Discovering Your Jewish American Heritage

Heritage Months
1 May 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Jewish American Heritage Month celebrates the many  contributions that Jewish Americans have made to American culture and history. For generations, Jewish Americans have contributed to form the fabric of American society and we owe many of our great achievements as a nation to the work and dedication of individuals from the Jewish community. Exploring your own Jewish heritage can teach you a lot about where you come from and the origins of your family traditions.

Jewish Heritage and History

The presence of Jewish people in North America can be traced back to the seventeenth century, making the Jewish community an integral part of American history since its inception. Jewish Americans have played significant roles in many different areas of society including politics, medicine, the arts, and industry.

Key Facts About Jewish Populations in the US

Jewish ethnicity and religion are very connected. Some Jewish people may identify as Jewish primarily because of their ethnic origin, while others may practice Judaism. There are almost 6 million Jews living in the United States currently, but by and large Jewish Americans are not a highly religious group. 

Other key interesting facts include:

  • Second to Israel, the United States has the largest Jewish population in the world.
  • Even if they didn’t have a Jewish parent or Jewish upbringing, some people still consider themselves  Jewish “in some way” due to their family history, their spouse’s family, or how they were raised. 

Jewish American Heritage Month Facts

Every year Jewish American Heritage Month honors the many Jewish Americans who have helped America develop into the nation it is today. Here are some interesting facts about Jewish American Heritage Month:

  • Until 2006, there used to be a Jewish Heritage Week instead of one month dedicated to Jewish heritage each year. Congress needed to pass a new law each year to determine which week in April or May would be celebrated. 
  • The first European Jews arrived in America in 1654, long before America gained independence from Britain.
  • Ways to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month include visiting a Jewish Heritage Museum, enjoying Jewish foods, learning more about your Jewish ancestors, and donating to Jewish organizations.

    President John F. Kennedy meets with members of the American Jewish Committee, 1962
    President John F. Kennedy meets with members of the American Jewish Committee, 1962

Contributions of Jewish Americans

  • Leonard Bernstein was a celebrated conductor and composer most famous for the musical West Side Story. 
  • Judy Blume is a beloved author of Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. 
  • Sammy Davis Jr. was an acclaimed entertainer that converted to Judaism in the 1960s. 
  • Irving Berlin was one of the most celebrated musicians and songwriters of his day and composed the popular Christmas tune White Christmas.
  • Albert Einstein is the most notable Jewish American scientist due to the impact of his Theory of Relativity and the scientific research that’s been made possible since. He made great strides to improve American-Jewish relations and was an advocate for the development of the atomic bomb. Without his support, the United States may never have committed the resources needed to develop the weapon.
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer was another prominent World War II scientist who was credited in the final development of the atomic bomb.
  • Mark Rothko was a Jewish and Russian immigrant and painter. His murals were commissioned by the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, and his artwork remains in the Jewish Heritage Museum to this day.
  • Howard Zinn was a celebrated historian, author of A People’s History of the United States. 
  • Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor best known for his  account of his experience in German concentration camps. His writing has helped ensure that younger generations never forget the horror of the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jewish people..
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first Jewish American woman to take a seat on the Supreme Court and was a champion in the fight for women’s rights.
  • Stan Lee was a Jewish American who built a comic book empire now worth billions of dollars.
  • Uriah Levy was a U.S. Navy member who ascended to the rank of Commodore under the name of John Paul Jones. He fought for the end of flogging as a punishment in the Navy and opposed anti-semitic policies in the Navy at the time. 
  • Levi Strauss founded the first company to manufacture blue jeans to serve miners during the Gold Rush. He pioneered many of the marketing and advertising strategies other companies used to become successful.
  • Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, was a Jewish American Poet.
  • Edna Ferber made history in 1925 by becoming the first Jewish American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Some of her books were also made into musicals and movies, such as Showboat.
  • Steven Spielberg is an Academy-Award winning film director. He came from a family of Jewish immigrants who lived in Ukraine.

Jewish Culture and Traditions

Jewish Americans often observe Jewish cultural traditions but the place afforded to religion varies greatly. While some people follow Jewish religious precepts – such as eating kosher foods, observing a weekly day of rest on the Sabbath, and attending Synagogue – others may connect to their Jewish identity through other forms of cultural practices. 

Many Jewish Americans celebrate the High Holy Days of  Rosh Hashanah, the New Year celebration, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Passover, which commemorates the Hebrew’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, and Hanukkah, the festival of lights, are also important Jewish holidays in America.

orthodox jews
Source: Library of Congress

Discovering Your Jewish Family History

Following your family’s history can be exciting and rewarding, but it may also be frustrating at times due to roadblocks or missing pieces of your story. Start by asking relatives questions and use information you already know, like names and dates, to search records at Ancestry®. 

It’s easy to get started with a free trial on Ancestry® and begin searching our Jewish family history records.