The Agudah and 'Der Baal Tshuva': the Agudath Israel World Organization, politicized orthodoxy and the interwar American Jewish Community.

Author:Olson, Jess

On May 25, 1921, the Danish steamer Frederik VIII docked in New York City carrying a small company of identifiably Jewish men with distinguished beards, some in satin caftans, some in bourgeois German suits, in addition to its other assorted travelers, tourists and immigrants in steerage. (1) They would have been unexceptional to the casual observer, no different from other traditionally dressed Jews encountered, often in large groups, in other tourist venues like the Bohemian spas of Karlsbad or Marienbad. It is likely, in fact, that this very quintet of rabbis and one layman would have been spotted at one of those places in the preceding months, in conferences or meetings, perhaps even planning the details of this very trip. Met on the quay in New York with moderate fanfare, their appearance was an important moment in the history of religion and politics in North America. They were delegates of the Agudath Israel World Organization (or Agudas Yisroel, as they would have referred to themselves), and their arrival was a first for Jewish politics in North America. Their appearance, which struck all the right notes of nostalgia, belied their revolutionary import. Contrary to the reigning attitude in the robust Jewish public sphere that viewed religious Jews as old fashioned, usually harmless, but ultimately obsolete and in decline, these Jews represented something new: a European, "Torahtrue," anti-Zionist religious political party seeking to mobilize financial and ideological support from American Jews. (2) The meeting was also a first for the most prominent public figure in the delegation: publicist, political theorist and organizer Nathan Birnbaum.

Although this was not his first visit to the United States, Birnbaum's membership in the Agudah delegation was his first appearance in a new guise to a community familiar with him and his work in his previous life. In the sixth decade of a complex intellectual journey, Birnbaum had come to religious belief and Orthodox practice only a few years before 1921. Before that, he had been among the founders of the Zionist movement (credited with coining the term "Zionism" to describe Palestine-oriented Jewish nationalism) and he was considered a key early theorist of cultural Zionism. Leaving the movement after Theodor Herzl's rise to dominance, Birnbaum had gradually shifted to advocating the adoption of the Yiddish language and national autonomy in the Austrian Empire, and, after a religious awakening at the beginning of the First World War, embraced East-European-style Orthodoxy. When he had come to America thirteen years earlier, it was as a hero of secular Jewish nationalism and as an advocate of a robust modern Jewish nationalist culture. (3) Feted in his first encounter with America as the bold nationalist/essayist Mathias Acher, his well-known nationalist pseudonym, Birnbaum had shared a stage in Greenwich Village's Webster Hall with a group as diverse as Zionist activist and Reform Rabbi Judah Magnes, Jewish socialist Chaim Zhitlovsky, Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin and union leader Joseph Barondess, all united in their admiration for his work. His visit culminated with an audience in the Oval Office with President Theodore Roosevelt. (4)

Now, clothed physically and metaphorically in Orthodox garb, Birnbaum had exchanged his call for a Jewish volk united by a common language, literary culture and the demand for national recognition for a new message--one even more radical and challenging to his American audience. Mathias Acher had become "Nusn Birnboym"--"Der Baal Tshuve," as he was called both by opponents and supporters, the penitent returnee to the fold of strict religious observance. Now he spoke of the need for a politicized Jewish identity based upon fidelity to Torah, observance of mitzvot and rejection of the temporal or, in his words, "materialist" trappings of Jewish nationalism (especially Zionism). As jarring as his company was to an American Jewish community whose ideas about religion (especially the European Orthodoxy represented by the Agudah) were fraught with complexity, Birnbaum became a lightning rod for criticism in the American Jewish press as much for his personal transformation as for the idea of politicized Orthodoxy. And as many important names in the evolving Jewish public sphere of Yiddish and English newspapers weighed in on the 1921 delegation and its star member, a new and revealing discourse emerged that questioned some of the most basic ideas about the intersection of religion and politics in American Jewish identity. In exhibiting his changed self to the American Jewish community, Birnbaum touched a nerve far more sensitive than he or the rest of the Agudah delegation could have realized.

Although it was not immediately obvious to any of the actors, the source of this sensitivity lay in a recent, divergent evolution of American and European Jewish societies. The Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, having fought through nearly a century of religious denominational conflict, had turned an important corner by the beginning of the twentieth century. Based on the institutionalization (and widespread success in many areas) of religious reform, the erosion of the last vestiges of the traditional Jewish communities and, finally, the advent of a competing "deep" conception of Jewish identity in the form of Zionist nationalism in the last decade of the nineteenth century, European Jewry had broadly settled into a set of stable, if uneasy and often conflicting group identities. (5) In Central Europe, especially in the many Jewish communities of the German Empire, denominational conflict had waxed and waned since before the 1820s. The result of this was that most German communities and individuals had come to identify with modern Jewish denominational categories, such as Reform or Orthodoxy. In the Russian Empire and the eastern regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even though these categories had not made nearly as much headway, the Central European Kulturkampf had its impact on communal and individual identity. Where social and economic modernization occurred, Western religious reform offered a seldom-realized model; where it lagged, it served as a central rallying point around which traditionalist opposition crystallized.

But in America, though all these factors were in play, the waves of migrants who hailed from communities shaped by both of these models created a unique dynamic. On the one hand were older, more established immigrant communities, originating for the most part from German-speaking communities in Central Europe, that had shaped the foundational institutions of American Jewish religious practice--such as the denominational model--in their image since the 1840s. At the same time, the deluge of immigrants from Tsarist Russia that began in the early 1880s demographically overwhelmed the older, Central European immigrant communities. Although eventually economic and social mobility, accompanied by rapid acculturation, would create a uniquely American amalgam of the two, in 1921 this process was still at an early stage. Regardless of their personal piety or belief, new immigrants from the Russian Empire came from a world in many ways accustomed to religious belief and practice as a category of daily life--to use the Weberian distinction, a traditional mode--especially those who settled in the dense immigrant communities of the greater New York metropolitan area. Thus, when the Agudath Israel delegation arrived in New York in the summer of 1921, American Jews were abruptly faced with a new form of Jewish politics predicated on religion playing an unfamiliar role. Unaffiliated with any larger umbrella political organization or ideology, such as Zionism, the Agudah was unlike other forms of Orthodox organization that had taken root and grown in the immediate prewar period. It was a stand-alone party, independent of any of the larger players in Jewish politics, dedicated first and foremost to the furtherance of the interests and culture of "Torah-true" Jews. Most important, it was aggressive in its insistence that it alone represented not just the only legitimate form of Jewish political organization, but also the only legitimate expression of Jewish identity writ large. But as the European Agudah came to America for the first time, it encountered in American Jews a unique challenge to its attitudes from nearly all camps, and in most instances it was met with resistance to, if not outright rejection of, the model it offered.

The Agudah Comes to America: The Delegation and its Aims

Before the full dissonance of this encounter became apparent, there would have been little reason for Agudah planners to doubt the benefits of coming to America. That they would even attempt to organize in New York reflected an important process of normalization for their North American cousins and a statement about the impact of the war on European Jewry. In the four decades that followed the arrival in Castle Garden of the first wave of Russian Jewish immigrants after the eruption of anti-Jewish violence and instability in 1881, the American Jewish community had emerged as a force for European Jews to reckon with regarding issues of Jewish culture and politics because of its rising numbers and affluence. (6) This rise was accelerated by the increasing insecurity European Jews faced, dramatically compounded by the destruction visited upon the Eastern/Central European Jewish heartland during the First World War and the border conflicts that followed. Americans Jews, ready or not, were swiftly becoming an indispensible source of political and economic support for Jewish communities and causes worldwide, a significant shift in the relative power of the European and American Jewish worlds.

Against this backdrop, and supported by organizers in both the home offices of the Agudath Israel World Organization in Zurich and contacts in the...

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