Judah David Eisenstein on East European Jews in America in 1901: a first for the PAJHS.

Author:Gurock, Jeffrey S.
Position:Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society - Essay

The early writers of American Jewish history whose works appeared in the inaugural issues of the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS) were ill-disposed and ill-equipped to examine the ongoing saga of East European immigrants to the United States. These amateur chroniclers were committed to evidencing the long association of Jews with America from the very discovery of the New World, and to extolling the "considerable numbers [who] saw service in the Colonial and Revolutionary wars, some of them with distinction." They also were sure to elaborate on the "active role [Jews] have played in the political affairs of the country" and on the fact that "they have been called upon to hold important public positions." (1)

A crucial target audience for their heartfelt expositions was made up of the gentiles around them who were then being told by nativists and antisemites that Jews and other minorities were, at best, late-arriving interlopers who had done little to build their great country. This was an era that witnessed the rise of so-called "patriotic" organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, which argued forcefully that their ancestors alone were the real Americans. Stung by this criticism, frequent contributors--for example, Leon Huhner, Max J. Kohler, Samuel Oppenheim and Albert Friedenberg--set out, year in and year out, to put into the record sources and discussions on such themes as the "Naturalization of Jews in New York under the Act of 1740" and "Phases in the History of Religious Liberty in America with Particular Reference to the Jews." (2)

Essentially, these voices of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) were "cautious defenders" of Jewish status in America. Without taking on their opponents directly, writers emphasized the loyalty and contribution of Jews, such as those from their own families, who had been in the land of freedom for several or more generations. Filiopietistic to a fault, they were also anxious to note their ancestors' stories of integration and acceptance within the majority society. It also helped their cause, and added luster to their saga, when sympathetic Christians were recruited to attest that there were no blemishes on the Jewish group's record. Thus, for example, when he documented the "temper and conduct "of the first Jews in Georgia, Charles C. Jones Jr.--a Presbyterian, who in the late nineteenth century, earned a reputation as the "historian of Georgia"--concluded, "[In] the record there are no stains. To the present day, the Jews of Georgia have been industrious, thrifty, law abiding and substantial citizens." (3)

Given the defensive posture of their writings, the East European Jewish newcomers around them did not fit their apologetic and forebear-worshiping narratives. Although Jews from Poland and Lithuania, in fact, had been among the very first settlers in America--for example, the most famous Jew of the mid-1660s, Asser Levy, who struggled against Peter Stuyvesant in New Amsterdam, hailed from Vilna--the sagas of the hundreds of thousands who were arriving at the very moment that the society came into existence in 1892 were not deemed worthy or appropriate for publication. Arguably, those who were populating the Lower East Side with all of their problems of adjustment fed into the nefarious story lines that the nativists were projecting. So, perhaps, their part of American Jewish history might be best left untold. (4)

Additionally, even if a Huhner or a Kohler desired to broaden the scope of the journal's interest, they lacked the language tools and cultural connections to write about groups of Jews with whom they had little or no personal association. Axiomatically, to study the so-called "downtown" East European community required then--as it does today--a facility with Yiddish and, to a lesser extent, Hebrew, to read the immigrants' newspapers, to examine synagogue minute books, and to understand rabbinic religious disputes, etc. Moreover, the earliest writers--primarily those of Central European extraction--did not have ongoing relationships with their potential subjects that would have afforded them the chance to hear, record and then publish their first-person accounts of their life and times. In the first eight editions of the PAJHS, in which eighty-three articles were published, not a single contribution dealt with East European Jewish life in America.

It is not known how Judah David Eisenstein gained the opportunity to end this decade of silence as he made his way onto the society's rostrum on December 26, 1900 to speak about the lives of his fellow Russian Jews on the Lower East Side. It is unlikely that most of the leaders of the AJHS knew much about this immigrant intellectual of estimable renown within his own newcomer community. They would not--or could not--have read his frequent contributions to the esoteric Hebrew press in America nor to the world of Yiddish letters of that time period. However, Eisenstein certainly possessed significant cachet with Professor Cyrus Adler of Johns Hopkins University, who had encouraged the very formation of the society and who, in 1899, became its second president. Adler surely knew of Eisenstein's abilities, since the downtown writer was among the "more than four hundred scholars and specialists" who had been tapped to contribute to the incipient Jewish Encyclopedia, on whose editorial board Adler sat. The first volume of this "descriptive record of the history, religion, literature and customs of the Jewish people from the earliest times"--which carried a piece by Eisenstein--appeared in 1901, the same year that Eisenstein's synagogue history was published. Significantly, although the encyclopedia--unlike the journal--did not smack overtly of Jewish apologetic concerns, it was unquestionably committed to putting the minority faith in a very positive light to its projected Jewish and gentile audiences. Funk and Wagnalls, a distinguished non-Jewish outlet, published The Jewish Encyclopedia. Its editors declared in the preface to volume 1 that, while Jews have "played a prominent part in the development of human thought and social progress throughout the centuries, there had been no faithful record of their multifarious activities." They also strongly asserted that while Jews "are closely attached to their national traditions...yet in their dispersion, are cosmopolitans, both as to their conceptions of world-duty and their participation in the general advancement of mankind." (5)

Eisenstein, who apparently understood the vision of the prodigious project, would contribute some 150 entries to the multivolume encyclopedia. He was important enough to the endeavor that a brief biography of him--a businessman, author and community leader who had migrated to the United States in 1872 from Meseritz in Russian Poland--appeared in volume 5. In all events, despite Eisenstein's departure from the group's standard geographical and chronological topics, he passed the informal editorial muster of the time. (6) And, as we will presently see, he signed on to the regnant belief that it was important to put the Jews' best foot forward. Eisenstein's The History of the First Russian-American Jewish Congregation: The...

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