- The Agudah and ‘Der Baal Tshuva’:The Agudath Israel World Organization, Politicized Orthodoxy and the Interwar American Jewish Community
On May 25, 1921, the Danish steamer Frederik VIII docked in New York City carrying a small company of identifiably Jewish men with distinguished beards, some in satin caftans, some in bourgeois German suits, in addition to its other assorted travelers, tourists and immigrants in steerage.1 They would have been unexceptional to the casual observer, no different from other traditionally dressed Jews encountered, often in large groups, in other tourist venues like the Bohemian spas of Karlsbad or Marienbad. It is likely, in fact, that this very quintet of rabbis and one layman would have been spotted at one of those places in the preceding months, in conferences or meetings, perhaps even planning the details of this very trip. Met on the quay in New York with moderate fanfare, their appearance was an important moment in the history of religion and politics in North America. They were delegates of the Agudath Israel World Organization (or Agudas Yisroel, as they would have referred to themselves), and their arrival was a first for Jewish politics in North America. Their appearance, which struck all the right notes of nostalgia, belied their revolutionary import. Contrary to the reigning attitude in the robust Jewish public sphere that viewed religious Jews as old fashioned, usually harmless, but ultimately obsolete and in decline, these Jews represented something new: a European, “Torah-true,” anti-Zionist religious political party seeking to mobilize financial [End Page 335] and ideological support from American Jews.2 The meeting was also a first for the most prominent public figure in the delegation: publicist, political theorist and organizer Nathan Birnbaum.
Although this was not his first visit to the United States, Birnbaum’s membership in the Agudah delegation was his first appearance in a new guise to a community familiar with him and his work in his previous life. In the sixth decade of a complex intellectual journey, Birnbaum had come to religious belief and Orthodox practice only a few years before 1921. Before that, he had been among the founders of the Zionist movement (credited with coining the term “Zionism” to describe Palestine-oriented Jewish nationalism) and he was considered a key early theorist of cultural Zionism. Leaving the movement after Theodor Herzl’s rise to dominance, Birnbaum had gradually shifted to advocating the adoption of the Yiddish language and national autonomy in the Austrian Empire, and, after a religious awakening at the beginning of the First World War, embraced East-European-style Orthodoxy. When he had come to America thirteen years earlier, it was as a hero of secular Jewish nationalism and [End Page 336] as an advocate of a robust modern Jewish nationalist culture.3 Feted in his first encounter with America as the bold nationalist/essayist Mathias Acher, his well-known nationalist pseudonym, Birnbaum had shared a stage in Greenwich Village’s Webster Hall with a group as diverse as Zionist activist and Reform Rabbi Judah Magnes, Jewish socialist Chaim Zhitlovsky, Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin and union leader Joseph Barondess, all united in their admiration for his work. His visit culminated with an audience in the Oval Office with President Theodore Roosevelt.4
Now, clothed physically and metaphorically in Orthodox garb, Birnbaum had exchanged his call for a Jewish volk united by a common language, literary culture and the demand for national recognition for a new message — one even more radical and challenging to his American audience. Mathias Acher had become “Nusn Birnboym” — “Der Baal Tshuve,” as he was called both by opponents and supporters, the penitent returnee to the fold of strict religious observance. Now he spoke of the need for a politicized Jewish identity based upon fidelity to Torah, observance of mitzvot and rejection of the temporal or, in his words, [End Page 337] “materialist” trappings of Jewish nationalism (especially Zionism). As jarring as his company was to an American Jewish community whose ideas about religion (especially the European Orthodoxy represented by the Agudah) were fraught with complexity, Birnbaum became a lightning rod for criticism in the American Jewish press as much for his personal...