“There’s a reason Jewish people love Chinese food.”
— Rabbi Rick Winer, Temple Beth Israel, Fresno
It’s no accident that so many Jews have settled in the U.S. over the centuries, for this is the only nation in the world, other than Israel, where they have been allowed full equality under the law from the very beginning. In return, there is little doubt that we have benefited more from their creativity, intellectual energy, and productivity than any other nation.
Few Americans realize that Jews have occupied our land from the very beginning of European exploration of the New World. Indeed, five of the men who sailed with Columbus were “conversos,” Jews converted to Christianity during the Spanish inquisition. Then, in 1554, the first significant Jewish settlement was established in New Amsterdam, consisting of 23 refugees who had escaped from Brazil after its re-conquest by Portugal from Holland. New Amsterdam eventually became New York after the colony fell into British hands.
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According to Huston Smith, author of “The World’s Religions,” “One third of our Western Civilization bears the marks of our Jewish ancestry.”
There is no question that America’s Jews have contributed their share to this rich legacy, including Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Dr. Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine, and the literary contributions of, among others, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Any list of American Jewish playwrights, composers and Hollywood and Broadway stars is endless, but George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Arthur Miller, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg and Jerry Seinfeld are a good start.
Smith’s assertion rings true for me even in the names we give our children. As a kid in Los Angeles, I knew lots of boys named David, a couple of Jonathans, had a crush on Rachel, and was in awe of our great president whose first name was Abraham. As a grandfather, I note with amusement how many youngsters are now being given such traditional Jewish names as Adam, Noah, Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Jews have been at the core of the intellectual and material wealth of our valley for as long an anyone can remember. Our local Jewish population, a microcosm of their larger community throughout the nation, has impacted the local scene in ways far beyond what their numbers would portend. Fresno resident and Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Levine was American Poet Laureate in 2011-2012. The Gottschalk family founded and operated our Valley’s most popular store for more than a century until, in 2008, it succumbed to the Great Recession.
While Judaism is a religion, being Jewish also has a lot to do with a rich culture based on traditions and intellectual vigor going back a couple of thousand years. Many Jews in Fresno and elsewhere are not religious, but savor their historic narrative and customs as “cultural Jews.” While agnosticism is not uncommon among this group, others hold to Einstein’s view that only a supreme being could have created such a perfect and beautiful universe. Einstein, however, rejected the God of the Hebrew Bible.
Rick Winer, rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, Fresno’s oldest and largest synagogue, is enthusiastic about the positive role his congregation has played over the years in the life of our community. A man blessed with a rare combination of intellect and humor, Winer expressed pride during our recent meeting that three schools in Fresno Unified are named after local Jews as a result of their long-term commitment to the betterment of the community — Slater, Greenberg and Ginsberg elementary schools. He told me that the betterment of the community is central to everything Temple Beth Israel is about, especially when it comes to advancing educational opportunities, feeding the hungry and helping the homeless.
Rabbi Winer and I discussed the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah honors the Jewish New Year, while Yom Kippur woship services memorialize the Day of Atonement, a day of prayer and fasting.
When I noted that Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, begins in mid-December and runs roughly parallel to the Christian Christmas season, the rabbi was reminded of a funny story. The reason Jewish people love Chinese food, he said, is because, traditionally, Chinese restaurants were the only food establishments open at Christmas time. Jews had no place else to go if they desired to eat out. He then chuckled and told me that a member of his congregation now owns a Chinese restaurant that is doing so well he is about to open a second one.
As I walked to my car, I reflected on yet one more example of American Jews turning misfortune into good fortune.