The Immigrant Jew in America

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Elements of the Jewish Population in the United States*
by Henrietta Szold

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

Cutting down through two centuries and a half of American Jewish history lays bare three distinctly marked strata of population: the Spanish-Portuguese, the German, and the Russian. This apparently presents a simple study in population, all the simpler as the German stream of immigration did not flow in until the Sephardic settlement had had ample time and opportunity to work out its potentialities. To a less degree, the same exclusive dominance was granted the German Jew during his shorter period, coextensive, roughly speaking, with the nineteenth century. But on closer examination the problem is not so simple. Or, to put it in other words, the influences exerted by each of the three elements of the Jewish population of the United States are subtler, more varied, dependent upon a greater number of constituent factors, appears from their bare enumeration.

The Spanish-Portuguese population was not a unit. Some of its members came to the American colonies direct from Portugal; others came after residence in Holland, or in Holland and England; others again by way of Brazil or the Dutch colonies in South America and the French colonies in the West Indies. Such wanderings betoken an adventurous spirit and a history of romantic episode, which, in turn, indicate differentiated experiences, varied opinions, and a broad outlook upon affairs, with pliant ability to grasp and utilize a situation, however new and unexpected. Paradoxical as it may seem, the very cosmopolitanism and variety of their experiences were calculated to weld them into a single community. Their secular needs and ambitions were so comprehensive and di fled as to give full scope to their cultivated and powers. In their Jewish life they could be content to sink differences, and so to the outsider they had the appeal of a homogeneous body. That does not necessarily imply perfect harmony or stagnancy in the Sephardic congregations. The vestry rooms were the scenes of lively discussions that inflicted heart-burning, and caused recriminations. But whatever may have convulsed the small community from within, to the world, in spite of its divers origins, it presented a solid front.

The aspect changed completely with the advent of the German Jewish immigrant. That a deep gulf yawned between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic sections of the Jewish community, was but a repetition of Jewish history elsewhere. It was equally a repetition of the course of Jewish history elsewhere that this division should exist in spite of the fact that in a number of well-known instances the straggling immigrants from Germany, arriving from the middle or perhaps the beginning of the eighteenth century to its close, became the very backbone and sinew of the congregation of older establishment, adopting its ritual and customs, and intermarrying with its sons and daughters. But when the stream of German immigration became more steady, as it did in the early years of the nineteenth century, and was reinforced by Polish­Dutch and Dutch-English tributaries, a new phase developed. The small Sephardic communities, in defense of their own individuality, could not, and, by reason of their hidalgo pride, would not, continue to absorb the new element. On the other hand, the prominent, useful individuals of the German section felt the propriety of devoting themselves to the needs of their countrymen.

The separation between the German and the Sephardic community, then, displays no features peculiar to American conditions. But the splitting up of the German community from within is of importance in the development of American Jewish life. Coming, for the greater part, direct from the villages of South and of North Germany, the immigrants arrived fully panoplied in their provincialism. The peculiarities of ritual and custom developed under the influence of German and Dutch particularism were dearer to their hearts than the great underlying principles. This is a statement of fact, not a criticism, certainly not derogatory criticism, for the fulness of communal activity and emotion manifests itself through Jewish ceremonial, and not in speculation, which is the prerogative reserved for the few. Congregations were naturally formed according to propinquity in the Old World. However, the principle of close fellowship tween "Landsleute" soon, in the face of common common trials and common problems, lost whatever rigidity it may have possessed, and ceded first place to a stronger reason operating in the direction of division of forces. The sprinkling of immigrants from the German cities, whose horizon was wider, and whose less simple experience might have tended to level differences, as in the case of the Sephardim, served to introduce a new element of separation. They transplanted to America the German reform agitation. The Charleston Sephardic congregation had, to be sure, divided upon the question of innovations, but as a movement reform was directed by the German Jews. Thus, both the secular and the religious past of the German immigrants inclined them to fall into autonomous groups, determined by their various German origins geographically considered, and by their attitude toward orthodoxy and reform.

These provincial and disintegrating features prevail in communal organization until after the great German immigration of 1848, which imported charity proble greater numbers, more cultivated intelligences, and alertness of thought characteristic of world-moving evel all of them factors conducive to union in the face differences of faith and living.

The communal organization effected by the German Jewish immigration of 1848 and the twenty years following, was considerably promoted by smaller streams of Ashkenazic, though not specifically German origin. America began to draw forces from the centres of Jewish population farther and farther east. From the first years of Ashkenazic immigration, probably a little before the middle and possibly at the beginning of the eighteenth century, there had been a slight, an almost infinitesimal infusion of Polish and Bohemian elements. After Kossuth's revolution, with its profound stirring up of the Jewish community, and, again, after Polish national enthusiasm flamed up in the early sixties promising emancipation to the Jew, Hungarian, Bohemian, Moravian, and Polish Jews came to America in perceptible numbers, as a result of the general agitation, forming a contingent which the historian can disregard only at his peril.

These smaller currents of Ashkenazic influence served a purpose.  The Sephardi
c tradition was permeated with memories of medieval Jewish scholarship and literary achievement, and the cradle of modern Jewish science, of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums, stood in Germany, the birthplace of the larger number of Jews in the United States. Yet, at the time when Hungarian and Polish Jews entered into the complex of American-Jewish life, Jewish learning not only was in a bad way in America, but it did not even form part of American-Jewish consciousness as a separate and distinct field of Jewish activity. The making of communities, the establishment of charitable societies, the adjustment of fresh generations of immigrants to new economic conditions, occupied the whole time of the leaders of the people. Such feeble beginnings of educational activity as were called into being by heroic, advanced effort bore no faint resemblance to Jewish learning. The immigrant from eastem Europe, if not himself a scholar, at least had an appreciation of Jewish scholarship. His close communal organization at home had borne in upon his mind a vivid realization of how vitally Jewish science is connected with Jewish life. His religious conformity was based upon a clearer valuation of reasons and origins than the rigid orthodoxy or the reform aspirations of the German Jews.

This appreciation of Jewish learning on the part of Austro-Hungarian and Polish immigrants, and all it implies with regard to Jewish habits of living, did, indeed, make no perceptible change in conditions, the less so as the German Jews comprehensively pronounced the doom of scorn upon them as "Hinter Berliner," and so made abortive whatever power they had to exercise influence. Yet the characteristic distinguishing them from the earlier immigrants did not fail of leaving its impress. While they were entering congregations as a leaven, and were drawing rabbis and teachers from their own countries to America, the great Russian catastrophe was approaching. When the blow fell, the only preparation the bulk of the Jewish population in the United States had had for the task of assimilating a large and almost alien element was derived from the attitude toward Jewish questions taken by its Hungarian and Polish members. They were the missing link that in time was to bring to the consciousness of the German Jews the kinship existing between themselves and the shoals of immigrants from the Pale. At the time of the influx, they were aware neither of the closeness of the tie, nor of the fact that they had long had among them living examples of the gradations existing in Ashkenazic Judaism. Much as the German Jews from Germany differed among themselves in minor customs and practices, the temper of their minds with regard to Judaism was practically uniform, a statement that embraces the orthodox as well as the reform wing. Here they were confronted suddenly, as they first thought, by an entirely new development of Jewish thought, and their spontaneous impulse was to repudiate it. As the stream of Russian immigration continued unabated, facts of earlier and of later occurrence co-ordinated themselves, and the scorn once poured out upon the "Polack," or, generically, the "Hinter Berliner," since it was the only channel through which knowledge flowed, brought about the first adjustment to the vast problem. The German gradually realized that the Hungarians and Poles had been but the vanguard of the largest contingent in the Jewish army. It was a sobering realization, and it summoned from the recesses of the communal mind all lessons unconsciously learnt from a distinct and peculiar element, once present in small proportions, and now augmented to a host larger than the German-Jewish detachment itself--and perhaps more resourceful, materially and spiritually.

The Russian Jewish element defies analysis. With its Lithuanian, Volhynian, Bessarabian, and other constituents, and its Galician, Polish, and Roumanian tributary streams, it is more complex than either of the other two. Besides, we are still caught in the eddies and currents of the Russian migration, and are being thrown hither and thither by it. Hazardous as it is to make generalizations about the century just closed, it is after all not illegitimate. But to say what the Russian Jew is and can be in America is to prophesy the course of the twentieth century. It may not be too presumptuous, however, to point out one of the ways in which the Russian population promises to affect the organization of Judaism in America.

If the Spanish-Portuguese population contained various elements, and if the German population was welded together only by the force of circumstances, the Russian population carries the tendency toward grouping and segregation to the length of a fault. The Anshe Kowno and the Anshe Jitomir and the "Men of every Russian Hamlet" lead separate existences in the etlort to perpetuate the home traditions. Subjectively, from the point of view of the Russian Jew himself, this is a mistake, however pardonable in the circumstances, and a fault, however amiable and attractive to the folklore student and the story writer. Objectively, it may turn out to be a valuable factor in the creation of the Jewish type in America. The common welfare will be furthered beyond expression by transplanting to the new soil every possible variation of the Jewish ideal, as it has been modified in all the countries of the Jewish dispersion. Only by retaining its identity for a little while after its arrival in America, only by permitting its peculiar, unabridged heritage of intellect and feeling to be modified by the "sweetness and light" issuing from free American political and social institutions, can each group do this service to the Jewish community of the future, the Jewish community that shall be all Jewish--not Sephardic, not German, not Russian, not even American, but simply and solely Jewish.

For instance, the Chassidistic movement is now represented in this country by numerous congregations bearing chiefly the title Anshe Sfard. Far removed as American Jewry of the nineteenth century was from sympathy with, or intellectual appreciation of what the Anahe Sfard stand for, there is no telling what a rejuvenating and spiritualizing influence their presence may exert when their con­stituents or the children of their constituents enter into American life, provided they enter it, not with a careless throwing aside of their heirloom, but with full consciousness of the strength of the strands they are weaving into ita woof. They may turn out to be the clasp uniting the first and the last link in the chain of elements composing Judaism in America. Isaac Luria, a mystic of German descent, in the sixteenth century modifies the Sephardic ritual to suit his Kabbalistic fancy, and his prayer book, in tum, satisfies the devout yearnings of the followers of the Baal Shem, some of whose descendants, the very Anshe Sfard just mentioned, are now engaged in the desperate struggle for existence in America. What a pregnant bit of history! When once it is understood, it will make for solidarity, binding together the Spanish-Portuguese community of two hundred and fifty years' standing with the latest and humblest comer!

So each group, if its characteristics are studied in the light of history, and when once these characteristics are toned down by contact with other conceptions of life and Judaism, will be a source of strength and completer union. The particularism of the German Jew disappeared in the presence of extra-congregational needs and forces; the individualism of the Russian Jew will be converted into a communal power when he realizes his unifying religious mission in Jewish America.

At present, by reason of their tendency to break up into small groups, the Russian Jews are looked upon by their patrons and by their own leaders as the most unorganizable material among the Jews, who at best are not distinguished for the quality of being organizable. To the keener observer it would appear that the disintegration in Russian-Jewish ranks, the almost foolish segregation recklessly indulged in, is a passing feature of a period of upheaval. It is the manifestation of reserve energy that cannot yet find an outlet in the secular life, a reaction from workaday struggles and anxieties, with a just admixture of desire to show self-reliance and initiative. The time is not distant when the Russian Jew will have solved the elementary problems of American existence, and will be prepared to take up the more soul-satisfying pursuits open to politically and intellectually acclimatized citizen. His spiritual energies will flow in quieter channels without abating a jot of their force and fervor. The differences between group and group will have been worn off by attrition, and the common ideal will have been disengaged as the important rallying-point.

In this direction Zionism is doing admirable workfor  the Russian Jew in America. It is teaching him the uses of co-operation, and of that degree of organization in Jewish matters which comports with freedom of spiritual development. Under its influence, the Russian Jews will give up their separate, somewhat distrustful existence, and the separate institutions, doubtless not without educative value in this transition period, which they are creating by the score in all the larger cities. They will soon reach the point at which they will turn for guidance to the history of the Germans and of their Sephardic predecessors. Eschewing the foolish pride of both, they will emulate the dignity and self-respect of the latter, and the sobriety and the steadiness of purpose of the former. They will use the institutions created by them as the stock upon which to engraft their intenser fervor, their broader Jewish scholarship, a more enlightened conception of Jewish ideals, and a more inclusive interest in Jewish world questions.

The result will be an United Israel in America, responsive as a body to the calls and aspirations of Israel the world over, showing neither rift nor seam where the disparate elements have been forged together, and strong through the presence of every modification of Jewish character, thought, conviction, and ideal.







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