A Preacher in Exile: Shemaryahu Levin and the Making of American Zionism, 1914-1919.

Author:Bernstein, Judah M.
Position:Essay
 
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In 1917, the Degel Zion club of Haverhill, Massachusetts, announced that the city's upcoming bazaar would be hosting a Palestine booth that would sell various Zionist mementos. The booth's special attraction would be a book of essays penned and signed by a major figure in Zionist affairs. The author was not Louis Brandeis, Stephen Wise, Judah Magnes, or any of the other homegrown stalwarts then active on the American Zionist scene, but rather a foreigner spending the war years in the United States, Shemaryahu Levin. (1)

Though a celebrity in America during and following the war, Levin has attracted little attention from historians of Zionism, and has faded into obscurity. Scholars have chronicled how, after emerging as leader of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs (PC) in 1914, Louis Brandeis traveled far and wide to win over new recruits and raise massive funds, transforming Zionism in America in the process. (2) Rarely explored, however, is that Shemaryahu Levin, a former Russian Duma representative and a member of the Zionist Organization's highest executive body, the Actions Comite, often accompanied Brandeis on those barnstorming tours. To the extent that Levin is mentioned at all in the historical literature, he is relegated to a cohort of Yiddish-speaking immigrant Zionists alienated from a rapidly Americanizing demographic of younger immigrants and children of immigrants.' Yet, by the end of the war, Levin had garnered an unrivaled degree of popularity among many American Jews, hailed by admirers and detractors alike as the ultimate "preacher," a highly skilled "agitator," and even a "prophet." What made Levin's speaking style and persona so appealing? What did Levin say about Zionism to his enthralled audiences, and how did it compare with the message of Brandeis? What does Levin's popularity reveal about Zionism in America in the early twentieth century?

A number of factors contributed to Levin's success and influence. Speaking in a Lithuanian Yiddish, infusing his speeches with classical Jewish texts and religious themes, and delivering his lectures in a characteristically shtetl preaching style, Levin employed oratorical techniques that resonated with Eastern European immigrants. At the same time, his appeal transcended the so-called Russian-German divide that is so often assumed to have segmented American Jewish life, as he found ways of charming both immigrant and non-immigrant audiences, and first-generation and second-generation American Jews. Levin's cachet as a political emigre, his oratorical dynamism in German as well as Yiddish, and his personification of a synthesis of Eastern European traditional Jewish learning and secular European erudition, bolstered his appeal beyond immigrant circles. His expert oratory and multifaceted public image made it possible for him to bring his sharp critique of Jewish life in America to tens of thousands of Jews. Levin repeatedly emphasized the ways in which America resembled exile, or golus, and urged the revival of a robust Jewish culture as the only way to save American Jewry from dissolution. His message stood in contrast to Brandeis's more sanguine view of the overlap of putative American and Jewish values, and struck a discordant note among Jews eager to prove their American bona fides and declare America their home. And yet, even as they differed, Levin and Brandeis influenced each other in significant ways. Levin's popularity thus demonstrates the fascinating diversity and fluidity of Zionism in America during the war years, and suggests that, behind the facade of expressions of American patriotism, American Zionists harbored deep anxiety about the future of Jewish life in the United States.

The American Attorney and the Preacher from the Pale

Beginning in September 1914, Louis Brandeis and Shemaryahu Levin embarked on a speaking tour that brought them throughout the American northeast and midwest. They were an improbable pair. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, and educated at Harvard University, Brandeis had achieved fame as a progressive lawyer, strike mediator, and advisor to President Woodrow Wilson. He had little in the way of a traditional Jewish upbringing, and prior to entering the Zionist arena, sparse experience with Jewish affairs. From Svislach, Minsk Province, Levin grew up in the small-town traditional milieu of Pale-of-Settlement Russia. After becoming involved in Zionism as an adolescent, he acquired fame in Russian Jewish life as a crown rabbi, prominent Yiddish orator, and elected representative to the First Duma. Levin sat on the highest executive committee of the Zionist Organization and played a central role in laying the cornerstone for the Technikum, a Hebrew-language technical school in Haifa, in 1912. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 marooned Levin in the United States, where he had been touring since the summer, and he remained there until 1919. Fearing that the war had rendered the Zionist enterprise defunct in Europe and imperiled in Palestine, Levin worked quickly to form the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs to steer Zionist operations in America and facilitate the continued funding of Jewish settlements in Palestine. Brandeis was elected the Provisional Committee's president. (4)

Funded by the Federation of American Zionists and the PC, the Brandeis-Levin tour sought to raise money for immediate Palestine relief. It commenced in New York City, with both men delivering rousing speeches on the historic challenges confronting the Zionist movement. (5) From there, they traveled to Pittsburgh, Boston, and Detroit. (6) In October 1914, Levin visited Buffalo, Stamford, and Cincinnati, alongside other major American Zionists. (7) He then rendezvoused with Brandeis in November to propagandize in Massachusetts and elsewhere. They concluded their tour in 1915 with mass meetings in Chicago, rallies in Milwaukee, and events in many smaller locales. The pair garnered a degree of public enthusiasm previously unseen in the history of American Zionism, drawing crowds who eagerly responded to their appeals to support the preservation of Jewish settlements in Palestine in a moment of dire crisis. (8) Following the tour's opening rally in New York City, Morgen zhurnal, a well-circulated Yiddish daily, announced on its front page, "Brandeis and Levin Enrapture Large Crowd." (9) A daily English paper published in Boston, Jewish Advocate, reported the enthusiastic reception accorded Levin and Brandeis at Symphony Hall in downtown Boston: "More than 5,000 Jews of Greater Boston answered the call ... it was necessary to have the overflow attend another hastily arranged gathering in Jordan Hall ... by far the largest [meeting] ever held by Zionists in Boston." (10) A Chicago Yiddish daily, Yidisher kurier, described a meeting at Chicago's Sinai Temple in glowing terms: "The great amount of money collected by this event pales in comparison to the massive moral victory scored by the Zionist movement in this most eminent of Reform temples in Chicago." (11)

While on tour together, Levin performed more propaganda work than Brandeis, and sometimes served as the opening act. While on the tour, Brandeis typically spoke at major public events and met with small elite circles. Levin spoke alongside Brandeis at those same events while also canvassing the surrounding communities. Days before Brandeis traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1915, for example, Levin had arrived to visit smaller towns nearby. (12) The schedule of their keynote fundraising rallies indicates, furthermore, that the fiery Levin was relied upon to whip the crowd into a frenzy that would generate a bevy of pledges, and only after that would the more restrained Brandeis speak. Such can be gleaned from the instructions a Zionist organizer in Milwaukee received in the weeks prior to a Brandeis-Levin engagement: "Your program must be arranged as to have an effective appeal either in English or Yiddish--made AFTER Levin is through--and BEFORE Brandeis speaks." (13)

After the Brandeis-Levin tour ended in early 1915, each continued separately to travel the country on behalf of Zionism. (14) However, once Brandeis ascended to the Supreme Court bench in early 1916, his intensive propaganda activities necessarily came to an end. As a fulltime Zionist unburdened by the professional commitments that occupied much of Brandeis's time, Levin outpaced Brandeis as a speaker between 1916 and the end of the war. (15) Levin spent much of March, April, and May of 1916 roaming Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania. He visited Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Rochester in the fall of 1916. (16) He maintained a constant presence on the speaking circuit in 1917 as well. A schedule of upcoming speeches published in the Zionist press in February 1917 listed eight events in the northeast, of which the peripatetic Levin was slated to speak at four. (17) In the fall of 1917, Levin made an extended tour of Canada. (18)

Some of American Zionism's most distinguished leaders underestimated Levin's talents and his immense propaganda contributions to the movement. In an exchange on the importance of having Zionist officers attend a convention in Chicago in 1916, Horace Kallen wrote to Stephen Wise that Levin's presence would not bolster Zionism's appeal "with the kind of people whom we must get in order to put the movement on its feet." (19) A few years later Stephen Wise, in a letter to Richard Gottheil, criticized Chaim Weizmann for believing that Levin had done the most for American Zionism during the war. (20) Yet, many of Levin's other colleagues and contemporaries agreed that between the years 1914 and 1919, few performed more propaganda work for American Zionism than Levin. For Zionist journalist Meyer Weisgal, Brandeis provided the movement with a sheen of respectability...

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