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If the Jew was so much a part of the larger world in which he lived why then did he create so many societies of his own? Is it that he was not always liked by others or that most Jews were not at ease among Gentiles? It was almost inevitable in the Gilded Age of snobbishness that many non-Jews would want little to do with Jews; the exchange of home hospitality between Gentile and Jew was uncommon. It was easy for the Chosen People to imagine that they were being rejected when often no slight was intended. But rejection is by no means the sole reason for Jewish self-segregation; Jews began to create social clubs of their own in the pre-Civil War years before Judeophobia was a threat. The Jews chose to be with their own; like all immigrants they were apprehensive; they wanted the security, the fellowship that came with familiar surroundings, speech, and customs.1


Women played an important part in the life of the Jewish community but in an informal fashion. Their husbands tended to put them in second place; they were excluded from many male organizations. When the men established lodges the women were merely “auxiliaries.” Yet they participated actively in communal life; they were fund-raisers for every occasion, prime supporters of the synagog. They were the wheelhorses, for they pulled more than their share of the load. But they were no shrinking violets; constantly they created societies of their own dedicated to specific tasks, most of which were philanthropic in nature, geared to bring relief to old and young, families and orphans; they sewed garments, supplied fuel, and supported schools. Bringing relief to the unfortunate was a job to which the women devoted themselves; there were always enough good causes even in the days before the East Europeans began to arrive in force. The constitutions of the women’s sodalities give little intimation of the part that sociability played; actually it was very important. Making no pretensions to literary or eleemosynary pursuits a few, but only a very few, societies admitted that they met solely for the purpose of exchanging pleasantries. The As You Like It Association of Lexington, Kentucky, is a case in point. The matrons and young ladies in town who were invited to join met one afternoon a week, drank tea and ate cookies, paid dues of 10 cents, and devoted the afternoon assiduously to chitchat and gossip. On one occasion they did give $2 to a poor family but that was only after a protracted discussion. As You Like It was a completely friendly, completely innocuous organization.2

The American woman, Gentile and Jew, began to reach out, to seek more recognition in the second half of the nineteenth century. In New York City the Young Women’s Christian Association had already come into being by 1858. Over the years it moved into the fields of culture and civic reform. Basically it was evangelistic, orthodox in its goals. The world of commitment, testimony, prayer, Bible studies did not move the typical American Jewish woman; psychologically she was not attuned to that type of religiosity. The religious motivation left Jewish women untouched, but they were influenced structurally by the growing YWCA. As early as the 1860’s Jewish girls had already begun to enter the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in one way or another; by 1888 there was a YWHA auxiliary in New York; in 1902, an independent YWHA had made its appearance. At this late date these Jewish women’s “Ys” were essentially Americanization agencies concerned with the problems of the incoming Slavic Jews. While the Christian women’s “Ys” and the Christian Endeavor Movement had a great vogue, the YWHA had only a modest growth. The Jewish women of that generation were not yet ready to go off by themselves; they were apparently still too dependent on the men to be independent.3

As middle-class American women began to emancipate themselves from household drudgery they found time for music, culture, civic reform, good works, and fraternization with one another. It was then that the women’s club movement began to make itself felt; by 1889 there was a Federation of Women’s Clubs; by 1914 it could count more than a million members. American Jews were part of this social explosion although less sophisticated mothers and daughters continued to maintain the old-fashioned relief societies and even reached out in transmississippi settlements to create new ones. Following in the wake of their Gentile compeers, Jewish women imitated their neighbors by forming clubs of their own. On the whole programs were similar although there was always a Jewish cultural presence. The Jewish counterpart of the Federation of Women’s Clubs was the National Council of Jewish Women created in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair. Like most of the Gentile women’s clubs it was a class organization reflecting the interest of the more affluent families. Some of the sections of the NCJW were impressively large and successful; in Maryland and Oregon they were the largest women’s clubs in the state. Led by Henrietta Szold, the women of the new immigration created Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. Its rapid growth, intense Jewish program, and medical work in Palestine is eloquent testimony that its members were making a very important place for themselves in the American Jewish community.4



Among the many types of organizations fathered by Jews were the secret Greek letter college fraternities, created in slavish imitation of the exclusive Gentile campus clubs. By the 1870’s chapters of these letter societies were numbered in the hundreds; by the 1890’s the Jewish students, with no place to go, began to set up organizations of their own. The first was a Hebrew letter Zionist society but by 1902 there was a series of national Jewish fraternities with chapters at many colleges; Jewish professional men in the fields of medicine, dentistry, law, and optometry created golden key societies of their own. Like the Gentile college associations these Jewish clubs were purely social and equally snobbish. Jewish women created similar organizations. By the late nineteenth century a number of Jewish women were already university graduates. Patterning themselves on the Gentile Greek letter sororities they began to establish little social enclaves of their own. In this instance there can be no question that the Jewish sororities were a reaction to anti-Semitism; the Gentile students had erected a “racial” and social barrier between themselves and their Jewish fellows. Greek letter Jewish women’s societies were first organized in New York City and state in 1903; by 1917 there were five Jewish national sororities.

These associations and the older Jewish college fraternities were part of a general movement of American Jewish youth to band together into societies of its own, but was this activity on the part of young American Jewry a youth movement? No! A youth movement is a revolt against the ideals and traditions of the elders; these teenagers were not rebels. True, they wanted less German language and culture and more radical changes in religious ritual and belief; they wanted speedier Americanization. Some indeed were sympathetic to civic reform, to socialism, and to pacifism, but prior to 1921 they never organized Jewish youth to attain these ends. Their ideals and ambitions were bourgeois, they were not in revolt against established authority, the existing social structure; they wanted to be by themselves as soon as possible but ultimately they hoped to enter into the social world, the club life of their fathers. Their goal was status, wealth, success in the American sense. There is little if any evidence that the parents disapproved of these youth societies; certainly in many instances the adults—parents, ideologues, and rabbis—encouraged the boys to establish associations of their own. The parents always had an axe to grind; they wanted their sons to follow in their footsteps; the rabbis urged the adolescents to pursue Jewish studies; the Zionists worked steadily and unsuccessfully to propagandize the youth. There was a great deal of Zionist youth activity; clubs rose only to die speedily. Young Judaea managed to maintain itself, but its leaders were mature adults, not youth.5


The number of national Jewish sororities, fraternities, and chapters was relatively limited, but there seems to have been no limit to the organizations which youngsters had already begun to fashion almost a generation before the Civil War. These groups rose, flourished for a brief moment, and then faded away. Although the goals which they proclaimed were cultural, their programs were as diverse as the societies themselves; no two groups were really similar; all that they had in common was a desire to further fellowship. In 1860, The Sepher (“Scroll”) Club of Allegheny City (Pittsburgh) saved its money in order to buy a Hebrew Scroll of the Law for a synagog and also staged a ball; that same year the youth of San Francisco, in two of its societies, held debates, produced plays, and danced till the small hours of the morning. Similar programs were carried on in Denver, Des Moines, Kansas City, and Richmond. Debates and discussions were enlivened by concerts, graced by the presence of girls. The profits of a successful theatrical might, on occasion, be given to charity. B’nai Jehudah of Kansas City raised enough money to bring the scholarly orator Emil G. Hirsch from Chicago for one of his magniloquent addresses. Did the audience understand him? Did he stoop to conquer? Did he overwhelm with his thoughtful phrases? About 900 people came to hear him. Many were Gentiles.

Stirred by the passion for consolidation that characterized the businessmen and entrepreneurs of that generation, an attempt was made by some members of B’nai B’rith to create a national auxiliary for its youth. That was in 1890. Three years later the Reform Jews meeting at the Chicago World’s Fair sought to organize their youngsters nationally in order to enlist them in Sunday School and synagogal work. Both attempts failed. More ambitious and more successful was the Menorah Society established at Harvard in 1906. There a group of intelligent undergraduates, mostly of East European provenance, built an agency that set out to further Jewish culture on a high level. Similar societies were soon set up on other campuses and by 1913 the Intercollegiate Menorah Association was flourishing. The Menorah societies attracted both foreign-born and native American Jewish boys and girls who had come from traditional homes and were interested in Judaic themes. The social element was strong here, too, for these youngsters reached strongly against the snobbish Gentile fraternities and the equally exclusive Jewish Greek letter imitations.6


Of the youth groups the Young Men’s Hebrew Association may well have been the most numerous. “Ys” were indigenous to this country; there were no parallels in European Jewish life for they were oriented to the prevalent American Gentile YMCAs. Like all other Jewish societies no two were alike. The one thing they had in common was their name: the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Originally a few had been called the Young Men’s Hebrew Literary Association. The stress was always on the adjective “young”; the young wanted social distance from their elders. For the most part the “Ys” enlisted men from about eighteen years of age into their twenties; it was not until the end of the century that the associations began to recruit and plan for younger teenagers. The typical members were businessmen on the way up the economic ladder. Most had gone to work after bar mitzvah and completion of an elementary education. Some may have gone to high school. The popular title, YMHA, was patterned on the Young Men’s Christian Associations which had first appeared in this country in 1851 and by 1874 had almost a thousand branches. Apart from the name the YMHA and the YMCA were poles apart; the Christian “Y” was church oriented; the Jewish “Y” was at best interested in some phases of philanthropy and general culture; its basic goal was intra-Jewish fraternization. The YMHA had but a peripheral interest in religion as such; it was Americanistic, secular, but Jewishly ethnic.7

Philanthropic and Cultural Interests of the YMHA

No two YMHAs were really alike. Evincing an interest in philanthropy some of them set out to raise funds for the local synagog. In 1880 the little Mount Vernon, Indiana, “Y” collected $2500 for the local temple; today this small town has fewer than 100 Jews. In the 1870’s the St. Louis “Y” contributed generously to help yellow fever refugees who sought shelter in the city; in 1880 it made a contribution to a nonsectarian local charity; in 1899 it solicited funds for the persecuted Jews of Rumania; in 1906 it sent help to the victims of the San Francisco earthquake, and in 1913 it took the residents of the Reform and Orthodox Jewish old-folks home for an outing. This was an early senior citizen program. Most of the Jewish “Ys” had literary and cultural interests. They brought in lecturers and encouraged recitations, debates, music, drama, and opera; they often had reading rooms and libraries. In the new century many of them began to further the arts. There was always lip service paid to Jewish studies but the culture in which the “Ys” were interested was nearly always non-Jewish in origin. They were ashamed to confess that sociability was at least of equal importance with literary pursuits. Though loath to admit it the “Ys” were essentially social institutions catering to young middle-class Jews. Their clientele included the youth of the older natives, German-born youth, and second generation acculturated young men of Central European stock. The “Ys” were a youth substitute for the clubs of the more affluent. Because the gatherings were basically social in intent they were not destined to survive; the young men quarreled among themselves, moved way, or outgrew the “Y.” Most of the associations enjoyed but a brief existence although others often rose to take their place.

The “Y” movement grew rapidly after 1881; the “Ys” were found almost everywhere even in small towns like Tarboro, North Carolina, and Opelousas, Louisiana. At the same time the “Ys” began to expand their programs. Undoubtedly here, too, they were influenced by the YMCA’s. It was a day when Jews were pouring in from abroad, America was growing fast and becoming rich. In the last two decades of the century the Jewish “Ys” built beautiful buildings, published their own house organs, and began to engage professional staffs. The schedules of activities were impressive. There were stage shows, bowling, billiards, dances, and music. In 1905 the St. Louis “Y” gave a phonographic concert of the work of a classical composer. Following in the wake of the Gentile youth and the Christian “Y,” the Jewish societies turned to sports, gymnastic exercises, and swimming. The St. Louis “Y” called its baseball team “The Invincibles”; one of the several Philadelphia athletic societies took the name The Full Cry. Influenced by what their Christian neighbors were doing the Jews began sending their children to summer recreational camps toward the end of the century. And it was not long before Jewish entrepreneurs entered the lucrative commercial camping field establishing facilities where Jewish youth could hike, swim, row, and enjoy themselves in a socially controlled environment. By the end of this period Jewish educational and ideological institutions, like the Zionists, began to establish camps where studies, group philosophies, sports, and recreation were combined.8

Religious Activities of the Jewish “Ys”

Although it is true that the YMHA’s were not religious in intent, one can never completely separate the religious from the secular in Judaism and in Jewry. There was always some sort of a link between the synagog and the associations. Congregations tended to forget about the Jewish youth after they had become bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen. The bar mitzvah lad was then a man on his own religiously and financially. It was the “Y” not the synagog that took the Jewish youth under its wing offering him a social environment where he could meet his peers. In a few instances the YMHA worked closely with the religious forces in the community. There was always some interest in Jewish studies. One “Y” is even known to have become the core of a synagog; Holy Day worshippers held services in the YMHA auditoriums, religious schools met there; rabbis and congregations aided the associations with funds. Orthodox religionists were concerned that there be no violation of the Sabbath in the “Ys” athletic program. The use of the gym and the apparatus was limited on the day of rest; violent exercises were frowned upon.

In the early twentieth century there was more stress on Jewish programs of a religious or cultural nature due perhaps to the impact of the new traditionally-oriented immigration. Nevertheless the “Ys” were usually careful not to encroach on the religious prerogatives of the rabbis and the congregations; they were in a way rivals for the attention and loyalty of the Jewish young men. That the “Ys” were social organizations does not mean that they always welcomed all Jewish youth. In some metropolitan areas with large numbers of newly arrived East European Jews the “Ys” were riven by ambivalences. Feeling a sense of obligation to the newcomers they set out to help them by Judaizing their programs, creating employment bureaus, engaging in vocational training, opening night schools for immigrants, and establishing Downtown branches in the core city or ghetto areas. There the emphasis was on Americanization. At the same time the older members sometimes disliked socializing with these newcomers. Isaac M. Wise who sneered at the “Ys” that were concerned only with good fellowship admitted that those of Philadelphia and New York were exceptional. There were of course other towns that he could well have included. The Philadelphia YMHA had a very active social program; it also had a good “mix” of athletics and music, of Jewish and of general studies. The Jewish cultural interests in Philadelphia certainly reflect the influence of Leeser, Morais, Jastrow, and Mayer Sulzberger. The publications of the Philadelphia “Y” were excellent; the articles of Jewish content were written by competent men and the “Y” was even able to recruit as one of its magazine contributors, Walter E. Weyl, who was in later years to distinguish himself as an editor of The New Republic.

The New York “Y” developed a cultural and vocational program that was even more impressive than the one in Philadelphia. This was to be expected in this city with its huge Jewish population and its devoted generous leaders like Jacob H. Schiff. There was always a large reservoir of talent on which the “Y” could draw. Among those called upon was Oscar S. Straus, who lectured on the origin of the republican form of government in the United States. This was in 1880; five years later his expanded address appeared as a book. When Straus said a good word for Tom Paine some of the Christian clergymen present at his lecture walked out in protest. Deists were heretics.9


Coeval with the Americanization program of some “Ys” in the decades around 1900 was an institution with somewhat similar goals called the settlement house or the neighborhood house. This was a ghetto institution stressing culture, vocational training, and, like the “Y” programs, Americanization for both youth and adults. In a way it was a ghetto extension of the “Y,” especially in New York and in Philadelphia where there was a Downtown branch of the Uptown YMHA. The clients of the settlement house, however, had very little in common with those who patronized the “Ys.” There was an unbridgeable social chasm between the two. The “Ys,” particularly those in the hinterland, were concerned with good fellowship; the settlement house dedicated itself to the playing down of the East European Jewish way of life, the creating of American Jews. But the “Y” and the neighborhood house did have much in common; the entertainment program was similar; concerts, plays, lectures, games, outings, and the furtherance of a sense of community through small intimate clubs.

During this period there were well over 100 of these settlement houses in the urban areas. Some were non-Jewish in origin, financed by Christians who were moved by Christian piety, an unselfish concern for others; they were in no sense intent upon saving the souls of the infidel Jews. Other settlement houses were sponsored by synagogs which in turn had been influenced by institutional churches with their recreational centers for the underprivileged. The typical Jewish neighborhood house, however, was one which had been established by the local Jewish charities, supported in the main by wealthy Jews who deemed the “Ys,” the settlement houses, and the later “community centers” instruments for spiritual Americanization. As social-welfare federations developed in the early decades of the twentieth century more and more they assumed responsibility for the well-being of these sociorecreational and cultural institutions. For the clients of the Downtown settlement houses or the Uptown “Ys” the motives that evoked the support of the Jewish power elite were of little import; the clients patronized these organizations for what they offered, for their programs; they did not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Two of the better known Jewish settlement houses were the Hebrew Institute of Chicago and the Educational Alliance of New York City. The Hebrew Institute, active about the year 1900, offered an attractive variegated program of a utilitarian and social nature to both Jews and non-Jews of the ghetto quarter. The sponsors were eager to keep the youngsters off the streets. This Chicago settlement house had an unusual concern for little ones; it was one of the first Jewish neighborhood house to make provision for tots with seesaws, slides, and sandboxes. New York’s Educational Alliance was an outgrowth of several ghetto organizations. Hence the ultimate name “Alliance” which dates from 1893; an older name, Hebrew Institute, was deemed too parochial. One of the original components was the Downtown branch of the “Y” established in the 1880’s. Numbered among its very numerous social, educational, and vocational services and programs was a children’s theatre. Well aware of the good work done by this theatre, Mark Twain once remarked with his usual hyperbole: “We Americans may learn how to speak the English language from the East Side.” What is true is that some very distinguished American Jews, leaders in culture, commerce, and the arts, were alumni of the Educational Alliance.10

The National Organization of the Settlement Houses and the “Ys”

About the year 1920 there were around 325 different organizations affiliated with the settlement houses, “Ys,” and kindred societies. Because they had much in common and could help one another there was a constant drive to unite them nationally. In these United States, rapidly becoming the greatest industrial nation in the world, there was a constant drive to create larger units for production, marketing, and social action. The idea of forming a national union of sociorecreational institutions was in no sense new. The Civil War, fought in the name of national unity, had made this concept an American fetish. In the generation after the War Lilienthal, Wise, and Simon Wolf worked toward that end: each sought in his own way to make American Jews into one American Jewry. Lilienthal hoped to fashion a publication society that would tie the literary clubs together; the ambitious Wise, driving toward the creation of a union of American Jewish synagogs, was eager to enlist all Jews and associations under his banner; Wolf wanted an overall rational and progressive American Jewish organization that would help Jewish youth elevate itself intellectually. The Jewish Messenger of the 1870’s sought to unite all “Ys” socially and culturally despite the doctrinal differences that separated Reformers and Orthodox. The “Y” was to be a neutral meeting ground.

At the suggestion of the Philadelphia “Y,” an association was established in 1880 to publish a national literary organ but nothing eventuated. Four years later at a Union of American Hebrew Congregations convention, the YMHA’s led by Schiff and some Easterners, sought representation. Wise and his colleagues did an about face; they rejected the advances of the “Ys.” Wise, it may be surmised, did not want to strengthen the eastern influence in the Union of synagogs dominated by Westerners. The Hebrew Union College was struggling to stay alive financially; a national association of “Ys” might well hurt the College. In 1890 a union of the YMHA’s did come to life in Cincinnati. This was the United Young Men’s Hebrew Association of America. Its announced goal was the improvement of the mental, moral, social, and religious conditions of America’s youth. By then there were about 400,000 Jews in the United States, many of them East European newcomers who were certainly in the thoughts of the founders of this new union. The United YMHA had an all-embracing program: American Jews should enter the professions; an industrial training school was a desideratum; the mechanical trades were to be encouraged; there was to be a national lecture bureau, and, of course, an office to help the unemployed, for the 1890’s was a decade of economic distress. In addition East European newcomers must learn English and accept the customs of this land if American Jewry was not to expose itself to criticism and reproach, yes even disgrace. One of the stalwarts of this new national consortium of “Ys” was Alfred Morton Cohen of Cincinnati. At seventeen he had organized a YMHA; in later years he served in the state senate, as a congregational president, as head of a bank, as chairman of the board of the Hebrew Union College, and as international president of the B’nai B’rith. He was sedate and conservative, a great defender of the status quo.

The United YMHA was not destined to flourish. With the coming of a new century the effort to create a viable national association of youth and allied groups moved into high gear. The 1890’s had already witnessed the rise of the Jewish federated philanthropies, of the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Alliance, a gallant attempt by communal workers of repute to bring the East European Jews into the ambit of a unified American Jewish community. This move toward unification continued into the new century. The American Jewish Committee was established in 1906 and in 1909 the formal Jewish Community of New York City (Kehillah) made its appearance with the hope not only of coordinating the work of the hundreds of organizations in the city but also of serving as a prototype for the Jewish communities of the land. The YMHA’s began to meet in national convention and to talk of unity; state YMHA’s federated, and finally in 1913 the Council of Young Men’s Hebrew and Kindred Associations (CYMHKA) was formed in New York City. Its goal was unity and integration of effort, planning, and program. Unity, consolidation, centralization, national control was the order of the day.11


The difficulty in effectuating a national organization of YMHA’s and settlement houses was matched only by the difficulty in creating a local nonexclusive or all-inclusive cultural-social center acceptable to all Jews in town. There could be no “community center” if there was no desire for a united community where social, cultural, and religious distinctions were reduced to a minimum. United Jewry on a local level, to say nothing of a national level, was impossible until 1921 when the first quota law was enacted restricting the entry of East Europeans; then all Jews already here were more or less forced to tolerate one another. Prior to that time the social and cultural differences between denizens and newcomers were almost insurmountable. Jews had not yet learned to accept one another and build common institutions. All this would take time. Jews were not unmindful of the needs and benefits of a sociorecreational agency that would be open to all Jews. In theory at least they were always in favor of a common social institution that would help them face the outside, often unfriendly world. Unity of course was a relative term; in the second half of the nineteenth century “unity” was often less than total; it did not include the so-called Sephardic natives or the Slavic Jews. Unity then meant uniting the German Jews who were often divided into hostile provincial and liturgical factions. There were some scattered attempts at unified Jewish centers on the local level. As early as 1852 the B’nai B’rith opened Covenant Hall in New York City to serve as a social center for its members. By the 1870’s and ‘80’s there was talk of a central location for all social and welfare agencies in New York City, a sort of a Jewish City Hall. Jews in Rochester wanted to combat intra-Jewish prejudices. By 1901 there were already Jewish communal buildings in some cities housing social-welfare agencies.

Thus by the twentieth century some progress had been made, at least structurally, toward developing an overall Jewish communal agency that would at least provide the semblance of unity and integration. The rise of the Jewish charity federation may have encouraged the concept of a community social center. The “Ys” were expanding to include all Jews, and perhaps influenced by members of Slavic provenance a few “Ys,” as in St. Louis and in Philadelphia, were changing their programs making them more Jewish in content. At all events there were classes in the Talmud and Zionism; a second night Passover dinner was introduced. Indianapolis opened a center in 1911 that welcomed all Jewish institutions in town offering them the facilities of a building equipped to satisfy all their needs in the areas of athletics and recreation. During World War I “Ys” opened their doors to the men and women in the armed forces regardless of social and cultural distinctions; after the war the leaders of the YMHA’s envisaged their associations as institutions that were ready to serve all Jews. As urban Jews, like other Americans, deserted the core city and moved to the suburbs, the YMHA’s and the settlement houses declined for they were essentially urban and ghetto agencies. The community center in concept, if not in name, began to supplant the “Ys” and the settlement houses. Although the name YMHA was often retained it was rapidly being superseded by the “center,” an upgraded settlement house or a transplanted and transformed YMHA. A community center was now possible because most American Jews, even the foreign born, were acculturated; many had achieved the same economic level as the natives. The 1921 quota law served to speed up and reinforce the Americanization process.

The upper middle-class affluent natives, particularly those of the earlier Germanic immigration, remained in the Jewish city clubs, if there were any left in town, or they joined the new Jewish country clubs. Though they supported the new centers financially and dominated most of them, they did not participate actively as members. The center became a middle-middle and lower-middle class institution. In this new social catch-basin the disparate Jewish immigrant groups ignored their own ethnic strains; federation-financing furthered unity, and the growing anti-Jewish racism intensified the desire of the Jews to maintain their own sociorecreational societies. Though not patronized by all in the larger towns where the Jews were numerous, the community center of 1920 emerged as an institution for the Jewish community as an entirety. The centers were no longer Americanization agencies; they were social institutions with gymnasiums, pools, kitchens or snack bars, lounges, and club rooms. The professional staffs were prepared to serve every Jew in town from the child to the grandfather; the centers were secular but strongly ethnic, devoid on the whole of a motivated Jewish cultural program; they were non-religious, but not anti-religious, well aware that the synagogs, partisan agencies, could not unite all Jews.

As in these years the philanthropic, cultural, and religious organizations endeavored to consolidate themselves, the settlement houses and community centers also felt the need to tie themselves closer together. These sociorecreational agencies began to accept the administrative supervision of the Jewish Welfare Board which had been established in 1917 as an agency to minister religiously and socially to the Jews in the armed forces. When the war was over, the Board no longer had a raison d’être and it looked about for new worlds to conquer. In 1921 its elite leaders, convinced that the JWB was well equipped to promote the well-being of America’s young men and women, effected a union of the Board and the almost 400 organizations that were affiliated with the Council of YMHA’s and Kindred Organizations. The leaders of this new umbrella organization hoped that the center in each town would become the chief agency uniting all Jews. In this aspiration they were disappointed. In some of the smaller towns it did succeed in bringing all Jews together, but this was certainly not true in the areas of mass settlement where no one organization could ever hope to become the prime urban institution. It did become a center everywhere, an important and useful one.12



The centers, the settlement houses, and the YMHA’s had the job of catering primarily to the social needs of young people, but they were not the total arena for play and festivity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the days before the auto and the cinema became such preponderant influences, individuals found recreation and relaxation in family life, in visiting, parties, informal gatherings, picnics, and poker. Even funerals were not devoid of sociability. On New Year’s Day, 1880, the Standard Club of Buffalo staged an afternoon ball for the children of the members; there were New Year parties, coming-out parties for the girls and on occasion for young men who had reached the ripe age of twenty-one. In Los Angeles on Rosh Hashanah afternoon young men paid social calls; in 1876 a group of young men made twenty-nine calls. Lavish bar mitzvah parties are not an invention of the mid-twentieth century urban caterer; confirmation and bar mitzvah celebrations of the nineteenth century left little to be desired. The boys received gifts, gold watches, books, and in later years, fountain pens. Numerous guests assembled; there were speeches, even balls, and a lavish collation.

The great social occasion of a man’s life was his marriage. On the Polterabend, the evening before, the groom’s friends arranged for decorous forms of musical and dramatic entertainment. Gifts poured in; sometimes they filled two rooms. Special wedding music was composed and humorous poems were recited. Somewhat untypical, possibly even for the well-to-do, was the wedding of B. A. Feineman, a pioneer of Kansas City and the first president of the congregation. On January 12, 1870, he married Bettie H. Binswanger in Saint Joseph. The ceremony was elaborate; there was a choir, organ music, a cello, and a violin to delight the 360 assembled guests. The food and drink if not Lucullan was certainly ample. The friends of the bride and groom consumed forty cases of champagne, eighty cases of Rhine wine, and a generous assortment of meats: turkey, duck, goose, chicken, and beef. The notables present all made addresses; the music was furnished by Professor Rosenblatt’s brass band; the dancing continued till dawn. This was the most magnificent social affair yet witnessed in Saint Joseph. Feineman, aged forty, had first proposed to the widow Elise Binswanger, but when she turned him down he proposed to her daughter, age seventeen, and was accepted. After the wedding Elise and her three other daughters moved in with the groom.13


For the Jews all was social grist that came to their mills. Every organization to which they belonged brought them social communion and a degree of festivity. Many, as it has already been said, joined non-Jewish social groups; others were active in Jewish religious, eleemosynary, and cultural societies, all of which were sources of pleasure and good fellowship. Even the benevolent societies which doubled as burial confraternities met on special anniversaries to eat, drink, and be merry. The synagog itself was a prime source of sociability, especially in the nineteenth century. The literary society often served as a club. There was hardly a town without organizations of this type; the members produced amateur shows, read poetry, and listened to good music. On the whole the age was not a religious one; hence the programs of the assembled men and women were seldom devoted to Jewish subjects. Still striving to convince themselves and their neighbors that they were good Americans, the native born deemphasized that which was Jewish. Even the Cincinnati YMHA’s Literary Club with its strong infusion of Hebrew Union College rabbinical students kept discussions on Jewish themes to a minimum. In 1884 someone read a paper on the Purim holiday and there was a debate on the perennial question: Are the Jews a nation?

Some societies took Jewish names honoring the memory of Maimonides, Mendelssohn, and Leeser. Others genuflected onomastically in the direction of the centenarian Moses Montefiore; the Philadelphia literati did not hesitate to appropriate the name of Disraeli, a convert to Christianity. Most groups took the name of literary notables or adopted appellations that were innocuously neutral, such as Whittier, Longfellow, Tennyson, the Knowledge Seekers, and the Beacon Light Literary and Pleasure Association. The Jefferson Literary and Social Circle of Richmond absorbed a number of other societies and in turn finally became a part of the Mercantile Club. Later this organization, too, was reborn as the Jefferson Club. These so-called literary groups provided culture in a social setting, or sociability in a literary setting; there were plays and other forms of entertainment; the members loved to dance. That at times a Baltimore literary society forgot to pay homage to the muses is eloquently documented by the fines assessed for profanity, intoxication, and gambling.14


The Jewish fraternal orders that first made their appearance in the 1840’s were primarily mutual-benefit associations. Taken as a whole they were very important, for they embraced a sizeable proportion of the entire Jewish population. By 1878 there were over 600 lodges in four orders, not including the women’s auxiliaries. It is by no means improbable that there were more paying members in the lodges than in the synagogs. These fraternal societies were not dedicated to the pursuit of fun and festivity; their organic statutes say nothing about pleasure and amusement. Nevertheless sociability entered into much that they attempted. Even some of their names seem to promise pleasure. The Iron Band (Kesher shel Barzel) order had a Gan Eden lodge, the Garden of Eden; the B’nai B’rith, older and more acculturated, had translated the Hebraic Gan Eden into its English equivalent: there was a Paradise lodge in San Bernardino. The immigrants flocked to the lodges, not only because of the insurance features but because of their need to be with their own. There they could hear a kind word in the German mother tongue; there they were secure, enjoying status and a sense of “community.” The members, all one brotherhood, hewed to the Jewish line: the Iron Band admitted no one who had intermarried. Most of the immigrants would not have been happy in lodges frequented by the better educated Gentiles, and even when they joined the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and the Woodmen, they sometime congregated in lodges that were almost totally Jewish in membership.

That the social factor was very important is reflected in the determination of Jews to associate only with those of their ilk. Class lines were drawn. The lodge became a sort of lower-class or middle-class club where the members could fraternize without restraint; their wives joined auxiliary branches. Within the socioeconomic lines drawn there was unity and harmony; doctrinal and political issues were avoided. The upper middle-class Jews secluded themselves in their clubs; their wives joined the Council of Jewish Women. Those aspiring Jews who reached out for even higher social levels joined the Masons completing the climb up the ladder that began when as peddlers they had met in a neighborhood saloon. The East European Jewish immigrants, not yet welcomed in the older orders—or not at home there if admitted—created their own fraternal orders, mutual-aid, Zionist, and sociocultural societies. With the coming of the new century the more affluent Germans began to purchase commercial insurance and to desert the lodges. The mutual-benefit and insurance features were then phased out; sociability, culture, concern for the welfare of Jewry became an increasingly important part of the program of the lodges. Even before this, in the smaller towns, the nineteenth-century lodge had often become the social and cultural counterpart of the synagog. At all times lodges emphasized social communion. They encouraged music recitals, debates, stage shows, balls, dinners, dances, picnics, and Purim celebrations. On the whole the Central European Jews were a gemuetlich lot.15


For the most part the festive celebrations of fraternal orders were overshadowed by the public social gatherings sponsored by the larger charity societies. Almost everywhere there were balls, fairs, banquets, and bazaars. It would seem that the more affluent were nearly always ready to attend these affairs, to eat, drink, and to listen to the eloquent toasts. Who would not raise his glass to salute the German language, the Jewish nation and, of course, the ladies, God bless them? In Trinidad, Colorado, and in Buffalo, New York, Jewry came together to celebrate Montefiore’s 100th birthday. In 1864 the First Benevolent Hebrew Society of San Francisco arranged for a Purim ball with two bands, not one. No speeches were scheduled; the members had peddled 700 tickets at $5 a piece and they were determined to savor every minute.

Although Simhat Torah, Rejoicing in the Law, was an autumnal festival dedicated to merriment the chief fun-making holiday in the Jewish calendar was the feast of Purim. That day marked the escape of the Jews from annihilation in ancient Persia where they had risen in manful self-defense and had smitten their enemies with the edge of the sword (Esther 9:5). Purim parties were both private and public. In the private festivities, masked celebrants visited homes where open house was kept. In later years as abuses crept in these family encounters were curtailed or abolished. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the annual gala event in many towns was the Purim ball, usually a masque affair. Christians, too, attended in large numbers, among them governors, mayors, and other notables. In America’s metropolis, in New York City, this annual celebration was managed by the Purim Association from 1862 to 1902. It was practically a communal fete; the Association rented a huge hall into which 3,000 guests might be crowded, and while the colorful throngs danced or milled around, the millionaire elite enjoyed the spectacle from the vantage point of the boxes for which it had paid large sums. At a Denver masque a wife dressed as Pocohontas, her husband, as a rooster; in Marysville, California, a luckless son of Israel dressed as John Chinaman and when he ventured on to the streets he was almost mobbed by a gang of whites. At one of the New York balls a woman came as the Marquise de Pompadour; another appeared as Queen Isabella who had driven thousands of Spanish men, women, and children into pitiless exile; one of the Jews garbed himself in the robes of an inquisitor leading a victim to execution. Apparently wealth and luxury only accentuated the insecurities of some of the celebrants. By the last decade of the century there were sensitive communal workers, men of wealth and intelligence, who began to question the value of these magnificent balls as fit instruments to provide funds for the impoverished thousands of Slavic Jews arriving at the coastal ports.16


The Rise of the Jewish Club

The home, the family, the literary society, the lodge, the synagog, the landsmanshaft, the Zionist fraternal order, the Jewish socialist associations, special Jewish political, military, and veteran groups all encouraged sociability although that was certainly not their primary purpose, their goal. There were, however, organizations that dedicated themselves unabashedly to pleasure. The most typical of these was the club, a male voluntary leisure association. Although some scholars say that the social club was indigenous to this country this is true only to a limited degree. For centuries Jews in Europe had enjoyed a club life uniquely their own. The European Jewish club was a hevrah, a tightly-knit confraternity, a pious association which devoted itself to a specific charitative task. Here in colonial America where the conventicles were all relatively small the synagog itself served as a hevrah although the Jewish Newport merchant-shippers once had a formal eating, drinking, and card-playing club of their own. Along with the coming of the Central European Jewish immigrants of the postrevolutionary war came the mutual-aid societies with their strong underpinnings of sick-care, neighborliness, and companionship. By the 1840’s the Jewish social club, pure and simple, had made its appearance, primarily in the North. Jews in the South either joined nonsectarian groups or abstained from setting up separate congeries for fear of inviting criticism and being singled out as social nonconformists.

As the Jewish population grew in post-Civil War days, social clubs grew in number. They were popular. Every generation of Jews sought its own form of relaxation, for every new generation faced tensions of its own. The Jews of Columbus, Georgia, admitted that they were uniting to form a social group because they were bored; they set out to kill time. Ultimately there was a club in almost every town of size. The large cities had several; New York alone had thirteen in 1896. Though all were social in intent not all were alike; apparently there was always a club to fit every taste and every pocketbook. Nashville Jewry of the 1860’s was small, yet it hatched two clubs, for in social matters Jews allowed themselves the luxury of acerbity and discrimination. Most of these pleasure-seeking sodalities enjoyed but a brief existence. One of the Milwaukee clubs is said to have died of the gout, but it was the country club that gave the city club the coup de grace. Jewish clubs could arise in peculiar ways: when in some nonsectarian clubs the Jews became the preponderant majority the Gentiles might be tempted to drop out to fashion a social guild of their own leaving a Jewish club behind them. At times, after the peaceful dissolution of a club that included Jews and Christians the two groups proceeded to start clubs of their own. Prejudice was not always the driving force; men sought the comfort of intimacy and privacy.17

Clubs and Their Names

The names the Jews gave their clubs are revelatory: “As his name is so is he” (1 Samuel 25: 25). Nostalgia for a European fatherland that had treated many of them as stepchildren was never absent. Club names were Germanic, or patriotic, or romantic, even humorous. Very few Jewish names were chosen; the founders had no desire to publicize the social separateness that often motivated them. Buffalo Jewry could brag of the Sprudel’s and Pumpernickel; Philadelphia, the Forum, the Mercantile, and the Entre Nous Literary and Social Club. Cleveland had the Excelsior; Boston, the Utopia; New York, the Lotus, the Fidelio, and the Freundschaft among others; Richmond, the Dixie Social Club. The commonest names were Phoenix, Concordia, Harmonie, Allemania, Standard, and Eureka.18

The Buildings

The clubs did not acquire imposing edifices overnight. First came a modest apartment, then a rented building, and finally a magnificent structure which the members themselves designed. As early as the postwar 1860’s, the Delaware Club of Philadelphia was large enough to accommodate 1,000 people. Some of the clubs were beautiful exemplars of luxury with paintings, thick carpets, and shiny brass cuspidors. A number of these fin de siècle multi-storied clubhouses are mute testimony to an eloquent magnificence that has no rival in our times. To erect a building today comparable to Cincinnati’s still extant Phoenix would cost millions. But that generation was concerned about status. Through their clubhouses the Jewish wholesalers and manufacturers gave notice to the Gentile world that the children of Israel had arrived; in the credit and deficit world of the 1890’s this was important. When in 1889 Dankmar Adler designed Chicago’s Standard Club he made sure that it was wired for electric lights; the offices were equipped with typewriters.19

Clubs: Programs, Goals, and Characteristics

What did the clubs say that they wanted to do? What did they actually do? Few were ready to avow openly that all they wanted was an hour to relax. If the charters took time out to describe their goals they were somewhat evasive and pretentious. They spoke of social enjoyment through balls and lectures, through musical and dramatic presentations; borrowing a phrase from an older B’nai B’rith preamble they solemnly proclaimed their desire to elevate the Jewish people intellectually and ethically. On occasion a club might even make a contribution to charity; this was not characteristic. It would be unfair to reproach the habitués for enjoying themselves; they had joined because they were set on having a good time. The very man who was one of the Standard Club’s most avid card players may also have belonged to a number of literary, cultural, and welfare associations. He was often a generous supporter of Hull House and of the University of Chicago, a leader in the Jewish and general community.20

It has already been suggested above that no two clubs were altogether similar. Each went its own way. The Standard of Chicago might well brag about its paintings; the Concordia of Los Angeles certainly took pride in the beautiful Christmas party that it sponsored for the children of the members. Though the Mercantile of Philadelphia originally allowed no gambling it speedily saw the light and began buying packs of cards in gross lots; to enable the members to enjoy the national elections in comfort it installed a telegraphic device to record the returns as they poured in. The bowling alleys were always open even on the eve of the Sabbath; Friday night was a good time, too, for a concert; very few of the club patrons were regular synagog attendants. Entertainment in Cincinnati’s Phoenix was almost of professional quality. The club had its own regisseur to produce plays, concerts, and operas. The staff included a steward, a bookkeeper, a collector, waiters, janitors, and cooks. There was a large ballroom, a lounge, meeting room, billiard halls, bowling alleys, two dining rooms, and a kitchen that could prepare food for a thousand.

The 1873 constitution of the Phoenix of Cincinnati allowed no gambling; this was a prohibition that was surely honored in the breach, but its fine cultural program was not untypical of those in the better clubs. Maybe Wise was bitter about these palaces of pleasure because they desecrated the Friday eve when he held services. It is well to recall that Cincinnati’s Allemania even in ante-Civil War days invited speakers to talk on jurisprudence, Shakespeare, the sciences, and Europe’s republican revolutions (1848). Carl Schurz and Robert G. Ingersoll, the agnostic, had lectured in New York’s Harmonie; the concerts were conducted by Leopold Damrosch and Theodore Thomas. The Harmonie members were an elite group; throughout this period the bar never showed a profit! In contrast to the Harmonie with its wealth, luxury, and intellectual interests there was the Concordia of Columbus, Georgia. Its handful of aspiring shopkeepers and clerks met in a hall, played dominoes, chess, and checkers, and finally succeeded in buying one billiard table. For them this involved a huge expenditure. They bought chairs, tables, a desk, a bucket, a dipper, and the indispensable spittoons. For eatables and potables there were a few bottles of hard liquor, five boxes of cigars, and one keg of lager beer. They held debates and they played poker for limited stakes. Having little else to do they quarreled with one another, and as the panic of the 1870’s made inroads, they began expelling those members who could not pay their dues, modest though they were.

Despite all its special attractions the club was in essence a place to dine and play cards. There were clubs that did not even have a library room. A president of Chicago’s Concordia was indignant that no one took time out to read the papers in the lounge. He forgot that the patrons, professionals and businessmen, had certainly read the news at home. They came to play cards not to be edified by the Chicago Tribune’s editorials. At that moment and in that place poker and pinochle were important. The Harmonie of Savannah staged ten balls in one winter season just three years after Sherman had captured the city. Wise was not the only one to attack the clubs for their programs or lack of a Jewish program. In the 1870’s the editors of the Jewish Messenger called them gambling halls which displaced the home, cultivated nothing worthwhile, and stressed the dispensable Germanic traditions and mores. (The Isaacs who edited the Messenger were of English background.) The clubs, continued the editors, were snobbish, exclusive, expensive. All this was true. For the most part their patrons were Reform Jews; membership lists in the clubs and the temples were often identical. What the critics forgot was that the clubs provided the wholesome fun and entertainment which the members sought. Philadelphia’s Mercantile was a good place to go at night to listen to Izzie (Isaiah) Edwin Leopold, member, lyricist, composer, comic. As Ed Wynn in later years he was to amuse millions on the radio and television. On Saturday night one could dance at the Mercantile and get a good snack of seafood or chicken salad or cold cuts for seventy-five cents. The clubs exercised social control, tied many together with bonds of friendship, and fortified the sense of Jewish identity.21

Suburban and Country Clubs

Originally the clubs were urban, but people had already started to move to the suburbs by the late 1880’s. By 1889 there were enough Jews on the hills in Cincinnati to erect a comfortable clubhouse. This was not a golf club. For many the downtown club was no longer within easy walking distance. In the early years of the twentieth century as Jews, like other Americans, became sports conscious, and as “racial” prejudice increased they began to build Jewish country clubs. The Gentiles had started to play golf at least a decade earlier. By 1901 the Baltimore Jews had a fifty-four-acre club of their own. A year later their Cincinnati compatriots turned to this businessman’s game even before the advent of the auto; the Jews commuted by buggy and streetcar to their nine-hole course in the oval of an old racetrack. The longest drive made in those days was when a player once sliced the ball all the way to New York City for it fell into a passing freight car bound for Gotham. With the coming of the third decade of the new century transportation was no longer a problem. The attractive ranch type clubhouse which offered good dining and card-playing facilities as well as golf speeded the demise of the urban clubs except for a few which survived as a place to eat a leisurely lunch with a favored customer or client.22

Intra-Jewish Prejudice

The concept of the club was self-contradictory; it united and it divided. Good fellowship had its limits; it was marred by class and ethnic prejudices. The affluent in their clubs looked down upon the less affluent and the Bavarian Germans scorned the Polish Germans though the latter had been Prussians for generations. Even Eduard Lasker, one of the outstanding German statesmen, was described as a Polish Jew by his Jewish admirers in the United States despite the fact that much of Lasker’s native Posen had been part of Germany since 1772. A Bavarian is reported to have said: “A Bollack (Pollack) is the worstest man out of jail.” Divisiveness among the Jewish immigrants from Germany expressed itself in separate synagogs, benevolent societies, cemeteries, and in exclusion from social organizations. In 1857 it was the hope of Henry Greenebaum of Chicago that the B’nai B’rith lodge in his town would unite the disparate German groups; a generation later this distinguished leader was willing, against objections, to charter a lodge for the East European Jews of his city (1881). That same year the leaders of District Grand Lodge No. 5 declared unequivocally that prejudice against the Slavic Jews was bigotry, un-American, and a violation of the basic principles of the Order which stood for humanity, brotherly love, and benevolence. That same decade Julius Bien, president of B’nai B’rith, reminded the members that the Order had been founded in 1843 to do away with the prejudice of Jew against Jew.

There were German Jews in the first pogrom year of 1881 who refused to contribute to the Russian Relief Fund. There was no surcease to the prejudice of these Central Europeans and their native American children against the East Europeans. Deemed a people of a different nationality they were not welcome in the older fraternal orders and were excluded from the fashionable clubs unless they were very wealthy. The Atlanta Jewish Concordia and the Standard barred the “Russians” even as its club members were barred from the Gentile societies. This intra-Jewish intolerance was nothing new in American life. The early nineteenth-century German Jewish immigrants who landed in Baltimore were rejected by the Jews of colonial stock though these very aristocrats were themselves of German provenance. The oldtimers, the Cohens and the Ettings, were still Orthodox, but as American and as “Sephardim” they would not consort with the new Orthodox Germans, nor even lie in the same cemetery with them. They had their own private family burial grounds. The more Jews increased in numbers with the arrival of thousands, the more ethnic prejudices could be cherished as Jews foregathered with their fellow provincials. Only where Jews were few—out in the territories and on the frontiers—were ethnic lines often crossed, for prejudice was a luxury which these isolated Jews could not afford if they were to build synagogs and to find husbands and wives for their children.23


In their own fashion Jews of every generation have had no difficulty in uncovering avenues of divertissement; there was a form of entertainment and fellowship to suit every man’s taste. America was the land of opportunity where everyone could amuse himself as he saw fit. The American Jewish woman was also able to find a degree of self-expression, of freedom, and of sociability, in the societies she created to help others. Even more enterprising than their mothers, America’s Jewish youth established a host of associations and clubs, ostensibly devoted to cultural and ethical improvement. In reality this was their bid to be themselves, to live their own lives. Yet it was not a youth movement because there was no desire to emancipate themselves from the social, moral, and material goals of their parents. The sedate elders of the power structure kept a watchful eye on the youth associations, financed the ghetto settlement houses, and finally, when the Americanization of the newcomers had been completed, discarded or modified these institutions by ushering in the community center to serve the needs of all America’s Jewish youth. In the generation that followed, the centers expanded their programs to embrace all ages.

Throughout the period, 1860-1920, with a gusto that is almost shocking in its vitality, parents and children plunged into a round of life cycle ceremonies and home celebrations. If they patronized the synagog, they thoroughly enjoyed its fellowship; they relaxed in the host of societies which they had so enthusiastically established and which they later so nonchalantly abandoned. For the middle-class businessman the club served as a refuge; it was his prime source of amusement. He reveled in its spacious luxurious surroundings. If the peddler had ever “dreamt that he dwelt in marble halls,” the dream had come true when he became a clothing manufacturer and joined the Phoenix of Cincinnati. Under the guise of fund-raising, good works, the parents of that long generation from the Civil War to World War I frolicked at innumerable balls, dances, and Purim celebrations. Theirs was a generation dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure as well as the almighty dollar. What these Jews never realized was that their coming together fortified their sense of identity and heightened their loyalty to one another.

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