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Watch Your History, Pilgrim!
For Jews, the American founding story of Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims is somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we can relate deeply with the story of a people who fled religious oppression in the search for freedom -- and a nice turkey dinner with cranberries on the side.
On the other hand, it is something of a stretch to get worked up about internecine struggles among Christians. Nor can we feel comfortable when reflecting upon the repressive religious atmosphere that the Puritans fostered in New England, complete with witch trials and purges of heretics.
So it is somewhat of a relief to discover that the Pilgrims are not really America's first British settlers after all. Instead, the honor of creating the first self-sustaining English-speaking settlement in North America belongs to the band of 104 men and boys who landed on the shore of the James River in 1607 and founded what became Jamestown, Va.
Yes, 13 years before the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, English-speaking settlers and the charismatic leader they elected, Capt. John Smith, were laying the groundwork for representative democracy and that most basic of American traditions -- corporate free enterprise and the pursuit of profit.
The Jamestown settlers came not as religious refugees, but rather as employees of the Virginia Company of London, which had been formed in the hopes of finding some of the gold that the Spanish seemed to be tripping over left and right in Mexico and points south.
Alas, the Virginia boys failed to find gold and indeed struggled mightily during their first few years in the New World, but the settlement endured and it was in 1619 that the creation of the House of Burgesses in Jamestown gave North America its first taste of representative government. Legendary Americans, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, cut their political teeth in that House.
To commemorate the Jamestown settlers and the inspiration they gave to all who followed, a series of 400th anniversary celebrations will take place throughout 2007 in Jamestown and its neighboring historic sites of Williamsburg and Yorktown.
The festivities will peak right around the time of year that the settlers actually landed in Jamestown. From May 11 to 13, a series of concerts, shows and fireworks spectacles will commemorate the 400th anniversary weekend in high style.
If you can't make it down that weekend, you can still have an experience that's both educational and emotional in Jamestown. First visit the Historic Jamestowne settlement (www. historicjamestowne.org) where the colonists built their fort. A statue of the bearded John Smith stares out across the James River.
Just in Time for '1607'
Then proceed to the Jamestown Settlement (www.historyisfun.org) to walk through recreations of the fort and a Powhatan Indian village, or clamber aboard replicas of the sailing ships that made the journey from England to America. Starting in late April, the museum at Jamestown Settlement will host a year-long exhibition called "The World of 1607," featuring 17th-century treasures on loan from museums around the world.
Meanwhile, in Williamsburg (www.history.org), the hot ticket these days is Revolutionary City, a street theater program that plays out from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. over several days and uses street theater and dramatic vignettes to tell the story of the events that led to the American Revolution.
The history truly comes alive when played in such a historic milieu. When the actor playing the governor announces from his balcony that he has dissolved the House of Burgesses for its perceived lack of loyalty to the king, the boos and hisses in the crowd showed how much Americans still value our free democracy.
Jamestown and its historic neighbors Yorktown and Williamsburg are commemorating the anniversary of the Jamestown landing with a range of events, exhibits and festivities.
Outside of the museum, take time to stroll through full-scale re-creations of the Jamestown fort and a Powhatan village, then clamber aboard seaworthy replicas of the colonists' ships and marvel at the conditions that the men endured while crossing the Atlantic in such small vessels.
From playing at revolution, take a quick drive down the Colonial Parkway, one of America's most scenic roads, to Yorktown (www.nps.gov/yonb), where an important battle of the Revolutionary War took place a little more than 225 years ago.
With vital assistance from the French, this is where the American army under Gen. Washington defeated Lord Cornwallis and forced the British to recognize the independence of the United States of America.
The region's Jewish presence is a strong one. Dr. John de Sequeyra is the first Jew known to have settled permanently in the Williamsburg area. A Sephardic Jew of Portuguese descent who had been born into a prominent English medical family, de Sequeyra set sail for Virginia in 1745 and lived 50 years in Williamsburg, serving as physician to local eminences such as the governor, Lord Botetourt, and Patsy Custis, George Washington's step-daughter.
At a time when many people thought tomatoes were poisonous, de Sequeyra recognized their benefits and popularized their safety and healthful qualities.
Info to Go
Where to stay and eat? Opt for a modern, comfortable suite at the Woodlands Hotel and Suites or right in the heart of historic Williamsburg at the Fife and Drum Inn (www.fifeanddruminn.com).
If you choose the Woodlands, the casual pizza and sandwich restaurant Huzzah! is literally steps from the back door.
For a more historic experience, try Christiana Campbell's Tavern, where the specialty is seafood.