Jews and Native Americans


Rachel Rubenstein is visiting assistant professor of Jewish American literature and culture at Hampshire College. She directs the program on Jewish secularization, and teaches “The Rise of Secular Jewish Culture” and other courses.

“I’m home on the range, but not at home on the range,” a melancholy cowboy says into his cellphone in a New Yorker cartoon. The cowboy in the American imagination, romantically roaming the mythical West alongside vanishing Indians and buffalo, is here amusingly re-imagined as a quintessentially Jewish figure, simultaneously home and not-at-home in the United States.

The ways that Jewish immigrants willed themselves to feel at home in their adopted country is a familiar story. So it should be no surprise that Native Americans played a role in this Jewish immigrant drama (or, sometimes, comedy). Usually, upon hearing that the subject of my book-in-progress is American Indians in the Jewish imagination, people respond: “Oh! Like Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles!” However, Jewish imaginative engagement with the indigenous peoples of the Americas has a much more complicated history—one which draws directly upon the secular Jewish identities that had been invented in Europe. Jewish nationalism and communism, the twin legacies of European Jews, would become among the most powerful mediating ideas between immigrant Jews and “their” Indians.

Let me begin in the middle. This whole project started when I came across translations of Native American chants into Yiddish from the early 20th century. They were in a Yiddish journal called Shriftn, published by a group of secular modernist Yiddish poets in New York. While reading, I noticed an intensely political Jewish fascination with Native American culture.

The story begins as early as the 17th century, when a Portuguese crypto-Jew named Antonio de Montezinos claimed to have encountered descendents of the ten lost tribes of Israel in the mountains of Brazil. They spoke to him in Hebrew and called him “brother.” Montezinos’ narrative, publicized all over Europe and its colonies, would become the most significant piece of evidence for the enormously popular theory that the native peoples of the New World were in fact the lost Israelites. Later, in the early 19th century, Mordechai Manuel Noah attempted to establish a sovereign Jewish nation in upstate New York into which he would invite Indians, to be “reunited with their brethren.” Noah’s unsuccessful Jewish-Indian nation has served as literary inspiration for contemporary writers like Ben Katchor (The Jew of New York), Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), and others, who have written about havens of Jewish refugees and their encounters with Indians.

Jewish immigrants, making their way westward in the 19th century, usually encountered “real Indians” through trade, but it was the vaudeville circuit that would become the site of encounters between Jews and Indians. There’s an old joke that the roles of “Indians” on the vaudeville stage (and later, in Hollywood films) were usually performed by Jews, and, moreover, that the early-20th-century vaudeville theatre served as a staging ground upon which Jews and Indians met and mingled. However, it was more often the case that Jewish performers donned “redface.”

Beginning with the Yiddish playlet “Tsvishn Indianer” (“Among Indians”), performed in 1895 as part of a larger bill, and continuing through burlesque songs such as “Yonkl the Cowboy Jew,” “I’m a Yiddish Cowboy” (about an intermarriage between a Jewish cowboy and an Indian maiden), and “Moshe from Nova Scotia” (about a Jewish Eskimo), there is a long, fascinating, and sometimes troubling tradition of urbane immigrant Jews either offensively or comically performing an encounter with the mythical American West and its mythologized inhabitants: the Indians. (The tradition continued with “Big Chief Dynamite,” about a “tough Jew Indian boy,” and continued further with Fanny Brice’s Ziegfield Follies song “I’m an Indian.” It culminated with Mel Brooks’ late-20th-century turn as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief in Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder’s Polish immigrant rabbi crossing the continent in The Frisco Kid, and Rob Morrow’s New York Jewish doctor trapped in a tiny Alaskan village in the 1990s television series Northern Exposure.)

But Jewish engagement with Native Americans was also fueled by more serious literary and political motivations. For instance, in the first half of the 20th century, three Hebrew poets published epics on Native American themes. Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” was translated into Yiddish and Hebrew in the early 20th century. Shriftn wasn’t the only Yiddish journal to translate (and imitate, in fact) Native American chants: Der Hammer, the Yiddish communist monthly, devoted its July 1928 issue to Native American themes, featuring translations of poetry, renditions of traditional tales, and original fiction. The Yiddish press both in Eastern Europe and the U.S. regularly featured articles on Native American cultures. Several Yiddish writers developed a reputation for writing about Jews, the West, and American Indians. In nearly all cases, these articles were saturated with the radical left-wing politics characteristic of secular Yiddish literature.

In English, radical secular left-wing Jewish writers such as Tillie Olsen, Michael Gold, Nathanael West, and Howard Fast critiqued fascism, colonialism, and racism by referencing Native American history. Howard Fast, for one, linked Jewish suffering and genocide under Nazism with the suffering and national struggle of the Cheyenne, in his novel The Last Frontier. And beginning in the late 1960s and 70s, Bernard Malamud and Henry Roth produced complex meditations on Jewish and Native national identities, genocide, suffering, and power.

American Jews, I would argue, have never been able to reconcile their colonial and counter-colonial impulses, so Jewish interest in Native Americans also served as yet another way to work out anxieties about how to negotiate the collision between “tribalisms” and modern, Enlightenment liberalism. Constantly interrogating and examining their own indigenousness and their own sense of being “at home,” Jews have imagined in Native America a mirror for their anxieties and desires.

Rachel Rubinstein, visiting assistant professor of Jewish American literature and culture, received her B.A. from Yale University and her Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is currently at work on a project which deals with Jewish American and Native American intersections in 19th- and 20th-century American literature and culture.