- Rabbi Max Heller: Reformer, Zionist, Southerner, 1860–1929
This book represents the latest installment in the University of Alabama Press’s Judaic Studies Series, which sheds light on a relatively unexplored area: the American Jewish experience in the Deep South. Malone’s biography of Max Heller (1860–1929) describes the person who served as rabbi of New Orleans’s largest Jewish Reform congregation, Temple Sinai, from 1887 through his death. Malone sets out to prove that Heller constituted a man of “both passionate conviction and inherent contradiction” (xiii). Heller does emerge as a man of deep principle, but the supposed contradiction remains obscure.
Malone’s initial chapters provide an invaluable portrayal of Heller’s early years in three ways. First, we receive a detailed description of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s liberal policy towards its Jews in the 1870s, since Heller lived in Prague until his late teens. In response, Prague’s Jews modified their cultural orientation as they left the city’s Judenstadt ghetto. Malone apparently sees this change as paralleling the American Jewish experience. Second, an interesting portrayal of the Heller family emerges, with the male members pursuing scholarly work while their female counterparts struggle to support the family after its emigration to the United States. Finally, Malone provides a good description of Heller’s studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, including a portrayal of its founder, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.
The middle portion of Malone’s book concentrates on how Heller became a leader of the Southern Jewish community through his rabbinical position in New Orleans and his advocacy of various social justice (tzedakah) issues. Heller first emerged as a leader in the local reformers’ attacks on the Louisiana State Lottery Company, which received special favors from the state legislature. Malone also describes in detail Heller’s efforts to assist Eastern European immigrants. This activity led to confrontation with fellow Reform rabbis such as Isaac L. Leucht, who saw the new immigrants as a threat to the delicate relationship between American Jews and Southern Protestants. Eventually Heller expanded his social concerns by supporting the African-American struggle against racism, thus producing a forerunner of the relationship between the Jewish community and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. [End Page 449]
Malone also provides a full picture of the issue that came to dominate Heller’s life: Zionism. As an immigrant to the United States, Heller originally supported Jewish assimilation into American culture. Experiences with both anti-Semitism and racism, however, eventually convinced Heller by the early 1900s that a Jewish homeland constituted a necessary alternative. This again led to further clashes with other Reform rabbis who either opposed Zionism or Heller’s attempts to bring together the Reform and Orthodox Jewish communities to support Zionism.
A few weaknesses do appear in Malone’s book. Her early emphasis on gender inequality would be more convincing if Malone provided more details about Heller’s siblings, wife, and daughters. In addition, Malone only provides a brief description of the landmark Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, and does not analyze the platform’s effect on Heller. Finally, although Malone describes Heller as a Progressive, she never provides a definition of Progressivism. The closest attempt comes when Malone states that progressivism sought the “ultimate perfectibility of mankind” (138). Although Heller did support the Progressive Party candidate in the 1916 Louisiana gubernatorial elections, his belief in reform seemingly stemmed more from his religious convictions than from secular politics. Perhaps these weaknesses stem from the very nature of a biography, which focuses on one person, and thus cannot provide a wide panorama of the subject’s times.
These weaknesses do not detract from the impressive effect of Malone’s book. She writes fluently and with a sense of direction. Malone’s extensive research, particularly in Heller’s own papers, bears fruit throughout the book, such as when she provides excerpts from the letters of Heller’s father. Rabbi Max Heller provides a solid description of perhaps the major Southern Jewish leader of his time.