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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

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

ADULT JEWISH EDUCATION

In measuring the cultural influences impinging on adults it is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate the precise impact of the newspapers. There is no question that subscribers were swayed by what they read; by the same token there can also be no question that they were influenced by the informal Jewish educational media to which they were exposed. There was no nationwide system for educating adults with the exception of the Jewish Chautauqua society, but its goals were limited largely to the education of teachers. Yet the various piecemeal attempts to bring Jewish culture and learning to adults may have been more effective cumulatively than would appear at first glance.

Lilienthal in 1846 was teaching Talmud to a small group in New York City; Mordecai M. Noah and a fellow Jew asked Shearith Israel in 1849 to give them a room where they might receive Hebrew instruction and listen to lectures. For some strange reason the synagogal authorities frowned on this suggestion of their own members. After the East Europeans began to land in the 1850’s there was no decade in which Talmud was not taught in some Orthodox synagogs. By the 1870’s there were adult groups in New York City studying the Hebrew Bible and its commentators; in the 1890’s the Hyman Gratz legacy was used to fund public lectures in Philadelphia, and the Isaac Elchanan yeshivah opened its doors in 1897 on the Lower East Side to train rabbis and to encourage laymen to pursue talmudic studies. That same year marked the rise of the Judaeans, a group of New York middle and upper-class professionals and businessmen who were interested in furthering the intellectual and spiritual interests of the Jewish people. They talked of Jewish literature, the Bible, Zionism, and a host of other subjects. Frequently they invited distinguished scholars, notables, and their own members to address them; a number of these lectures were published; they still make interesting reading.1

In 1903 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations established the department of Synagogue and School Extension to further Jewish education for men, women, and children of all ages, especially for those living in the towns and villages. Adults benefited from the circuit visiting and preaching. It is difficult from the vantage point of the late twentieth century to understand this emphasis on the scattered settlers in the hamlets when there were thousands who needed cultural ministrations in the urban centers. Mayhap they sensed that they were not welcome in the ghettos; it may well be that down deep they had no desire to assimilate the newcomers into their own socioreligious fellowship. Louis Marshall in 1908 wanted City College of New York to teach classical Hebrew on a par with Greek and Latin because of its cultural values and its spiritual potentialities, but he balked at modern Hebrew. To teach modern Hebrew, the Zionist vernacular, in a public institution would be favoring the Jew at the expense of the taxpayers!

Wherever there was a Jewish community, even a small one there was at least one cultural agency bent on capturing the attention of the men. Women were less often the target. Jews were constantly exposed to information, learning, propaganda, in the lodges, in the Jewish publication societies, in the libraries, the literary associations, the “Ys,” the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Chautauqua, in the Zionist and in the Hebrew-speaking organizations. The various Zionist groups established departments of education for their followers; the Young Judaeans had a school of their own to train leaders for their faithful. There was hardly a Reform congregation in the early 1900’s that did not have at least one Bible class for adults; the Council of Jewish women in Cincinnati could boast of five Bible circles (1905). Lecture courses in the larger towns were common; the Sunday morning talks in the urban Reform synagogs often brought large crowds who packed the halls; some of those who came to listen were Gentiles.2

THE MENORAH MOVEMENT

In order to reach the young men and women at the universities, the Central Conference of American Rabbis set out in the early twentieth century to carry on religious and cultural work in some of America’s colleges. The attempt failed because the Conference had no money or staff. Encouraged by President Charles W. Eliot, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1906 sponsored services during the High Holy Days for the students at Harvard; that same year some of the young men there, particularly Henry Hurwitz, established a Zionist association. By 1913 the Intercollegiate Menorah Association was a national reality; two years later it began to publish the Menorah Journal. The movement flourished and in a very few years there were about sixty groups on the campuses of the country. In some of the larger towns branches were established for graduates by the men who had been supporters of the Menorah while still at school.

The Intercollegiate Menorah Association, a national body like the Jewish Chautauqua Society, was dedicated to the pursuit of Jewish knowledge. Its approach was nonpartisan, nonsectarian. Study circles were set up, syllabi were published, and its members by virtue of indoctrination often found themselves later involved in the life of the Jewish community. In a very modest fashion the Menorah bridged the gap between the students of the older and the new migrations; on the whole, however, the children of the old-line families were not interested in this Judaic renascence. Despite branch societies found in many of America’s colleges the total membership was actually small. It bears repetition: Jewish culture rarely had a mass appeal, particularly if it made for disparity in a conformist milieu. Adult education was not deemed of major importance although there was a feeling on the part of some that this large affluent Jewry should bestir itself in this area. Thus the second decade of the new century witnessed the rise of teacher-training schools in a number of communities. A diploma, such as it was, from a Jewish teachers “college” or a congregational course meant a job on a Sabbath or in an afternoon school. Jewish leaders and educators began to realize the importance and the challenge of adult education.3

YOUTH EDUCATION

One of the reasons that adult education did not assume a high priority in the early twentieth century was that most Jewish grown-ups had already identified with their people. They had little choice; many gates in America’s “open society,” were closed to them. Elementary education was also not a desperate problem because most Jewish agencies were already devoting themselves to it very seriously. The real issue was the education of the youth, the in-between groups, the post-bar mitzvah and post-confirmation youngsters who were now beginning to think for themselves. In the late nineteenth century the boys went to work after leaving public school; by the early twentieth century many decided to continue on through high school; they had no time for Jewish studies; secular education for them was far more important. But if the youth was not loyal and indoctrinated, Jewry was in trouble. This was a serious threat. Some of the youth, not unaware of the challenges that faced them, took the initiative by identifying themselves as Jews in a pleasurable fashion; they founded “Ys” and literary societies. This was primarily social identification. The rabbis had their own solutions; because religion is the essence of the Jew there must be some form of religious education.

Even the antebellum generation, that of Leeser and the Board of Delegates, realized that religiocultural provision had to be made for the adolescents. Jewry’s leaders pleaded for secondary schools where secular and Jewish studies would be combined. Felsenthal in 1866 talked grandiloquently of instruction in history, religion, Hebrew, the codes, the Talmud—a program completely unrealistic in post-Civil War industrial America. Ten years later with a jaundiced glance at the new Cincinnati Hebrew Union College the Orthodox and Reform rabbis of Chicago came forward with a proposal for a similar type of school in Chicago. Nothing happened.4

More realistic was the creation during the 1880’s of congregational youth societies directed toward education, not amusement. Both Orthodox and left-wing synagogs began to organize such groups at this time. Some of them were successful, certainly for a time at least. For the Reformers the simplest solution to the problem of youth education was to extend confirmation for a year or more and this is what some of the rabbis did in order to bridge the educational gap between the Sabbath schools and the cultural world of the adults. Another attack on the problem was to establish post-confirmation classes which would serve as teacher-training schools. Holding out the carrot of a diploma and employment was undoubtedly effective in some instances. Chicago’s Sinai had such a class in 1880 and as late as 1916 Hirsch was meeting with the youth every Sunday morning. He entranced them with his scholarship, his personality, and his incisive, sarcastic wit. Making provision for two years of post-confirmation instruction, the 1892 curriculum of the Hebrew Sabbath School Union included the English Bible, post-biblical history, and a vernacular translation of the talmudic ethical treatise on the Fathers (Abot). In addition there were to be lectures on the Mission of the Jew and the relationship of Judaism to Christianity. By and large these post-confirmation classes were not successful. The youngsters had other interests; the rabbis were too busy doing other jobs to give the boys and the girls the attention they merited; most parents were not really concerned. As it has been pointed out, a saving remnant of the youth began to enroll in the new teachers’ colleges that were already open by 1920.5

All the metropolitan teachers’ colleges taught Hebrew. The Holy Tongue (lashon ha-kodesh) played a very important part in Jewish education for it was not only a link that tied Jews together but it was the language of the Bible, most rabbinic works, and the medieval poets. The Reformers met resistance in their efforts to teach their young charges Hebrew; papa and mama thought that English was good enough. Nevertheless a number of Reform temples did teach Hebrew, even Chicago’s Sinai where there was an optional class in advanced Hebrew. A generation earlier Hirsch’s father Samuel, of Philadelphia, the country’s outstanding radical, had donned his skull cap and taught Talmud to a group of bright youngsters that included Cyrus Adler and Solomon Solis-Cohen. No radical is of one piece!

For traditional Jews Hebrew was imperative in all forms of Jewish secondary education. Hebrew instruction for the youth was a commonplace in the New York of the 1880’s. There were yeshivot, talmudic academies, in the Chicago and New York of the 1890’s. Out of the Chicago academy the well-known Hebrew Theological College was later to emerge. By 1919 the Holy Tongue was even being taught in one of the Chicago public high schools; some of the New York youngsters founded Zionist societies in the public secondary schools which they attended. The Zionist youth clubs of the early twentieth century devoted themselves to a study of Jewish history and, on occasion, to classical and modern Hebrew. The socialists too organized their youth but with the exception of the Workers of Zion (Poale Zion) Hebrew was no concern of theirs. Their vistas were universal, not confined to the welfare of the Chosen People.

The most successful of the partisan youth groups seems to have been the Zionistic Young Judaea. It was founded in 1909; a year later it had its own English magazine and by 1917 it could even boast of a Hebrew periodical. The major interests of this subsidized branch of the national Zionist federation were of course in the areas of Zionism and Judaism, but it too was deeply rooted in America and its Jewish life. Sometime before 1918 the Bureau of Jewish Education of New York City had organized a League of Jewish Youth for those members of the younger generation who were receiving no religious education. Under the auspices of the league they organized themselves into clubs where they studied Jewish and civic problems and pursued their interests in music and drama. On a higher level the Bureau conducted late afternoon “high schools,” one for boys and one for girls. The paramount concerns here were Jewish education and culture.6

ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN THE AREA OF YOUTH EDUCATION

For the youth, as for the adults, relatively few schools were developed by American Jewry; the literature for the education of the adolescents was sparse indeed. Yet by 1920 there were post-confirmation classes, some training for would-be teachers, a few secondary Jewish schools, yeshivot, and one “parochial” high school. Even the typical Orthodox Jew had no desire to remove his children from the public high schools. The welfare federations occasionally and hesitatingly subsidized Jewish elementary schools but had no wish to finance secondary schools. The paramount interest of the charities was centered upon helping the domestic poor and distressed foreign Jewries. Formal Jewish education for the Jewish child stopped with the bar mitzvah ceremony and with confirmation. Strenuous efforts were make however to make good Jews out of these younger children. What was the nature of this elementary education?7

ELEMENTARY EDUCATION

There were many different ways and types of schools to educate a child Jewishly. There were itinerant teachers (melamdim) who visited the homes of the lower middle classes to teach Hebrew; there were highly educated tutors whose students were the elite. Emma Lazarus employed a cultured gentleman to teach her the rudiments of the Holy Tongue. There were private schools of quality, boarding and day schools; congregations established all-day or parochial schools. If the synagog happened to be the only one in town then the academy which it set up was de facto a “communal” school. But unlike the coeval typical American public school it was not free, lay, or compulsory. By 1880 most of the American Jewish all-day schools had already closed their doors. In the big cities the newcomers from Eastern Europe patronized the sedentary private teacher in his heder (“room”) or the congregational or “communal” schools, usually established by special interest groups. The heder, the congregational, and the “communal” schools met in the late afternoon when the public school let out. And finally there were the Sabbath-Sunday schools, where instruction was imparted for one or two days on weekends.

With very few exceptions all Jews in the United States were convinced that Jewish education must be supplementary to secular training. The road to opportunity lay only through the American educational system; secular, not religious training was basic. It was different in Eastern Europe whence the newcomers hailed. There Jewish education was imperative; the three “R’s” would somehow or other have to be picked up. With certain exceptions American Jewish institutions of learning were concerned about the maintenance of Judaism, the faith; the socialists were not but even they sought to affirm their Jewish identity, to some degree at least.8

MELAMDIM AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS

The melamdim seldom succeeded in teaching more than mechanical reading; rarely did they impart the meaning of the texts. These rebbes had a tradition going back to colonial times; by the 1890’s there were dozens if not hundreds of them in the large urban centers; by 1917 there were about 740 in New York City. They knew very little English; the Educational Alliance ran an English class for these humble tutors; theirs was a profession of last resort; their pay, a pittance. People with some means, or parents in the hinterland who were in fear of assimilation, sent their children to Jewish private schools that were found in the metropolitan centers. As the public schools improved in the last quarter of the nineteenth century middle-class Jews everywhere ceased patronizing the private institutions of learning though these were to continue well into the twentieth century. The Kohuts, Rebekah and her son George, ran successful schools for boys and girls. Unlike the Christian private academies which were often located in rural settings the Jewish institutions were established in the large communities because of the multiple advantages they offered for visiting, culture, and Jewish social relationships. Though most of these academies gave instruction in Judaism and the Hebrew language the prime emphasis was always on the secular subjects.9

THE HEDER

The total number of Jewish boys and girls who patronized the private elite academies was inconsequential, but ever since the 1880’s thousands of East Europeans turned to the rebbe who ran a one-room school. His medium of instruction was Yiddish or fractured English. Most of his students were boys. By 1920 there may well have been 1,000 of these “rooms” in the United States. The tuition fee was often but fifty cents a month. By and large these schools were bad, often very bad; the instruction was poor; the sanitary provisions were inadequate; on occasion the boys forty strong crowded together in a cellar room. Yet these heders were very popular with the immigrant parents. The boys had to prepare themselves for bar mitzvah; this was an imperative need. There were better “rooms” in the twentieth century, better teachers, better training, but these were the exceptions. Yet even the poor schools served a purpose; the lad in the heder accepted himself as a Jew. By the second decade of the new century the rebbes and the melamdim began to fade away. Moving out to new areas the parents joined congregations and sent their children to the afternoon or the Sabbath schools where on the whole the instruction was better.10

THE JEWISH ALL-DAY SCHOOLS

The Jewish all-day (parochial) schools had an enduring quality. Although prior to the mid-twentieth century they were never very successful, they never completely died out. They rose in the early 1700’s, almost disappeared in the first decades of the 1800’s but received a new lease of life with the coming of the Germans. Like the Protestants and later the Catholics these Central European Jews wanted to combine secular and religious instruction; they resented the attempts in the early public schools to ram Jesus down the throats of their children. Many of the Central Europeans also wanted German taught and even introduced it along with Hebrew and religious subjects in some of their religious schools. However, as soon as the public schools improved and Christian teachings were barred most Jewish parochial academies vanished. They were gone in the North by the 1870’s but they hung on in the South for another decade for lack of an adequate public school system. The Southern Jews, relatively affluent, established all-day schools in the postwar period, institutions that were good enough to win the patronage of some Christians. Such Jewish academies were opened in Memphis, Alexandria, New Orleans, and Richmond. When in 1870 the city of Richmond inaugurated a system of public instruction that was acceptable the Jews closed their own school and even allowed the authorities to use their premises for the new public institution.11

Though these Jewish “parochial” schools were doomed there were always some Jews in Chicago, Baltimore, and probably New York too, who were determined to save or resurrect the all-day academy. These devotees loved Hebrew and German. “Racially” said Felsenthal, “I am a Jew.” “Politically I am an American.… Spiritually (intellectually) I am German.” In 1865 and again a decade later he and some others worked to establish a high quality all-day communal academy in Chicago that would teach the classical rabbinic texts and thus serve also as a preparatory school for the American rabbinate. The children have to be saved, said Felsenthal; Judaism has a great future in this country. However, he and his friends accomplished little or nothing; only Isaac M. Wise was successful.12

Yet just about the time that Felsenthal began to hammer away at the need for an all-day school for Jewish youth (1865) one was established in New York City but the motivations here were different. As the Central European Jews continued to arrive they were reinforced by substantial numbers of Slavic Jews. Most of these newcomers, Germans and Russians, were too poor to pay for Jewish schooling. Sensing an opportunity for themselves Christian missionaries during the late 1850’s rushed in to teach the children Jewish subjects free. It took about six years for the New Yorkers to rouse themselves to this threat. Finally, in 1864, eleven Uptown congregations banded together to organize the Hebrew Free School Association and to open an all-day school. It was patterned on earlier American Jewish parochial schools and, judging from the name, on the London Jews’ Free School (1817). Always worried lest the newcomers shame them the Uptowners were determined that the new school also teach the amenities and inculcate morality. The school was a success but in the 1870’s it too abandoned its secular studies and taught only Jewish subjects.

The establishment of the New York all-day school was paralleled by the rise of similar free academies in Philadelphia and Baltimore. They were Jewish in that they taught religion to counter American assimilatory influences, secular in that the curriculum included the standard three “R’s,” philanthropic and acculturational in that they preached virtue, handed out new clothes, and provided free baths. Cleanliness was next to godliness.13

The last of the “German” all-day schools in the South closed its doors in the 1880’s; the first of the East European academies in New York City opened its doors that same decade on the lower East Side. It differed substantially from the older “parochial” schools; very little attention was paid to secular subjects; the Jewish subjects were stressed. The purpose of this new type academy was to shield the children from the cultural pressures of an environment that threatened the European traditional way of life. All in all the older pre-Russian parochial schools were acculturational; the new immigrant academies that now began to make their appearance were segregationist. Traditional studies were all important. It was this pioneer 1886 academy that united with the Isaac Elchanan rabbinical college in 1915. By 1920 there were several elementary yeshivot in the United States where secular and religious subjects were combined. In the decades that followed the non-religious courses were improved materially. On the whole the yeshivah students were a brainy lot well enough prepared to hold their own with the graduates of the best public schools. Until after World War II, the students in the new Slavic Jewish all-day academies probably numbered fewer than 1,000. Some of them may have had one eye on a rabbinic career. Back home across the seas the Russian or Polish youngster could look forward to an honored career if he was a good student of the Talmud; here in America the future for the same lad lay in the secular professions by way of the college and universities.14

AFTERNOON YIDDISH SCHOOLS

Each wave of Jewish immigrants was concerned about its vernacular which it deemed sacrosanct. If the parish school of the colonial Sephardim was fostered it was because of the need to educate the children Jewishly, Sephardically, and the hope of teaching them the Spanish-Portuguese idiom. The brave attempt made to perpetuate this language ended in failure as early as the 1740’s. The Germans and the East Europeans were far more successful. The Slavic Jews established their own Yiddish press, created a literature, a theatre, and hundreds of Yiddish-speaking mutual-aid societies, but they did not succeed in establishing Yiddish schools until the decade before 1920. The 1880’s, when the East Europeans arrived in large numbers, were the years which witnessed also the rise of good public schools. The newcomers had no money for their own all-day educational institutions; any such system they might set up could never hope to compete with the American public schools. They had no precedent for such secular religious academies in the European ghettos whence they had come; their American children would never have gone along with them. In the realm of secular education most of the immigrants were willing to accept the Anglo-Saxon culture gladly.

If this is true who then wanted Yiddish schools? Why? In a way the afternoon Yiddish schools that began to appear here from about 1910 on were a romantic gesture. Totally dedicated to their beloved vernacular the Yiddishists set out to save a culture that was threatened by the defections of the young. The parents, rightly or wrongly, believed that they had little in common with the native Jews or the completely Americanized Jewish émigrés of earlier decades. In their efforts to tie the youngsters to themselves, to maintain the nexus between the families here and the folks in the old homeland, to cultivate a language that was culturally productive and promising, to erect walls around their own non-religious Marxist fellowships, they established schools of varying socialist ideologies. Undoubtedly many justified their separatist institutions by the contention that they hoped to counteract the capitalist public school system, but this well may have been a rationalization of their desire to strengthen their own group culturally and socially. They were huddled masses yearning to stay together. The stigmata of Russian cultural rejection were painful wounds. Out of fear that their sustaining past would be blotted out here they gave birth to a de facto pluralistic way of life. With the collapse of the 1905 Russian Revolution they may well have reasoned: Russia cannot be saved; let us at least salvage ourselves as a Yiddish subculture. This may well have been a counsel of despair, subconsciously of course.

The first of the Yiddishists to establish afternoon schools for their young were the National Radicals who set up Folk Schools in New York City in 1910 and shortly thereafter in Chicago and other towns. They were both socialists and Zionists, hence not hostile to Hebrew nor to the whole body of Jewry. In their educational work they were aided by their order, the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, the Poale Zion, the Zionist Laborer’s party. Soon another Yiddish group appeared on the scene. It too was secularist, but non-Zionistic and non-party, though not unsympathetic to socialism. Its paramount concern was Yiddish literature, not political propaganda. In 1918 the largest of the factions, out and out socialists hostile to the religious aims of the East European masses and unsympathetic to the national aspirations of the National Radicals, opened schools of its own. These Yiddishists were members of the Workmen’s Circle order, the Arbeter Ring. Over to the left of the other Yiddishists they were strongly Marxist, class conscious, eager to rear their children as ardent socialists. In no sense were they sympathetic to the Hebrew language, Zionism, or the Jewish faith. They would have been the last to acknowledge it but the schools of these internationalists documented a form of Jewish separatism, even ethnicism. By the 1920’s they were beginning to inch toward the center of the Yiddishist school movement; their bitter quarrels with the communists kept them from moving to the left. In the course of the next decades they deemphasized the class struggle; it was difficult to resist the pervasive influence of the American bourgeois nationalistic culture.15

These child-centered Yiddish schools emphasized singing and theatricals; they commemorated the holidays such as Purim, Passover, and Hanukkah which celebrated the escape of Jews from tyranny. The great notables in the millennial history of the Jews, from Moses, the lawgiver, to Moses Mendelssohn, the modernist, were lauded as pioneering social heroes. In order to present their philosophy they created their own vernacular textbooks, juvenile literature, and even published a child’s paper. Their approach was historicocritical. Despite the common tie of the Yiddish language and a liberal or left-wing political stance, these groups were anything but homogeneous in their ideology. There were some left-wingers who professed to have no interest in Yiddish culture as such. If they cultivated this language it was only because they thought of it as a tool to teach socialism to the Yiddish-speaking masses. The hard-working Jewish proletarians were not all of one piece. Some sent their daughters to the Yiddish schools but made sure the boys went to the heders to get a traditional education. These parents wanted the best of both worlds for their offspring.16

THE AFTERNOON SCHOOLS AND THE TALMUD TORAHS

It must be emphasized that the Yiddish schools never commanded a large following among the students who patronized the afternoon schools. The very substantial percentage of Jewish children who did go to schools that held class after the public schools had closed for the day patronized institutions that were under the aegis of the Orthodox. The majority of the Jews in the United States were traditionalists whether they were natives, Germans, or new arrivals from Eastern Europe. By about 1900 the medium of instruction was English, the vernacular of the younger generation; the language taught in all these supplementary afternoon classes was Hebrew. A reading knowledge of it was imperative, for it was the language of prayer. True, the children did not understand what they mouthed, but God did; that was important. In the decades after 1860 only two Jewish educational institutions had a future, the afternoon and the weekend schools; the latter were popularly known as Sabbath or Sunday schools. Both systems had their beginnings in the antebellum period; both were destined to survive. They answered the religious needs of the groups that employed them. Borrowing a term from the old country, the East Europeans called these late afternoon schools, Talmud Torahs, schools for the Study of God’s law.

Beginning in the 1850’s, almost synchronously with the Germans, the Russians set up afternoon schools in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. When the East Europeans poured in to the eastern metropolises in the 1880’s many schools were opened. The most numerous were the heders, but more substantial non-profit Talmud Torahs were also established, sponsored by groups determined to educate the younger generation along traditional lines. Beginning in the 1860’s the elite Hebrew Free School Association of New York established a series of non-tuition schools for the children of the poor; before 1880 similar free academies were established in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. By 1890 the several Hebrew Free Schools in New York City taught about 3,500 children in their many classes. Vocational training and instruction in English for foreigners were introduced. Before the century had come to a close the Hebrew Free School Association withdrew its support, merging itself into the Educational Alliance with its overall program of education, physical training, health and hygiene, religion, Hebrew, and of course Americanization. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations reached out into the Bronx, the new ghetto, establishing “mission” schools for both boys and girls. Mergers, all embracing programs, were the trend in these decades of industrial growth and expansion.

Present day Jewish educationists, with an axe to grind, speak of some of these afternoon schools as “communal” institutions. Most of them were not; there was no structured community in the larger towns during this period. There were communal schools in some of the smaller towns where the one congregation constituted the community. After 1917 the New York Federation of Philanthropies began to subsidize some afternoon academies. By virtue of these grants one might possibly dub these schools “communal.” Actually this New York Federation never was and is not yet to be equated with the metropolitan Jewish “community.” About this time a survey showed that of the 181 non-heder schools, sixty-seven were congregational and institutional afternoon schools, forty-one were weekend Sabbath-Sunday schools. The thirteen remaining were parochial and private schools. Most afternoon schools charged tuition; provision was nearly always made for the poor, even in the congregational academies.17

Curricula of the Afternoon Schools

The curricula in the non-heder type of afternoon schools, whatever they called themselves, were as a rule quite similar though no two schools were exactly alike. First the children were taught to read Hebrew, then they were made familiar with the Hebrew-Aramaic book of common prayer (the siddur), and encouraged to sing the age-old hymns, though in most instances the youngsters did not understand what they read or what they were so lustily singing. In a few schools the children were inducted into the mysteries of the meaning of the biblical Hebrew texts; even more rarely did they learn the rudiments of Hebrew grammar. All students memorized the Hebrew blessings and acquired a knowledge of the ceremonies of the life cycle. Biblical history was taught, and the gifted among them, at most a handful, read and understood the basic rabbinic works such as the Talmud and the later codes. Instruction in advanced rabbinic texts was frequently in Yiddish.18

Afternoon Schools; Modernization in the 1880’s–1910

Many of the men in charge of the afternoon school systems, whether they were natives or newcomers, were fully aware of the better European and American pedagogical techniques. This knowledge was reflected in the changes taking place in the different types of schools starting in the 1880’s. Even a strictly Orthodox academy, the Machzike Talmud Torah (Supporters of Jewish Learning), announced a program that not only included rabbinic studies and codes, but also instruction in Bible, Hebrew grammar, religion, history, and penmanship. This was an exceptional curriculum for the American Talmud Torah of that day. In the 1890’s good schools of this type began to make their appearance in New York, Boston, and probably in other towns too. Under the influence of the Lovers of Zion (Hoveve Zion) and the national Jewish renascence Hebrew was occasionally taught as a living language, influenced very probably by the Ollendorf method. After the turn of the century, but before 1910, a number of schools throughout the country taught Hebrew as a modern tongue.19

Samson Benderly and the New York Bureau of Jewish Education

In 1910 the Kehillah of New York City organized a Bureau of Jewish Education and asked Dr. Samson Benderly to take charge. The doctor, a native Palestinian and a physician, had been serving as superintendent of the Hebrew Education Society schools in Baltimore. The creation of the New York Bureau of the Kehillah itself was triggered by the specter of juvenile delinquency. Frightened, New York’s Uptown Jews were determined to take action to raise the moral, intellectual, and religious level of the ghetto Jews and of their children. Education, they believed, was the answer. Benderly was of the opinion that an instrument to achieve this end was the modernized Talmud Torah; he saw no salvation in the Sabbath school or the all-day academy. The one did not allow enough time for content; the other was too separatist. Benderly’s road was a rough one. The Uptown Jews, Reformers for the most part, were not in sympathy with his Zionist and traditional leanings; the Orthodox, certainly the newcomers, were convinced that he was not sufficiently traditional. But Benderly persisted aided by such men as Judah L. Magnes, Israel Friedlaender, and others. In general this educator attempted to avoid partisanship though he was not enamored of Reform and its vigorous anti-Zionist attitude.

In the Bureau which he led, Benderly made his presence felt through his disciples, college-trained, able, professional teachers and administrators, men, and women too, all thoroughly Americanized. Many of his ablest followers were foreign born but among them were also some natives who had turned to Jewish education under his tutelage. His first goal was to build pilot schools, exemplary models to influence others. It was his hope that central agencies could be established that would deal with Jewish education on a communal basis; the Jewish community must assume responsibility for the education of all its children. This was a radical concept then, as it still is today, one that Jewry has never accepted; only the poor are to be educated at the expense of the community. Benderly was one of a long line of Jewish leaders who hoped to see education made a communal responsibility. Long before the Civil War Leeser of Philadelphia was talking of a community-wide educational system and in 1897 Professor A. S. Isaacs suggested an overall Board of Education for New York’s Jews.

Benderly was not successful in his struggle to make the community responsible for the Jewish education of its children even though the Bureau still exists in a somewhat different guise. He and his associates organized the parents of the non-affiliated into Parents Teachers Associations; they influenced thousands of youngsters through a Circle for Jewish Children and a League for Jewish Youth; they insisted that girls too be given a good Jewish education. Hebrew instruction was improved for he followed the Hebrew through Hebrew method, the “natural” way to teach a language. He insisted on graded courses, accepted the best of the curricular changes already made in the better afternoon schools, encouraged the arts, crafts, music, and drama for his students and urged the establishment of summer camps. Standing four-square on Zionism he wanted to effect a synthesis of the finest in Jewish life and American traditions. Benderly was a cultural pluralist, no segregationist, an affirmant of America; he looked forward not backward.20

Obviously the Americanizing forces that had begun to operate as early as the 1880’s to modernize Jewish religious education in the afternoon schools were given a substantial push forward by Benderly and his “school.” An important factor making for progress after 1910 was that eight of the ten years of the decade were years of economic well-being. Modern Talmud Torahs were established in many towns; some enjoyed a degree of communal support; curricula were expanded; the principals were often very competent and even included an occasional Ph.D. There was very little instruction in Yiddish; most schools used English; a few even experimented with modern Hebrew as the language of communication. Here and there the Talmud Torahs were outstanding. In New York City the Central Jewish Institute offered a course in American Jewish history; the Hebrew Institute of Pittsburgh had students who were learning not only to read the Hebrew Bible but to translate it. Yet though the Talmud Torahs were on the way up they were not destined to prosper in the decade after 1920. The Jews who had begun moving out of the core urban areas joined congregations, developed new loyalties, and naturally patronized the synagogal schools whose privileges they enjoyed as a concomitant of membership. The curricula of these synagogal schools were much the same as the older Talmud Torahs; at least the teenaged boys learned enough to become bar mitzvah and to bring a glow of pride to their exultant parents. Congregational schools grew faster than the Talmud Torahs some of which were slow to desert the downtown areas which gradually became zones of deterioration.21

THE SABBATH DAY AND SUNDAY SCHOOLS, 1860-1920

Like the afternoon schools, the Sabbath Day and the Sunday schools prospered during these years and found wide acceptance. First established in the late 1830’s by traditionally minded Orthodox women in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Charleston, there schools speedily became popular. It is patent why parents and children embraced this institution. The children who had spent a large part of the weekday in the public school obviously preferred to have their afternoons free. In addition these schools were inexpensive requiring little if any tuition. Excluded from bar mitzvah the girls came into their own in the colorful confirmation ceremony which was the crowning moment of the Sabbath schools. This was an important departure for the girls of Slavic background. Back in Europe they were frequently ignored in the established Jewish schools. Recognition of Jewish women was keeping pace with the increasing visibility of the women’s movement. For most of the nineteenth century the Saturday-Sunday weekend schools played a very important part in the education of the children of Reform and Conservative congregations. Except for the secular Yiddishist schools the instruction in practically all religious schools was in English. It was a source of satisfaction to Jews that they could say to their Gentile friends that Jewish children also went to Sunday schools. The weekend school was typically American; it helped Jews identify with their Christian neighbors.22

Reform Jews looked upon the Sabbath school as their own particular institution and employed it as their prime medium for elementary education. But with the 1870’s the Reformers realized that the weekend school system was in need of major revision. The 1873 constitution of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations stressed the need for better education of the young; juvenile periodicals began to appear in this decade, and by 1873 Wise was pleading for parents to provide their youngsters with subscriptions to the Sabbath School Visitor and hammering away at the need for an adequate synagogal library. He hoped that a special organization might be established to publish children’s textbooks. That same year a committee of the Union recommended the establishment of a Hebrew Sabbath School Union (HSSU) to unite the weekend Jewish schools. Two years later the Union circularized its leaders asking them how the budding generation could best be integrated into the community and aided in its intellectual and moral development. The decision finally made in 1886 was to organize the recommended union, the HSSU. This new national organization was not an integral part of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations until 1905 when it was taken over by the Department of Synagogue and School Extension. It was affiliated with the national Reform organization but remained autonomous. The leaders of this new educational association apparently insisted on the retention of the adjective “Hebrew,” possibly to suggest to those Christians who believed in the literal inspiration of the Hebrew Old Testament, that the Jews were justified in observing the Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day; this was the direct command of God himself. Or were Jews at that late date still avoiding the adjective “Jewish?” In a long list of the names of Sabbath schools only one called itself a “Jewish” school. The new Sabbath School Union compiled statistics, recommended a national uniform system of instruction, a common curriculum, and a trained corps of teachers who had mastered the best pedagogical techniques. All this in the 1880’s.

A questionnaire sent out in 1889 to about 200 Sabbath schools brought responses from 114 who reported that they had about 14,000 students and 563 teachers of whom 377 were unpaid volunteers. Efforts were constantly being made to secure paid instructors; they may not have been better trained but they were certainly more responsible. Most of America’s congregations would not join the new HSSU fearing lest their autonomy be impaired; fewer than 20 percent of the known Jewish Sabbath schools asked for membership. Nevertheless the school union encouraged the establishment of new schools and held conventions which aided the teachers professionally. The HSSU did succeed in formulating a curriculum and in creating a body of literature that was widely used.23

MISSION SCHOOLS

Disinterest in or fear of a national weekend school organization did not deter individual congregations from establishing Sabbath schools. In addition to providing some Jewish education for their own they always had an eye on the children of the newly arriving Jews. Jewish leaders were particularly concerned about the little ones from the Slavic lands; they had to be “civilized.” One is tempted to venture the guess that the sponsors of schools for immigrant children were as much concerned about Americanization as they were about Judaization. Sabbath schools of this kind were often called “mission schools,” a term borrowed from the Christians who had originally established Sunday schools to salvage the souls of the poor and the unaffiliated. In 1863 several New York synagogs set up at least six or seven mission schools in the city and in neighboring Brooklyn. There was little resistance in the ghetto to these Reformist Sunday schools. The immigrant parents wanted Jewish instruction for their young, especially the girls. But on occasion some devout immigrants looked askance at the mission schools. When in 1880 Minnie D. Louis solicited children for Emanu-El’s ghetto school some of the parents drove her off; they were convinced she was a Christian missionary.24

Sabbath schools for the children of the newcomers were established throughout the country. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations reached out to the New York and Chicago ghettos. In the latter city the Union arranged courses to train teachers for service in the mission schools which had been set up by the city’s Reform congregations. The work of the National Council of Jewish Women in this very special area of immigrant education was exemplary. In Pittsburgh alone its Columbian Council of ninety-two paid instructors taught 1,000 children in eighteen schools. Possibly in rivalry with the Reformers or moved by their example some Orthodox congregations began to organize Sabbath schools for their own children; they were conscious of the fact that the mission schools were especially attractive to girls who were eager to advance themselves. The immigrant lads who attended the Sabbath schools, Reform or Orthodox, were doubly fortified for during the week they could patronize one of the local heders. Even the Zionists began to open weekend schools for their young; this was true of Chicago.25

Curricula

In the generation after the Civil War the religious leaders, both rabbinical and lay, were very mindful of the importance of pedagogy, curricula, and textbooks. An urban middle-class informed group, they knew what was going on in the better Christian religious schools. The subjects taught in the Reform and modern Orthodox schools of the late nineteenth century were much the same: history, Hebrew, catechism, the English Bible, ethics, and the singing of hymns. The curriculum adopted by congregations under the influence of the Reformers required attendance for eight years of which the last two were devoted to post-confirmants, most of whom were trained to take jobs as teachers. The youngster in the religious school staged plays during the holidays and participated in the elaborate harvest pageants during the autumn Feast of Booths. The fruits and vegetables which they brought were later given to charitable institutions.

Reflective of both Protestant and American influence was the emphasis placed on the study of the English Bible and biblical history. Postbiblical history was much less studied. Whenever they conscientiously could the Jews were ready to identify with their Christian fellow citizens; the common belief in the Old Testament was such a tie. By emphasizing the Bible and its notables such as the prophets, rather than the postbiblical literature and its rabbinic worthies, the Jews tended, unwittingly of course, to accept the Christian view that the Judaism of the post-Jesus centuries was of lesser spiritual quality. On the other hand by studying the English texts and deemphasizing the rote reading of Hebrew, a language unintelligible to the children, the religious school was able to give greater consideration to the ethical import of the Old Testament. The inroads of Americanism into the teaching of biblical history is documented in one of the San Francisco congregations in the post-Civil War period. The students were taught that during the post-Mosaic centuries of the Judges the pre-monarchical Israelites lived under a republican form of government. One of the questions asked the youngsters was: “How many presidents did the Israelites have during that time?” Because Christianity of the first century was a Jewish sect and Jesus a Jew, a few of the Reformers felt that the new religion could not be ignored in the Sunday schools. They wanted to know how and why the Christians had seceded and what Jesus taught. And if his teachings were good then the man should be given his just due in Jewish history.26

Hebrew

The stress on intelligibility which militated in Reform schools against a mechanical reading of Hebrew did not materially reduce the emphasis on the study of that language in the afternoon schools and Talmud Torahs. Even for some Reformers the mere reading of the Holy Tongue was not without its emotional appeal. Hebrew was not neglected in the Reform Sabbath schools. In 1889 it was given more time in their curricula than any other subject except history. The Hebrew Sabbath School Union pushed the study of Hebrew and its grammar and required an ability to translate the text read in class. How successful it was is difficult to determine. Let it not be forgotten that most lay leaders of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations were reared as Orthodox Jews back home in Central Europe; many of them knew Hebrew. In 1860 left-wing Emanu-El of New York taught more Hebrew than right-wing Shearith Israel. Decades later, however, the teaching of Hebrew was made optional in Reform Emanu-El. Another New York synagog, Anshe Chesed, taught its students Hebrew but did not demand that they keep their heads covered (1866). The 1889 Sabbath School Survey and the 1892 curriculum of the Hebrew Sabbath School Union show that the teaching of Hebrew was compulsory in most schools. All circles, including the Reformers, agreed that enough Hebrew must be taught so that worshippers might at least understand the meaning of the prayers that they recited. In 1920 most Sunday schools in New York City were still teaching Hebrew.27

Textbooks

The many Sabbath school textbooks were of varying quality. German works were still being used into the 1890’s. Some of them were excellent, among them Samuel Hirsch’s Systematischer Katechismus der israelitischen Religion (1877). This notable Philadelphia rabbi emphasized ethical monotheism, the messianic age rather than a personal Messiah, and quite properly pointed out that dietary laws may well have moral value for they encouraged personal discipline. The Talmud, he stressed, was not written as a book of ethics; it was an instrument to help Jews survive in a hostile world. In interpreting the Ten Commandments which all textbook writers included, Hirsch primly evaded defining adultery; he explains the prohibition against it as a command to maintain friendly relations with one’s neighbors.

The Hebrew Sabbath School Union took the lead in creating the literature required in its schools and its work was continued in 1911 by a joint board of editors for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The rabbis were never completely happy with the books they used in their schools; actually they were not that bad; some were quite good. The problem was not with the texts but with the students and their parents. Both were apathetic; they did not accord the religious schools the esteem they did the public schools.

Among the good books was the English School and Family Reader for the Use of Israelites (1883) compiled by H. Abarbanel. This excellent anthology exploiting the writings of American and European scholars both Jewish and Gentile, sought not only to impart information but to teach good manners. Among the most common textbooks were graded Bible readers containing excerpts from the Pentateuch, the Proverbs, and the Psalms. Following in the footsteps of the Protestant International Uniform Bible Lessons, the Reformers issued pamphlets on Bible, history, and religion. Catechisms were employed well into the new century and there was a whole series of instructional manuals and brochures on the different subjects of the curriculum. There was even a pamphlet on how to organize a Sabbath school. Textbooks were of course always complemented by the children’s magazines.28

HOW EFFECTIVE WERE THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS?

The rabbis were never unconscious of the fact that there were only about seventy hours of annual instruction in the one-day weekend school and about 140 in the two-day Sabbath-Sunday school. The small number of hours were obviously insufficient. Krauskopf in 1887 said that the Sabbath schools were crowded, ergo successful; by 1908, so it is said, about one-fourth of all Jewish children receiving a Jewish education patronized weekend schools. Admittedly these institutions with their voluntary untrained teachers left something to be desired but the youngsters did acquire information and they did learn to think of themselves as Jews. The indoctrination process seems to have been effective.29

How many Jewish children actually attended the elementary schools? Several contemporary statistical studies were made; it is a question how valid any of them were. Benderly estimated in 1910 that about 28 percent of New York’s Jewish children were getting a Jewish education—such as it was—at any one time. Another report claimed that 23.5 were getting some Jewish schooling. This means that 76.5 were not. A Baltimore study said that 60 percent of its young were in school at one time. In general the rule may be formulated that because of social pressure the smaller the town the higher the percentage of attendance. One may venture the guess—and that is all it is—that no less than 50 percent of the children in this country did get some Jewish education if only for a few months to train for the bar mitzvah ceremony.30

The problems encountered in the Jewish elementary school must not be brushed under the table. Qualitatively and quantitatively these educational institutions were frequently very disappointing. By and large the Bureau established by the Kehillah in New York was exemplary but relatively few cities followed in its wake; Jewish leaders were not ready to expend large sums to improve or establish schools. In far too many academies and weekend classes the curriculum remained limited to a mechanical reading of Hebrew, to bits of translations from the Bible in the original, to catechism memorization, and to conning a few facts about biblical worthies. Many teachers and superintendents, too, had little if any professional training; only too often the children and their parents were indifferent.31

COMMUNITY RESPONSIBILITY AND IMPROVED ELEMENTARY RELIGIOUS SCHOOL EDUCATION

If schools were inadequate part of the blame was the inability of the community to organize and to assume fiscal responsibility for all its children. Because of disparate ideologies American Jewry was, and still is, reluctant to allow any central agency to prescribe a common type of Jewish education. Communal control of Jewish schooling has never been very successful. The various free school associations, mission schools, and the like were not so much an effort to further communal responsibility for elementary education as an attempt to help the children of the poor. They were primarily social-welfare institutions imbued with the desire to Americanize, to provide vocational training, and to serve as a prophylactic against pauperism. On balance the elementary schools were not a failure and in the course of time received more and more financial support from the “community.” There was a growing sense that Jewry owed its people, especially the young, the advantage of a Jewish education. Leeser had set forth the need in 1841; the Kehillah, seventy years later, preached the same gospel, and some of the big city federations, as in New York and Boston, somewhat hesitantly began to offer modest subsidies. The rationalization for envisaging culture as a welfare palliative was that religious instruction strengthened family life, taught ethics, and furthered good citizenship. Louis Marshall’s rationalization for personally financing Jewish educational work was even more universalist. The Jewish heritage, he said, was indispensable to civilization.32

Chronological distance brings a perspective that is often very illuminating. This is certainly true in evaluating the development of elementary Jewish education. The Germans of the 1830’s and the East Europeans of the 1860’s confronted American Jewry with a challenge which on the whole it attempted to meet by creating a mélange of diverse institutions: Sunday schools, parochial schools, afternoon classes, free schools, mission schools, private schools, heders, itinerant tutors, yeshivot, and the Yiddishist schools of the Zionists and the anti-Zionists. By the third decade of the twentieth century there was a school for almost every ideology and every need. Jewish educational leaders kept reaching out to new horizons from a Hebrew language kindergarten to normal classes established to improve teaching and the teachers. Schools changed as needs changed. The heders disappeared to be replaced by afternoon and weekend classes. The Talmud Torah, once a charity school in the East European towns, was upgraded here to become an urban afternoon tuition academy providing a rounded out Jewish education for both boys and girls through an improved and expanded curriculum.

And whatever the educational institution, efforts were being made to insure its progressive pedagogical character. This is true of the schools established by the three religious denominations, the Jewish Chautauqua Society, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Hebrew Sabbath School Union, and especially by the members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Often against their better judgment the natives and the Americanized Germans supported the Talmud Torahs in the belief that there could be no survival for Jews without Jewish education. In 1927 Alexander M. Dushkin received a Ph.D. degree for a thesis on Jewish education in New York City. This was the first time an American college gave a degree in that particular discipline. Obviously American Jewish education was coming of age.33

Pedagogical innovations had been introduced into the Jewish schools at least a generation before Benderly went to work for the New York Bureau but there is no question that he and his disciples did much to deslavicize and modernize—Americanize—Jewish education on these shores. They influenced the Orthodox and the Conservative schools, and through Emanuel Gamoran, a Benderly trained man, modified strongly the whole course of Reform Jewish education. Samson Benderly and his followers created a Jewish educational system that harmonized Jewish lore, American educational advances, and Jewish ethnicism. Benderly wanted not only better content, but better Jews, as he understood it. Certainly by the year 1920 most American Jewish schools, influenced by advances in the general field of education, had more appeal. They had come out of the dingy subterranean vestry rooms; some schools even had their own buildings. Trained teachers were no longer a rarity; there were teachers’ associations, bureaus of education, local religious school unions. Curricula were improved thanks in large part to the Department of Synagogue and School Extension of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The instruction in Hebrew was no longer medieval; textbooks were written on a child’s level; history, which now included all periods, was taught more as a science than as a course in ethics. Music, art, dancing, games were becoming an integral part of the school program in a number of the urban centers. There was a real concern for the child not merely for his capacity to soak up knowledge. Standards were rising in all areas of education.34

When the “German” and “East European” periods came to an end in 1920 Jewish cultural vistas had begun to broaden in the areas of belief, practice, and history; the child had a better concept of his relation to the Jewish past and its hopes. The sense of loyalty to the people and its ethical ideals was heightened. Identifying with Jewry and Judaism helped bridge the gap between the young Americans and their immigrant parents. The teachings, the influences, the atmosphere of the elementary school constituted a form of acculturation of a Eurasian faith on the American scene. Yet despite all these real improvements most Jewish educationists assert, post-eventum, that elementary Jewish education during this period was inadequate or a failure. What is true is that education in the Jewish community in the sixty years after 1860 was not a children’s crusade: the number of boys and girls in school at any one time was never much more than about 25 percent; the youngsters were often reluctant stragglers. If large numbers and enthusiasm are basic criteria for success then the Jewish schools fell short. A critical historical study would probably show that throughout the ages elementary education never really invoked the enthusiasm of children or the adequate support of parents. The euphoric description of the seventeenth-century Polish Jewish school system by Nathan Hannover is very probably a gross exaggeration. The relatively high percentage of Jewish illiterates who landed at Castle Garden and Ellis Island is a fitting commentary on the cultural life in the Slavic hamlets. Success and failure are purely relative terms.

What did the children actually learn in the post-Civil War years? A substantial percentage of the boys and girls learned something of biblical history and of the English Bible too. All of them acquired a knowledge of Jewish beliefs and a relatively good acquaintance with religious practices in the home and the synagog; they read Hebrew mechanically, enough to become bar mitzvah; and if they were of the Reform persuasion they were confirmed after a few years of instruction in the rudiments of the faith. For the educationist this was a sorry story; for the realistic Jewish historian this was a measure of success. With rare exception the youngsters in school identified with Jews and Judaism. Success of a more substantial nature was achieved when brilliant students pursued higher Jewish education beyond the elementary levels. These of course were a tiny minority; some of these young adventurers became the cultural leaders of the next generation, but then this was true in all periods of Jewish history.

In the population centers the non-congregational Talmud Torahs played an important role, but, in the smaller cities the elementary educational activity was centered in each individual congregation. Indeed as the twentieth century moved forward congregations began to play an increasing role even in the larger cities as the people left the ghettos and started their upward climb. Working through afternoon and Sabbath Sunday schools, congregations became increasingly important as educational institutions commanding the unquestioned loyalty of the members and their children. In order to strengthen these bonds the rabbis and their committees sought to improve their schools. Communal educational academies, bureaus, would grow in the next few decades but they would never seriously threaten the congregations in the area of child education. In a way one might venture the bald assertion that it was immaterial how much or how little the child learned in his synagogal classes; the congregational complex, reinforced by the home, commanded his allegiance. By the third decade of the new century synagogal affiliations, worship services, bar mitzvahs, confirmation classes, schools, all of these constituted a Gordian knot that tied the child to the congregation, not to the larger community. The synagog and its appeal threatened the future of the bureaus, communal education, communal unity and organizations.35

A SUMMARY OF JEWISH EDUCATION AND CULTURE 1860-1920

REALITIES AND INTIMATIONS

In the areas of education and culture the Jews in the United States were subject to American and foreign influences. The latter were very strong. As late as 1900 many educated and cultured Americans still looked to Europe for guidance despite the fact that the country had made remarkable advances since the 1870’s in its press, industry, trade, technology, education, libraries, wealth, literature, and fine arts. The Jewish immigrants from Central Europe never emancipated themselves from their German linguistic and cultural past. They had no desire to do so. Only in the area of politics did they break sharply with the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs. They became ardent Americans. The number of remigrants was relatively small; though Jews made frequent trips back to the old homeland, they loved America. They were a literate group proud of the secular heritage they had brought with them. Much of the preaching in American synagogs as late as the 1870’s was probably still in German, not English, and the fiction they wrote in both German and English looked back nostalgically upon the scenes of their youth. The Jewish intelligentsia here tended to ignore the fact that the United States was a cultural entity that merited serious consideration. In his “Review of the Year 1903 in Jewish History,” which appeared in the 1904 Hebrew Union College Annual, Professor Gotthard Deutsch allotted the United States about twenty lines in a seventeen-page paper. In the areas of both popular and critical Jewish scholarship the United States remained a satellite of Europe into the 1920’s. In 1886 Rabbi Moritz Spitz prepared a reading list on Jewish subjects for a man who was the editor of a YMHA journal. Ten of the books noted were in German; ten were in English. Of the German books all but one were written by Jews; of the English books, four of the ten were written by Gentiles.

The incoming East European Jews like the Central Europeans before them remained loyal to their Hebrew and Yiddish educational and linguistic traditions. Many of the Orthodox attempted to live here as they had lived in their Russian and Polish villages. They tried to ignore the America in which they found themselves for it offered them no cultural, no spiritual sanctuary; the old world patrimony meant everything to them. A few, left-wingers, rejected the religious traditions of the fathers, but the preponderant majority of the Slavic immigrants remained loyal to their spiritual heritage. But for all of the immigrants, even for those German and East Europeans who steadfastly turned their heads toward Europe, America insisted on obtruding itself. This land with its learning, its numbers, its virtues, its vices was reflected in the lives of every individual. Deculturation in the form of degermanization and deyiddishization proceeded relentlessly. America would not be denied; the foreign-born parents could not escape its influences; the native-born children were totally American. The future of this Jewry always lay in the hands of the children. Despite their ties to their Jewish past the decisive cultural ingredient in their lives was not the religious school but the American public school system and the Anglo-Saxon culture which dominated it. English was the language of the future. The seminaries, the bulwarks of Judaism and its particularism, employed English as the medium of instruction. Among the elite, the new Americans of the post-Civil War days, was a man like Henry Berkowitz whose life previews the future. As an educationist and as a Jew this graduate of the American school and university system set out to effectuate a synthesis of Americanism and Judaism. This effort is the golden thread that runs through all of American Jewish history; among its many manifestations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are the Jewish Chautauqua Society, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Intercollegiate Menorah Association.36

Education, cultural philosophies, and syntheses were on various levels. On one plane, possibly the lowest, Jewish culture meant more identification with Jewry even though at times there was no knowledge of Judaism itself or a formal affiliation with a Jewish institution. The typical Jew—assuming that there was one!—was on a higher level. He was the man who could stagger through a Hebrew page, who sent his children to a religious school, practiced the folkways that he learned at his mother’s knee, and treasured a strong sense of kinship for his fellow Jews. He was convinced that his Gentile neighbors would never completely accept him; he was positive that Jews were a special lot; down deep he believed that they were superior. This man had little knowledge of the history of Jewish ideas but he respected learning, in the abstract, even if he did little, concretely, to support cultural institutions. This respect for scholarship is reflected in the not uncommon use of the name of Maimonides for a school, a cemetery, a charity, a medical society, a library, a college. Despite this genuflexion in the direction of Maimonides, the greatest of medieval Jewish savants, the paramount interest of the typical Jew was in general culture not Jewish education.

On a still higher level there were secularly trained Jews who knew something of Jewish history and the Jewish religion. This was a small but important group, for the leaders were frequently recruited from its midst. These were eager to bring learning to Jewry and to Christians too for they were of the opinion that if Gentiles would only understand Judaism they would be far more sympathetic. It was these laymen who worked closely with the rabbis to stage the Jewish program at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in August-September, 1893. Men, women, Orthodox and Reform, were united in this presentation; their goal was enlightenment, not conversion; in no sense were these Jews evangelistic. On the highest level there was a handful of scholars, though not necessarily leaders, for a number of them were more at home in the library then in the forum. They wrote for the Jew. Even Benderly did not envisage a mass response to his educational crusade; only an enlightened minority can bring cultural salvation by adding still another link to the chain of tradition that reached far back to pre-Christian days.

Scholarship was of two styles, the talmudic and the historicocritical. America’s East European immigrant rabbis cultivated the talmudic literature, the later codes, and their numerous commentators. Was this a creative contribution? In a way, for these men, according to their lights, attempted to fit ancient biblical legislation and centuries of old rabbinic law into a radically different American industrial civilization. It was a tremendous challenge for them, one to which they often failed to respond. University-trained men—often schismatics—appeared on the scene here in the 1850’s. The scholarly techniques which these pioneers brought with them were fructified here by their knowledge of the scientific method and by the opportunity offered for freedom of expression. It is regrettable that though they were endowed with capacity and knowledge they produced few works of lasting worth. These scholars, rabbis, realized that on this frontier first things must come first. It was imperative that they preach and write prayer books, catechisms, and Sabbath school textbooks. As late as 1895 Rabbi David Philipson deplored the fact that America could boast of very few scholarly publications. Conditions were not as bad as he would have us believe. Almost thirty years earlier (1866) fifty copies of Geiger’s scholarly Judaism and its History were sold in New Orleans alone. Five years after Philipson’s lament the United States could count among its eminent scholars men like Felsenthal, Emil G. Hirsch, Ehrlich, Kohler, Margolis, Malter, Ginzberg. These critical scholars were creative.37

Scholarly writings had been in evidence since antebellum days; there were a number of English translations of medieval Hebrew classics and of the writings of nineteenth-century European devotees of the Science of Judaism. A few original works of substance made their appearance here and Dropsie boldly undertook the publication of a scientific quarterly. The Jews here were beginning to loom large economically, culturally, as they gradually developed their synthesis of European techniques, Jewish traditions, and the new American culture to which they were constantly exposed. Their progress since the Civil War was notable. In those six decades to the end of this period a Jewry of some 150,000 had grown to one of well over 3,000,000. On all sides there were synagogs, libraries, seminaries, a college, national rabbinical and congregational associations, religious schools, a religious literature, prayer books, textbooks, a permanent publication society, youth groups, settlements, and a countrywide women’s organization. More important than all these agencies may well have been the Jewish home. All these influences and institutions impinging culturally on the Jew were supplemented by a multilingual press in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and German, a press that was conscious of the needs of the men, women, and the children also. There was belles lettres too in these four languages, fiction, poetry, drama. The hard core thousands who were the mainstay of all cultural enterprises could turn to works on apologetics, polemics, theology, history, and biography. There were lectures and essays for the intelligentsia, works on the Bible and on the Hebrew language. Musicians delighted in the service-settings and the growing variety of hymnals and songbooks. Youngsters gathered together in their literary societies; the women did important community work and when they were home in the kitchen could prepare the savory kosher delights of Esther Levy’s, Jewish Cookery Book.

Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cincinnati were regional cultural centers. Cincinnati was important not only because it was the mother city of the Reform movement and sheltered its institutions but because it was the gateway to the South and the New Southwest. San Francisco, the second largest Jewish community in 1880 did not meet the Jewish intellectual challenges of its large numbers, though its B’nai B’rith lodges were proud of their library of 2,000 volumes. New York City was obviously the Jewish cultural capital with its large numbers and its important national associations. Eager for a career Jews of competence gravitated to this metropolis from all corners of the hinterland.

Of all the institutions that touched the lives of American Jewry very few were more important than the Jewish religious schools. By the early twentieth century they were improving in content; teachers’ academies would soon graduate more competent instructors; new textbooks, new curricula, were written to meet the needs of the young. Girls were given opportunities to study that had long been denied them. The bureaus that were now established made strenuous efforts to raise standards to involve the community as a whole. The advances in youth and adult education, however, lagged behind elementary education. Was the concern for the education of young men and women, the future leaders, motivated in part at least by the desire to prepare American Jewry to exercise hegemony over World Jewry? By World War I Jews here believed that they had a great future. They did not underestimate the significance of the Jewish Encyclopedia; it was the greatest Jewish cultural achievement of modern times. Its publication confirmed their conviction that this Jewish colossus of the West could stand on its own feet spiritually, educationally, culturally, intellectually. Yet there is no intimation of this in Joseph Jacob’s Jewish Contributions to Civilization which was published in 1919. Jacobs was too immersed in American Jewish life, too deeply committed to Europe, to achieve any real perspective. This book of his has one or two pages on the Jew in American economic life, nothing on either the achievement or the potential here for Jewish learning, scholarship, education.38

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344729
Related ISBN
9780814344736
MARC Record
OCLC
1055143407
Pages
592-619
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC
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