- Ambivalent Attitudes toward Intermarriage in the Forverts, 1905–1920
On May 2, 1905, the front-page above-the-fold bolded headline of Forverts, the Yiddish daily newspaper, announced: “He Converted to Judaism for a Jewish Woman.”1 Located next to news about labor negotiations, an item of key interest to the working-class readers of this socialist newspaper, the prominence of the article highlights the rarity of conversion and intermarriage at this historical moment and suggests that it was an event of significance to the immigrant Jewish community.2 The article’s summary, located under the headline, explains, “the bris of a 24-year-old Christian was held on Sunday. The wedding will be on Lag B’Omer.” Although the article states that the groom, Franz Polzausky, as a result of conversion, is “a Jew, equal to all other Jews,” the summary’s description of him as a Christian reveals the tenacity of categories of difference even as it highlights his transition between these categories. It calls into question Polzausky’s authenticity as a Jew while it allows that the process of conversion has made his marriage to a Jewish woman, Polly Raymon, permissible.
The article’s terse description of Polzausky’s bris as “interesting” calls attention to the sensational and unusual nature of the conversion and marriage. It emphasizes the uniqueness of a conversion, in which a man is circumcised as an adult, in comparison to the relative frequency of the bris ceremony undergone by newborns at the age of eight days. The article further suggests that the event has dramatic appeal to the reading audience through its abrupt shift from the expository voice of newspaper reporting to a narrative mode:
Jacob Murmelstein, from 47 Avenue B, came to retrieve the girl from the ship when she arrived at Ellis Island. Murmelstein is Polly’s cousin. When he saw that the girl was not alone and was with a goy he asked her what she intended to do.
“Get married,” Polly answered.
“But he is a Christian,” the cousin argued.
“Then he will become a Jew,” Polly reassured him.
So Murmelstein also retrieved his future cousin from Ellis Island. [End Page 23]
The storytelling style employed at the center of this otherwise fact-oriented article introduces dramatic tension to the story. The reader is encouraged to encounter the dramatic story as though first-hand, through the eyes of Murmelstein, an ordinary Jew to whom the reader can relate. The reader is faced at first with a problem, which is immediately resolved through dialogue, resulting in a surprising but happy ending. The crisis of intermarriage, of an illegitimate or impossible marriage, of love across boundaries, or of the indiscretion of love without marriage is threatened and then immediately resolved.
The article’s introduction to, and then quick retreat from, the subject of intermarriage, coupled with its indication that differences between Jews and non-Jews remain even after conversion, signals the discomfort and ambivalence with which the Forverts approached the subject of marriage between Jews and non-Jews in the early twentieth century. The placement of the article front and center suggests that the editorial staff believed that such a titillating humaninterest story would help to sell a newspaper purportedly focused on the political and social struggles of the Jewish working class.3 The story exemplifies the surprise and curiosity with which intermarriage was approached in the Forverts in the early twentieth century as well as a multiplicity of complicated questions related to Jewish communal politics and adjustment to American life.
Often cloaked in modes of literary storytelling, stories in the Forverts about intermarriage are part of a larger initiative to reach and entertain popular reading audiences, yet at the same time they convey insights about the Forverts editorial staff’s attitudes toward communal politics and competing values of universalism and particularism. Taken together, intermarriage cases in the Forverts reveal deep ambivalence—between a belief in the general equality of peoples and a suspicion that non-Jews are by nature violent toward Jews—as well as tension between the acceptance of a political platform of egalitarianism, and an instinctual cautiousness that prompts the editor to protect the boundaries...