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  • A Preacher in Exile:Shemaryahu Levin and the Making of American Zionism, 1914–1919
  • Judah M. Bernstein (bio)

In 1917, the Degel Zion club of Haverhill, Massachusetts, announced that the city's upcoming bazaar would be hosting a Palestine booth that would sell various Zionist mementos. The booth's special attraction would be a book of essays penned and signed by a major figure in Zionist affairs. The author was not Louis Brandeis, Stephen Wise, Judah Magnes, or any of the other homegrown stalwarts then active on the American Zionist scene, but rather a foreigner spending the war years in the United States, Shemaryahu Levin.1

Though a celebrity in America during and following the war, Levin has attracted little attention from historians of Zionism, and has faded into obscurity. Scholars have chronicled how, after emerging as leader of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs (PC) in 1914, Louis Brandeis traveled far and wide to win over new recruits and raise massive funds, transforming Zionism in America in the process.2 Rarely explored, however, is that Shemaryahu Levin, a former Russian Duma representative and a member of the Zionist Organization's highest executive body, the Actions Comité, often accompanied Brandeis on those barnstorming tours. To the extent that Levin is mentioned at all in the historical literature, he is relegated to a cohort of Yiddish-speaking immigrant Zionists alienated from a rapidly Americanizing demographic of younger immigrants and children of immigrants.3 Yet, by the end of [End Page 323] the war, Levin had garnered an unrivaled degree of popularity among many American Jews, hailed by admirers and detractors alike as the ultimate "preacher," a highly skilled "agitator," and even a "prophet." What made Levin's speaking style and persona so appealing? What did Levin say about Zionism to his enthralled audiences, and how did it compare with the message of Brandeis? What does Levin's popularity reveal about Zionism in America in the early twentieth century?

A number of factors contributed to Levin's success and influence. Speaking in a Lithuanian Yiddish, infusing his speeches with classical Jewish texts and religious themes, and delivering his lectures in a characteristically shtetl preaching style, Levin employed oratorical techniques that resonated with Eastern European immigrants. At the same time, his appeal transcended the so-called Russian-German divide that is so often assumed to have segmented American Jewish life, as he found ways of charming both immigrant and non-immigrant audiences, and first-generation and second-generation American Jews. Levin's cachet as a political émigré, his oratorical dynamism in German as well as Yiddish, and his personification of a synthesis of Eastern European traditional Jewish learning and secular European erudition, bolstered his appeal beyond immigrant circles. His expert oratory and multifaceted public image made it possible for him to bring his sharp critique of Jewish life in America to tens of thousands of Jews. Levin repeatedly emphasized the ways in which America resembled exile, or golus, and urged the revival of a robust Jewish culture as the only way to save American Jewry from dissolution. His message stood in contrast to Brandeis's more sanguine view of the overlap of putative American and Jewish values, and struck a discordant note among Jews eager to prove their American bona fides and declare America their home. And yet, even as they differed, Levin and Brandeis influenced each other in significant ways. Levin's popularity thus demonstrates the fascinating diversity and fluidity of Zionism in America during the war years, and suggests that, behind the façade of expressions of American patriotism, American Zionists harbored deep anxiety about the future of Jewish life in the United States.

The American Attorney and the Preacher from the Pale

Beginning in September 1914, Louis Brandeis and Shemaryahu Levin embarked on a speaking tour that brought them throughout the American northeast and midwest. They were an improbable pair. Born [End Page 324] in Louisville, Kentucky, and educated at Harvard University, Brandeis had achieved fame as a progressive lawyer, strike mediator, and advisor to President Woodrow Wilson. He had little in the way of a traditional Jewish upbringing, and prior to entering the Zionist arena, sparse experience...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 323-350
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-10
Open Access
No
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