250 Years in America


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The San Francisco Sunday Call newspaper,  December 10, 1905.



The 250th anniversary of the settlement of Hebrews in the United States suggests many a train of thought, but there is probably none whose pursuit would be more appropriate than that which concerns itself with the future of the religion of the Hebrews.

The early Hebrew settlers were imbued with great piety. They did not treat Judaism as the empty phrase designed to give an air of respectability to their lives. They knew that it is a positive religion imposing well-defined obligations and duties, and they honored these obligations and duties accordingly.

In the 250 years now drawing to a close, the Hebrew population of the United States has increased by leaps and bounds; and to-day it is probably only exceeded by that of Russia and Austria. Its material prosperity has kept pace with its growth, and it has become a highly important element in the general population.

But while the Hebrew is too sensible and too practical to despise material prosperity, he does not make its attainment the chief aim of his existence. He knows full well that wealth is a blessing when justly acquired and properly employed. But he also recognizes that without Judaism there can be no Hebrews. He realizes that the Almighty has preserved the Hebrew people through centuries of unparalleled persecution that they might be living evidence of the divine authority of the Mosaic law, and that by their dutiful observance of that law they should exemplify its perfection, The Hebrew therefore regards the perpetuation of Judaism as his first and most sacred duty; and as the ceremonial institutions of Judaism have manifestly been the means employed by Providence in preserving the identity of the Hebrew people and in perpetuating their faith, he honors these ceremonial institutions not only because of their divine origin but because they alone render possible the performance of Israel's mission as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The growth of the Hebrew reform movement in the United States is familiar to all who have followed the religious events of the last half century. Its effect is now manifest in the existence of a generation of Hebrews who are practically ignorant of Judaism. Beginning with the repudiation of these ceremonial institutions which have enabled the Hebrews to weather the storm of ages, and assuming the right to abrogate divine laws, reform Judaism has now assailed doctrines held sacred by Hebrew and Christian alike, such as supernatural revelation and the divine authority of the Mosaic law. Its foremost representative asks if we must yet be cowed by fear of the thunders of Sinai, and declares explicitly that the Bible is not binding or authoritative for the reform Jew.

Fortunately the overwhelming majority of the Hebrew people have no sympathy with this destructive radicalism. The principles of the early Hebrew settlers are the principles of the masses to-day, for the altar of true Hebrew teaching has never lacked faithful priests. In days gone by the advance of radicalism was checked by a Leeser, a Lyons, an Illoway, and Isaacs, a Morias and other exponents of traditional Judaism, and the orthodox rabbis of the present time are equally loyal to the principles of their ancestral faith, equally jealous in proclaiming those eternal truths which Hebrew and Christian alike revere.

Judaism survived the policy of a Jason and a Menelaus, and Judaism will flourish in America when the present reform movement has been relegated to the pages of history. The descendants of the radicals of t0-day will not be Hebrews, but Judaism, divine in its origin and in its mission, will not be affected thereby. The providence that guided a Maccabean movement against the heresy of Hellenism will not forsake Israel now. History is ever repeating itself.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that American Judaism stands to-day before a momentous crisis, religious, politico-economical and social, and it is, therefore, the duty of all those who have the capacity of clear thinking and the courage of plain speaking to work out a Jewish platform broad enough for every progressive Jew to stand upon. Had the 250,000 Jews who lived in 1880 in this country had the time to work out their religious programme without the intervention of the about 900,000 orthodox Russian, Roumanian and Galician Jews who landed on these shores from 1881 to 1905, Temple Emanu-El and Temple Beth-El--to remain only on our own Fifth avenue--would have stood to-day where Chicago's Sinai Congregation of Dr. Emil G. Hirsch stands; synagogue closed on Saturday and opened on Sunday, no Holy Ark and the reading of the Torah, and so on. Now that the barbaric May laws of may 15, 1882, which by forcing hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews to this country have interrupted the natural development of the American synagogue have been practically annulled by the last ukase of Nicholas II, granting a liberal constitution to all inhabitants of Russia without distinction of creed or race, there is hope that the 1,500,000 Jews living in this country will gradually consolidate in one homogeneous group.

The Jews of the United States need a religious declaration of independence sul generis. The following questionary may, then, serve as starting point to our Thomas Jeffersons, John Adamses, Benjamin Franklins, and son on:

"First--Did Almighty God really reveal himself unto our patriarchs, unto Moses and our prophets; i.e., are the monologues and dialogues in the Bible purporting to be these revelations to be taken as authentic manifestations of the divinity, or are they nothing else than the utterances of inspired, saintly men, similar to those mentioned in the Koran and in the Holy Scriptures of other nations?

"Second--Are the commandments contained in the Pentateuch, and, above all, the Decalogue, really laws given by the creator of the universe, or are they simply human enactments given by Moses, or whatever the name of their originator may be?

"Third---Does, for instance, the Hebrew violating the Sabbath and the holidays and the dietary laws really act against the will of God, or is he only destroying by his acts the bonds of national unity?

"Fourth--Has the rabbinical law, based, as it is, upon an Oriental text book or hoary antiquity, yet the right to impose its statutes on the Jews of 1905, or is it not the only logical and honest policy on the part of our up-to-date theologians to vote its complete and unreserved abolition?

"Fifth--Has the synagogue the intention to keep its real or nominal devotees in a perpetual state of suspense between the theories of the world mission of Israel, national Zionism, 'Kulturzionismus,' moral Zionism and spiritual nationalism?

"Sixth--Is the study of Bible, Talmud, post-Talmudical, neo-Hebraic literature and Jewish history to be considered as an integral part of Jewish religion proper, or are these matters merely as many branches of general human knowledge?

"Seventh--If the second theory to be right, are we justified in continuing our present Sunday-school programmes and maintaining the instruction our rabbis give the adults from the pulpits of our synagogues?

"Eighth--Were it , further, on the ground of the same theory which seems to be tacitly admitted by the overwhelming majority of our educated and well-to-do co-religionists in Central and Western Europe and the New World, not logical if your rabbinical seminaries were radically to change their programmes--i.e., instead of training at a relatively enormous expense a few rabbis yearly for communities which do not heed their preachings for fifty weeks of the year, to develop colleges for Jewish history, literature and religion, where Jew and Gentile alike could inform themselves about the past of Israel, her contribution to the world literature and the tenets of her faith?

"Ninth--Is the continued maintenance of Jewish hospitals, Jewish orphan asylums, Jewish cemeteries, a natural phase of the religious development of he Jews or rather the logical consequence of a reaction against the anti-Jewish policy of the Christian nations in the past?

"Tenth--Do the leaders of American Judaism consider the erection of new synagogues and the artificial constitution of new congregations a higher duty than helping our unfortunate brethren in Eastern Europe and the Orient to escape from political slavery, economical annihilation and spiritual anaemia?"

These and many others of similar importance are the burning questions of the day. And if any of the orators on the programme of the Carnegie Hall celebration would have the courage and could find the wisdom to give us in clear terms unequivocal answers to these questions. American Israel, yea, the entire international Judaism would be grateful and a new epoch would be started in the history of Judaism and indirectly in the religious evolution of mankind.

A few years since Israel Zangwill, when on a visit to the country, delivered an address to his own people. A few of the epigrams which he then coined concerning the characteristics of the Hebrews are here offered:

The Jews had no country of their own. They could not possess the land of their fathers in reality. So they made a portable Palestine. They carried it wherever they went. This was a spiritual country. It could not be assailed by their oppressors.

There have been two conceptions of the Jew. One that he lends money and wants it back again; the other that he deals in old clothes. The truth is Jews have been everywhere. They have been everything except Pope of Rome, and they have come near to that. If they dealt in old clothes it was because papal decrees forbade them trading in anything else but old clothes and old iron.

Jews, in a way, were as good as United States bonds; only United States bonds may be converted, but when a Jew was converted he lost his value.

Because Shylock was rich and Jessica beautiful, all Jews are rich and all Jewesses are beautiful. I wish it were so.

A good-looking Jew was considered the fool of the family, which is consolation for some of us.

The black plague swept over Europe. The Jews escaped by reason of their different hygienic laws. The Christians charged him with poisoning the wells and thousands of Jews were put to death for not dying of the plague.

Colonel Roosevelt told me that the Jews of his regiment were among his bravest soldiers. And when Hobson had to be kissed it took a Jewess to do it.

Jews not only furnished money for Columbus' expedition, but his first lieutenant as a Jew. This officer discovered tobacco, which is greater than America.

Carlyle said the Jews had no humor, but Carlyle was a Scotchman.

A beggar stole a spoon from a wealthier member of his race who had entertained him. When detected the beggar said: "By taking the spoon I broke the eighth commandment, which says, 'Thou shalt not steal.' If I had not taken it I would have broken the tenth, which says: 'Thou shalt not covet.' I saw I had to break one commandment anyhow, so I thought I might as well have the spoon."

It has always been the desire of Jewish fathers, however rich, to have learned sons-in-law, however poor. I do not find this custom prevalent to0day.

To illustrate why there are no good Jews in fiction Mr. Zangwill related the story of the lion and the cub. The cub had seen a painting of Samson vanquishing a lion, and said to its parent: "I have seen many contests between lions and men and always the men have been the victors. Why are there no pictures showing lions overpowering men?" "It is because we lions have no painters," was the parent's reply.

The Jews have been scattered to the four winds among all the nations of the earth. They have been of immense service to every country that has harbored them. It reminds me of the story of the crocodile, which opened its mouth so that a bird might go into it and eat the leeches which annoyed it. There was the mutual benefit from the operation. It is not strange that sometimes the Jews find the crocodile's mouth closing upon them. It was natural that Jews should congregate around the synagogues. They became to some extent isolated from the people among whom they dwelt. This isolation brought with it suspicion, and suspicion caused more isolation for mutual protection.

In medieval times the nations of Europe had a conception of the Jewish character compared to which Shakespeare's Shylock was a saint. It was this that brought about the compulsory ghetto.

There are two general types of Jews, the German and the Spanish. The Spanish Jews speak a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish. The German Jews speak Yiddish, a mongrel of bad German and every other language in the world.

The Jews financed the Crusades voluntarily and involuntarily. There was nothing they had not financed, not even their own persecutions.

German Hebrews occupy a prominent and conspicuous position in the city of New York, and as a class are highly respected in commercial and financial circles.

There were only a few hundred in this city until about the year 1848, and from that time they have immigrated to this country in large numbers. There are today several hundred thousands in this city. They or their descendants have become leaders in every branch of business and crowd the legal and medical professions as well. They have outnumbered the Spanish and Portuguese Hebrews, who were at one time so prominent in communal affairs, by a thousand to one, and by their ability and industry have become the leaders in the Hebrew community. Although nearly all the large benevolent societies were originally founded by the Portuguese and all the first presidents were of that class to-day these institutions are managed almost entirely by the Germans, and that they are capably administered no one can gainsay.

The German Hebrews have, with few exceptions, adopted the modern or reform service in their worship. The two large temples--Emanuel-El and Beth-El--in Fifth avenue are their most conspicuous and palatial synagogues. There are besides less pretentious temples in different parts of the city. Many of these temples hold service on Sundays as well as on Saturdays, but there is not yet any congregation in this city that has followed the example of Dr. Emil Hirsch in Chicago, whose congregation does not worship at all on Saturdays, but holds service like their Christian brethren on Sundays only.




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