived, let alone recorded. The current era will undoubtedly continue to present them with both challenges and opportunities, just as in the past, and Jews will strive to meet them. As they celebrate new achievements and endure new adversities in a world unimaginable to their forefather Abraham, Jews will continue to struggle with the legacy they have inherited. Monotheistic still, but no longer monochromatic in their expression of that now-ancient doctrine, they will continue to create anew with each passing generation, the meaning, the method, and the message of their ancestral faith. The Jews of tomorrow will continue to rely upon their indomitable spirits to meet the future, whatever it may bring.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from the Age of Emancipation included in the sale go to lots 340-386.