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The Importance of History

The many beliefs and practices of Judaism were not developed all at once. They were gathered slowly through the course of a long history -- one of the longest histories of any living civilization.


The early history of the Jews is recorded in the Bible and in the Talmud and Midrash. Following this period, the long years of Jewish wandering began when, in the year 70 C.E., Titus led the Roman forces through the walls of Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple of the Jews. The Jews considered themselves "in exile" (the Diaspora or "dispersing") from the Promised Land, and they were scattered among the nations of the world. When such a diaspora had overtaken other nations in ancient times, the people had slowly assimilated to local populations and disappeared. This would not be the case for the Jews.

In Babylonia, a large Jewish community flourished. Here, the Talmud was completed around 500 C.E. (a smaller, lesser-known, Talmud had been compiled in the Holy Land slightly earlier). Possibly because it was written in the Diaspora, the Babylonian Talmud became the basis for Jewish ritual practice and belief, community planning, individual and group conduct, government among Jews, and a basic understanding of the Bible from that time forward. In Europe great Jewish communities were established in Spain, Germany, and Poland over the centuries, each contributing to a growing Jewish tradition.

Jews were often persecuted and uprooted. Communities along the Rhine in what is now modern Germany and France were destroyed by the Crusades. The Spanish Jewish community flourished in a Golden Age only to find itself sent into a new exile in 1492 by the Inquisition. A populous Jewish community in Poland was eventually torn by pogroms -- organized attacks and massacres encouraged by the church and sometimes instigated by the state.


At the very beginning of the modern period, Jews were already seeking refuge in the United States. As each wave of persecution hit the Jews of Europe and Asia, waves of Jewish immigrants came to the New World. First to appear were Jews who had fled Spain and Portugal. From settlements in England, Holland, and South America, they slowly made their way to the Thirteen Colonies that would later form the United States. Jews fleeing Germany followed them in the nineteenth century. And Jews fleeing Poland and Russia arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, crowding into Jewish neighborhoods like the Lower East Side in New York. The freedoms guaranteed by the separation of church and state in the United States, and the promise of unlimited wealth and prosperity in the New World, drew Jewish immigrants from villages and cities alike.

Basic Judaism--Keyterms: Jewish, jewish, Jews, jews, Judaism, judaism, Jewish beliefs, Jewish observances, Jewish holidays, Jewish holy days, Jewish history, Rossel, rossel, Seymour Rossel, seymour rossel, beliefs, belief, observances, holy days, holidays, prayer, study, professions, history, past, future, basic, introduction, customs, ceremonies, modern, movements, Moses, monotheism, faith, philosophy, Hasidism, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Torah, prayer, study, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, Jewish law, reference, WannaLearn award, ritualThroughout the years of the Diaspora, small groups of Jews returned to settle in Palestine (the name give to the Holy Land by the Romans who believed they had struck a death blow to the Jews and called the land after its Philistine inhabitants). Most Jewish returnees settled in towns where they lived observant lives and studied, often supported entirely by charity from Jewish communities in the Diaspora. In modern times, some few came to buy small parcels of land, attempting to eke out a living as farmers.

As conditions in Europe worsened in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Zionism flourished, bringing new waves of idealistic Jewish immigrants. Arriving in the Holy Land, Jewish Zionists found that the land could support farms, vineyards, and orchards. They set out to create a modern Jewish society, one that would not be reliant upon charity from abroad. But the Turkish government was only sometimes tolerant and never truly friendly. Following World War I, in 1917, however, the Turks were forced to allow the government of Great Britain to administer Palestine and the Zionists obtained a promise from the British government: Britain officially declared that it would aid the Jews in establishing a new homeland in Palestine.


Alas, the tide of history was against the Jews one more time. In 1933 Hitler rose to power in Germany, and twelve years later, at the end of the Second World War, a shocked and horrified world learned that the Nazi government and its allies had murdered six million Jews. (For the history of the Holocaust, see The Holocaust: An End to Innocence.) Nationalism had also seized the local Arab populations in Palestine and in the Arab countries surrounding it. Their sudden claim that Palestine belonged to the Arab nations came as a great disappointment to the Jewish people. In the face of it, Great Britain would never complete its commitment to aid the Jewish settlers in the Promised Land.

Despite this, in May of 1948, the State of Israel was created by the new United Nations, and the new Jewish state was immediately attacked by the Arab nations that surrounded it on three sides. A fierce war, which the Arab nations had intended to end by driving the Jews into the sea, ended instead as Israel's War of Independence. But no peace treaty was signed and the new nation still required supported from the Jewish communities of the United States and Europe. More wars followed, but the young State of Israel grew and prospered. Trees were planted to create forests and to improve the climate of the country, swamps were drained and land was reclaimed for agriculture, factories appeared and flourished, and high technology and advanced science were pursued as prospects for a bright future developed.

The American Jewish community prospered, too, growing stronger with each passing generation. Canada and Mexico had become strongholds of Jewish activity. Jewish communities flourished in England, continental Europe, South America, Australia, and South Africa. It will require many generations to recover from the horrors of the death camps of World War II and to rebuild the Jewish population of the world, but it cannot be denied that the future for the Jews is hopeful.


Jews look upon this history as an important part of their Jewish heritage. They have comprised a significant and involved minority in every epoch of Western civilization and in the history of the Islamic peoples of Spain and North Africa, as well. Jewish greats have often been world greats. A sampling of well-known Jewish figures of the present century would include Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis; Martin Buber, the teacher of humanitarian philosophy; Albert Einstein, the mathematician and scientist; Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of the State of Israel; Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the anti-polio vaccine; Franz Kafka, the great author; Marc Chagall, the brilliant artist; Louis Brandeis, the outstanding American lawyer and jurist; and Stephen Spielberg, the maker of movie magic.

Jews are, of course, proud of the many achievements of their people. But equally as important, from a Jewish perspective, are the many individuals, known and unknown, who worked to build a more peaceful world -- people who believed with perfect faith that history moves in an inexorable direction toward the end of days and the world to come. It is this sense of history that enables Jews to continue searching for the ways of God while helping one another.


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