Revolution 250 Podcast

Jews and the American Revolution with Professor Jonathan Sarna

November 07, 2023 Jonathan Sarna Season 4 Episode 43
Revolution 250 Podcast
Jews and the American Revolution with Professor Jonathan Sarna
Show Notes Transcript

The allure of America with all of its possibilities brought many people to its shores during the Colonial period.  Jewish congregations in Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport formed small but important parts of American society.  We talk with Professor Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University about the impact Jews had on American independence--as soldiers and officers, and as merchants and financiers--and about the impact the American Revolution had on Jews in the United States and beyond.  Professor Sarna is the author or co-author more than 30 books on American Jewish history, including American Judaism:  A History,  which includes a chapter on the Jewish contributions to the Revolution. 

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 30 seconds yeah hello everyone welcome to the revolution 250 podcast i am bob allison i chair the rev 250 advisory group we are a collaboration among about 70 groups in massachusetts looking at ways to commemorate the beginnings of american independence and our
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 Guest today is Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna, who is a university professor, as well as the Joseph H. and Bell R. Brown Professor of American Jewish History, and also Director of the Schlisterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.
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 Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Sarna, or I'll call you Jonathan.
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 It's really a pleasure to be with you.
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 Professor Sarna.
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 I really want to thank you for inviting me to appear here.
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 The revolution is a perennial interest.
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 It certainly is.
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 And you've talked about it in a couple of places.
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 I will talk a little bit about your books, but you're also the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
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 But you've written, co-written, co-edited more than 30 books.
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 American Judaism History has a chapter on Jews and the Revolution.
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 Of course, you've also written about the Civil War with a book about Lincoln, a book about Grant, a book about the Jews of Boston, which I know well.
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 Also, you've written about the Jewish community in Cincinnati, where you taught for a number of years.
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 So we'll be talking about some of these books, but we really want to talk about Jews in America at the time of the Revolution.
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 So can you tell us
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 How many people are we talking about?
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 Where were they?
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 It's a very small community.
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 The minimalists say 1,500.
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 The maximalists say 3,000.
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 We're talking about far fewer than one in 1,000.
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 But what's very significant is
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 that they were not distributed across the colonies.
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 They basically were in port cities.
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 So Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, Newport, and then Baltimore and Richmond are really
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 formed as Jewish communities just in this era.
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 But the historic colonial communities are those five port cities.
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 And in each of them, including Philadelphia, there is a significant Jewish presence.
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 And certainly as supporters of the revolution,
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 come to Philadelphia often from other places, they naturally interact with Jews.
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 And for a brief time, Philadelphia becomes the largest Jewish community in North America because Jews from New York and Jews from Savannah and elsewhere
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 gravitated towards Philadelphia.
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 Where had they come from?
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 What parts of the world did these folks come from to America?
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 That's a very interesting question.
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 Some of the most famous were what we call Sephardic Jews.
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 Jews originally from the Iberian Peninsula.
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 They'd been expelled from Spain and then from Portugal at the very end of the 15th century.
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 But many make their way to Holland.
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 From there, some come to the Caribbean and also some come to North America.
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 But by the time of the American Revolution, we also had what are called Ashkenazi Jews, Jews from the German lands.
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 And it's interesting that the revolution itself contributes to the number of German-speaking Jews.
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 Germany isn't united until the 1870s, but among the Hessian troops,
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 who come to fight on the side of the British are some Jews, especially in positions like settlers, people who
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 are feeding the troops and making arrangements for the troops.
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 And, you know, an army then and now moves on its stomach.
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 And so we know that some of them were Jews and later they stayed.
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 And I guess the fact that they had...
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 bin Hessians and on the British side wasn't sufficient to drive them out after independence was
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 was declared.
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 So you had a rich mix of Jews from different places, and they all had to try somehow and live together within a tiny community and even worship together, even though they came from somewhat different places and traditions.
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 And figuring that out was
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 not a small matter, especially in Philadelphia when they founded the synagogue in Philadelphia, which is going to be important, make for Israel.
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 And in the revolution, it has very prominent members.
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 We actually have a letter to the founders.
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 It was one of the Graz family members.
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 And the question was, well, what's our custom going to be?
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 And he says, well, let's call it the American custom because we have to find a way.
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 What he was hinting at is we have to give something to everybody.
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 They didn't quite do that, but it's clear that they made room for a wide variety of people
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 from different backgrounds, because that's what America was.
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 It was true in the general community.
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 And, you know, who is this American?
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 This new man Kravker is going to ask.
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 And his description could equally have applied, who is an American Jew?
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 And he...
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 that they came from all these different places, married one another, and had to create something that hadn't been seen before.
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 Very interesting.
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 And of course, now our minds are very much on Israel being at war, Jews fighting, and you mentioned Jews being part of the Hessian forces.
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 What about serving in the American army?
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 So we know of about a hundred
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 Jews who serve in different capacities.
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 There seems to have been a group of Jews and they were known as Jews in Charleston, which was a significant community.
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 What's important, I think,
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 is not just the Jews fought, although they were very proud later of having shed blood for the revolution, but in America, Jews could move up on the basis of their merit.
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 And we know there were Jewish colonels and other Jews who moved up in the military
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 That was not true in most of the world because there was a taboo on how could a Jew give orders to a Christian.
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 Even the British army didn't allow them to move up at that time.
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 And of course, where the majority of Jews lived, which was in the Russian Empire at that time, they were basically cannon fodder, not allowed to do anything.
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 of authority, which helps to explain why Jews in the Russian army tried to evade that military service.
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 They weren't allowed to serve the way others were.
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 And I know recently there's been a very exciting discovery in Savannah about a man named Mordecai Shepton.
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 Can you tell us a bit about this?
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 Yes, I'm thrilled to talk about it.
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 It's not in my book.
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 We, of course, knew that the Schefter family was prominent in Savannah.
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 That is an Ashkenazi family, the
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 one of two major Jewish families in Savannah.
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 And we knew that the Sheftals, both the father and the son, Mordecai Sheftal and Sheftal Sheftal, were taken prisoner.
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 But now they pulled up a boat that had been sunk in the American Revolution.
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 It was somewhere off the coast of Savannah.
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 And lo and behold, on the boat,
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 was the diary of a minister named Reverend Moses Allen.
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 And they were, as you now can, they were able to sort of get the water out of the diary and began reading it.
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 And in 1778, he described how the prisoners had pork for dinner.
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 And then he went on.
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 The Jews, Mr. Scheftel and son, refused to eat their pieces.
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 And their knives and forks were ordered to be greased with it.
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 Meaning that they, prisoners would bring their own knives and forks.
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 And the British holding them prisoner made it deeply uncomfortable for them to eat the food served.
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 which as Jews, they weren't prepared to eat.
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 But listen to Reverend Allen, who is himself a prisoner.
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 It is a happiness that Mr. Sheftal is a fellow Sapphira.
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 He bears it with such fortitude as an example to me.
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 So we never before had this kind of data
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 on a Jewish prisoner of war, nor did we realize that there were troops in the British army who really used kind of primitive religious warfare in trying to break the spirit of the American people.
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 of the American Revolutionary Troops.
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 So it's interesting that even now, so many years later, you can still have a brand new find.
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 Yeah, it's amazing what we're still learning about the revolution and about other things.
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 We're talking with Jonathan Sarna, who is a university professor and the Joseph and Bell Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, author of a number of books, including American Judaism History.
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 And we're talking about Jews in the American Revolution.
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 And here we're talking about the
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 Some of the men who served, including the Sheftals, were both taken prisoner during the capture of Savannah and inspire then Reverend Moses Allen and others to fortitude in their common struggle.
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 Probably one of the best known Jewish figures at the time of the revolution is Haim Solomon, and I don't think we can avoid saying something about his role in this.
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 Haim Solomon,
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 was actually a polish jew uh from a place called lissa and um as you say he's probably the best known jew
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 His genius lay in his ability generally to market goods.
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 There was a recent study of the advertisements that Chaim Salomon put in newspapers.
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 And he was a kind of pioneer.
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 He had an instinct for how to market.
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 But particularly important was his role
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 in marketing what were then called bills of exchange, which are roughly similar to modern checks.
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 If you have funds somewhere else, you wanted your money available in Philadelphia.
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 And Solomon knew many languages, especially French.
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 And we know the French soldiers used him
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 And the Spanish soldiers used him.
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 So he becomes a kind of leading broker.
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 And that, of course, catches the attention of Robert Morris, superintendent of finance.
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 It's quite fascinating to look at Robert Morris's diary.
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 In the beginning, he says, a Jew, Chaim Solomon, came to see me.
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 But then he got to know Chaim Solomon and of course realized how successful and important he was.
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 And later on, he talks about Mr. Solomon came to see me.
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 And that shift in language is very subtle, but telling how the two forged a relationship.
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 And in 1781, Solomon basically becomes
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 the bill broker or certainly the principal one for Morris.
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 And he markets.
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 I once said he was the first Jewish junk on dealer and the junk bonds were the bonds of the new nation.
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 And I am Solomon must have been very persuasive because he did manage, um,
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 to bring in money.
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 Exactly whether he loaned the government money, as was later claimed, most scholars think that was exaggerated.
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 Rather, it was his role moving money in and out of his account and sharing it and making it available that was important.
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 He also does loan money to various founding fathers who come to Philadelphia for the Constitution.
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 They got Virginia money, not Philadelphia.
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 He'll make it available.
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 And he did it apparently on an interest-free basis because of his patriotic leanings.
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 According to tradition, which is a strong tradition, he broke out of a British prison.
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 According to the tradition, one of those Jewish Hessians
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 found that there was a Jewish prisoner.
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 They spoke to one another in a language they both understood.
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 And before you knew it, Chaim Solomon was out of prison and in Philadelphia.
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 But in any case, he dies.
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 He helps build the synagogue in Philadelphia.
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 It's the first one that's built and organizes a Jewish charity and even sends some money back to his relatives.
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 in Poland, and is an example of someone who rather rapidly during this period moves from rags to riches, but he dies in 1785, and as was true of many, many people in this very turbulent period, by the time they settled the estate,
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 The family was sort of left bankrupt and rather bitter.
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 What would happen is that the value of different monies and so on would collapse.
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 And they tried for many years to get the government to help them.
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 And Aaron Lopez is another character who loses a fortune in the revolution.
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 I mean, Robert Morris loses a fortune, too.
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 But can you tell us about?
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 And also ends up bankrupt.
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 Aaron Lopez.
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 actually is a fascinating figure.
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 He comes directly from the Iberian Peninsula to Newport, which has a big community in Newport, more than some of the others had Jews who sided with the British.
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 We now know that Lopez for a while played both sides, but eventually
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 And it made sense.
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 He was probably the largest merchant, period, in Newport and extremely wealthy.
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 During the revolution, he leaves Newport.
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 I think he comes to Leicester.
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 He comes to Massachusetts.
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 And we have a remarkable letter in which he describes
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 what he's been hearing of how the people of Newport were treated during the British occupation of Newport.
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 It wasn't pretty.
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 Lopez loses a lot of money.
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 After the revolution, he's making his way back to Newport to try and rebuild.
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 and he drowns.
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 Now, that's good for historians because there are huge numbers of Lopez papers which were put together to try and figure out who owed what to whom.
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 Terrible, of course, for the Lopez family.
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 The truth is that not only did the family never recover,
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 but within 50 years of the revolution, Newport pretty well shuts down as a Jewish community and it was built, it was a free port and built on trade with England and they never were able to recover economically.
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 uh from the revolution maybe aaron lopez would have found a way to do it he was also involved in in spermaceti and other things but in any case that's the story of the great um aaron aaron lopez and the reverend ezra styles of great fame in newport before it becomes yale memorializes
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 And you really see how much he respected him.
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 Again, that such an important Protestant divine in his diary writes a whole page about Aaron Lopez.
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 It tells you something.
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 It certainly does.
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 We're talking with Jonathan Sarna from Brandeis University.
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 And of course, since we're on the subject of Newport, one of the most famous letters in American history is the one that George Washington writes to the Toro Synagogue.
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 I think we could, it's a remarkable letter where he talks about a government which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, and requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.
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 It's a remarkable statement by the first president.
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 It's absolutely remarkable.
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 And I remind you that it precedes the passage of the First Amendment.
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 Jews knew from long experience that what mattered were not just words, but what the leader said and did.
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 the leader.
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 And so George Washington comes to Newport not to visit Jews.
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 George Washington had boycotted Rhode Island his first time traveling in New England because Rhode Island didn't sign on to the Constitution.
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 And he let it be known, though, that if they would sign on, remember, he wanted it to be unanimous.
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 They, of course, were very nervous about it as a small state.
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 They do eventually sign on, and George Washington, we know he never told a lie, but George Washington then, with Thomas Jefferson and others, does come to Rhode Island.
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 He comes to Newport as per the custom of the day, the whole bunch of public speeches are read out to George Washington.
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 Most of them are, we have them are formal and not interesting.
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 And then the Jews use the opportunity to really ask him, how are we going to be treated?
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 And in fact, that line about bigotry, no sanction is actually, and persecution, no assistance, actually in their letter to him.
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 And he then slightly improved the phrasing and sends it back, which means a lot because that's what presidents do.
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 And it's clear that,
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 that Washington labored over that letter.
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 Some people think Thomas Jefferson also had a role in it.
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 And it was important enough that they made sure that American newspapers would publish the letter.
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 And there's a second piece that's not as often quoted as the wonderful lines still.
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 worth reading that you did.
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 But he also talks about toleration.
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 And he says, it's not just toleration in America.
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 It's an inherent natural right, religious liberty.
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 There was no place on the planet that said religious liberty is an inherent natural right.
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 And that was hugely important because if it's toleration, well, today we tolerate you and tomorrow we stop tolerating you.
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 We change the law, which happened to Jews all the time.
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 If it's an inherent natural right.
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 It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class.
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 That another enjoys its inherent natural right.
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 It's really a remarkable formulation and I think has had a big impact.
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 I'm very interested in the fact that
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 That letter is quoted all the way to our own time.
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 Mayor Bloomberg quoted it when he allowed a Muslim chapel to be opened at the site of 9-11, what was called Ground Zero.
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 He cited that letter.
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 And you can find it cited everywhere.
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 over and over as what we aspire to in in America.
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 I mean, Washington wrote a great many letters to different groups, but I think there is a general consensus that this was the most important one with implications for religious liberty forever after.
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 That definitely is.
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 And he goes on to talk about that they had addressed, by the way, Moses Seixas, who was one who presented
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 the Jewish community.
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 He also was there for the Masons.
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 That is, he was with both of these delegations greeting the president.
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 The Masonic letter is not interesting, but it is interesting for the Jew
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 Jews brought Spanish Rite Masonry, I think, to Newport and it's interesting, in Europe often Jews were excluded by the Masons, but in America you had a great many Masons who were Jews.
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 There were places that didn't admit Jews and debated it in the 19th century, but as you say, Moses Satius, whose brother
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 was the, we call him the Chazan.
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 He was the minister in New York and Philadelphia, and then again New York.
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 So this was a very well-connected family, and descendants are still with us today.
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 And then they address him as their
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 From the stock of Abraham.
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 So in his closing, he talks about them as may the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree.
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 By the way, it's just something Washington often talked about yearning to do.
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 And that was the purpose of the revolution, to let each of us sit under your own vine and fig tree.
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 That, of course, is not watching.
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 And there shall be none to make him afraid.
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 That's a prophetic allusion.
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 It's from the book of Micah.
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 It was George Washington's favorite biblical verse, as you comment on.
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 He used it all the time.
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 I want to go back to Mount Vernon, sit under my own vine and fig tree.
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 And how amazing that a man takes his favorite biblical verse and wishes that others would share it.
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 It's not just that I want to be able to sit under my own vine and fig tree.
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 I want Jews and minorities, even persecuted ones, to sit under their own vine and fig tree.
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 And that, too, is going to become important during the debates over Mormonism later.
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 I found someone who cited the same verse, let the Mormons sit under their own vine and fig tree.
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 Well, it's amazing.
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 We're talking with Jonathan Sarna.
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 Yeah, it certainly is.
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 And that is, tells us what the revolution meant to those who were fighting it, what the purpose really was.
 30:37.323 --> 30:37.824
 30:37.864 --> 30:43.128
 We're talking with Jonathan Sarna, professor of history at Brandeis University.
 30:43.549 --> 30:43.629
 30:44.216 --> 31:03.789
 One character a little bit after the Revolutionary period, but I think his story is very telling, is Mordecai Noah, who is a fascinating character, playwright, journalist, proponent of a Jewish community on the Niagara River, also briefly American consul to Tunis in 1815.
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 I know you've written a book about him.
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 looked at him and thought, what a fascinating story this is.
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 And he is, although he's born just after the Revolution, 1785, it's clear that
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 He feels, well, thanks to this revolution, I can be both an American politician and a Jew.
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 I don't have to choose between my identities.
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 I can be both.
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 And he is, in his day, probably the most prominent American Jew.
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 He speaks out.
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 He's a newspaper editor.
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 He writes plays that are...
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 are widely performed and so on.
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 And it's in both worlds.
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 It's interesting, he's of course recalled from Tunis.
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 And it's perfectly clear, as I say in the book, he was actually recalled because the government wasn't happy with the way
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 He handled a hostage release.
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 It sounds very contemporary.
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 They thought he overpaid.
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 But instead of saying that, because everything about hostage releases is secret then and now, they recall him because, well, he's a Jew and the Bay of Tunis might not appreciate having a Jew there, which probably wasn't true.
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 But there was a storm.
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 when James Madison, I think it was Madison, issues that.
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 And not only does Noah write a whole protest
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 But there are other protests by Jews and they quote George Washington's letter.
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 I thought that bigotry, no sanction, persecution.
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 What difference does it make if he's a Jew or not a Jew?
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 And the administration has quickly to backtrack.
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 No, it had nothing to do with that.
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 We recalled him for what we considered to be cause.
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 But never again, to my knowledge, is an American diplomat officially recalled because his religion wasn't comfortable to the foreign country.
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 Indeed, Abraham Lincoln faced the problem when one of his diplomats
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 was accused by the country of having Jewish ancestry and they wouldn't accept him.
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 And Lincoln sent the man somewhere else in the diplomatic war to Denmark, which had a different name then, and was not at all interested in hearing about discrimination against people because of their background.
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 34:30.081 --> 34:30.502
 34:31.082 --> 34:41.007
 We're talking with Jonathan Sarna, professor of, um, university professor and the Joseph and Bell Braun professor of American and Jewish history at Brandeis.
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 And I wonder if we could talk a little bit, we've talked a bit about the impact that Jews had on the revolution.
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 What about the impact of the revolution itself on Jews or on Judaism on its practice or on the Jewish community beyond the borders of the United States or within the borders of the United
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 And I have to say that I think the impact on Jews is more important even than the impact that Jews had.
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 It creates new norms.
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 The Constitution creates norms.
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 Suddenly, religious freedom, church-state separation, denominationalism.
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 In other words, we no longer allow a state religion.
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 There's a no-establishment clause.
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 Every denomination is equal, including Judaism.
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 Well, those ideas...
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 are new, they're new to everybody, but in the ensuing years we see Judaism changed in America and it tries to meet the needs of young Jews like Mordecai Noah, born after the revolution, who inhaled this atmosphere of freedom and democracy
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 and religious ferment.
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 And in the 1820s, we have what is really a great revolution.
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 We move from a synagogue community, meaning one synagogue in all of those communities I mentioned in the beginning, and suddenly people break away from synagogues.
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 just like Methodists and Baptists and so on, are going to break away from churches.
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 And they say, hey, it's a free country.
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 We can create our own way of being Jewish.
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 We can call ourselves reform.
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 And the government has no interest.
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 And indeed, by the Civil War, practically every Jewish community by then, 150,000 Jews,
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 has multiple synagogues reflecting different traditions.
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 And there's nothing like that in other countries.
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 So the revolution really reminds us.
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 Yeah, the revolution really rejects Judaism.
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 37:45.842 --> 38:13.696
 fascinating story about i mean it does remind us of how important this event was in kind of philosophical terms and in terms of uh what it means the fact that this religious freedom extends not just to protestants or dissenters and not just to christians but to jews muslims others who are able to enjoy as sit under their own vine and fig tree as
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 Washington reminded them.
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 Yeah, no, I think that's that's absolutely right.
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 And it was
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 Particularly important for religious groups that historically had suffered in different places.
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 And they, of course, were the first to write to Washington.
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 So there's letters from Quakers and Catholics and so on.
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 Washington reassures them that there's a place.
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 And, you know, America at its best, not always at its best, but America at its best.
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 is going to look back at these revolutionary traditions and say, ah, that's how minority faiths and minority groups generally should be treated.
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 We've been talking with Jonathan Sarna, who is a university professor, as well as the Joseph H. and Bell Arbron Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the Schlusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.
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 Been at Brandeis now for quite a while, 20 years.
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 No, no, much longer than that, since 1990.
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 Oh, my goodness.
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 And author, editor, co-author of about three dozen books and co-editor of three different series of books on Jewish history and American Jewish history and former president of the Association for Jewish Studies as well as chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
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 Thank you so much for joining us.
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 It's been a tremendous conversation.
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 I've learned a lot.
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 Well, thank you for inviting me.
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 I appreciate it.
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 I want to thank our producer, Jonathan Lane.
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 It's been great to talk to you, Jonathan Lane, our producer.
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 And I want to thank we have listeners, viewers actually all over the world.
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 It's been interesting talking to folks from different parts of the world and sharing this.
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 And so every week I thank people in different areas who are tuning in.
 40:31.052 --> 40:40.116
 So this week in Newbury in West Berkshire, as well as Newbury in Massachusetts and New Delhi and Mount Olive, North Carolina.
 40:40.814 --> 40:51.596
 and Concord in Massachusetts and Concord in North Carolina, Clifton Park, New York, Watertown, Massachusetts, and all places beyond and between.
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 Thanks for joining us.
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 And now these places and would like to get some of our Revolution 250 gear, send Jonathan Lane an email, jlane at
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 And now we will be piped out on the road to Boston.
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 Thanks for joining us.