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The Science of Judaism neglected Jewish history as a formal discipline, for the typical historian of the Jews had come to history through a study of Bible and rabbinical literature. In 1865 Felsenthal complained that there was no good single-volume history of the Jewish people available in English or in German. Wise saw the need for English language histories and through the years wrote two volumes covering the period from the Bible to the first century of the Christian era. He may have nursed the hope of telling the story of the Jew down to his own time. Though contemporary critics dismissed his efforts curtly, Wise thought he had done a good job writing history from the vantage point of a warm adherent of democracy. That was the approach as well of George Bancroft who was still alive and working in the 1880’s.

At the College, Wise taught history until 1884 when he appointed Heinrich Zirndorf, a cultured German-born American rabbi. Zirndorf wrote a German biography of Isaac Marcus Jost, the first German Jewish historian, but essentially he was a poet and litterateur not a historian and in 1891 Wise brought in Gotthard Deutsch (1859-1921) from Austria. Deutsch, a rabbi and historian, was very learned and an impressive person, for he was a tall bearded massive man who enveloped himself in a flowing shoulder cape and expressed himself in a dramatic fashion. Although like most American scholars born abroad he was oriented to Europe, Deutsch was particularly interested in the social and cultural challenges of the general community here in the United States and devoted a great deal of time as a liberal working for the common good. Essentially he was a very prolific scholarly journalist who kept himself so busy writing detailed genre articles on early modern Central European Jewish life that he had little time to do detailed research on a massive scale. Then, too, his hypercritical approach made it difficult for him to synthesize history. The only books he produced were some fugitive essays and a small English manual of World Jewish history (1910). But his methodology was above reproach. He had a passion for accuracy and worked for years creating a data bank for general Jewish history and urged others to follow in his footsteps. It was his constant regret that he had not kept a diary during his days at the University of Vienna at a time when Theodor Herzl was a fellow student.1

No Jewish scholar here produced an accurate general Jewish history before 1927 but starting in the 1890’s American Jewry became increasingly interested in Jewish history. Convinced of the need for a good textbook for children, the renascent Jewish Publication Society published Lady Magnus’s Outlines of Jewish History in 1890. This was the first book issued by the new society and in this, the revised version of an earlier English work, a chapter on the American Jew was added. Here, probably for the first time, American Jewish history was periodized according to the three successive waves of immigration. During this same decade Rabbi Maurice Henry Harris began to write a series of Sabbath school textbooks that carried the story of the Jew from the time of the patriarchs down to the present day. His books were very popular during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In 1891 the Publication Society began to offer its clients an abbreviated English translation of Heinrich Graetz’s massive German eleven-volume history of the Jews. When finally completed in 1898 it was a six-volume work. The detailed index was made by Henrietta Szold, an editor of the Society who later achieved international fame as the founder of Hadassah, the American Women’s Zionist organization known for its health, hospital, and children’s work in Palestine. Graetz himself seems to have had very little interest in American Jewish history for he practically ignored it in his work. It must not be forgotten, however, that when he began to publish in 1855 there were probably only 100,000 Jews at the most in this far off land. Unlike others of his day he did not wax enthusiastic about the future possibilities of the community here. American Jewry merited less than a page in the fifth volume of the English translation, though by that time (1815) it had become the second largest Jewish community in the world. The English Graetz was widely read; thousands of sets were sold. Years later (1919) the Hebrew Publishing Company issued an English translation of another large-scale work of this great historian, his Popular History of the Jews.2

By the second decade of the new century the Jewish Publication Society had begun issuing a number of works on Jewish history written by Americans. Among them were Max Radin’s Jews Among the Greeks and Romans and Richard J. H. Gottheil’s Zionism. But it was Macmillan, not the Society, that printed the first edition of David Philipson’s The Reform Movement in Judaism (1907) which included a chapter on the American Reformers. Four years before the appearance of Philipson’s history, Schechter had brought Alexander Marx to America to teach at the Seminary (1903). Although Marx was not so much a historian as he was a bibliographer—an eminent one who patterned himself on his teacher Moritz Steinschneider—his historical essays are models of clarity and accuracy.

One of Marx’s associates in the Seminary was the Australian-born Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) who for a time taught English there. Like Marx, Jacobs too had studied under Steinschneider but he was much more than a bibliographer. Jacobs was a literary critic, a magazine editor, a folklorist, anthropologist, statistician, communal executive, and historian. He was no Hebraist but he was knowledgeable in the field of Spanish Jewish and Anglo-Jewish history, particularly the latter. In essence he was an accomplished litterateur and English stylist. In England where he spent most of his life he served as editor of the Jewish Year Book and was already a scholar of international renown when he was called to the United States in 1900 to work on the staff of the Jewish Encyclopedia. He wrote and revised hundreds of articles for the publishers and in later years was appointed style editor of the Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible. As an urbane scholarly humanist at home in many of the social sciences it was inevitable that he would also write in the field of American Jewish history. After his death the Publication Society issued his Jewish Contributions to Civilization. It was Jacobs’s intention to show what the Jews had done in the world of culture. Thus this work served, after a fashion, to refute the thesis of Houston Stewart Chamberlain that the Jews were not a creative people.

Another member of the Seminary family was George Alexander Kohut, son of the Talmud lexicographer. Young Kohut was the school librarian during the first decade of the twentieth century. He had been brought over as a youngster from Hungary, trained in the humanities here and in Germany where he too took classes with Steinschneider. This explains his interest in bibliography. After his return to America Kohut served briefly in the rabbinate; his ordination certificate was signed by Felsenthal. Himself a poet, Kohut edited a two-volume anthology of Jewish poetry. He published numerous articles on the history of American Jewry and was one of the pioneers in the field. Though a competent historian he was not a notable scholar but he was an ardent votary of the Science of Judaism and documented his devotion to it by establishing the Alexander Kohut Memorial Foundation in honor of his father. Its purpose was to further Semitic and Jewish studies both here and abroad.3


Kohut’s interest in the history of the Jews in the Western Hemisphere was exceptional; most scholars in Hebraic fields ignored the history of this cisatlantic Jewry. Yet there were always some individuals in the New World who were curious to uncover the roots of the American Jewish communities. In 1800 a Columbia College student devoted his graduation oration to this theme and by 1847 Leeser had written a short essay on American Jewish origins. Even before the Civil War erupted, Jews here were lecturing on American Jewry; the Reverend Arnold (Adolph) Fischel addressed the New-York Historical Society on this subject. Jews here were also collecting data for a history of this North American community; Hazzan Jacques J. Lyons was already laying the foundation for his invaluable collection of American documents. After the Civil War the Rev. R. C. Lewin published historical sketches of American Jewish congregations and by the 1870’s Judge Daly had begun to lecture on colonial Jewry. It was not until 1888, however, that the journalist Isaac Markens published The Hebrews in America, the first book on the subject that attempted to cover the whole field. In that Gilded Age the author gloried in the material successes of the Germans and the natives but seemed unaware of the presence of the East Europeans. For him at least there was no history if there was no wealth or noteworthy achievements.4


When American Jews began to think of organizing a Jewish historical society they were probably aware of similar organizations among their coreligionists abroad. By 1885 the Jews of Germany had established a History Commission. Gentiles were invited to join, for it was the contention of Jewry that its history was but a part of the larger history of the German people. Graetz was kept off the Commission; he was too Jewish, too partisan, too embittered by past German mistreatment of the country’s Jews. The Commission began to publish a good magazine and to issue works of a sound scholarly nature. Two years later (1887) the English held an Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition and published a catalogue of their papers and also a series of essays. They were happy to invite Professor Graetz to open the exhibition with an address; obviously he was not too “Jewish” for them.

When in 1891 a Jewish historical-ethnographic commission was established even in “Darkest Russia,” it was time for American Jewry to lay the foundations for a social science organization of its own. The influences that moved it to take action were, possibly, more American than foreign. There was a historical society in Massachusetts ever since 1791; scholars and students joined together to found the American Historical Association in 1884. By that year there were already about 200 historical societies in this country, among them a national Catholic organization. The example of others was undoubtedly a factor in moving Jews here to do something. But there were still other reasons that impelled them to take action; the anti-Jewish Minerva Press had made its appearance; Goldwyn Smith and others were attacking the Jews; a generation after the Civil War, Jews were still being denounced as slackers. Facts, scientific data, said Jewish leaders, will refute false accusations; the story of Jewish accomplishments must be published. Seeking status the Jewish elite wished to emphasize that its roots reached back to colonial times; Jews were of aristocratic stock; they had fought in the Revolution, and long before that they had sailed with Columbus. It was the Strauses, the New York merchant family, that financed Moritz Kayserling as he delved into the Spanish archives to determine the national origins of the men who had discovered America in 1492.

Actually interest in fashioning a national Jewish historical society had manifested itself as early as the Centennial Year, 1876, when the Board of Delegates of American Israelites at least talked about it. In the next decade Professor Abram S. Isaacs, realizing that the quadricentennial of Columbus’s discovery was looming close, advocated the publication of a history of American Jewry. It may well be that Markens was stimulated by this. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations talked of participating in the Columbian Exposition. Simon Wolf expressed a vague hope that there might be a chair in American (Jewish) history. Felsenthal in 1888 wanted Cyrus Adler to organize a national American Jewish history association and the latter then began to publish source materials in The Menorah. Finally in 1890 Adler was ready to move; he and others believed that the Jews dared not bypass the opportunity to tell of their role in this hemisphere during the 400 years since the day that Luis de Torres first set foot on American soil. In 1892, the year of the quadricentennial, the American Jewish Historical Society was founded.5

Like the Historical Commission in Germany the Jews here made every effort to include Gentiles as both members and directors. The new society was to be an American society, Jewish history in American history. In the early 1900’s the leaders broadened their horizons to include the annals of World Jewry within the ambit of their programs but for the most part they limited themselves to the collection and publication of documents on the Jews of the Western Hemisphere. They built a library, collected manuscripts, nearprint, and paintings. Originally, because of the apologetic nature of their thinking they emphasized the history of the Jew as a pioneer in the Dutch possessions, in Hispanic America, and in the British colonies. They dwelt on the part that the Jew had played in the Revolution, in the days that tried men’s souls; they wrote in detail of the Jew in American diplomatic correspondence and his rise to public office. Because of their apologetic mind-set and the conviction that they had helped build this country they began to have more respect for themselves. At the same time there was still little attempt to describe the achievements of the German Jewish peddlers or the struggles of the East European ghetto denizens though by 1920 the latter constituted a majority of America’s Jews.

By 1901 when the first volume of the Jewish Encyclopedia was published American Jewish historiography had come into its own; it was recognized as a distinct discipline. The new American Jewish Historical Society began to establish a “school,” that is, it encouraged others to work in the field. In 1905 Jewry throughout the United States celebrated the 250th anniversary of its establishment as a community on this continent. Was this self-confidence a reflection of the growing imperialistic power and thinking of the country at large? The new interest in pioneer Jewish history manifested itself in a variety of ways, through magazine articles, through histories of congregations, of town and city communities, through a study of the Russian immigrants, a history of American Jewish philanthropy, through a sociological description of World Jewry, through biographies, autobiographies, and catalogues of tombstones. Jews began to dig into their past. The first articles on United States Jewry in the American Jewish Year Book were poor but they improved in the later volumes as scholars assembled more data and refined their methodology. The Yiddish and Hebrew press was interested in all aspects of American Jewish history. Hailing from lands of tyranny the East Europeans appreciated—and celebrated—the rights and immunities they enjoyed in the United States; one of George Washington’s famous letters to the Jews was translated into Hebrew. About the year 1905 the Jewish Chautauqua Society published a syllabus for a course on American Jewish history and asked its students to collect local data. The major topics listed for discussion were the Jew in education, culture, religion, charity, the Jew as a patriot and as a citizen. Two of the questions posed to the students were: Can the Jew succeed in agriculture? Is Zionism unpatriotic?6

Among the books written by students of the new science was a History of the Jews in America (1912). This, the work of a Russian immigrant, was the first rounded out, relatively good history of American Jewry. The author was Peter (Peretz) Wiernik (1865-1936), a learned Hebraist who by dint of effort had succeeded in acquiring an excellent secular education. Wiernik landed on these shores a lad of seventeen and settled in Chicago; he found it no easy thing to make a living. He peddled, worked on the docks, took a job in a lumberyard, became a compositor, served as correspondent for a Hebrew daily in Russia, and finally was appointed editor of the Chicago Yiddish paper, The Courier. In 1898 he turned to New York becoming the highly respected editor of a Yiddish national daily, The Morning Journal Wiernik, an observant Jew, was like most other Yiddish journalists an Americanist. His history is something of a watershed, not only because of its usefulness, but because Wiernik recognized the importance of the new immigrants and gave them their due in American Jewish historiography. His is an attempt at a balanced presentation; he is not overwhelmed by the affluent acculturated Germans. He treats of the newcomers in detail, of their culture, their religion, their communal life, their Zionism. The economic activity of the immigrants was touched upon but only lightly; it was obvious that he was not enamored of the Jewish socialists and their programs for the Jewish laborer.

The American Jewish Historical Society had far-reaching plans for collecting significant data on American Jewry but it accomplished little in that direction. In truth it was more a literary conventicle than a national association with broad aims. It was in reality a club of wealthy upper middle-class professionals, historical amateurs who were very much interested in the American Jewish past. The budget was minuscule. Yet despite its limitations it encouraged some very competent men whose writings were published in the twenty-eight volumes of the Publications already printed by 1920. Among the learned were Samuel Oppenheim who published studies on Masonry and colonial Jewry; Henry Cohen who told the story of the Texas Jewish pioneers, and Leon Huhner (Huehner) who wrote dozens of articles on as many themes assembling data from a hundred different sources and throwing light on the history of the Jew in eighteenth-century America. Cohen, rabbi of Galveston, collected his material at a time when the antebellum settlers were still alive or at least the memory of their heroic adventures could still be retailed by younger contemporaries. The rabbi recorded data that otherwise would have been lost though his chronicles, like the writings of all amateurs, must be carefully scrutinized by the critical historian. On the whole he was cautious in his judgments. Probably the most gifted of that first generation of American Jewish historians was the lawyer Max J. Kohler, a son of the president of the Hebrew Union College. Kohler, as prolific as his father, wrote hundreds of articles and book reviews and with rare exception they were distinguished for their meticulous accuracy.

By 1900 Cyrus Adler had suggested that the seminaries and Gratz College make a place in their curricula for the new branch of learning; in 1901 he delivered the address introducing a series of lectures on American Jewish history given by the Jewish Chautauqua Society at its summer assembly in Atlantic City. Almost two decades later the Central Jewish Institute of New York, an afternoon school, introduced a formal whole year course in the history of United States Jewry, but it was not until 1942 that American Jewish history became a required subject in a graduate school, the Hebrew Union College. In 1968 through the generosity of Lee M. Friedman, a former president of the American Jewish Historical Society and the author of several volumes of essays on American Jewry, the Society moved into its own home in Waltham, Massachusetts, on the campus of Brandeis University. By that time it was democratically organized and embraced not hundreds but thousands of members, many of whom were social scientists contributing to its quarterly which made its appearance in 1961.7


The excellent library which the American Jewish Historical Society gradually assembled was not unusual in American cultural institutions. Libraries for special groups, especially churches, were established as early as the seventeenth century. The American Jews just emerging from European ghettos where their vistas were limited got off to a slow start. Never unmindful of its educational aspirations, the B’nai B’rith established Maimonides Library for its New York members in 1851. It was well patronized. Most of its books, however, were not of Jewish interest. Learning was the key to success, to power; by the last decades of the century this is what more and more Americans believed as they turned to book reading. The immigrant Aaron Marcus, inveigled into a book auction house, bought a complete one-volume edition of Shakespeare for less than a dollar and brought it home to his four youngsters. The oldest was thirteen. The boys looked into it, found it incomprehensible, and indignantly importuned their father to return it. He brought back Horatio Alger’s Phil the Fiddler which they instantly devoured. This trend toward reading was spurred on by the free library movement and the gifts of Andrew Carnegie since 1881. By 1900 there were over 9,000 free circulating libraries in the country. The second half of the nineteenth century was also a time when more rabbis and scholarly laymen, like Mayer Sulzberger, began to collect books. There were libraries of sorts in the “Ys,” in the settlement houses, in schools, clubs, lodges, and, of course, in the literary societies. By 1858 the New York YMHA had 8,000 volumes, but this too was primarily a general library. Temple Emanu-El in 1881 had the largest Hebrew library in the United States including even incunabula; Michael Heilprin was the librarian.

Free circulating libraries for the East European immigrants were established in the ghettos by the Jewish social agencies. There was a downtown branch of the Aguilar library; the Aguilar division in the Educational Alliance was the best patronized circulating library in all of New York. The Maimonides Library had 30,000 volumes in 1888. Adolph Sutro in 1883 bought a valuable collection of Hebrew manuscripts from M. W. Shapira of Jerusalem. This was the antiquities dealer who was involved in the sale of spurious variant verses of the book of Deuteronomy which, so rumor had it, he offered to the British Museum for £1,000,000. Purportedly these were the oldest Hebrew biblical manuscripts extant. Sutro’s large collection of books and manuscripts later became part of the California State Library.8

Libraries for the use of scholars and the learned began to abound in the general colleges and universities, in the synagogs, and in the seminaries. The original Hebrew Union College Library of 1875 was locked up every night in a two-and-a-half-foot wooden box to protect the handful of books from the mice who might venture forth from the walls of the subterranean vestry rooms. Under Adolph S. Oko it later became one of the best Jewish libraries in the world. Because of Alexander Marx’s devotion and bibliographic knowledge the Jewish Theological Seminary Library was soon distinguished as a treasure house of rare books and manuscripts. Among the fine works it received as a gift from Judge Sulzberger were forty-five rare Jewish books printed in the fifteenth century. Dropsie and the Isaac Elchanan Seminary began to build collections and through the munificence of Jacob H. Schiff the Semitic Division of the Library of Congress assumed increasing importance.

Many of the Jewish books in the Washington national library were collected by Ephraim Deinard (1846-1930). While still in Russia, his native land, Deinard had made a name for himself as a bookseller and as an author, and here in this country to which he had immigrated in 1888 he continued to write and to buy and sell Hebrew books. But he was no ordinary dealer. Here he wrote or edited over fifty works, collected a large valuable library of his own, composed poetry, published Hebrew periodicals, and was recognized if not acclaimed as a man to whom institutions must turn if they were to build their Hebraica collections. It was he who supplied Sulzberger with many of the books and manuscripts for his library and he it was who helped build the Jewish collections of the Seminary, of Harvard, and of the New York Public Library. Under the brilliant guiding influence of Abraham Solomon Freidus, and once again through the munificent gifts of Schiff, the recently established Jewish Division of the New York Public Library had by 1905 become the largest collection of Jewish books in the United States. In 1926 Dienard published Koheleth America: Catalogue of Hebrew Books Printed in America from 1735-1925. This indefatigable collector must be reckoned among those learned men whose merit it is that in the 1930’s the United States had the largest collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world. With good library facilities available in several cultural centers scholars found it possible to carry on creative, scientific work.9


In the libraries where students worked to further the science of Judaism no tool was more important than the twelve-volume Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906). It was the first large-scale Jewish reference work that embraced the whole field and accepted the critical method. The Jewry of Europe, where the masses were, had been talking of preparing such a work for generations but very little had eventuated: projects rarely got beyond the letter “A.” There was one exception, however. That was Jacob Hamburger’s German encyclopedia for Bible and Talmud which was later expanded into an encyclopedia of Judaism. Hamburger was the district rabbi of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. This one man’s remarkable massive production is still useful for students of the Bible, Talmud, and medieval literature. Hamburger began printing his tomes in 1862. It was not until 1898 that another encyclopedia was attempted, again the work of one man. This was the Ozar Ha-Shemot (Book of Names), a multivolume effort that dealt with all aspects of biblical lore. It was prepared by Abraham Hayyim Rosenberg (1838-1928), a scholarly American rabbi and printer who had received his education in his native Russia. It is a very creditable piece of work.10

Wise and his cohorts in the Central Conference of American Rabbis were talking of an encyclopedia in 1897, but this was only talk. If the Jewish Encyclopedia ever came to birth it was because of the initiative of one man, an Austrian journalist, translator, and cultural entrepreneur, Dr. Isidor Singer (1859-1939). He is the man who interested Funk & Wagnalls, the publishers, and helped secure the necessary financial backing. The twelve volumes that followed are a marriage of American publishing know-how, Jewish financial support, and the finest in European and American erudition in the field of Hebraic and Judaic studies. The learned of all lands were coopted in what was s gigantic task. European scholars were brought in as office editors and researchers; most of them remained here when their task was done. Almost all American Jewish savants were enlisted; practically all of these were German trained; one man alone of the ten on the editorial board was a native American. The final product was a complete survey of the Jewish experience throughout the ages.

The publishers and editors of the Encyclopedia have been criticized for neglecting Zionism and the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe. They have been faulted for not stressing economic and social history. Voiced post-eventum, from the vantage point of a later generation, these reproaches are unjustified. Eastern European Jewish historians, like American ones, were just beginning to evaluate their past; Zionism in 1901 was a minuscule movement, economic and social history were disciplines still in their infancy. Actually through Joseph Jacobs the sociological approach was not neglected. Schechter was unhappy that the publishers pushed the workers too hard; some of the articles, he claimed, were superficial. It is true that Funk & Wagnalls was determined to get the work done on schedule; the last six volumes were produced in two years! Two generations after the last volume rolled off the presses the Jewish Encyclopedia is still recognized as a great work although outmoded in part by time and new research. It has served as the pattern and as source material for all Jewish encyclopedic works that have since appeared. Shortly after the twelfth final volume was published, Judah David Eisenstein began to issue his Ozar Yisrael (Israel’s Treasure). This ten-volume Hebrew work was heavily dependent on the Jewish Encyclopedia to which Eisenstein had also contributed. The point of view of the editor was traditional; its appearance is striking evidence that the Orthodox too were determined to participate as far as they could in the Science of Judaism and to let their voice be heard. Orthodoxy through the ages has nearly always been amenable to the influence of the cultural environment. The Jewish Encyclopedia marks the beginnings of American Jewry’s emancipation from the leading strings of Central Europe. Jewish scholarship, then already decades old in the United States, was blossoming in the first decades of the twentieth century. Were America’s Jews—wittingly or unwittingly—preparing themselves for cultural and spiritual hegemony in the Jewish world?11


The Jewish Encyclopedia became a basic reference work not only for scholars but for all students who, prior to its appearance, had been largely dependent on European works in the original or translation, especially those that contained substantive data. There had always been a need for new books, a need that the American Jewish Publication Society had attempted to fill as early as 1845. After that organization withered away in 1851, there was constant agitation by Leeser, the Board of Deputies, young Mayer Sulzberger, Isaac M. Wise, and others too to reestablish a similar cultural agency. With that boldness that was his hallmark Wise wanted to publish translations of all the medieval and modern Jewish classics in a language that could be read. But Jewry hesitated to take action; the Orthodox and Reform groups might further dissension through the dissemination of controversial religious works!12

In moving to reestablish a publishing society the advocates here were not unaware of similar Jewish ventures in Germany and England. Finally in the early 1870’s some of the leading men in this country, rabbis and laymen, sponsored the founding of the second American Jewish Publication Society. It promised to publish Jewish books, to avoid religious controversy, and to work assiduously to unite American Jewry. This harping on unity is not easy to understand. Does it reflect strong group insecurities, deep-rooted intra-Jewish divisions? The new society was not destined to have a long life. It published translations of essays by noted German scholars and, like the first venture of the 1840’s, launched an attack on the Christian missionaries. The neurotic fear of the conversionists was ever-present. The one solid work to the credit of the new group was a translation of that volume of the original Graetz history which dealt with the downfall of the Jewish state in the year 70 C.E. and carried the story to the conclusion of the Talmud. The translator was James K. Gutheim, then a preacher in Temple Emanu-El of New York. He was the famous Confederate patriot and was still an unreconstructed rebel. This society faded away in 1875, a victim of indifference and the devastating panic of that decade.13


When the second publication venture failed American Jewry numbered fewer than 200,000 men, women, and children but by the late 1880’s the population had almost doubled. Now émigrés were pouring in and the desire to Judaize them, American style, may have prompted leaders to resurrect the publication society. In 1885 Rabbi Henry Berkowitz asked the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to sponsor a book concern, like those of the large Protestant denominations, that would publish books on Jewish subjects in order to keep the rising generation within the ambit of Jewry. His brother-in-law Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf of Philadelphia convinced his young men’s literary society in 1887 that the Jewish Mission to the world at large would be furthered through the creation of a publication society. Others were coopted, a national meeting was called by Krauskopf and Solomon Solis-Cohen, and the third, the present Jewish Publication Society, came into being in 1888. Jacob Schiff and Meyer Guggenheim made generous grants. Plagued by the fear of religious discord some rabbis were kept off the new board. Reform and Orthodox Jews bared their fangs at one another. Schiff was indignant that Kohler whom he respected for his learning was not invited to play a part in the new organization. Orthodox Morais would not serve with the radical Krauskopf. In later years the American Israelite was convinced that the Society was run by a hostile anti-Reform “gang.” Ultimately Krauskopf dropped out; in the rivalry between him and Sulzberger, the judge forged to the front. But the Society did succeed in maintaining a religious balance. Kohler was later brought in and did good work; the first president of the reborn publication enterprise was Morris Newberger, a Civil War wholesale clothier who turned to banking yet found time to serve as one of the lay leaders of American Reform. The key position, however, that of chairman of the publication committee, was reserved for Sulzberger. He and his associates determined what books the members would read. As a loyal disciple of Leeser the judge would not wander too far from the right.14

The Society never had a detailed plan or a program for publication and if it thought it had one its emphasis constantly shifted. Not as konsequent as its sister organization in Germany, it rarely hewed to the line. Circumstances compelled it to veer with the wind; it did the best it could. At first it played with the thought of also printing scientific works by American Jewish scholars but it finally came to the conclusion that this was an unwise decision. The final compromise was to publish works that were accurate yet popular; it hoped to appeal to the intelligent cultured laymen. Most of its non-fictional works fitted into this category. Yet it was never intended that the Society become just another book firm. The new Philadelphia organization was religiously motivated as were the Protestant publishing houses. The Society wanted to further Judaism to insure the survival of Jewry in the American assimilatory environment. Inspired by a verse of the prophet Isaiah the seal adopted by the board depicted a lion and a lamb lying down together and a little child hovering over them; underneath was the phrase, “Israel’s Mission is Peace” (Isa. 11:6). And this, too: the Society aspired to produce a literature that would enlighten Jew and Christian in an age of prejudice and weld all Jews into one common brotherhood.

The wish to indoctrinate the children, the future carriers of the traditions, impelled the leaders to emphasize fictional works for the young. Because the boys and girls were completely Americanized every effort was made to widen their horizons, to deepen their sympathies for the Jews of other lands. Juveniles of all types were printed, fiction, biographies of notables, reworked Bible stories. Adults were entertained with tales of the heroic Marranos and nostalgic accounts of life in the ghettos of Central and Eastern Europe in the halcyon pre-industrial days. It was the Society that encouraged Israel Zangwill to write about those London immigrants from the Slavic lands who had carried their ghettos with them or were trying to escape them. Wiser than many of their contemporaries the members of the publication committee took cognizance of the East European Jews among them and began publishing English translations from the Yiddish. Thus for the first time Judah Loeb Peretz and other classical Yiddish writers were introduced to American audiences. Because all of American Jewry, and Gentiles too, were shocked by the Russian pogroms, novels and stories of life and suffering in czarist Russia began to make their appearance. As part of its plan to stimulate the pride of the Jew in his faith, in his people, in his past, to unite all Jews in one indissoluble bond, the Society emphasized works of history. It introduced Simon Dubnow to American readers; many read the History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, and accepted his concept of the recurrence of hegemonic centers in Jewish life, and the need for Jewish cultural autonomy. It published books on Zionism, the medieval ghettos, contemporary Jewish life, Hebrew literature, on the Jewish great from Josephus to Montefiore. There were works on the Jewish woman, the Bible, on Judaism, on ethics. If all the subscribers had read the books they received American Jewry would have emerged as the most learned Jewry in all the annals of its long trek through the ages.

The Graetz history, the Husik survey of philosophy, the multivolume work of Ginzberg on folklore were among the Society’s most notable publications. But there were others. Jacob Schiff (1914), following in the footsteps of a kinsman, James Loeb, who had financed the Loeb Classical Library (1912), endowed the Schiff Library of Jewish classics and supplemented that gift with money for a Hebrew press to print the Hebrew-English works. Actually the most useful book the Society published was its American Jewish Year Book which began to appear in 1899 and was continued jointly with the American Jewish Committee in 1908. In addition to the Jewish calendar it contained excellent articles on a variety of subjects, statistical data, lists and descriptions of Jewish institutions, and necrologies of important communal figures. It was and still is an indispensable reference work.

The most frequently used books of the Society? Probably the Year Book and the English Bible. American Jewry had been using the Leeser translation since its publication in 1853 but it was expensive, massive; this was particularly true of the pulpit edition. Influenced by the highly successful Protestant book publishers the Jews began talking of a cheap lightweight English edition of the Bible. The Society of the 1870’s was interested but did nothing. In the last decade of the nineteenth century many deplored that the Jews were no longer a People of the Book; there were towns, so it was rumored, where there was not even a single Jewish home with an English Bible. To remedy the need, or the presumed need, the new publication society with Marcus Jastrow as editor (1892) asked rabbis to translate individual books of the Bible but only one was published, Kohler’s Psalms (1903). In 1907 the Central Conference of American Rabbis stepped into the breach and proposed printing a cheap edition of the 1885 Christian Revised Version, modified of course for Jewish readers. The threat of a Reform rabbinical version probably frightened the Society into taking action. A conjoint committee of Reform rabbis and the Jewish Publication Society was formed with Margolis as editor. Scholars from the two seminaries and Dropsie were put to work and the Jewish Authorized Version, finished in 1915, was published two years later. The indefatigable Henrietta Szold read proof twelve times. The translation was a good one. Exodus 20:13 of the American Revised Edition of the Holy Bible is translated: “Thou shalt not kill,” the Jewish translation reads: “Thou shalt not murder.”15


The book lists of the Society from 1888 to 1920 were uneven. It could only publish what it could get. It turned everywhere for material, relied heavily on translations from the Hebrew, French, German, and Yiddish, and resorted to copublication with commercial firms because money was scarce. American Jewry never had funds for cultural purposes; it never failed to respond generously to pogroms. There can be no question that most Jews were loyal, according to their own lights, but they were never avid pursuers of Jewish knowledge. The Society might have gained more readers if after the fashion of the contemporary yellow journals it too had stooped to conquer but in doing this it would have offended the intellectuals. The natives were intent on Americanization, not Judaization; the immigrants were concerned with bread and butter. Those who had the capacity to savor good fiction could read the classics and the best sellers without resorting to the fare that the Society dishes up. Culture in Jewry, as in the general population, is not a mass pursuit. It was the few, the elite, who were culture carriers in all periods of Jewish history. In 1910 the Society had 10,000 members; this is a notable achievement. This core group had been encouraged and fostered by the Society. The Society which by 1920 had published about 130 titles, helped create a literature that enlightened and even moved Jews to reach out to one another. It had made a place for itself; its survival documents its success.16


The Jewish Publication Society was only one of several institutions that rose in the last decades of the nineteenth century to help Jews survive in an open society. This was a period creative in the fashioning of institutions designed to help all Jews—natives, Americanized Germans, and newly arriving East Europeans—reconcile their Jewishness and their Americanism. The settlement houses, the Sabbath schools, the libraries, the National Council of Jewish Women were dedicated in part to this purpose. Still another attempt to educate Jews Jewishly, religiously, was the Jewish Chautauqua Society. It owes its origins to one man, Henry Berkowitz (1857-1924), a Reform rabbi. Berkowitz was probably the American rabbinate’s protosocial worker. He was certainly a dedicated educationist. As early as 1885, in response to a circular letter of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations asking what could be done to raise the niveau of American Jewry, intellectually and morally, Berkowitz proposed a Jewish form of the Christian Chautauqua Society which had been established in 1874 as a Protestant organization to further Christianity and improve instruction in the Sunday schools. He was then the rabbi of Mobile. A few years later, in Kansas City, he fashioned a congregational society patterned in part on the Christian Chautauqua model.

In 1893, now rabbi of Philadelphia’s prestigious Rodeph Shalom, he founded the Jewish Chautauqua Society after sketching its contours to a Jewish group at the World’s Parliament of Religions. In a few years it became a national institution. At first it was closely allied to the Christian Chautauqua which itself was part of a larger national movement to bring culture to the American masses, to men and woman eager to improve themselves. The Christian Chautauqua furthered home reading courses; in 1892 it had 100,000 students in its numerous circles. The Jewish Chautauqua Society set out to be Jewishly nondenominational, yet because of its Reform Jewish sponsorship it was not accepted by other Jewish groups; it soon became an autonomous Reform Jewish association. In a Reformist and apologetic sense Berkowitz wanted to teach the world about Judaism and thus, as he believed, help dissipate prejudice and further good relations between Jews and Gentiles. Less apologetically he reached out to all Jews hoping to unite them under the banner of Jewish education and culture.

Conceptually at least Berkowitz was one of the pioneer progressives in the field of Jewish education attempting through Chautauqua to imbue teachers with his ideas. Teachers he believed must know English well for their students are native born; mechanical memorization of catechism answers is deplorable; rote Hebrew reading has no moral value. Children must be taught the ideals of the Bible and Judaism; their intellectual queries must be answered; their religious longings must be satisfied. In those preautomobile horse and buggy days the Jewish Chautauqua was concerned with the scattered people in the backcountry, in the villages and hamlets. As late as 1910 more Americans lived in rural districts and towns than in urban areas. The city Jews believed, possibly with reason, that these isolated Jews were threatened with assimilation. The Jewish Chautauqua therefore labored diligently in the small towns; it worked with orphans in the asylums and with the youngsters in the South Jersey and in the North Dakota colonies.17


Though Berkowitz’s Chautauqua reached people in all corners of the land, its personnel and budget were pitifully small. The staff consisted of a field secretary, and, probably, an aide or a typist. Minnie D. Louis, the social worker, was appointed as the first field worker and she was later succeeded by Jeannette Miriam Goldberg, a Texan. Both women were exceptionally able. The Society opened a correspondence school and set up numerous reading circles which were provided with detailed syllabi to carry on their work by themselves. It is an indication of their modernity and the scope of their curricula that in 1895 a study of the Apocrypha and the New Testament was included. In summer convocations eager teachers could listen to talks on pedagogy and on current topics; as early as 1901 there were lectures on social work. Hebrew too was taught, but this was not unusual, for the Christians in their Chautauqua could also elect to study the Bible in the original. Most teacher training was imparted during the summer assemblies which met at some popular resort; Atlantic City was a favorite gathering place. In 1902 Emil G. Hirsch, America’s most distinguished Reform rabbi, was invited to speak there to a Chautauqua group. Accepting the invitation the radical rabbi wrote Chancellor Berkowitz: “Perhaps my most profitable assignment for you will be to cage me and put me on exhibition in the act of devouring another piece of sound and safe Judaism.”

In the early 1900’s one of the Jewish Chautauqua’s many study circles was recruited from students attending the University of Pennsylvania. By 1901 Berkowitz was induced to go off in an entirely different tack in the country’s colleges. Professor Philander P. Claxton of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville invited the Society to send a lecturer to talk to Christians at the College’s Summer School of the South. The professor, later United States Commissioner of Education, had read some of the Publication Society’s books and was convinced that the Jews had made a contribution to the world’s culture which people ought to know about. Sooner or later Jews would start moving South and when they did the Christians would receive them sympathetically if the Christian intelligentsia had been prepared by lectures on the Jews. This was just a few years before the Leo Frank Affair. Berkowitz adopted Claxton’s suggestion and the following year sent Julian Morgenstern of the Hebrew Union College to talk to the Christians at the University. Thus it was that Chautauqua began to switch from educating Jews to becoming a light to the Gentiles. By the 1920’s intercultural and interfaith work had become one of the primary jobs of the Society.18


Give credit to Berkowitz and his organization for they did more than engage in fantasies. The small wispy creature that was Berkowitz was aggressive. In order to further the work of the circles and assemblies and the correspondence schools he and his cohorts, practically all Reform rabbis, prepared a series of helps, guides, syllabi, and course books on the Bible, postbiblical history, Judaism, the Hebrew language, and Jewish characters in English fiction. A work by Harry Levy on the Jew in English fiction was very popular. Before 1900 the Chautauqua had students and followers in over twenty states and a branch on the Pacific Coast; by 1905 there were 125 centers, about 2,500 active participants, and about 6,000 members. Chautauqua writings and texts were used by some “Ys,” Zionists, and the National Council of Jewish Women; its pedagogical tools were used in Canada as well as distant India, and there is every reason to believe that it was Chautauqua that induced the Union of Jewish Literary Societies of Great Britain to hold a summer assembly in 1903.

Yet this Jewish movement had no success comparable to that of the Christian counterpart. Many of the circles were quiescent, the membership did not grow as rapidly as it should; many were delinquent in dues. What happened? The Society never had an adequate staff or the necessary funds to carry on a national program. Unlike the Christian Chautauqua it did not resort to popular entertainment and amusement programs in order to attract and hold the masses. The auto, the cinema, the radio offered more attractive diversions or forms of instruction. The Chautauqua soon realized, as did the Publication Society, that Jewry as a whole was not interested in Jewish cultural pursuits. Even before Berkowitz died in the 1920’s the Society had fallen into decline. The depression of the next decade almost destroyed it. It was rescued only in 1939 when its work was taken over by the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods and it became a university interfaith and intercultural enterprise. But for over two decades after its founding it had been a national institution rallying around it a small but enthusiastic body of eager readers, eager Jews. Through its work in the small colleges of the country it reached thousands of attentive young Christians, many of whom were seeing their first Jew when a rabbi addressed them telling them about the people who were “the cousins of our Lord.”19


In large part the summer and winter assemblies, correspondence schools, and pedagogical literature of the Jewish Chautauqua Society were designed to train teachers for Sabbath and Sunday schools. But Chautauqua was not the sole agency working in the field. As far back as 1841 two American rabbis had pleaded for a Jewish normal school. These Germans, Isaac Leeser and Louis Salomon, were trying to establish the same type of teachers’ training schools here in America that had been flourishing in the fatherland since the early nineteenth century. No progress was made here till the 1880’s when the need to provide for a rapidly growing Jewry brought action on several fronts. Individual congregations set up training courses; some New York schools fashioned a teachers’ college to which they even invited Christians; the nationwide Reformist Hebrew Sabbath School Union made a plea for better instructional training, and the Jewish Ministers’ Association of New York City established a seminary to train young women to teach Hebrew. None of these schools enjoyed any permanency.20

There are not sufficient data available to evaluate these attempt to create a professional teachers corps. One thing is certain; they did no harm. They demonstrated as well that some of the communal and religious leaders realized the importance of adequate training schools; their efforts failed for the same reasons that all Jewish cultural institutions trailed behind; inadequate communal support, lack of money, apathy. The only recourse was for the teachers to help themselves; for this purpose they banded together professionally. By the 1890’s various teachers’ associations had begun to appear; there were organizations for religious school teachers, Hebrew instructors, and for the principals of the Hebraically oriented afternoon schools, the Talmud Torahs. By 1916 those Hebrew teachers who had received their pedagogical training at universities began to issue a journal, The Jewish Teacher; this organ of the Jewish Teachers’ Association was the first of the Jewish professional magazines. The Association was destined to exercise a great deal of influence in the Jewish educational world of the next generation.

Contrary to expectations the first permanent Jewish teachers’ college was not opened in New York City but in Philadelphia. This was Gratz College named in honor of Hyman Gratz (1776-1857), an older brother of Rebecca. After the failure of the family wholesale grocery business, Gratz had turned to insurance and had become a wealthy man. In his will he left money to found a college for Jews. Most denominations in those days had liberal arts schools; why not the Jews also? Discouraged by Christian college presidents from establishing a sectarian school for the humanities, the trustees listened to Rabbi Morais and finally decided on a teachers’ training school. It opened its doors in 1898 and speedily attained recognition. The New Yorkers then bestirred themselves. The Jewish Theological Seminary made a stab at training teachers in the early 1900’s but accomplished little till 1909 when, with a liberal grant from Schiff, it opened the Teachers’ Institute. The principal of this most successful new undertaking was Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan who later founded the liberal Reconstructionist Movement. The graduates of this school were trained primarily to teach Hebrew; in later years Hebrew itself became the language of instruction.21

The most influential personality in the drive for professional proficiency was a man who established no teachers’ seminary. This was Samson Benderly, head of the Bureau of Jewish Education of the New York Kehillah. Determined to improve the schools, pedagogical skills, and curricula, Benderly encouraged his disciples to secure their technical training at the universities. His efforts to revolutionalize Jewish education in this country were rewarded by a substantial measure of success.

The establishment of training colleges for Jewish teachers was speeded up from 1917 to 1921. The Orthodox Mizrachi group, willing to meet the challenge of the new world, opened a teachers’ school in 1917 where the language of instruction was Hebrew and where the classical Hebrew texts were studied. It was not long before the new academy was taken over by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary which became Yeshiva University in the next generation. Other teacher training institutions followed. The pro-Zionist socialists opened a seminary for the instructors in their afternoon schools; the Jews of Baltimore and Boston established teacher training institutions that would one day become degree-giving colleges. All of these seminaries, with the exception of Gratz, were founded by East Europeans or men of East European background.22

In a way it is surprising that the push for teachers’ schools came from newcomers, not the natives or the leaders of the older migration. Why was this? The sixty years after the Civil War was an age when the rabbi stood out not as a teacher but as the congregational and communal representative, as the man who confronted the Gentile world. Teachers were not given their just due. The standards for confirmation and bar mitzvah were not high. Obviously the synagogal elite was satisfied with a lick and a promise; apparently the leaders among the East Europeans were not. Yet the Reformers were not altogether quiescent; as it will be pointed out in a later chapter of this work, concerned rabbis and laymen did establish a Hebrew Sabbath School Union to improve the elementary school system. In 1906 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations did encourage the introduction of training courses for religious school teachers in Chicago. Three years later when Schiff endowed the Seminary’s Teachers’ Institute he gave a similar amount to the Hebrew Union College for the same purpose. Although the Cincinnatians never put together a formal teachers’ academy, they did use the money to advance teacher training. They organized classes in pedagogy for the rabbinical students; girls were given training as teachers; institutes were held in town and out of town, and impressive scholarly syllabi were published. The College faculty served as the instructors; they were learned, dedicated men but not one had ever received any professional pedagogical preparation for the task he undertook. Cincinnati was too small numerically to provide students for an effective permanent teachers’ seminary.

In summary one can point out that by 1920 professional Hebrew teachers were being prepared for their tasks in the metropolitan areas but relatively little was accomplished in improving instruction in the Sabbath school field, especially in the smaller cities and towns. A few congregations were making a valiant effort to improve their school personnel by teaching post-confirmands. But the time had not yet come to effect radical changes. Emanuel Gamoran, one of Benderly’s disciples, would in the decade of the 1920’s become the director of the department of education of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Through the text books he edited he would exert a lasting influence on the Reform elementary schools and on all of American Jewish education at the Sabbath and Sunday school level. The text books that were to come out of Cincinnati were for a generation among the best written and furthered a sympathetic attitude toward all Jewish religious denominations and World Jewry.23


For about a generation at least the teachers’ colleges tended to limit themselves to teacher training although their curricula included all the basic academic disciplines. These schools did not introduce secular studies though there were always Jews who favored the establishment of general colleges under Jewish auspices. About the same time that the rabbinical seminary was established in Cincinnati in 1875 there was talk also of founding a woman’s college that would combine Hebraic and non-Jewish classical studies. In 1900 some New Yorkers voiced the need for a Jewish nonsectarian university, a school where Jews would be completely at home though, to be sure, Gentiles would always be welcome. Stanley Hall, former president of Clark University, suggested in 1917 that a Jewish school be established to present the best in Jewish culture. Certainly by 1920 many Jews did want a college of their own; this pious hope was consistent with the oldest American traditions, but was not to be effectuated in that generation.

Jews are nothing if not realistic. They were content with their rabbinical seminaries for they knew they had to have rabbis and they did prefer a learned ministry. This was solid Jewish tradition. In the sense that the Germans abroad understood the concept, the Hebrew Union College under Wise was not a scholarly institution. Most of the works he and his faculty wrote were geared to the classroom or to the practical rabbinate. Appreciative of scholarship, Henry Berkowitz urged the College to establish postgraduate fellowships or to send men abroad. One way or another this country must train Americans as scholars. Wise, too, realized this need but it remained for Kohler to add a postgraduate year to the College curriculum. Schechter in his inaugural address (1902) emphasized that a seminary was not only a humanitarian institution but that it was also a place where one studied and learned. Kohler recognized the need for sound Jewish knowledge and the growing importance of the new social sciences. These two seminary presidents expected their faculties to write. In the Hebrew Union College Kohler read portions of the New Testament with his students; Christianity was a Jewish sect that merited study.

If the Hebrew Union College president read the gospels with his students, may we infer from this that the school encouraged complete Lehrfreiheit, freedom of expression and teaching? Not at all, although within the limits of a theological seminary the students were given a great deal of latitude. Kohler fulminated from the chapel pulpit against “atheism” in the student body but otherwise limited himself, in his extended parting benediction, to a rebuttal of the humanistic sermon to which he had just listened. He always insisted that the school was a Reform institution with a very definite philosophy of its own. Schechter like Kohler had a commitment to the scientific method yet he was always the traditionalist who would never have tolerated any marked deviation from the ancestral observances. Because, unlike Wise, he could not deny the validity of the new critical biblical methodology, the teaching of the Old Testament at the Seminary created problems that disturbed him.24


It would seem that there was one school that was devoid of theological bias. This was Dropsie College for it was governed by no synagogal group and its founder had stipulated that it was open to all men and women, black and white, and Gentiles. Actually its first president was Cyrus Adler, a traditionalist, and it is doubtful whether he, like Schechter, would have tolerated any member of his faculty who departed markedly in his religious practices from the norms of Orthodoxy. But, saving this reservation, this institution was dedicated to pure science. It had been established through a legacy of Moses Aaron Dropsie (1821-1905), the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, but when the youngster grew up he elected to become a Jew, a fervent observant one. After beginning life as a watchmaker and jeweler, he turned to law, wrote on Roman jurisprudence and the trial of Jesus, and amassed a fortune in the practice of his profession. As a disciple of Leeser he was very much interested in Jewish learning; he supported Maimonides College and served as the first president of Gratz. He did nothing, however, for the Jewish Theological Seminary because its sponsors years before had refused to come to the aid of Maimonides when it began to founder. The Dropsie will left money for a graduate school where original research, especially in the Bible and rabbinical literature could be pursued in Hebrew and the cognate languages. Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning opened its doors in 1909. One of its goals was to train scholars, Jews and Gentiles, to teach in institutions of higher learning. Welcoming Christian students was not unique with Dropsie. The Hebrew Union College frequently numbered Christians among its students from the brilliant young Episcopalian who later became one of America’s distinguished scholars to the naive elderly minister who was determined to study Hebrew in order that he might properly address the Holy One Blessed Be He in his Heavenly abode. By 1920 President Adler had gathered about him an eminent faculty; it trained a generation of scholars some of whom were destined to become men of distinction. Moses A. Dropsie had once expressed the hope that America would ultimately witness a Golden Age of Jewish culture; fifty years after his death Jewry here was well on its way to reach the goal he had envisaged.25


Before Dropsie opened its doors its newly appointed board of governors sent out a circular letter to Jewish and Christian scholars asking for “opinions,” suggestions, for the curriculum. There was only one Orthodox rabbi on the rather long list of people solicited. At that time, 1906, there were very few Orthodox leaders, men competent to proffer advice on the conduct of an American-oriented academic institution. No modern Orthodox college was to open its doors in this country until 1915; its founder and first president was a Lithuanian immigrant who had received his Ph.D. from Dropsie only three years earlier; he was that school’s first recipient of a degree. This new Orthodox college was a fusion of two New York academies, an elementary and an advanced talmudic school. The new institution called itself the Rabbinic College of America, later, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Its purpose was to train those Jews who wished to enter the Orthodox rabbinate or to enjoy a traditional Jewish education. The founder of this seminary was Barnard Revel. Relieving that Orthodoxy could not survive successfully in this country unless it came to terms with the dominant American culture, Revel and his sponsors set out to harmonize traditional Judaism and modern secular scientific knowledge. They believed that Orthodoxy had a great future here. The curriculum was broadened far beyond the four cubits of talmudic study; the secular studies of a typical American college were added, and the critical approach to Jewish literature was not rejected. Ultimately this seminary became a nursery of Jewish learning where new methods and new disciplines were taught to the students all of whom were at that time foreign born.26

By 1920 Dropsie and the three rabbinical seminaries were committed to the Science of Judaism, in varying degrees to be sure. Scholarly productivity was not high; the professors had heavy schedules, funds for publication were not always forthcoming, yet by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century the writings of the men at these four schools had begun to assume promising proportions.



Reading and learning, writing and analyzing the biblical and postbiblical classics and telling the story of the Jews in the Diaspora are of course all aspects of Jewish culture, but so are the Jewish themes reflected in art forms and the musical compositions, chaunts, and melodies which purport to be traditional. Traditional is equated with “Jewish.” What is true is that if any form of art expression was adopted (read appropriated), and retained by the Jews over the decades and centuries then it became unique, theirs; it was indubitably Jewish! The people are never wrong; their decisions made history, for them at least. Since every acculturated Jew is more American than Jewish it was inevitable that Jewry here would be profoundly affected by the interest of the American people in art and in music. This was particularly true in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when science and literature flourished, when industry brought wealth, leisure, study, and an appreciation of the fine arts.

The typical cultured American Gentile assumed that there was such a thing as Jewish art. In 1889 the Smithsonian Institution staged an exhibition of Jewish ceremonial objects and in 1893 there was a display of ritual silver at the Columbian Exposition. The first volume of the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) bore witness to the reality of Jewish art for it contains a series of articles on various forms of art expression. American Jews were now conscious of the new cultural disciplines but in the nebulous field of art they lagged at least a generation behind their European confreres. By 1920 Jews on the Continent could brag of fine artists who for decades had addressed themselves to Jewish subjects: painters, etchers, lithographers, sculptors. Among them were Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Jozef Israels, E. M. Lilien, Max Lieberman, Lesser Ury, Hermann Struck, Joseph Rudko, Jakob Steinhardt, Mark M. Antokolski and a host of others. Here in this country aspiring young men and women, children of immigrants, were studying in the art classes of the academies and the settlement houses; their subjects were often Jewish, portraying the world in which they lived, the ghetto. Many of them would make their presence felt in the next generation.27


Because music was an integral part of the religious service it was more cultivated than the graphic arts; the congregants sang hymns, psalms, and chaunted the prayers. What made it Jewish? In a Diaspora that reached back for well over 2,000 years Jews had ample opportunity to pick up melodies; they heard songs, liked them, and made them their own. The Sephardim who came to settle the Americas brought their chaunts with them; some may still be heard in New York’s Shearith Israel. German Jewish cantors who started coming here no later than the 1840’s carried their Central European musical traditions with them. Back home Solomon Sulzer (1804-1891) of Vienna and Samuel Naumbourg (1816-1880) of Paris had been singing and publishing liturgical music since the second quarter of the nineteenth century. And their Jewish sources? They were lost in the mists of centuries and Jewish experiences on three continents and in a dozen lands. By the 1860’s American Jewry had begun to publish its musical worship settings with Hebrew or German or English texts. In the 1870’s Alois Kaiser of Baltimore and three other cantors printed four volumes of liturgical music for the Sabbath and festivals, and in the 1890’s Kaiser and William Sparger of New York assembled a collection of Jewish synagogal melodies which was published as a souvenir by the Jewish Women’s Congress of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition.28

Cantors reached out musically from the reading desk or the pulpits; the congregants cacophonously and joyfully lifted up their voices in the pews. Hymnals to guide them had been published here no later than 1842. In 1876 a good hymnbook was published in German by a non-Jew for Felsenthal’s Zion Temple. Some of the songs were of Christian provenance. Obviously their Christian origin did not embarrass Felsenthal who was an ardent Jew. Wise in the late 1880’s complained of the foreign, the Christian character of a hymnal edited by Gottheil, and the 1894 song book of Isaac S. Moses evinced excellent taste by borrowing tunes from Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann. By 1920 the Moses work had gone through fourteen editions. It contained songs for the Sabbath and the holidays, for flower and harvest services, and for patriotic occasions. One of the most popular confirmation hymns of that generation was written by Felix Adler of Ethical Culture fame. Musically American Jewry was nothing if not ecumenical. In 1897 Kaiser edited the first hymnal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; in this and later imprints the editors were frequently dependant on Protestant Christian composers. After the appearance of the first Union Prayer Book of the Reformers in 1892 cantors began writing and publishing musical services to complement the ritual manual. Some of these settings were written by Christians because most organists, choir leaders, and singers, too, in the larger temples were Christian. Some of these Christians were eminent musicians; on occasion they embodied traditional Jewish melodies in their compositions. Was this then “Jewish” music? Following in the footsteps of the Reformers, superficially at least, the rising Conservative synagog began to make its presence felt musically. In 1903 Israel Goldfarb, a Jewish Theological Seminary graduate, founded the Cantors’ Association of America; he wrote Hebrew, Yiddish, and English songs of a religious and secular nature, taught synagogal music at his alma mater, and, together with a brother, wrote a Jewish songster.29

By the twentieth century most Jews of East European stock luxuriated in a musical world of their own. In the synagog of these Slavic émigrés, the cantor, if he had an exceptional voice, overshadowed the rabbi to whom one paid only formal obeisance. The new synagog in the ghetto needed the cantors for they attracted members who helped pay the mortgage. Beginning with the 1880’s the big city East European shuls were intent on importing cantors who came over in substantial numbers, increasingly lured by large salaries, the promise of America, and the desire to escape the disabilities and the wars in Russia, Poland, and the Balkans. No cantor is deaf to an appealing melody. Though the East European singers adhered to the traditional Oriental tones they, too, like the German precentors, incorporated themes from opera in their musical flights. Though many of these vocal virtuosos had fixed synagogal posts this did not deter them from concertizing and cutting phonograph records. Best known and most beloved of all these cantors was Josef (Yosele) Rosenblatt who during World War I sang at soldiers’ camps, at bond rallies, and on behalf of the Jewish war relief agencies. His own compositions ran into the hundreds.

Rosenblatt did not immigrate to the United States till 1912; a generation earlier one of Russia’s most famous folksingers came to New York with the emigrants of the late 1880’s. This was Eliakum Zunser (1836-1913) who sang in Yiddish, the language of the people. Many Yiddish folk songs were born on the stage where they were first heard as arias. Abraham Goldfaden, the founder of the Yiddish theatre, lived for years in the United States where he produced some of his most popular operas and musicals. Wherever there was a Yiddish-speaking home with a piano there too one could find a pile of Goldfaden sheet music. In the second decade of the twentieth century Hebrew and Yiddish folk songs were taught by the Kehillah’s Bureau of Jewish Education. It was a day when proletarian poems were set to music, when choral societies were organized by the Poale Zion and the Hadassah, and Jewish entrepreneurs began publishing Yiddish and Hebrew songs. Artists of the Metropolitan Opera House like Sophie Breslau concertized in Yiddish programs and even Gentiles came to swell the audience whose heart strings were tom apart by the plaintive melodies.30

The Growing Interest in Jewish Music

The turmoil of World War I brought eminent Jewish musicians to America as in a later generation the German brutalities and World War II induced many others to seek refuge on these shores. Among musicians who came were some who wrote what they deemed to be Jewish music. Ernest Bloch, a Swiss Jew, was among them. His compositions were Jewish, so he believed because he, a Jew, had composed them. In them was his Jewish heritage. Whether men like Bloch influenced the Jewish masses is very much a moot question but there can be no question that in the early decades of the twentieth century there was a growing academic interest in Jewish musical origins. In 1913 the Central Conference of rabbis asked one of its members, a musicologist, to deliver a paper on “Jewish Music Historically Considered.” It is not without interest that he saw fit to allot but a single paragraph to synagogal music in this country. Six years later the Hebrew Union College Library bought the Jewish music collection of Germany’s scholarly cantor, Eduard Birnbaum. This was probably the best extant corpus of material on the subject.31

Certain Changes and Conclusions

Gradually in many Reform temples—but certainly not in all—the cantor was discarded as the central musical figure of the synagogal service; his place was taken by the choir hidden away in a loft; more and more the rabbi occupied the center of the stage; he and he alone was God’s vicegerent. As the American people became more interested in good music after 1900 the Reform temples began to increase their budgets for better music and larger choirs. Certainly the European influences did not diminish; oratorio and operatic themes were ever present; Italian and German secular melodies were constantly heard; Gounod’s Faust brought inspiration to Jews in dozens of American temples, and the majestic strains of Wagner, the vindictive anti-Semite, moved Jewish worshippers to bow their heads in reverence. Jewish art music remained essentially Occidental although on occasion cantors like Edward Stark of San Francisco stressed traditional Oriental tunes which all the listeners no doubt assumed to be Jewish. Jewish folk music, especially the Yiddish and Hebrew songs and liturgical chaunts as sung by stellar cantors, moved the East European masses to the highest pitch of devotion. Two generations later these melodies, augmented by new Hebrew songs from the land of Israel, exerted a powerful influence on American Jewry penetrating even the impenetrable walls of Reform classicity.32

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