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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

ASPECTS OF JEWISH EDUCATION AND CULTURE, 1860-1920: PART III

GERMAN BELLES LETTRES IN AMERICAN JEWRY

Along with music, belles lettres is an important aspect of culture, but unlike the unilingual American literature Jewish belles lettres in this country is quadrilingual. The Jews here have written in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. German Jewish immigrants who immigrated here before the Civil War lived to the turn of the century and with them lived the culture of their homeland. These men and women were dependent on the German culture which they had sucked in with their mother’s milk. Love of the mother tongue was in no sense unusual; foreign-born Americans, whoever they are, wherever they are from, always attempt to hold on to their native language. Most German Gentiles here held on tenaciously to their German intellectual heritage, to the mores of the fatherland. In the opinion of many of them the Germanic culture was superior to the American; Americans of education and distinction were often strongly attached to Europe culturally. As late as 1914 about fifty daily German newspapers were still being published in this country.

German Jewish periodicals were printed and read in this country as late as 1903. The all-day schools which the Central Europeans established continued to teach German to their Jewish charges in the decades after the Civil War. German Jews here wrote and read German poetry, corresponded with one another in their mother tongue, and employed it in the intimacy of the family circle. Jacob Schiff, it is said, stopped speaking German in public during World War I. A few literary societies stocked German books on their shelves; many prayer books carried translations in that tongue, and there were still fifteen congregations conducting services in German as late as 1916. German textbooks were not unknown in the Sabbath schools; scholarly rabbis here frequently contributed to the Central European Jewish newspapers and scientific periodicals. Indeed in the 1880’s George Foot Moore of Andover, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, reviewed biblical studies in the United States for the Zeitschrift fuer alttestamentliche Wissenschaft ( Magazine for Old Testament Studies). Jewish Germans here, though strongly rooted in the cultural traditions of the land that gave them birth, were fervent American patriots. Their American-born children were in no sense Germanic.1

HEBREW BELLE LETTRES AND CULTURE

Because so much has been written about modern Hebrew culture in the United States one is led to believe that the Hebrew literary movement commanded a large enthusiastic following in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is clear that biblical Hebrew was studied here since the first Jewish settlements were established; without Hebrew there could have been no services, no congregation, no community. American rabbis and other scholars never ceased cultivating the classical literature of the Old Testament throughout American Jewish history. No later than the third quarter of the nineteenth century learned Jews were hard at work in rabbinic literature; by 1859 a Hebrew-English treatise on ritualistic slaughter had appeared in Philadelphia, and the following year a Polish rabbi who had settled in the United States published the first all-Hebrew book.

All through the nineteenth century learned American Jews were writing in Hebrew on philosophy, exegesis, apologetics, polemics, homiletics, history, Jewish law. Some Orthodox laymen and rabbis—a few Reformers, too—read the better Hebrew magazines that were then appearing in Eastern Europe; a number, skilled in the Holy Tongue, tried their hand at versifying. In 1880 the American Hebrew published translations of old English nursery rhymes: Imagine Ding-Dong Bell and Old King Cole in Hebrew; that was quite a tour de force. That very year, 1880, a Hebrew literary society was established in New York City, and several years later, one in Chicago, too. Why did the Jews of that day write Hebrew? They employed it as a medium to reach Jews of many lands and, as neoclassicists swayed by their own studies of Greek and Latin in the gymnasia of Europe, they delighted to test their ingenuity in bending Hebrew to their own desires and needs. But the language itself was not then seen as an instrument for national political revival. Herman Eliassof typifies the inclusive cultural interests of an intellectual of that day. After studying in Russia and Germany, this native Lithuanian came here in 1871. He served as a rabbi, as principal of a Sabbath school, and as editor of an American Jewish paper. He wrote on American Jewish history, contributed to the German, the Hebrew, and the American Jewish press, and of course tried his hand at Hebrew poetry. By 1877 a volume of Hebrew verse had already been published in this country by a relatively obscure poet.

Under the influence of the European Enlightenment a Hebrew magazine was published in Germany as early as 1784, but it was almost ninety more years before Zvi Hirsch Bernstein began printing a Hebrew periodical in the United States. Actually in the Yiddish newspaper that he had issued a year earlier Bernstein had already included supplementary Hebrew material. His 1871 Ha-Zofeh (The Observer in a New Land) managed to stay alive for several years; this was quite a feat in a land of about 200,000 Jews.2

The efforts of the Central Europeans here to further Hebrew were fortified by the zeal of the East Europeans who had accompanied them to this country in antebellum days. These philo-Hebraists among the Russians and Poles were known as Maskilim, Enlighteners. They were fully aware of the cultural implications of the French Revolution. In order to emancipate their fellow Jews from medieval beliefs and practices they were determined to use the Hebrew language as an instrument for the introduction of Western culture. Russian was of course out of the question. Few inhabitants of the Pale knew that language and they understood that advancement in Russia economically, socially, and academically would almost inevitably require apostasy—a price they would not pay. Individual Maskilim despairing of making any progress in the reactionary Russia of the 1880’s came here. They too were looking for larger opportunity for themselves personally; they hoped to build a following here in this the land of freedom. All this was totally unrealistic. They could never become cultural leaders in the United States for they themselves had but little academic training in the arts and sciences. The intellectually alert immigrants here did not have to adapt classical and rabbinic Hebrew to modern needs; they did not need to create a new idiom for the transmittal of data on the physical and social sciences. Through English the whole world of civilization, education, learning lay wide open before them. The Maskilim gained no recruits here.

When by the 1890’s the Enlighteners realized that Hebrew would play no significant part in the life of the Jewish masses they, like their counterparts in Eastern Europe, did an about-face; they turned away from the West and oriented themselves to the East, and began working for Zionism and the rebirth of the Jewish people. Hebrew was to become the new Jewish language. Maskilim who had once moved in the direction of sheer acculturation now dedicated themselves to Palestinian Jewish nationalism. This romantic rapture, this interest in modern Hebrew as the vehicle to further cultural rebirth in the Holy Land even affected the faculty and the students of the Cincinnati Reform seminary. Many of them indeed were of Slavic background. From 1897 to 1903 the Hebrew Union College Journal debated Zionism, modern Hebrew literature, and the teachings of Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha-Am), the cultural Zionist. One student even wrote his thesis in the new language; it was a history of the Jews in the western hemisphere (1903). All this was during the days of Wise and Mielziner; Kohler, the new president, frowned upon this linguistic enthusiasm not only because he was an anti-Zionist but because the use of Hebrew in contemporary naturalistic drama was a shocking profanation of God’s Holy Tongue. Pornography in Hebrew, God help us!3

America’s few professional Maskilim were themselves not immune to the seductive impact of Americanism despite their growing devotion to Palestine and Zionism. Many aspects of this country’s doings were touched upon in their numerous Hebrew periodicals; Benzion Eisenstadt, a typical Maskil who landed here in 1903, almost immediately began publishing Hebrew language biographies of American rabbinical worthies. Lovers of Hebrew could enjoy Longfellow’s Excelsior, general American history, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, vignettes of Washington and Lincoln, all in the language of Isaiah and Jeremiah. But the Maskil’s commitment to Western culture and distaste for religious obscurantism, stopped short of a critical evaluation of Judaism. The Maskilim were not as consistent as the Reformers and some of the Conservatives. The Enlighteners broke sharply with the left-wing religionists who should have been their natural allies. The reasons are evident: by emphasizing the English vernacular in the synagog and the religious school and by deemphasizing Hebrew the Reformers cut the ground from under the feet of the Maskilim whose only commodity was the Hebrew language. The Enlighteners bitterly attacked the “assimilationist” Reformers even in the days before the Civil War. This antipathy to Reform and its followers was part of a very complex syndrome: the Jews from the East looked with scorn on the Jews from the West; the reasons were economic, ethnic, cultural, religious. The “German” were Gentiles; their Union Prayer Book was consumptive; it was much too thin.4

In the early years of the twentieth century America’s Hebrew literati became more creative. Among the many East Europeans who had sought refuge in this land there were some who had acquired a substantial secular education. The ravages of World War I brought Hebraists and Zionists here though some had come but to wait out the storm. And as the new nationalism grew, interest in the national language kept pace with it. Spoken Hebrew was cultivated in a few schools as early as the first decade of the twentieth century; Hebrew teachers trained abroad began to make their appearance on this side of the ocean; juvenile magazines in the new idiom were available to the young lovers of Zion; Hebrew-speaking clubs were established in many of the large cities, and by 1917 a national association of modern Hebraists had come into being. This was the Histadruth Ivrith.

The Balfour Declaration recognizing some form of a Jewish home in Palestine gave a strong impetus to Hebraic studies in all lands. A new state was no longer a dream. With the rise of the anti-Zionist Bolsheviks in Russia, the hearth and nursery of traditional Jewish life, the United States became a more important Hebraic center. Hebrew magazines of literary quality now went to press reflecting the streams of European and American thought in which the members of the younger generation had immersed themselves; they turned to literature as literature, not as polemics and propaganda. Not all writers limited their range of vision to their European homelands or to Jewish nationalism; as literary artists they were attracted by themes close at hand. It is not surprising therefore that one of America’s most talented Hebrew poets wrote of the American Indians, a minority whose lot like that of the Jews had been a sad one.5

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE NEO-HEBRAIC MOVEMENT HERE

Like the Maskilim, the younger generation of America’s Hebrew litterateurs was never successful in winning a large following. A Hebrew writer of note wrote in 1917 that only about 3 percent of all American Jews could understand Hebrew. Of the seventy or more Hebrew magazines that appeared in the United States after 1871 very few lasted as long as a year. Subscription lists were pitifully small. It is possible that one of the reasons that the editors and writers failed to win a larger measure of support is that practically all were foreigners; because their interests were primarily Hebraic they may have failed to sense the rhythm of American life. No foreign language had a future here, not even Yiddish. Even that immigrant who was well-grounded in Hebrew embraced English if he aspired to succeed as a physician, a lawyer, or an engineer. English was the language of the land. Hebrew here never became a vernacular; it had never been a living language in the Diaspora. The modern Hebrew movement in the United States is described at length in the histories of Jewish literature because, if only modestly, it was a forerunner of the new Israeli culture that was to flourish in the late twentieth century. Hebrew did become a living language in the new State of Israel, and as Jewish Palestine assumed more importance, modern Hebrew literature in the United States diminished in importance. For America’s Hebrew literati, America proved to be only a temporary asylum after the rise to power of Palestinian Jewry. Those writers craving to be heard moved on to Palestine and to Israel where they had an audience, where the language was alive, where a renascence was in progress. Many individuals here did maintain an interest in the Hebrew revival and they in turn inspired others to study the language and even on occasion to move on to Israel, but the committed American neo-Hebraists who elected to remain here were relatively few in number.6

YIDDISH BELLES LETTERS AND CULTURE

THE YIDDISH THEATRE

Unlike modern Hebrew, Yiddish did produce a substantial culture here. Its manifest expression was in the ghetto of New York City and other metropolitan centers, for those were the areas where the masses lived. Yiddish-speaking Jews in towns and villages were more exposed to the overwhelming cultural impact of their English-speaking neighbors. It is a good guess that Yiddish was the language of a very large percentage of the Jews in the United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but it connoted more than a form of communication; it encompassed a whole cultural world, a school system, tiny to be sure, a heavily patronized theatre, a vast literature reflected in a multifaceted extensive press. The Yidden were too poor to buy books; they could afford a newspaper.

The old migration, secure in itself, at least vis-à-vis the Slavic newcomers, saw the teeming gesticulating masses about them but often took no cognizance of them. The Yiddish theatre was very important in the life of New York’s foreign-born masses yet there was no article on the subject in the Jewish Encyclopedia. To be sure there was a learned discourse on Purim plays and entertainments which seemed to go back to talmudic days. Purim was the time for fun and play. Fortunately the Yiddish theatre was saved from scholarly oblivion in the new encyclopedia by a good article on Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908). This man founded the Yiddish theatre in 1876 when he actually built the first stage in Jassy, Rumania, wrote the play, composed the music, painted the scenery, and coached the actors. This Russian was a rabbi, a teacher, a Hebrew and Yiddish poet, and a musician who wrote romantic opera, historical musicals, and comedies; he was author, producer, manager, impresario. Seeking new worlds to conquer he came to the United States in 1887, but after a brief stay here returned to Europe only to come back in 1903 to spend the last few years of his life in this country.

Czarist suspicion of any gathering of the demos brought an end to the Yiddish theatre in 1883 but by that time it had already secured a toehold in New York’s Lower East Side. By the middle 1880’s the American Yiddish stage had become professional, good actors made their appearance and dramatists began to grind out plays by the dozens, catering to the feelings and sentiments of the newcomers. The two most popular writers of that day were Joseph Latteiner and Moses Horowitz. Latteiner was a garment worker who became America’s first Yiddish playwright; Horowitz, the “professor,” was an adventurer of dubious antecedents. Both men wrote sentimental plays, melodramas, and comedies with songs, dances, and buffoonery. They and others of their ilk dominated the stage almost to the day of its decline. They gave the people, the humble workers and petty tradesmen, what they wanted: excitement, murder, mystery, vaudeville, humor. They helped the masses release themselves emotionally. There could be no show without horseplay, a touch of low comedy. Latteiner and Horowitz were hacks, pens for hire.

There were also Jews in the ghetto for whom happy-ending potboilers had no appeal. These men and women, socially conscious, thought of the stage as a serious art form. The writer for these intellectuals was Jacob Gordin; their stellar performer was Jacob Adler, a dramatic actor of great talent and high intelligence. These men and their followers, influenced by the best in European thought, wanted a theatre as good as the best on the English stage; they were very conscious of the need for high standards in writing and acting. Gordin who came to the United States in 1891 was a cultured Jew who edited Russian language newspapers both in Russia and in the United States. In his concern for social reform, he founded a society devoted to ethics and took time out to write for the English press; it was his hope that his plays would one day receive recognition on the English stage. Gordin was a realist, concerned with the problems that haunted the family in a modern industrial society. He and other serious writers hoped to make the theatre a cultural institution and not merely a place for raucous laughter and passing entertainment. They attempted, not always with success, to eschew vulgarity but the vulgus would not be denied. He and those who shared his hopes adapted Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoi, Gorky, Sudermann, and other Russian and German writers. Ibsen spoke with a Yiddish accent. By the early 1900’s other realists, men of talent, carried on their work maintaining the traditions that Gordin had established. This dramatic school raised the level of writing and producing; these writers taught many the subtleties of good taste. When Gordin died in 1909 thousands of mourners followed the cortege.7

Yiddish theatre flourished before the 1920’s on the Lower East Side, in Brooklyn, and the Bronx; Second Avenue was “Broadway.” Other towns opened theatres, if only for a brief time; New York troupes were constantly on tour. After a long generation of over thirty years the New York Yiddish theatre began to give way to what was soon to become the Yiddish Art Theatre; the play and the actors satisfied the artistic demands of the most critical. Yet this better theatre that now made its appearance carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction; possessed of higher cultural and artistic standards of appreciation, the dilettanti turned to Broadway and its English productions. The Yiddish theatre was also the victim of the increasing success of the newcomers. As they improved their lot, as they Americanized, the Jews left Manhattan for the suburbs; here they bought tickets at the nearest English theatre or vaudeville house; they were no longer greenhorns. The children were certainly not interested in the Yiddish stage; they would never understand the emotions that moved their immigrant parents to tears or smiles. By the 1920’s the Yiddish theatre had slowly begun to fade. Crowds no longer flocked to Latteiner’s melodramas; the Yiddish-speaking generation was dying off. In another two or three decades there would be no one left of the great stars, the comics, the leading ladies; there would be no more operettas, no more operas commemorating the great men and events of Jewish history. Many of the 2,000 Yiddish plays and adaptations have long been thrown into the ashcan; a few are still to be found in the archives of America’s Jewish document depositories.

THE EARLY YIDDISH PRESS

The theatre was not the most important institution in the life of the Yiddish-speaking multitudes; much more determining was the vernacular press which in this country goes back at least to 1870, when Zvi Hirsch Bernstein published The Post (Di Post). Perhaps only a small fraction of American Jewry then could read the East European “jargon.” The Post met with no measure of success. Why a Yiddish press? What else should the immigrants read? This was their language and they turned to it for information and edification. There was a Jewish bookstore operated by East Europeans no later than the 1870’s and it may be assumed that Yiddish books, probably of a religious nature, were available there. The Yiddish newspapers that struggled to stay alive in the early 1870’s groped for a formula. At first some were bilingual in Hebrew and Yiddish and one was polyglot in Hebrew, English, German, and Yiddish, but by 1874 they had settled on the Yiddish weekly. This successful venture was followed in 1885 by a daily. By that time there were so many readers in the country that two streams had already made themselves discernible, a radical one and a non-radical one.8

THE NON-RADICAL PRESS OF THE 1880’S AND 1890’S

The pioneer Yiddish daily, probably the first in the world was published by the Hebraist Kasriel Sarasohn who had arrived in this country in 1866. He was a newspaper entrepreneur of pertinacity and competence and a communal worker who helped establish one of the first Jewish hospices in New York for the Russian refugees who began arriving in 1882. Sarasohn picked good men to edit his papers. Among them was Goetzel Selikovitsch (1863-1926), an Egyptologist, author, journalist, and student of the Bible and Talmud. Young Selikovitsch had studied Semitic languages and Sanskrit in Paris in 1879, and in 1885 marched with the British Expedition that set out to relieve Chinese Gordon at Khartoum. Sometime after his arrival in the United States in 1887 he joined the staff of the Yiddish Daily News. This polymath who commanded French, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, translated a Sanskrit work on the teachings of Buddha, recorded his travels in Africa, and described the civilization of the ancient Egyptians.

Though America’s Jews were the world’s pioneers in publishing daily Yiddish newspapers, this country was not the recognized center of Yiddish literary culture even as late as 1920. That remained in Eastern Europe where the masses lived and where the great classical writers continued their work. Yet this country followed close on the heels of the Russians and the Poles; here there was printing technology of a high order, wealth, and a freedom of the press that was absent in the czarist empire. Jews here speedily established Yiddish newspapers, dailies for the most part, in many of the cismississippi cities. No two of course were alike; each one had a posture of its own but they were all formally traditional reflecting varying degrees of Orthodoxy; some were quite sympathetic to Zionism. The motive that prompted the publishers of the non-radical papers was primarily a financial one. People read the journals because they wanted to know what was going on “at home,” in Russia, Poland, Galicia, Rumania. Equally important was the fact that the paper interpreted for the immigrant the events of the day that affected him as an American, as a Jew, as a breadwinner. For those with some taste in literature there were the feuilletons, the editorials, the essays, poetry, fiction. The serial stories were for the general readers; they were thrillers of non-Jewish content read as escape literature. In the New York of Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s sheets it was inevitable that the Yiddish papers would also resort to sensationmongering. Politically they often worked closely with the Republican and Democratic leaders, even with Tammany; eager to capture the immigrant vote, a Boston English newspaper published a Yiddish paper for a brief period during a hot political campaign. The owners of America’s non-radical papers were not outstanding liberals though as agents of a disadvantaged ghetto minority they pleaded for honest good government. Were the New York Yiddish journals superior to the contemporary English papers? Only a carefully researched comparative study can provide the answer. The editorials, excellent in themselves, prove little; all papers, Yiddish or English, were vigorous in their demand for clean government; no one ever scoffed at civic virtue.9

THE RADICAL PRESS

The bourgeois press was only one side of the coin. Coeval with the Daily News and other dailies and weeklies there rose a radical press of the socialists, the Socialist Labor party, and the anarchists. The associations that laboriously succeeded in keeping these papers alive were not out to make a dollar; they wanted to save the world. Their paramount concern was to change the social order to improve the sad lot of the workingman, to establish unions, to create class conscious workers. Yiddish was only a vehicle to reach the common people; as anti-religious secularists the leaders had no desire to preserve Jewry or Judaism, so they said. Yet they could not help but identify themselves with Jews if only by virtue of the Yiddish papers they published. The editors and labor leaders knew only too well that the general labor unions looked askance at the newcomers. Among the newspapers these social rebels published was the Jewish daily Forward (Forverts), edited continuously by Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) from 1902 on. He had come here from Russia twenty years earlier and had learned the newspaper business working for the Yiddish and the English press. He was a well-trained newspaperman, a good one, for he built the circulation of his paper from 6,000 to about 200,000. Undoubtedly his experience as a writer of English fiction, short stories, and novels was helpful to him in building an attractive newspaper. Much that he wrote, like the fiction of the socialists, was realistic in its overt form, possibly even subtly propagandistic in its ultimate objective since it held up a mirror to society. All the papers, radical or conservative, carried news of domestic affairs, of the troubled lands abroad as well as articles on science, economic, history, hygiene. Fiction and poetry were always present. In a large measure the Yiddish Enlighteners succeeded where the Hebrew Maskilim had failed.10

YIDDISH LITERATURE FROM THE 1880’S TO 1900

Much of the fiction that appeared in the Yiddish periodicals was written by penny-a-liners. The last two decades of the century were the halcyon days for literary hacks. From their pens there came pouring out a flood of cheap literature most of which appeared in the papers; it was romantic, gothic-type fiction. Bloomgarden, the poet, recuperating from consumption in Denver, ran a tailor shop; Israel Joseph Zevin, who described playfully the woes of the peddler, sold newspapers and ran a candy shop before his luck took a turn for the better. Zevin was multilingual for he could write in English and Hebrew as well as Yiddish. Many of these literati were at home in several languages. Frequently they were men of real ability, creative, not scribblers, though often they had no choice but to work as hacks in order to stay alive. They were dramatists, poets, story writers.

Some had mastered their trade in Europe; others, those who had come here as youngsters, learned to write after their arrival. All of them were bound up emotionally with the lands they had left; these ties are reflected in their writings. As newcomers themselves, struggling to subsist, they were concerned with the problems of the immigrants in making a living, with their efforts to come to terms with a new culture, with an entirely new way of life. It is difficult, very difficult to exaggerate the economic hardships and the emotional stresses that confronted the immigrants who landed at Castle Garden or Ellis Island. The non-Marxian newspapers reflected the problems of the middle-class and lower middle-class groups; the various socialist and anarchist journals stressed the needs, the battles, the hopes of the blue-collar workers.

There were a number of proletarian poets. One of the most popular was Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923) who came to New York after years of labor as a tailor in London and a diamond grinder in Amsterdam. In his homeland, Lithuania, his people had eked out a living as fishermen and tailors. In this country he continued to labor as a presser and tailor for fourteen years, yet persisted in writing poems and songs as the poet laureate of the workmen. In 1898 Leo Wiener of Harvard edited some of his writings, helping him to emancipate himself from the sweatshop. Invited to give readings both here and abroad he described the sad lot of the poor or sang of the beauties of nature and held out hopes for the Jew of tomorrow in a land of his own. His verse was translated into many European languages; some of his poems were set to music.11

YIDDISH LITERATURE FROM 1900 TO 1920

Just as the new century and the increasing Russian pressures brought it about that Hebrew litterateurs made their homes here so the same forces worked to speed the immigration of Yiddish writers. Among them were a number of very talented craftsman. A Yiddish literary world of quality began to take on flesh. Literary standards seem to have risen after the turn of the century among the readers. The writers, the scholarly essayists, the publicists who were already hard at work on the journals were reinforced by those recruits. The newly arrived Yiddish writers, like the incoming Hebraists, were better educated in the humanities; they were in touch with new cultural currents; they were concerned with literature qua literature. They were not propagandists, controversial partisans of a specific ideology. They formed a rather amorphous new school of writers, The Young Ones, all of whom were interested in the artistry of prose and poetry.12

By 1916 the United States had become the center of world Jewish literature and culture because of the war in Europe. Even the left-wing Yiddish writers whose sense of Jewish identity was dormant were now concerned with the fate of their people. The Dreyfus Affair, the Russian massacres, Zionism, Diaspora nationalism—all evoked ethnic loyalties. Many of the socialists evinced interest in the Balfour Declaration and in the attempt of the American Jewish Congress to guarantee rights for Jews in Eastern Europe and in Palestine; they supported the Jewish relief agencies working in the war zones.

AMERICANIZATION

All Yiddish periodicals whether they wished it or not were acculturative, Americanist. Abraham Cahan wrote a two-volume history of the American people, in Yiddish of course. Jews were patriotic if only because they had fled from a land of tyranny and had been accepted in a land of freedom. Peter Wiernik, Yiddish journalist and American Jewish historian, documented his Judaism and his Americanism in his bookplate; it portrayed a Scroll of the Law nestled in the ark; the decorative curtain is the American flag. One of the prime aims of the Yiddish press was to explain the American way of life to its readers. Every page of a ghetto daily was of necessity an exposition of Americanism, and this effort was more deliberately fostered by the English columns of the Yiddish periodicals. The publishers were not stupid; they knew that in the long run they would not be able to compete with the English vernacular press. Some of the editors of the English page or column were craftsmen of exceptional competence. The ultra Orthodox Tageblatt employed Abraham H. Fromenson, a native American who had served his apprenticeship on English papers as a reporter and editorial writer before taking a job with Sarasohn. Another English editor on that daily was the Polish-born Rose Harriet Pastor. She had come to the United States as a child of about twelve after a stay in London where she had two years of schooling. Here, in Cleveland, the little girl went to work as a cigar maker, wrote poetry, and finally became assistant editor of the Tageblatt giving advice to young women. She also wrote stories and essays for the American Jewish and the general socialist press. Shortly after her arrival in New York she interviewed the millionaire social worker and political liberal James Graham Phelps Stokes. This was the man who later became her husband.13

WHAT THE YIDDISH CULTURE DID FOR THE IMMIGRANTS FROM RUSSIA AND POLAND

It is strange that the established Jewish groups in this country took a dim view of the massive Yiddish press; strange because they refused to recognize its imperative need for the immigrants. The old-timers were embarrassed by its foreign exotic character, fearful lest they too might be bracketed with the uncouth newcomers. Isaac M. Wise disdained the Yiddish idiom failing completely to understand that for the East Europeans Yiddish was much more than a mere language; it was a heart-warming glow, a whole world in itself. Less than two decades after the great Reformer’s death almost 650,000 people were reading Yiddish newspapers and periodicals here in the United States. By 1920 there were ten dailies, four in New York City, three in Chicago, and one each in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Thanks to America’s marvelous printing presses Jews here published dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. For whom were they publishing? For almost every group with an ideology of its own, for Zionists, for all manner of Orthodox, for socialists and anarchists, in a word for everyone. In addition to the dailies and weekly newspapers, there were journals of humor and papers dedicated to literature. Any union of size or pretension had a house organ: workers in clothing, furs, hats, caps; the butchers, the grocers, the tobacco people, the musicians, the theatre set, the chess players, the farmers, and even those lonely men and women looking for a spouse, all had a Yiddish journal of their own. America was truly a wonderful land.

The inability of the Hebrew press to survive meant that the development of a Hebrew literature here would be severely hampered. Conversely the rapid growth of the Yiddish press was a promise that there would be a Yiddish literature, and, what is very important, writers for that press would be able to make a livelihood, to survive and to create. The Yiddish dailies and weeklies brought the findings of the arts and sciences to immigrants who had been denied a secular schooling. Now they could read the best of the world’s classics in translation. The papers provided a forum for literary criticism, for solid knowledge; the intelligent readers refined their taste and learned to distinguish between propaganda and good writing; a Yiddish literature in its own right now came to birth. The press was the greatest of Jewish schools for it taught myriads the story of their past; reading and hearing about Jews everywhere intensified loyalties and strengthened the bonds of sympathy that united American Jews with their fellows in the most distant of lands. The labor papers furthered the cause of good government and social justice; the Yiddish press as a whole helped make the United States a center of Jewish literary activity; it raised the cultural level of its readers—all this during World War I when American Jews had no choice but to exercise hegemony over all other Jewish communities.14

THE BEGINNINGS OF THE DECLINE OF YIDDISH

By 1920 Yiddish linguistically, culturally, was at its height yet this was the catastrophic highpoint; it was about to decline. Even though Judeo-German was a living appealing vital tongue with a huge press of its own, the language of millions with a history as a vernacular going back for centuries, it was inevitable that its readers here, given time, would forsake it and turn to English. The constant arrival of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from abroad delayed this decline; the Yiddish newspapers were to have a substantial following for years. But the decline could not be halted; the Americanized East Europeans gradually shifted their allegiance to English newspapers. Many of them still continued to read the Yiddish journals for specific Jewish news. With rare exception the children, students at the high schools and colleges, looked to the American press for enlightenment and amusement. Leon S. Moisseiff (1872-1943), one of America’s notable bridge builders, was a publisher of a radical Yiddish magazine and a student of Yiddish culture; he prized it highly; he said it was an important “part of the creative evolution of the Jewish people” but he knew that the youngsters would turn to English and its culture. In the course of the third decade the number of Yiddish readers began to decline; less Yiddish was spoken in the home; and when the Jews began to leave the ghettos and to move into a suburban Gentile world the beloved tongue of their parents suffered an almost fatal blow.

Students of history, if not the Yiddish devotees, realized that Yiddish was, is, a transitory culture destined by the twenty-first century to disappear as a folk vernacular and to be studied only in the classroom. What will be salvaged of their culture: the printed literature of course, “Jewish” foods which now stock the shelves of the supermarkets, expressive words and phrases that have already crept into the English dictionaries, a sardonic, ironic, self-deprecatory humor, an exuberant spirit that may yet infiltrate and enliven the more stolid Anglo-Saxon psyche.15

AMERICAN JEWISH LITERATURE AND CULTURE

By 1920 the Russians and Poles and other East European Jews here had created a literature and a culture of their own built on a “national” language, Yiddish. The Jewish settlers of the older migrations, the Sephardim and the German Ashkenazim, had not succeeded in creating a substantial American Jewish literature, certainly not a belletristic one. The books they wrote, such as they were, were a phase of general American culture. The natives of older stock and the acculturated Germans read what their Gentile neighbors read. Even the German-speaking and German-preaching rabbis realized that the future for Jewry here lay in the English cultural sphere; Wise constantly emphasized the imperative need of turning to the vernacular of the land; the children of the Germans and of the East Europeans were, linguistically, wholeheartedly Anglophilic. The years from about 1880 to about 1900 are years of cultural growth for Jewry in the English language area. Influenced by their neighbors, native American Jews after the Civil War began to establish libraries and a press. They began to write though they produced very few works of significance, apparently none in the world of fine literature. A few poets and writers even addressed themselves to Jewish themes.

The belletristic works published by Jews in English are on the whole not comparable to the best in the American Yiddish field. One may hazard the guess that the reason the natives, the “Germans,” and the children of the new migration did not create an English literature of any quality was because of their drive to identify with everything American. They were most eager for low visibility as Jews. But they did turn to books; they were living in a generation when middle-class Americans had begun to read voraciously; these Jews, men, women, and children, were not disdainful of education, of knowledge. It is not of the highest importance that Jews did not produce notable works of literature; it is of significance that they did write the books and establish the press they needed to survive culturally as Jews in an American milieu. Whatever they created is to be judged by its utility not by its classicity.

What then was their Jewish fare? A potpourri of articles and books on the Science of Judaism, fiction, novels, dramas, poetry, religious works of all description, translations from the German and even from the Yiddish. They imported Jewish works from London, for English Jewry had begun to develop a literature of its own. Historians now chronicled the Jewish annals of their towns and of their states; biographies of notables made their appearance; there were works on travel in Russia, on the persecutions of Jews, on anti-Jewish prejudice. The rabbis published their Friday night and Sunday lectures some of which were of excellent quality. There were books on Palestine, Zionism, and the Hebrew language. The literature for juveniles, stories and histories, continued to grow. There were textbooks for Sabbath schools and historical sketches for adults. Solomon Schindler, the Boston rabbi, published his lectures on the notable Jews who since the days of Moses had changed the course of Judaism and Jewish thinking. Henry Gersoni in his Sketches of Jewish Life and History (1873) told the story of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans (132-135 C. E.); he recounted tales of medieval martyrs and of the legendary Polish Count Valentin Potocki who was burnt at the stake because of his conversion to Judaism. In short, American Jewry had succeeded in providing translations or writings of at least one English book or pamphlet on almost any subject.16

It was inevitable as an immigrant and as an “infidel” group that Jews would fashion a substantial literature in apologetics and polemics. Since the Jew and his religion are inseparable he could not defend himself without defending his faith, without trying to convince the Gentile world that Jews were a creative people, a boon to society. Constantly on the defensive throughout the nineteenth century Jews wrote handbooks and manuals instructing their fellow Jews how to answer those Christians who were citing Old Testament verses to prove the divine and messianic character of Jesus. Simon Wolf published long lists of Civil War veterans to refute those who said Jews were slackers; Charles Waldstein (Sir Charles Walston) wrote The Jewish Question and the Mission of the Jews (1894), to explain to his readers that even as the Jew had once brought culture to the medieval world so now it was his job to further cosmopolitan humanitarianism. Rabbi A. J. G. Lesser, a staunch pillar of Orthodoxy, wrote a Hebrew work in which he demonstrated that the Bible and God had promised to restore the Jews to their ancient homeland. He wrote this book at the request of a Zionistic Christian, William F. Blackstone; it was accompanied by an English translation by Herman Eliassof, the historian of German American Jewry.

The line between apologetics and polemics is a very thin one, often invisible. Most Jews were not aggressive in their arguments, although they did not forbear to tell their evangelical Christian friends that Jesus was a Jew, a human being, not a God. In the opinion of most Jewish polemicists Jesus reflected Jewish views, the ethics, and the hopes of a generation suffering under Roman tyranny. In Central Europe and certainly in Russia the climate of opinion and the disqualifications imposed by the states made it difficult, if not impossible, for Jews to mount an attack against Christianity. They had to keep quiet. In America the Jews were free to answer and they did. Wise, the boldest of Jewish polemicists, lectured frequently on the rise of Christianity to mixed audiences of Jews and Christians. Between 1868 and 1889 he wrote a series of works in which he stoutly maintained that Jesus was no God and no savior. He assailed the missionaries and gave Jews the ammunition, the arguments, to repulse the attacks of proselytizers. Christology, if not Christianity, he assured his audience was on the way out; a new religious day was dawning, a day that would usher in the universal religion of intelligence, brotherhood, and humanity. In 1909 Krauskopf in his pamphlet, Prejudice, pointed out that Christians glorified Jesus but crucified his people. The Jews could offset this bigotry by forswearing their nationalist hopes and by raising their cultural level. This panacea for anti-Semitism was commonly recommended in those early years of the new century. Krauskopf’s discussion and remedies reflected a sense of inferiority which plagued many Jews in that generation. They accepted Gentile attacks at face value; Jews must conform slavishly to the Protestant way of life; that was Americanism; every departure from established Christian norms of conduct was inhibited by the admonition: “What will the Gentiles say?”17

Inasmuch as there were many thousands of second-generation Jews in this country by the turn of the century it is not surprising that there were among them brilliant writers, essayists, publicists, and journalists. Most of these men had no interest in Jews; they could not conceive that one could be a good Jew, an observant one, and a good American. There were of course exceptions, like Bernard G. Richards, a native of Lithuania, who came here as a youngster and wrote for the Boston Transcript. Richard was a feuilletonist of sorts who later edited a Yiddish newspaper and played an important role in American Zionism. Some of the articles he wrote appeared in his Discourses of Keidansky which recorded his conversations with his Zionist and trans-Vistula friends who had nothing better to do than to read Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw. “I am a character in life,” said Keidansky, “and nothing is so fictitious.… I want none of the Jewish State. The whole world is holy land.”

In one respect the twentieth century was a renaissance century for American Jewry. Jews developed a sense of personality. They began to write memoirs. Lillian D. Wald wrote The House on Henry Street (1915); an envoy to Turkey, a Democratic stalwart, wrote Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story; Simon Wolf, an ardent defender of his people, wrote a book describing his labors on behalf of American Jewry. He called it The Presidents I have Known from 1860 to 1918. Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1912) was the most widely known Jewish book of that generation. The East Europeans and their sensitive children, aware of how Jews had suffered and were still suffering under the Romanovs, read it with appreciation; they did not sneer at it because of its devotion to American ideals of freedom; the America she painted for them was an America which they understood and loved. With numbers, acculturation, citizenship, and even wealth for some came a mood of security. Jews were moving ahead in the professions after 1900; they were accorded recognition; some even received appointments in the diplomatic corps. This feeling of security was sensed, too, in the area of religious publications. There was less of a need on the part of Jews to justify their unlikeness as followers of a non-Christian faith. It may well be that the early twentieth century was a time when religion was not central in the lives of many cultured urban Gentiles. At any rate the Jews seemed to be less disturbed by the efforts of the evangelists; missionary efforts seemed to be slackening; Christians were increasingly disillusioned by their lack of success in harvesting Jewish souls; consequently Jewish apologetics and polemics tapered off.

In a positive sense the Jews were interested in creating a religious literature for themselves, for both adults and children. Devotional works like Liebmann Adler’s Sabbath Hours Thoughts (1893) were published for men and women but most religious didactic literature was written for the youngsters in the Sabbath schools. New textbooks, catechisms, biblical histories, confirmation manuals continued to make their appearance. Surprisingly, German textbooks were still being used as late as 1890. There was always a demand for holiday plays and pageants for the children. Vicksburg’s rabbi of the 1880’s, Hermann M. Bien, innovative and imaginative, wrote Hanukkah and Purim plays; his Passover home ritual was completely untraditional. With the exception of a few lines in Hebrew, this new haggadah, in the form of a play, was entirely in English. Its revolutionary break with the Hebrew-Aramaic prayerbook of the past is heightened by his reference to his new service as an Easter Eve ritual. Though there were apparently enough English books to satisfy the diversified needs of the growing Jewish community there were not too many composed by American Jews. Better books were needed in every area. There was still no truly scientific history of American Jewry at a time when this was the second largest Jewish group the world had yet known. At the end of the second decade of the new century the Jews here were just beginning to find themselves and to express themselves in a Jewish cultural sense.18

POETRY

Bien was a poet though not a literary artist of any distinction. There were many others who published verse, some of it Jewish in content, but most of these writers were too busy reaching out for the universal to concern themselves with the particular, the Jew. Poetry is not only a man’s realm. Grace Seixas Nathan (1752-1831), an ancestor of the twentieth century novelette writer, Robert Nathan, was one of the first American Jewish women to write verse. (There were probably others before her.) In the nineteenth century Adah Isaacs Menken, Penina Moïse, and Octavia Harby Moses had their verses published. More illustrious than all these was their younger contemporary Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). She is still a living legend. The daughter of a wealthy sugar merchant of colonial antecedents, Emma Lazarus began to write very early. Some of her work had been composed when she was about fourteen years of age and her first volume, Poems and Translations, appeared in 1866 when she was still a teenager. Emerson heard of her and invited her to his home for a visit; other prominent literary men encouraged her; a talented Jew in the field of literature was something of an anomaly in those days. The young poet evinced little interest in Jews or Judaism, though she had read some Jewish history and had even written some Jewish poetry. Her family belonged to the Orthodox Sephardic Shearith Israel but membership there for eighteenth-century families was a social requisite.

The Russian massacres and the westward flight of the refugees moved her to become an ardent Jew, ethnically, if not religiously; influenced possibly by others like Michael Heilprin who sought to help the panicstricken refugees, she too devoted herself to the newcomers. Emma Lazarus now became a Jewish nationalist, a proto-Zionist, and a defender of those fugitives who sought the safety of America’s shores. She was certainly moved to think in terms of nationalism by George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. When in 1882 she began to work for her people her prose and poetry took on a new vitality; it was now marked by Jewish content and compassionate concern. She studied Hebrew, made translations of medieval Hebrew poets on the basis of the better German translations, and wrote articles in the Century Magazine defending Jewry. In 1883, already a celebrity, she was asked to write a poem that would be auctioned off to help pay for the pedestal to support Bartholdi’s huge Statue of Liberty. Thus it was that she composed her famous sonnet, The New Colossus, with its magnificent line:

                        Give me your tired, your poor,

                        Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

It brought $1,500 at the auction, a very large sum. The poem, cast in bronze, is now affixed to the base on which the statue rests. She died of a malignant disease in 1887, still a young woman. Now, many decades after her passing, she remains for Jews one of the most admired women of her century, not because she was their most eminent poet but because she rallied to the defense of her people and espoused the cause of Jewish nationalism. She was not in any sense a great American writer but her sonnet will guarantee her that immortality, that recognition, for which she yearned.19

FICTION

All through the nineteenth century there had always been some Jews who were writers of fiction, stories and dramas. A few, very few, were literary craftsmen of quality. Around the 1840’s those who knew they were Jewish began to write on Jewish themes; that made their work “Jewish.” In the 1850’s and 1860’s Wise, as editor of the Israelite, dashed off historical romances of the Maccabean and Herodean periods, romances which were published serially for the delectation of his readers. Moritz Loth, the lay founder of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wrote a series of novels, often using the same dramatis personae, and even when he introduced no Jewish characters in these twenty-five cent paperbacks he managed to have his Christian heroes put in a good word for the Jews. Few if any of the Jewish fictional works of the nineteenth century have any real significance in the larger field of American literature, but a beginning was made.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century publishers were discovering two groups of Jews who were interesting enough to be exploited, included on their lists for general readers: the wealthier German Jews and the fugitive East Europeans. This new market for books with Jewish themes encouraged talented Jews, among others, to write. In their novels and stories, the German immigrants or their American-born children tended to look backward to the fatherland, to the old country ghettos and villages. Rarely did they attempt to delineate the life of the contemporary Jews in the American hinterland where thousands had settled and where many still spent their lives. In Canaway and the Lustigs Joseph Leiser wrote of the Jewish merchant in a small town, of his problems, and his efforts to maintain his Jewishness and thus ensure the survival of his children as loyal members of the faith.20

The German Jewish novelists and story tellers were frequently concerned with one basic subject, the relationship between Jews and Christians. This included acceptance of Jews by Gentiles, conversion to Judaism, rejection of Jews through prejudice, conversion to Christianity, intermarriage, assimilation. Intermarriage and the resistance to it is the most common theme; indeed it had been touched upon as early as the late eighteenth century in general literature. In the post Civil War days, Dr. Nathan Mayer, in his novel Differences, wrote of a plantation owner’s son who married a Christian but she did become a convert in a formal sense at least. Dr. Mayer went out of his way to attack Jewish materialism. This reproach was not unusual among Jewish writers who seemed to enjoy disparaging their own people. In one of the Jewish novels of that day the scholarly hero intermarries, lives a saintly life exhibiting all the fine Christian virtues; he even looked like Jesus. In most instances intermarriage was condemned; when it was occasionally condoned it was only when the Jew married into the nobility. Intermarriage was nearly always associated with love. The second half of the century was the age of Emma D. E. Southworth who wrote over sixty sentimental romances. These stories of love and seduction were read eagerly by a generation of virginal maidens and prurient youngsters. In his Carrie Harrington, Hermann M. Moos, who had written a novel on the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, told the story of the seduction of a Jewish maid by a Gentile villain.21

Publishers were interested in the Slavic Jewish group because it was exotic, different, non-Christian, because the East Europeans were the victims of oppression and had come to these shores by the hundreds of thousands. It was only normal that Jews of East European origin writing in English, would turn to Russia and Poland for their background material. They could draw on family tradition or personal experiences for tales of conscription, mass murder, revolution. Even American Jewish natives found it exciting and rewarding to recount the adventures of these men and women as they took refuge in flight seeking safety and a future in a land of almost mythical opportunities. Thus it was that Milton Goldsmith of Philadelphia wrote Rabbi and Priest, a historical novel introducing some real characters whom he had once met. In the denouement the anti-Jewish priest, who turned out to be a kidnapped brother of the rabbi, dies defending a Jewish woman from a raging mob. The rescued heroine finds a haven in distant America but her father, the rabbi, remains behind to minister to his flock who needs him desperately. Goldsmith, a merchant, was a poet, musician, librettist, and a dramatist. He published his novel in 1891, the year of the massive expulsions from Moscow. Apparently it was not imperative that he know Russian or Yiddish though he took pains to salt his narrative with Yiddish expressions. The Russian Jews were very much in the limelight in the 1880’s and 1890’s.

Among the Americans of East European birth who wrote on the Polish Russian Jews in their homeland and in the United States were Rabbi Adolph Moses, Abraham Cahan, Herman Bernstein, Henry Iliowizi, and Ezra S. Brudno. All of these men made careers for themselves in this country in the rabbinate, in journalism, or in law. In their quest for themes Jews from the Slavic lands not only turned to the Russian cities and villages whence they had come but also to the American ghettos where many of them spent their first years. The problems with which they dealt were on the whole similar to those that faced the Central European Jews of an earlier day and indeed those that confronted all immigrants, Gentiles, too: xenophobia, adjustment to the new and strange American culture, intermarriage, assimilation. New for the East Europeans was the strong pressure exerted on them by the earlier Jewish immigrants to Americanize in a hurry. As it was these Slavic newcomers, village and small-town Jews coming from a largely agrarian world, were already plagued with the need of fitting into an aggressive urban industrial economy. Americanization was a problem that the German Jews too had to face, but the pressures on them had been less severe. They enjoyed a degree of anonymity as a relatively obscure segment of the German Christian masses who flooded this country. The German Jewish newcomers were few in numbers; the East Europeans were a host; they could not hide in their metropolitan ghettos; their very density emphasized their presence; the pressures on them were unrelenting.

In certain sociocultural areas the problem of the East Europeans was more intense. Here in these new surroundings it was not easy to maintain the integrity of the family; sons turned against fathers; the wife, arriving years after her husband had become Americanized, was on occasion rejected as uncouth by her husband. In addition poverty seems to have been more acute among the East Europeans than among the Central Europeans. Religiously, the East Europeans clung to their Orthodoxy, the effects of the Enlightenment and the French revolution were much less apparent in the East than in Central Europe. Orthodoxy had to be salvaged at all costs. Here where social controls were relaxed the intelligentsia set out to make a new life and broke with tradition. Some embraced socialism and anarchism and were joined by those workmen for whom the old beliefs had long lost their appeal. All this change was mirrored in the writings of the serious American Jewish litterateurs of East European origin.

Montague (Marsden) Glass (1877-1934), was one of the first to introduce a new figure into Jewish fiction, one that would play an increasingly larger role in the writings of the early twentieth century. This was the East European clothing manufacturer. Glass, a native Englishman who had grown up in Lower Manhattan, presented Potash and Perlmutter to a chuckling Gentile world in 1910. Through the courtesy of the Saturday Evening Post a whole host of readers enjoyed the ups and downs of Abe and Mawruss. The Jews loved them because Jews were not denigrated; the Gentiles loved them because they were a threat to no one; they had no ambition to join a Christian suburban golf club. In no sense did they realistically present the problems of the industry. Glass was proficient in French, Italian, and German; it is questionable whether his Yiddish was anywhere as good.

These two genial and friendly garment manufacturers appear to be unconscious of the sweatshop which was in full bloom when Glass sat down to recount the adventures of his unpicaresque heroes. But not all American Jewish litterateurs devoted themselves to romance, to the unreal, to the exotic, to the fanciful and the imaginative. Influenced by life’s actualities, by the new currents of realism in the American fiction of the 1890’s, Jews turned to social protest as early as the Gentiles. This humanitarian concern in literature was to become more and more evident during and after World War I. In 1896 a German Jewish professional journalist, Isaac Kahn Friedman, a college graduate and a trained economist, began to write of the struggles and problems of Chicago’s ghetto Jews. That same year Abraham Cahan described graphically the struggling Jews of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The social interest, the humanitarian concern for the humble workers was never completely absent in Jewish literature. David Lubin, wealthy merchant, international social entrepreneur, wrote a sociological study in the guise of fiction. One of the leaders in a workman’s organization which he described was a Jew. In his Doctor Rast vignettes, James Oppenheim told the story of a Jewish physician in the New York ghetto who labored for the poor. Oppenheim and his contemporaries, Edna Ferber and Fanny Hurst, were children of Jews of Central European origin. Ferber who had come from a midwestern town where she had experienced the anti-Jewish sneers of street comer louts wrote Fanny Herself, the story of a Jewish businesswoman. Fanny Hurst who hailed from a small town in southwestern Ohio wrote stories of the New York ghetto “with a laugh on life with a tear behind it.” This was her Humoresque which appeared in 1920. Ferber and Hurst were certainly not in the realistic tradition. These two women are prime examples of writers who in their early days published books of Jewish interest and then moved on to bigger, more lucrative fields. Though Miss Hurst worked for a very brief period in a sweatshop—just for the experience—it would have been very difficult for her in later years, in her fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West, to think of herself as a realist.22

Anzia Yezierska (1885-1970) was not as fortunate as her two American-born contemporaries. This Russian immigrant girl spent much of her life on the edge of poverty. It was not difficult for her to write simply, honestly, objectively about the family, the culture, the economic problems of New York’s working people. The most able of these East European writers who never divorced themselves from the grim actualities of the world of brutal fact in which they lived was Abraham Cahan. His Rise of David Levinsky (1917) is a classic. Soberly, plainly, he tells the story of a Russian Talmud student who drifted from a world of tradition to a world without restraint. He succeeded in becoming a wealthy businessman but he failed to become one with himself, to find contentment. In him two worlds met but are denied confluence. He exemplifies the eternal struggle of all Slavic Jewish émigrés who had the sensitivity to see themselves as they once were, as they became, and the ways they had failed themselves and their heritage. Because the problem is posed here Cahan’s book is historically important.

It is probably only a coincidence that Ferber’s Fanny Herself, Cahan’s David Levinsky, and Sidney Nyburg’s The Chosen People were all published in the same year, 1917. If it does mean anything it is evidence that by that time some writers, Cahan and Nyburg, for instance, were attempting seriously, critically, to evaluate Jewish life. Cahan and Nyburg were East Europeans looking at their own Jews, ghetto Jews if you will. Nyburg in The Chosen People painted on a larger canvas; he pictured an entire community, Baltimore, scrutinizing all its Jews, natives and recent arrivals. The Chosen People is the story of a social-minded Reform rabbi who was involved in the confrontation of the German Jewish employers with their East European factory workers. Nyburg focused on the problems of social justice, assimilation, the Russian and Polish radicals, intermarriage, loyalty to Judaism, and the relationships of Jews to Jews and to the Gentiles about them. All these challenges are reflected in this book which previews many of the issues that were to face American Jewry all through the twentieth century.23

In the year 1887 in a survey of the American Jewish community Krauskopf wrote that the Jews were emancipating themselves culturally from their coreligionists in Europe. This was wishful thinking. By 1920 however, Jewish belletristic works in English were beginning to appear and their quality was improving. None was superlative though some critics deemed Cahan’s, David Levinsky, a great work. American literature in the United States was still dominated by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, by Anglo-Saxon writers.24

THE ANGLO-JEWISH PRESS IN THE UNITED STATES

INTRODUCTION

Despite the books that Jews were beginning to write in both English and Yiddish most Jews read the papers. During this period there was a great growth in the number of serials partly because of the improved mail service. All told there were only ten Jewish papers in 1860; about the year 1921 there were 177 American Jewish magazines; 129 were institutional organs and trade journals, 48 were newspapers and magazines. The greater number of these was published in New York City and fated, as in the past, to be short-lived. There were no English Jewish dailies; most papers were weeklies. This was typically American for in 1900 over 45,000,000 people read weeklies and only 15,000,000 read dailies. Though all Jewish papers, none excepted, were influenced by the nation’s Anglo-Saxon postures and notions, each Jewish periodical was a conscious expression of fealty to one of the variant Jewish cultural streams. Because of the growing demand for a Jewish news agency one was put together in The Hague during World War I when Jews everywhere desperately sought information about their kin in the war zones; in the 1920’s this news service, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, opened an office in New York. Later it began publishing a daily bulletin for its clients.25

LOCALE

Newspapers were established wherever the masses had settled, in New York City, of course, and in the East but Jewish entrepreneurs in the Far West began to publish magazines in San Francisco in the 1850’s close on the heels of the Gold Rush. Jews had flocked there in large numbers. As the population drifted westward from the tidewater and towns grew up, Jewish magazines began to appear in almost every place of size, even in distant Houston. In the deep South the Jews were in no hurry to rush into print. New Orleans in 1859 had a magazine that failed to survive; the one in Memphis (1885) was much more fortunate. The lack of Jewish papers in the states south of the Ohio was due as much to apathy as it was to a paucity of Jews. The decades after the Civil War were years of economic distress in the states below the Mason-Dixon Line. What is strange and not easily to be unriddled is why and how a number of small towns supported Jewish newspapers. Typical examples are Montgomery, Alabama, with but 1,500 Jewish souls, Peoria with 1,000 and Ligonier, Indiana, with even fewer. On the other hand Detroit Jewry, destined one day to be one of America’s great communities, had no paper till 1900. Henry Ford did not begin to build his model-T car till 1908.26

WHY PERIODICALS WERE ESTABLISHED

Many newspapers were established by individuals for profit. This was not true of those that served institutions, lodges, unions, and the like. The B’nai B’rith’s Menorah was designed to uplift the Jewish people spiritually, culturally. An added motivation for all publishers was the desire to promote a philosophy of their own. Aiming at specific groups, Baltimore Jewry in one generation brought out papers in Hebrew, German, Yiddish, and English. The Jewish newspapers, nearly always aligned with one of the religious camps, ran the gamut from ultra-Reform to rightwing Orthodoxy, but despite their denominational affiliations no two were alike. A newspaper might boast of its Orthodoxy yet be modern and enlightened even in the critical sense. Not uncommon were the “fair” journals published temporarily by the local Jewish charities in their effort to further a drive for funds through community bazaars. There were few literary papers; most journals catered to the needs of the community at large, others were spokesmen for congregations, lodges, the Zionists, the charities, the “Ys,” the various trades, the unions, the Sabbath schools and the women, too.27

WOMEN’S PAPERS

Despite the suffragist agitation, the rise of the National Council of Jewish Women, and the success of national periodicals like McCalls, The Ladies Home Journal, and The Woman’s Home Companion, Jewish women’s magazines were few and unsuccessful. The intellectual, cultured Jewish woman preferred to read the same national women’s papers which her Gentile neighbors read; they were superior in content, form, and illustration. Enterprising Jewish publishers of limited means could not hope to compete, though they tried. Rosa Sonneschein made a valiant attempt in The American Jewess (1895-1899) which she edited in Chicago and New York. She was a charming, brilliant, and able woman, daughter of a distinguished Hungarian rabbi. Sonneschein had strong Jewish interests, was sympathetic to Zionism, and was convinced that a woman should have a career of her own, but her views and energy could not keep the magazine alive. The Jewish content of her paper was limited; she had little to offer the women though she did urge equality for them on the boards of the charities and the synagogs. Wise’s German language Deborah may well have had the women in mind, too, when it first appeared in 1855; it hung on till 1902 read by a hard core of old-timers, men and women who wanted a familiar word in the beloved mother tongue, but it also gave up the ghost as its faithful died off.28

THE CHILDREN’S PRESS

Though the Jewish elders were concerned about the education of the new generation the few children’s and youth’s papers that now appeared fared no better than the women’s magazines. Nothing the Jews published was comparable to The Youth’s Companion, a very successful nonreligious journal. The first child’s periodical of which anything is known was the German language Freitagabend Klaenge (The Friday Night Chords) which was published in 1867; there are apparently no extant copies. Young Israel made its appearance in the early 1870’s and survived to 1900; one of its contributors was Horatio Alger, Jr. It was reborn again in 1919 with the same title under the aegis of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Two magazines designed for the younger generation came out in 1874 and 1897. One was Helpful Thoughts (1897-1903) edited by Julia Richman and Rebecca Kohut; the other was the Cincinnati based Hebrew Sabbath School Visitor (1874-1893), also known as the Sabbath Visitor or the Sabbath School Visitor. Founded by Lilienthal and published by the Hebrew Sabbath School Union it held before it the goal of inculcating a love of Judaism in the youth. The Sabbath Visitor adhered to the pattern of most children’s papers of the late nineteenth century; it contained stories, not necessarily Jewish of course, essays, anecdotes, riddles, and puzzles. It was most intensely patriotic. One wonders if the editors understood the psychology of children; they were distinguished rabbis and scholars. The Letter Box was reserved for the correspondence of the children who wrote in from all parts of the country, from obscure towns like Taylorsville, California, Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Garnett, Kansas. There is no question that there was at least one Jewish family almost everywhere and that the youngsters were certainly happy to receive the paper, a Jewish paper, even if they could not understand all they read. One suspects, for this is a tradition, that some of the letters were doctored in the editorial offices. In 1910 the Zionist youth welcomed the Young Judaean; it was widely read by the children of the new generation of Slavic Jews.29

THE POPULAR SCIENTIFIC AND THE SCHOLARLY PRESS

Regardless of the language, all Jewish papers, whether designed for old or young, were concerned to some degree with learning. Few magazines, if any, were indifferent to an exact knowledge of the history and literature of the people. Modeling itself on the Jewish magazines published in Central Europe, the Occident (1843) reflected almost every aspect of Jewish lore. Thus in some respects it was a scholarly journal for it presented some of the findings of European Jewish social scientists, in translation of course. The Orthodox Leeser was not hostile to the Science of Judaism. All this made the Occident a dull paper but Leeser had not set out to titillate the emotions of his readers, only their minds. Aside from fiction, the pabulum he offered was solid fare. If the Occident was dull so is the present-day American Historical Review for the non-technician. The more popular Asmonean of the late 1840’s and early 1850’s employed Isaac M. Wise as one of its editors and he too arranged for the publication of translations of European Jewish scholarly material. Wise’s Cincinnati Israelite was constantly printing brief essays of scientific import, particularly translations of the medieval classics; the Jewish Messenger had scholarly articles by the elder Gottheil, Schechter, and Moses Gaster of London; the Reform Advocate published learned addresses by Hirsch on Jesus, Paul, the Bible in the light of science, and Unitarianism.30

From a purely scholarly point of view the two best Jewish papers of the late nineteenth century were the Zeitgeist (Spirit of the Times) in German, and the Menorah in English with some German supplementary material. The Zeitgeist (1880-1882), published in Milwaukee, was edited by the two very able Moses brothers; later they coopted the left-wing maverick Emil G. Hirsch. It carried original articles by some of the best Jewish minds in this country and reprints of the writings of such notables as Heinrich Graetz of Breslau and Hermann Cohen of Marburg. The Zeitgeist was read even in Europe, for it was a good paper in a day when Americans were establishing standards through magazines like Harpers, Scribner’s, and the Atlantic. Yet the Zeitgeist soon folded; the new generation read little German; the intellectuals among the older folk were too few in numbers.

Four years after the Zeitgeist ceased publication The Menorah (1886-1907) made its bow. This monthly, the organ of the B’nai B’rith and later of the Jewish Chautauqua Society, set out to be a superior paper, and it was. Alexander Kohut wrote on Akiba, Felsenthal on Abraham Ibn Ezra, Kohler on the Jew in commerce, and young Gottheil translated the History of Jewish Literature by Gustav Karpeles. Among the younger notables who contributed to it were Louis Ginzberg and Gotthard Deutsch; the editors even published a translation of a story by Stefan Zweig, then a young man of twenty. Wisely the publishers took into account the new migration. There was an article on the Yiddish drama by Louis Lipsky and a story by Herman Bernstein, the journalist and later minister to Albania. But even these men could not keep the paper from going down; The Menorah died for lack of funds; in that thrifty generation deficits were intolerable; culture had to pay for itself.

Several years after the last issue of The Menorah went to press, The Menorah Journal was born (1915). There was no relation between the two papers except in the title which carried with it the implication of enlightenment. The new magazine (1915-1962), the organ of the Intercollegiate Menorah Association, was the best paper that American Jewry had yet published in the popular scientific field. It was beautifully designed and its illustrations were exemplary. All aspects of Jewish life were touched upon here. In light of the growing interest in the arts and social sciences it set out to foster the humanities and it did. Jewish problems were explored; the advantages of Zionism were discussed by Brandeis in a day when the movement was still in bad odor, and the Science of Judaism was cultivated in its papers by such men as Louis Ginzberg of the Seminary and young Harry Wolfson of Harvard. Ludwig Lewisohn later remarked that it was the “one oasis” in American Jewish life. Its influence upon the university students of East European background was profound.31

MAGAZINES DEVOTED TO THE SCIENCE OF JUDAISM

The line of periodicals extending from the Occident of 1843 to the last issue of The Menorah Journal in 1962 reflects the attempt to interest the American intelligentsia in Jewish learning. The approach is scientific yet popular; the scholarly apparatus of notes and citations was discarded; the primary appeal was not to savants. A parallel line, broken to be sure, of scholarly periodicals reaches from to 1920 to the present day. The line began in 1879 with the appearance of a monthly supplement to the Jewish Messenger, Hebraica; unfortunately it lasted but one year. This was a thoroughly scientific attempt to publish papers by the best American Jewish scholars and translations of articles by distinguished European Jewish academicians. The work was continued in a somewhat lighter vein by Lilienthal in the Hebrew Review. In addition to the papers submitted by the rabbis, the Review published translations of the writings of French and German scholars; for the most part the articles were documented. The hope was expressed by the editors that a competent man would one day write a good introduction to the Old Testament, an impartial Jewish history, and a new code. The last two suggestions were obviously an attack on the partisan Graetz and the Orthodox Shulhan Arukh, the standard legal manual. Through the Hebrew Review had but 189 subscribers this is, on reflection, not a bad record in view of America’s small Jewish population at that time.

In 1893 the Jewish Publication Society seems to have been flirting with the thought of a quarterly devoted to research; by that time the Jewish Quarterly Review, a truly excellent journal, had been appearing in England for several years. The students at the Hebrew Union College put out a scholarly annual in 1904; it was followed several years later by a similar publication of the students at the Jewish Theological Seminary; the Hebrew Union College Monthly of the students, though popular in its appeal, occasionally published papers based on careful research. By 1910 English Jewry had abdicated its scholarly role, for the time being at least, by discontinuing the Jewish Quarterly Review; it was then transferred to Philadelphia and printed by Dropsie. The articles in the new Quarterly were severely scientific if not antiquarian. In 1919 David Neumark of the Cincinnati college published the Journal of Jewish Lore and Philosophy; unsupported, it enjoyed but a short life ceasing to appear in the early 1920’s when it was ultimately succeeded by the prestigious Hebrew Union College Annual.32

THE QUALITY OF THE GENERAL JEWISH PRESS

The women’s papers, the juveniles, The New Era on literature (1871-1875) the Maccabaean (1901) on Zionism, Jewish Charity (1902), the Jewish Farmer (1908), the popular scientific papers that appeared biweekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually were not representative of the American Jewish press. The typical American Jewish paper was a weekly pushing at all times to win more subscribers and advertisers. What were the contents of these magazines that by 1920 were found almost anywhere from Boston to San Diego? There was American and European news, notes on the local lodges, even the non-Jewish orders to which the Jews belonged in numbers. There were always interesting tidbits on the Jewish community, its institutions, its philanthropies, its synagogs, its social and cultural doings. Face to face with the Gentile world the weeklies were always ready to emphasize disabilities, oppression, mass murder; they published stories, novels, poems, sermons, editorials, and reviews of books and plays which were not necessarily Jewish in content. They published letters to the editor, discussed politics, Jewish literature, the use of Hebrew in the liturgy, the virtues or the flaws of Reform and traditionalism. Intermarriage was always a favorite theme. In the early days incoming German Jews were harangued on the importance of the amenities; later the luckless East Europeans were reproached even though they had never enjoyed a course on American etiquette in their Lithuanian, Polish, or Ukranian villages.

Papers often carried features. The Reform Advocate of Chicago published fat issues surveying the history of whole regions. Naphtali Herz Imber, ghetto denizen, Hebrew poet, and hack writer wrote articles on the Star of David, the significance of the number thirteen for the Jew, telephone and electricity in the Talmud. The ancient rabbis were wise; they had anticipated everything! The typical big city non-Jewish newspaper accentuated politics, business, and in a lesser measure, religion, culture, education. The Jewish journals stressed the latter three and devoted little space to politics and commerce. One must constantly bear in mind that the English language American Jewish press was, nominally at least, religious. Generally speaking the Jewish weekly did not improve in the twentieth century. In former days the man at the helm were rabbis or men of considerable learning; the twentieth century owners and editors were primarily journalists and business entrepreneurs; only too often their knowledge of Jewish life and literature was superficial.33

ALMANACS AND ANNUALS

A distinctive variety of Jewish serial was the almanac or annual. In no sense typically Jewish, almanacs had a long American history first appearing in New England in the 1600’s. For obvious reasons they were among the continent’s first publications; the almanac is an expanded glorified calendar. The Jews had a particular need for calendars to inform them when their holidays would occur; the secular calendar of the Christians did not do this. The oldest known American Jewish calendar was printed in New York in 1806 but there is no reason to believe that it was actually the first. The oldest Jewish almanac however did not appear till 1854. Its calendar covers the years 1853-1903. Historians love this volume of 178 pages because it contains valuable data on the congregations of the United States, Canada, the Islands, Central and South America. The latter lands sheltering Spanish-Portuguese Jews were included because the editors Abraham De Sola and Jacques J. Lyons were both Sephardim.

As the Jews here began to print and sell almanacs and annuals they patterned these pamphlets on Central European Jewish publications which had begun to assume the character of literary yearbooks. No later than the middle 1880’s Jewish almanacs of this type were being printed in Cincinnati. The Bloch Publishing Company put out an American Jews’ Annual in 1884. The owner, Edward Bloch, a brother-in-law of Wise and his partner in the Israelite since the 1850’s, was probably the first publisher of Jewish books west of the Appalachians. The initial volume of this literary annual had articles on history, religion, the Jew in American politics, the Jew as a boxer, and a variety of other themes. It was interesting, informative, America oriented; there was nothing cheap or vulgar in it; the editors did not stoop to conquer.34

As was to be expected the Jewish metropolis of New York had anticipated Cincinnati in publishing almanacs. After all New York sheltered the Jewish masses. The almanacs that appeared there were illustrated with sentimental pictures of Jewish life; they included German language materials among their English stories, poetry, and novelettes. One of the annuals—there was more than one series—carried a detailed list of the outstanding institutions of New York and Philadelphia. This information was very helpful both to historians and to schnorrers. The latter now had a ready made “sucker” list when they made their rounds. The literary contributors to these metropolitan brochures included a number of the city’s best known rabbis. New York’s almanacs were often vulgar; their cartoons were caricatures and their jokes were anti-Jewish reflecting on the business integrity of the Jews. There was no hesitation apparently in portraying a Jew as a fence; certainly there was at least a touch of self-hatred in some of the witticisms. The humor could be “cute”: What animal has death no affect on? A pig because directly you have killed him you can cure him and save his bacon.

It would seem that almanacs were a profitable enterprise: wherever they appeared they were loaded with advertisements, flanking the pages, nestling comfortably at the top and bottom of each sheet, and as preface and postscript to the actual subject matter. Like commercials on the modern television these appeals to buyers were often both instructive and amusing. In the midst of an article of some import the bottom of the page solemnly informed the readers that “Milk of Magnesia should be in every ladies toilet” or that “Dr. Coulton has given gas to 110,000 patients.” “Turn not away thy rosy lips,” implores one importunate swain, “you have been chewing Danheiser’s Fruit Gum and they taste delicious. One more for luck.” There were advertisements for day schools, boarding schools, Jewish books, liquors, steamship tickets, and kosher food. This last no doubt was designed to entice the isolated small-town Jews who yearned for some good Jewish food. The Reform Advocate offered bridal Bibles, a cure for bowlegs, and ham. There seems to be no doubt that by 1880 most Central European Jews disregarded the dietary laws. In the American Israelite of the late 1890’s there are recipes for deviled crab, shrimp salad, and lobster, and when an observant Jew protested against this wanton defiance of the traditions, the editor informed his readers that there were still benighted people in this enlightened land.

In 1899 the Jewish Publication Society began publishing its own yearbook with a calendar, statistics, and excellent articles dealing with almost all phases of Jewish life both here and abroad. The planning was done by Cyrus Adler; the work was done by Henrietta Szold. There was no fiction, no jokes; it was very similar to the best of the American and English publicistic yearbooks. The American Jewish Year Book was and still is an invaluable contribution to American Jewish history, scholarship, and sociology.35

EDITORS AND THE QUALITY OF THEIR PUBLICATIONS

From the point of view of sheer quality, not design or fiction, Bloch’s American Jews’ Annual and the somewhat similar Pacific Jewish Annual were among the better almanacs of those pre-twentieth century days. The quality of the American Jewish periodicals was often equally good though Felsenthal believed that the English language weeklies published twaddle and vulgar gossip. This was an acid judgment. The liberal Jewish Times and the more conservative American Hebrew were good papers; the Jewish Messenger, the Zeitgeist, and The Menorah were equally good; the Israelite was always lively, imaginative, aggressive, and interesting.

If, as has been already intimated, these papers were often superior, it was because their editors were men of learning. Moritz Ellinger (1830-1907) of the Times and The Menorah had studied Talmud in his native Bavaria and was an active member of a number of literary societies and clubs in New York. This man, coroner of the city, was also a fellow of the Society of American Authors. Professor A. S. Isaacs, the recipient of an honorary Ph.D. degree from the University of New York where he taught, edited the Jewish Messenger till it merged with the American Hebrew (1903). Philip Cowen, a founder and editor of the American Hebrew was a federal civil servant, a publisher of Jewish books, and a memoirist. His autobiography, Memories of an American Jew (1932), is a very useful source book for the historian of this period. Among the editors of the American Hebrew after Cowen were Joseph Jacobs and Herman Bernstein. Sabato Morais’s son, Henry S., was the first editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, author of the Jews of Philadelphia, and later a rabbi in Syracuse and New York city. Louis Lipsky, a former member of the editorial board of the American Hebrew, was the editor of the Maccabaean. He was one of the most important American Zionists in the early decades of the new century. It is patent that many of the editors of the Jewish magazines were men of competence, often of distinction.36

THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE JEWISH PRESS

Even in the big cities the English language Jewish weeklies had to struggle to stay alive. Most, usually sooner than later, ceased to appear. No Jewish periodical—with the exception of the Yiddish dailies—ever achieved mass circulation. Satisfied with the general press which met practically all their needs, many Jews saw no need to read a Jewish publication; they were not interested. What then did the English Jewish press accomplish? The Hebrew press was important only in that it nursed a nucleus of lovers of Hebrew; the Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) press was the cement holding together the Levant Jews who began arriving here in the early twentieth century; the Yiddish press, a mass medium, was eminently successful in helping its readers maintain their own way of life with dignity and self-assurance in this new environment that threatened their very spiritual, their psychological balance. Rut what did the English Jewish press accomplish? The English press spurred Americanization thus speeding that inevitable acculturation without which the Jew, immigrant or native, could not hope to make his peace with his neighbor and himself. It imparted knowledge, brought news of the Jews in other towns and places, both here and abroad, and served as a very important educational instrument in those pre-radio and pre-television years. In a larger sense it was almost immaterial if the journals to which one subscribed had solid content or not; the very act of reading them was a mark and act of identification. The Jewish weekly stimulated loyalty to the group, to the Totality of Jewry. In that age of the small-town Jew, when telephones were few and automobiles were almost unknown, the newspaper was very important and welcome to those who sought to keep in touch with the Jewish world. A Jewish journal might well become a core around which the town and region agglomerated. A few choice magazines were national in their outreach, influencing thousands; such were the Occident, the Israelite, the Jewish Messenger, the American Hebrew, the Menorah, and the Menorah Journal.

Cumulatively the entire Jewish press was important culturally and religiously. Was it as influential as the synagog, the religious school, the home? No! The Jewish press in English was not all-powerful; the Yiddish press carried more weight but even here it is a moot question how determining its influence was on the lives of the new arrivals.37

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344729
Related ISBN
9780814344736
MARC Record
OCLC
1055143407
Pages
559-591
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC
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