Evolution of Cultural Curiosity
The Persisting Populist Character
This volume is a mélange of what might best be understood and appreciated as mostly Yiddish Americana, along with some more sophisticated expressions of Yiddish choral art. The selections range from individual miniature songs and medleys to full-length cantatas: folk and quasi-folk echoes to cultivated concert works. The time frame is loosely that of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant era and its cultural and social extension by second and sometimes third generations—viz., from the last two decades of the 19th century until roughly the 1930s.
Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the vast majority of those immigrants came from the Czarist Empire: chiefly from Belarus, the Ukraine, and Russian Poland/Poland-Lithuania, as well as a few other regions (but rarely from Russia itself, even though they have commonly but inaccurately been lumped together under the misleading label “Russian Jews,” or even “Russians”). They also came from Romania (the second largest contributor to that immigration) and from Yiddish-speaking regions of the Hapsburg Empire—most notably the ethnically Polish or Ruthenian parts of Galicia. Former residents of the Hapsburg or Austro-Hungarian Empire, however, are estimated to have accounted for not more than about 10 percent of the total number of the eastern European Jews who came during that mass immigration era—a number that is generally given as more than two million overall (probably nearly 6 percent of the total number of immigrants who arrived from a host of countries, with various religious affiliations and ethnic backgrounds, between the end of the War Between the States and the First World War).
Those Jewish immigrants were attracted not only (and not always) by the vision of a refuge from persecution or suffering—in some instances, and more so in certain years than others, from outright danger, but more often from a variety of non–life-threatening restrictions. Rather, they came principally in search of economic opportunity and freer lifestyles. Looming military conscription was also a deciding factor for Jews in the Czarist Empire. In the putative goldene medina (golden land) to which they looked forward and about which reports abounded, they molded new varieties of Jewishness and new types of Jewish life into which were assimilated and integrated features of the American environment.
Contrary to perpetuated assumptions reinforced by vehicles of popular and folk culture, pogroms were, in the aggregate, not a major or consistent factor in driving this immigration. That image persists as a convenient as well as emotionally powerful myth that has provided useful material for stage and screen.
It is true that with the commencement of the series of pogroms in 1881 following the assassination of Czar Alexander II—and in its aftermath of reinvigorated persecution of Jews as perceived enemies of the government and fomenters of revolution—the immigration figures indicate some increase. But the significant and ultimately decisive wave of mass immigration began only several years later. Meanwhile, in the intervening years, persecuted Jews, including those expelled from small towns and villages, were more likely to relocate in larger imperial cities than to emigrate; middle and upper-middle classes of Jews remained within the empire not only in that period but for the most part throughout the ensuing era.
|Within and outside of the American synagogues of the immigrant era, the musical culture that was celebrated and passed on to succeeding generations was by and large popular rather than artistic, and vulnerable to the absorption of American pop fashions.
Moreover, notwithstanding oppression in the context of economic and legal restrictions, there was no significant physical persecution in the form of pogroms within the Hapsburg Empire, where imperial policy sought to protect Jews and in which the emperor was even considered their friend. Yet until close to the turn of the century, eastern European emigration to the West represented a larger proportion of that empire’s Jewish population than did the Russian Empire’s emigration with regard to the total number of its Jewish inhabitants. In Romania there were occasional outbreaks of violence in violation of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin and its guarantee of political equality, but these were not the principal cause of emigration. Rather, like the primary catalyst for Jewish emigration from the Russian Empire, emigration from both the Austro-Hungarian Empire (completely apart from Vienna or other German-speaking regions) and Romania was driven by economic subjugation and poverty, and the promise of opportunity abroad.
Immigration from the Czarist Empire could surge following violent repressions or pogroms, as it did in the wake of the Kishinev Pogrom in 1903. But over the long run it was tied directly neither to the pogroms nor to the other manifestations of communal physical suffering or endangerment, as later romantic chroniclers would have it—a theme that the seminal Jewish historian Salo Baron developed and included in his rejection of what he called the “lachrymose interpretation” of Jewish history. As he demonstrated, wider economic factors were often at play, sometimes things as simple as reductions in the price of steamship passage across the Atlantic. In a scenario more common at certain times than at others, married men came to America first and, after earning and saving sufficient money, sent (or in some cases didn’t) for their wives and children.
A Yiddish poem by Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916), “Shlof mayn kind” (Sleep, My Child), encapsulates that immigration strategy in the form of a lullaby whose words attempt to ameliorate longing for a husband and father who preceded his family in their immigration to America:
Sleep, my child, my beautiful dear one,
Sleep, my life, my sole kaddish [the only one who will someday
recite kaddish in my memory],
. . .
Your mama sits beside your cradle,
Singing a song and weeping.
Someday you will understand . . .
Your father is in America . . .
They say that in America
Everyone is happy,
And for Jews it is a paradise.
There one can eat khale even on weekdays.
There, I will cook broths for you.
Your father will send us twenty dollars [for the fare]
Along with his picture.
He will bring us there,
And he will hug and kiss us.
In the meantime, sleep, my child,
For sleep can be a good remedy for our longing.
Sholem Aleichem published this poem in 1892. It was known and sung as a folksong to an anonymous tune in the outlying regions of the Czarist Empire in the last decade of the 19th century, if not earlier (perhaps even prior to its publication), as documented in the watershed collection by Saul Ginzberg and Pesah Marek (1901; see in the notes to Charles Davidson’s A Singing of Angels in Volume 20). In her first anthology of Yiddish songs (1972), Chana Mlotek attributed the melody to David Kovanovsky, although it is not clear if that reference concerns the well-known tune. Mlotek also cited two of the song’s many parodies: one in which the mother sings about the child’s father, who is imprisoned or exiled in Siberia following the failed 1905 Russian Revolution, having been accused of participating in it; and another obviously pro-Bolshevik one in which, after the First World War, newly independent Poland is mocked for its worthless economy and currency and its American delegates, who live like aristocrats while the mother and child remain impoverished at home.
Like preceding immigration waves of German-speaking Jews, the bulk of eastern European Jewish immigrants also flowed from the poorest—or the least materially comfortable or secure—elements of society in their countries of origin. That situation applied until the 1930s when an entirely different set of circumstances began to drive emigration. The combined arrival of refugees from the Third Reich and postwar survivors included—for the first time in appreciable numbers in American Jewish immigration history—highly educated and cultured Jews from Europe’s prewar middle and upper-middle professional and business classes and intellectual and artistic circles, as well as those with sophisticated Judaic learning.
Before the 1930s, in a world in which levels of education were inextricably tethered to economic circumstances and related social status (as was the case, if not so rigidly, in America when it came to higher education and professional training), the eastern European immigrants usually represented the least educated elements among Europe’s Jewish masses and those who were the least exposed to Western or modern Jewish culture—Hebraic or Yiddish, secular or religious. Impinging on educational levels in Europe were not only practical resources, czarist assimilation pressures, exclusions and severe restrictions, and traditionally religious Jews’ skeptical attitude toward secular education, but also the time available for serious, ongoing Judaic learning unsubsidized by parents or in-laws, or by yeshivot themselves. Also, the yeshiva world naturally did not encourage the abandonment of indigenous European orthodoxy and learning for the secular temptations, Judaic superficiality, and obstacles to orthodox observance that America—the “Judaic wilderness”—was reputed in their circles to foster.
The fact that, in relative terms, even the least educated Jews among the masses of eastern Europe were more knowledgeable about their respective religions than were their Christian counterparts, more conversant in their liturgies and sacred texts, did not alter the overall plebian complexion of the rank and file of immigrant-era Jewry in its initial generation.
The era was preceded by a long-standing rabbinic negativity about America, and that attitude came into ever sharper relief from the 1880s on as disdain became more heated. Even before then, most European rabbis had spoken out against American immigration in efforts to prevent if not forbid it. Now they became more vocal, convinced that neither serious Jewish learning nor undiluted religious observance would survive in the materialistic American society, which would inevitably both absorb and divert even Jews previously committed to orthodoxy. Traditional Jewish values, those rabbis predicted, even if maintained by a minority of first-generation immigrants in defiance of all the obstacles, would not remain among succeeding generations. As a group, the new American Jewry would thus be comparatively ignorant of Judaism even if Jews attended synagogues and selectively retained certain customs.
Indeed, dismal reports from America concerning the level of Jewish life only tended to vindicate those rabbinical warnings. There were alternative views among a handful of more liberal and more accepting rabbis in Europe, who allowed that emigration to America was inevitable and therefore perhaps even part of a Divine plan as yet another stage on the road to eventual redemption. But such acquiescence was by far the exception; it did not represent the mainstream orthodox rabbinic position, which, insofar as it was heeded, might—it could be argued—have contributed to or reinforced the putative atmosphere of Judaic superficiality in the New World that turned around only decades later. Without a much larger representation of uncompromising and learned orthodoxy—so goes that line of reasoning—the overwhelming makeup of the mass immigration was automatically monopolized by a conglomeration of those who had already begun to shed traditional religious adherence, those who had or were ready to accept only minimal Judaic learning, those who were prepared—even if reluctantly—for accommodations to American limitations, and even those who were eager to be free of traditional communal and rabbinical authority. The rabbis’ forewarnings would have amounted ultimately to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In reality, of course, their arguments were not completely without merit. One could imagine a reverse strategy—in which quasi-missionary rabbinic emissaries together with model groups of committed and unshakable orthodoxy would accompany the immigration to provide support for unalloyed traditional Jewish life in America and to win new adherents among the youth (perhaps along the lines of the fruitful efforts of the worldwide Hassidic dynasty, HABAD-Lubavitch, in the late 20th century). Yet that probably could not have succeeded under the prevailing economic and social circumstances.
Some rabbis even went so far as to issue injunctions against mass immigration. Notable among them was the rabbinical champion of the ethical and moral values and principles contained in and emanating from the Torah, Rabbi Israel Meir ha’Kohen [Kagan], a.k.a. “the Ḥafetz ḥayyim” (after whom a yeshiva in Brooklyn was ironically named much later). Opining that material comfort and freedom from oppression in America were worse than Russian persecution at its worst, he also rejected the very notion of Jewish freedom because, for him, it implied freedom from religious and halakhic obligations, and his opposition to modern Zionism was also based in part on that objection:
I fail to understand the expression, “free Jews”…. True, they may be free, but they are not Jews. The two [words] contradict one another, for the Jew is not free, and he who is free is not a Jew.
For the Ḥafetz ḥayyim, freedom—whether among secular Zionists or American immigrants—ultimately meant or led to freedom from the cherished yoke of the Torah.
Indeed, in 1888, when five New York synagogues invited Rabbi Jacob Joseph from Vilna to become New York’s first “chief rabbi,” the plan invited vocal opposition and concluded as a dismal failure. The very notion of a “chief rabbi” on European models ran counter to the grain of independence, self-direction, and free-spiritedness that had already taken hold of the mind-sets of most immigrants, including those who intended to maintain at least an American guise of orthodoxy. Few wanted to replicate the European k’hilla (the organized, all-embracive, and religiously based communal structure under rabbinical jurisdiction). Rabbi Joseph’s authority was never accepted in New York outside the leadership of those five congregations. Moreover, the social and quasi-political communal mechanisms that had existed in Europe to enforce compliance within the k’hilla structure were, of course, absent in America.
In the years between the two world wars, European Jews across all socioeconomic boundaries were increasingly subject to violent antisemitic attacks, not only in the Soviet Union—with its virtual obliteration of middle and upper-middle classes as perceived counterrevolutionaries—or in Germany and Austria at the hands of the growing number of National Socialist party followers, but also in Poland, by extreme ultranationalist thugs, and by Fascist elements in Hungary and Romania. Yet even then it was common for orthodox rabbis to caution against America-bound emigration. On more radical fronts, the Hassidic firebrand known as the rebbe of Munkács (the Munkácser Rebbe, Elazar Shapira), inveighed as late as the 1930s against seeking refuge in America. In Europe, he acknowledged, Jews’ lives might be in danger; but in America, their souls would be in greater danger. Of the three portals to Divine condemnation and exclusion from olam haba’a (the “world [of eternal life] to come”) that he identified—the relinquishing of orthodox piety in the name of modernity, secular Zionism, and American materialism and its preclusion of a traditionally pious Jewish life—the last was the most threatening and the most irreversible. In Europe, wayward Jews could still change their ways; and those who had been misled to Palestine could at least return. But once in America, Jews would not be able to pursue t’shuva (repentance; lit., return [to a life governed by Torah]). Exposure to America’s “fatal” combination of material success, political and religious freedom, and secular pleasures would render t’shuva both undesired and impossible.
Perhaps partly because of those European rabbinical attitudes within the orthodox mainstream (apart from the Hassidic world and radical sects)—which operated unintentionally in tandem with other economic and socioeconomic factors that impinged on the levels of Jewish education—neither profound traditional Judaic learning on the model of Europe’s most prestigious yeshivot nor the more modern, rational, scientific approaches to Jewish scholarship were proportionately represented among the immigrant generations. That America later produced, nurtured, and hosted some of the greatest, indeed giants of higher Judaic scholarship—native-born as well as émigré rabbis, professors, and authors—and that it eventually gave birth to great institutions of higher Jewish learning is therefore all the more remarkable. This phenomenon is telling about America’s natural susceptibility to rapid generational maturation and the nature of American Jewry’s intellectual progress.
Equally underrepresented in this immigration era were the now often forgotten and rarely mentioned professional and business middle and upper-middle classes among eastern European Jewry—along with their cultural, intellectual, and modern religious orientations. It has been estimated, for example, that in the waning years of the 19th century, more than 30 percent of the Jews in the Austro-Hungarian and Czarist empires combined were involved in some form of commerce—ranging from small-scale trading to modest retail merchandising and even, although representing a much smaller minority, to more established business operations. Moreover, these same estimates tell us that between 5 and 10 percent earned their livelihoods from the professions. Yet among the immigrants to America in that same time frame, only about 5 percent identified their occupations upon entry as business related; and those who identified themselves as practitioners of professions amounted to 1 or slightly more than 1 percent.
Statistics and entry documents reveal a similar situation with regard to the increasing immigration in the first decade of the 20th century. Yet only toward the end of that century did historians feel courageous enough to challenge mythologies of pedigree by examining and analyzing the evidence. Perhaps most provocative among them was Arthur Hertzberg, whose findings antagonized many who, even if they were aware of the obvious facts about the immigrants’ origins, preferred to remain oblivious to the implications.
In 1906 alone, for example, roughly 200,000 eastern European Jews resettled in America. Only about fifty of them listed occupations among the professions, while, according to the most reliable information, at least 5 percent of the Jews in eastern Europe—and by some calculations as many as 10 percent if we include both the Hapsburg and Czarist empires—were educated in and practiced the various professions. Obviously, their parallel educational, socioeconomic, and cultural levels were not proportionately reflected in contemporaneous immigrant-era America.
It has long been suspected, if not generally accepted, that during the first few decades of the mass immigration, there were Jews who actually had been engaged in Europe in some form of petty trade or other modest forms of commerce (though not in the professions) but who nonetheless identified themselves to immigration authorities as workers. Apparently, having heard reports that America was amenable to expanding its labor force, they assumed that this harmless contrivance might facilitate their entry. Immigration statistics relating to that period may thus be a bit misleading with regard to former occupations and related socioeconomic levels, but probably only slightly so. That stratagem is typically acknowledged in historical accounts, as is the small, temporary increase in the arrival of eastern European Jews from professional as well as intellectual or artistic ranks in the immediate aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution. But those statistics do not make a perceptible mark on the nature of Jewish immigrant society as a whole.
Moreover, between the failure of the 1905 Revolution and the czar’s abdication in 1917, in the process of the next revolution that led to the Bolshevik assumption of power, immigration did not reflect the approximately 6 percent professional component of eastern European Jewry. During that twelve-year time frame, only 1 percent or less of the Jewish immigrants represented the professions.
No historian, however, has yet addressed the directly related ramifications for music of the American Jewish experience. These considerations include not only the general ignorance in America until much later (and then only among a handful) of the Jewishly based secular art or classical music that was developing in Russia, but also the populist character of much cantorial repertoire and delivery, some of the shtetl-based aesthetics, and the overall ambience typical of American orthodox and traditional synagogues. The immigrants were not the Jews who had prayed in Europe in the more modern, decorous, culturally sophisticated, and partially Westernized but still basically (or nominally) orthodox synagogues known as khor shuls (lit., choral synagogues, a misleading label, since virtually all European synagogues except those without the necessary financial or lay resources always had choirs as a sine qua non of hazzanut; and the same was true until much later in the 20th century of most traditional synagogues in America).
Those khor shul congregations in Odessa, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vilna, Warsaw, Łódź, Lemberg (L’vov), Czernowitz, and many other cosmopolitan cities included the comparatively comfortable, well-off, and in some cases even wealthy business and professional classes—along with some religiously connected intellectual and artistic elements. As a rule, Jews in those middle and upper-middle classes were not motivated to emigrate; and for those who, after 1917, would have wanted to escape suppression and forced transfers, if not outright liquidation by the young Soviet regime, it was usually too late. Historians have generally tended to bypass this subject, especially in terms of its cultural impact in America.
Thus within and outside of the American synagogues of the immigrant era, the musical culture that was celebrated and passed on to succeeding generations was by and large popular rather than artistic, and vulnerable to the absorption of American pop fashions. Second- (and sometimes even first-) generation children of those immigrants who did become attracted to more highly cultivated levels of Jewishly related music or to the Western classical canon—including amateurs and aficionados as well as some who became professionally involved and even prominent—were most often not perpetuating the orientation of their parents. Rather, their introduction to these musical genres came, with occasional exceptions, from outside the home until a later phase of the American experience.
Immigrant parents might not understand or relate to such musical and other artistic interests, which were foreign to them; and apart from the possibility of monetarily rewarding careers in commercial or Yiddish or American theatrical and other popular music, parents were likely to counsel preparation for the professions or business rather than the riskier pursuit of the arts—a natural tendency that did not necessarily diminish with the attainment of material success in later periods and the rise to America’s middle and upper-middle classes. Nonetheless, parents could still be supportive of exposure to aspects of musical culture they had not experienced in Europe, often knowing instinctively that such edification was part of the overall betterment and progress they sought for their children.
|The immigration bill signed into law by President Warren G. Harding was particularly significant since, for the first time, it enshrined the closing of gates not merely to immigrants seeking economic betterment or to victims of persecution, but even to those in imminent mortal danger.
It was not uncommon, for example, for immigrants or their children who had reached a modicum of financial security to purchase upright pianos—on installment plans if necessary—and to engage music teachers (for some, household pianos could be typical symbols of social arrival—a function not limited to Jews). This phenomenon was not applicable to the majority, although the numbers remain unknown: no statistical research has ever been pursued with regard to piano sales to Jewish homes during the immigrant era or even afterward. But commercial publications of hundreds of hit songs from the heyday of Second Avenue theatrical productions, for example, printed with simple piano accompaniments clearly intended for amateurs and home use, proved to be a lucrative business—and those songs were sold in quantity at performances at the Yiddish theaters, often on opening nights. The wide-scale purchase of those songs implies possession of or access to pianos or other instruments on which the realization of the melody lines could be facilitated, which in turn implies at least attempts to acquire the most basic requisite skills. And more than a few immigrant-era parents sought instruction for their children on instruments other than the piano, most typically the violin.
Naturally, popular music remained the primary focus throughout the era, as it does (by definition) for the majority within nearly every society, although even rudimentary music lessons for second-generation children—whether or not they lasted or uncovered actual talent—often included some superficial introduction to the world of classical music. By the interwar period we can already point to amateur orchestras whose memberships included Jews of eastern European lineage: the Mendelssohn Symphony Orchestra in Brooklyn, for example. Still, it would be another three or four decades before symphony concert and opera audiences in major American cities would include significant numbers of regular and committed patrons with eastern European Jewish backgrounds, eventually rivaling if not overshadowing their fellow classical music devotees who were rooted in the older German-Jewish establishment.
By then, young Jews were also conspicuous by their numerical presence among student bodies at America’s most prestigious conservatories. It has been estimated, for example, that from the 1940s through the 1960s, if not a bit later, perhaps as many as 50 percent of the students at The Juilliard School were Jews; and most of them were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants from eastern Europe. Sadly, although there are recent signs of resurgent interest, that pattern did not survive the baby boomer generation on a national level or in similar proportions, even with the post-1970s immigration of many Jewish musicians and music students from the former Soviet Union who now constitute a significant part of the Jewish presence in American symphony orchestras. Without them, and without Israelis living in the United States, there might now be a small Jewish presence in these ensembles.
The popular and folk concentration of immigrant-era culture was, of course, not confined to music. Nearly all the immigrants were literate, but their reading was generally limited to Yiddish newspapers and pulp fiction of the shund (lit., junk; the embracive tag for the corpus of common and often vulgar American Yiddish pop culture, some of whose publications have not survived in even a single extant copy). They were far less likely to read (or even be aware of) serious Yiddish literature—until poets began publishing their verse and authors began serializing their fiction in everyday Yiddish newspapers—nor were they likely to turn to the large body of world literature (Russian, German, English, and other) that existed and was being in published Yiddish translations.
Apart from a relatively small number of “folklorized” Yiddish songs that had been ubiquitous in Europe, the immigrants were also unfamiliar with the vast, rich repertoire of authentic Yiddish folksong that flourished throughout the regions of the Pale of Settlement in the Czarist Empire (see the notes to Charles Davidson’s A Singing of Angels in Volume 20). The Yiddish Art Theatre in New York never attracted more than a small following among the city’s Yiddish theater patrons, the majority of whom found their resonating entertainment medium in the more common Second Avenue theaters. Once, on opening night of a loose Yiddish adaptation of Hamlet, the audience famously rose to its feet at the final curtain, demanding, “Author, author!”
Many of these socioeconomic and sociocultural circumstances were not exclusive to Jews. Yet there were certain nonreligious issues that separated them from their Italian, Irish, German, Bohemian, Swedish, Polish, and other ethnic counterparts among the arrivals, some of whom had preceded them as groups and nearly all of whom also represented the lower economic and social strata of their countries of origin. Among those factors were collective attitudes toward the Old World; emotional, cultural, and, in particular, linguistic ties to their former countries (since Yiddish was the national language of no country); and the relative importance attached to education beyond its power to facilitate financial security, material prosperity, and related social standing. Even for the least learned Jewish immigrants, education was entrenched as a virtually sacred value—a current that had run through Jewish history for centuries as a religious mandate.
Indeed, in some cultural and sociohistorical interpretations, the more recent quest for modern general education and culture is a secular guise and extension of that traditional Torah-centered mandate for learning and knowledge. From the perspective of traditional Judaism, and apart from criminal behavior or mistreatment of fellow human beings, ignorance was—and remains—the greatest basis for shame. That value was shared to various degrees by the cultural traditions of some ethnic groups more so than others. Whatever else one might criticize about immigrant-era Jewish culture, it may be observed without arrogance or chauvinism that rare was the Jew—in Europe or in America, no matter how humble his circumstances—who did not want his children not only to have an easier life and greater opportunity but to be better educated and more learned than their parents. Eastern European Jews of that era may not have brought the accoutrements of higher culture or of profound Judaic learning, but they did not ultimately fail to transfer to America the inherited value of education.
Notwithstanding the overall populist character of the immigrant experience, there were protruding minority elements even from the first generation that eventually sought out ties to more substantive aspects of religious as well as secular Jewish culture. They laid the foundations for mechanisms and institutions that would perpetuate and enrich both on American soil: choruses, mandolin orchestras, culture clubs, literary societies, and yeshivot. That gravitation increased among curious circles of the second and third generations, by which time higher and more refined levels of Jewish music, literature, drama, learning, and intellectual intercourse were to be found; and those circles did succeed in gaining new adherents. Still, those activities continued to exist alongside the more widespread and numerically far greater entertainment-oriented culture of mass appeal.
Also, after a while, American Jewry—especially in the greater New York area, Baltimore, and Chicago—was not altogether without opportunities for respectable Judaic learning on eastern European models, under the guidance of a more learned core of recently arrived leadership. But the American climate, with its competing demands, distractions, and influences, was not hospitable to those who wanted to maintain their orthodox past undiluted. Their relatively small numbers decreased even further in that time frame. In a growing number of cases children tended to shed—or to continue quantitatively as well as qualitatively the process of attenuation of and convenient selection from—an orthodoxy whose deepest and most intellectually fortified European foundations had often eluded even their parents.
In citing what he assessed as the “shallow roots” of American Jewry’s intellectual and religious traditions (traditions that eventually became reconstituted on their own merits and terms), Hertzberg succeeded in alienating legions of readers. Although for the most part they did not and could not refute his argument based on the facts of immigration, they preferred to believe otherwise about their own origins and about their ancestors—even though Jewish tradition attaches shame only to avoidable ignorance, not to poverty or working-class status and their consequences.
Hertzberg, however, spoke of “roots,” not of the later flowers that often seemed in the richness of their bloom to defy those roots—yet another impressive and perhaps peculiarly American occurrence. Then, too, some of the antagonism he engendered was born partly of internecine political discord and opposition. (He was, in addition to being a Conservative congregational rabbi and a university history professor, president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1976 and vice president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991.) Other sources of that antagonism included his own lifelong self-identification as an “FDR New Deal liberal” (an ironic source of irritation outside orthodoxy by the turn of the century, given the liberal alignment of so many Jewish voters); a misinterpreted high-handedness that could be confused with his intellectual depth and keen historical and interpretative instincts; and his occasional mistakes based on less-than-exhaustive research (“sometimes just plain wrong” was how an otherwise admiring and approving academic colleague described such lapses). On this subject of the roots and sources of Jewish immigration and the initial society it produced, however, it would be difficult to dispute the evidence upon which his discussions were based, no matter how many exceptions one might find.
For its finite period of relatively open and unchecked immigration, and for its perceived acceptance of other nations’ poor, disadvantaged, and downtrodden masses, America frequently if sometimes simplistically has been glorified in songs and poems as the ultimate haven of refuge—the bastion of freedom for the oppressed and persecuted, and the most likely place for the pursuit of their dreams. No doubt the most famous words to that effect were penned by Emma Lazarus in her sonnet “The New Colossus,” which is best known today for the engraving of its last four and a half lines on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty at its main entrance.
Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883 for an exhibition and auction to raise funds for the construction of the pedestal, which was not part of France’s gift of the statue. The city of New York, the states of New York and New Jersey, and the federal government were not prepared to absorb those costs, which necessitated the campaign for private donations that was led by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. (Elsewhere in the country there had been reservations and even some resentment about the use of federal resources to pay for the installation of the statue itself, which was perceived initially by some as an adornment for New York and its harbor.) Constance Cary Harrison, a friend of Lazarus’s, organized a charity event for this purpose, at which there was to be an art exhibition followed by an auction of artworks together with a portfolio of autographed copies of literary works by important American authors. It was for that portfolio that Harrison asked Lazarus to contribute a new poem. Searching for a subject, Lazarus turned for inspiration to her experiences with volunteer work on behalf of Jewish immigrants at a Lower East Side settlement house.
The result was her sonnet about the Statue of Liberty, which she titled in reference to the Colossus of Rhodes—the larger-than-life statue of Apollo that stood astride that ancient Greek harbor and was counted among the wonders of the classical Greek world until it was toppled by an earthquake in 224 B.C.E.:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lighting, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Neither the original conception of the statue nor the rationale behind its gift by the people of France (through money raised there by public subscriptions) were related to the theme of welcoming impoverished or persecuted masses to any haven of refuge, America or elsewhere. Its sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, had thought of it originally as a monument for the harbor of Suez, which would symbolize by its torch the gift of Western knowledge and enlightenment to the East. Only later, at the suggestion of a group of French liberals with a fondness for America and its political model, was he persuaded that its location in New York harbor would celebrate Franco-American friendship and thus benefit the renewed republican cause of liberty in France. (The Second Empire had only recently been dismantled, the ensuing return to republicanism was still less than secure, and there were lingering claimants to the throne.) At that point, however, Bartholdi’s name for his projected statue was Liberty Enlightening the World. At the dedication ceremony in New York in 1886, there was no mention of any refuge for freedom- or opportunity-seeking downtrodden masses. Rather, the recited verse written by American poet John Greenleaf Whittier extolled France along with the classical concepts of reason and virtue.
Nonetheless, in 1901—by which time Lazarus’s poem had long been forgotten after her premature death in 1887—Georgina Schuyler thought of an appropriate memorial to her former friend: an inscription of an excerpt from “The New Colossus” on a plaque at the site of the Statue of Liberty. Another former friend of the poet’s, Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine, helped ferry the plan through bureaucratic obstacles, and it eventually received the needed federal government approval.
Just prior to the creation of the plaque, Samuel Ward Gray, head of the Baring Brothers bank, raised an objection to the references to “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse.” These were not the sort of people, he argued, that “America has received from Europe, nor, above all, what she invites.” Moreover, while he acknowledged that Jews, unlike other immigrants from rural areas, could be characterized as huddled masses in view of their often cramped urban life, they were also “strong and able” rather than “wretched refuse.” He therefore suggested an emendation that was to read:
Your stirring myriad, that yearn to breathe free,
But find no place upon your teeming shore.
Of course, Gray’s advice was not heeded, and the original text of the extract of the poem was inscribed on the plaque. It was initially installed on a second-story landing inside the pedestal structure, where it was not much noticed, and only in 1945, after journalist Louis Adamic had brought the poem to wide public attention, was the plaque relocated to its present place at the entrance.
Irving Berlin used that extract from Lazarus’s poem for the lyrics to his song “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” the final number of his 1949 Broadway musical comedy, Miss Liberty.
The pragmatic reality with regard to America’s reception of immigrants from among Europe’s poor and disadvantaged masses, as well as the imagined corollary of a life of economic and social freedom that awaited them, was a bit different from the implications of benevolence and tolerance contained in Emma Lazarus’s poetic desiderata. Schoolbook assumptions of selfless humanistic motivations for inclusive immigration policy—which had been reversed and all but choked off by the 1930s, when it was most urgently needed for refugees from the Third Reich—are at odds with the actuality. Until the emergence of more recent and more objective historical reexamination, however, Lazarus’s (and, by extension, Irving Berlin’s) naïve version informed the “official story” taught to generations of students and memorialized by Hollywood and other popular media to instill patriotic pride and to express confirmation of moral superiority over Europe.
In his interpretation of American Jewish history, Hertzberg astutely observed that “America was not more virtuous than Europe” during that period of mass immigration, in view of the country’s own more than acceptable share of social, economic, and political injustices and certain misguided judicial decisions that had upheld inequities, suppression, abuse, flagrant miscarriages of justice, and even subjugation. (Even in the 20th century, the Supreme Court, following a prolonged courtroom circus at the trial level, had upheld by seven to two the indisputably wrongful 1915 murder conviction and death sentence of Leo Frank by a Georgia state court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote a dissenting opinion, which of course had no benefit to Frank. Although the outgoing governor subsequently commuted his sentence to life in prison, Frank was lynched by a mob of prominent citizens and business and communal leaders, including a judge and a state senator. Justice Holmes agreed that the trial could not have been a fair one, citing the trial and sentencing judge’s own request that Frank not be present for the verdict because of the certainty of mob violence in or just outside the courtroom in the case of an acquittal.) But Hertzberg was speaking of the years prior to much corrective legislation and more equitable judicial review. Moreover, he chose his adjective carefully. The absence of virtue does not necessarily preclude the benefits of America’s other superior attributes in terms of social and economic mobility, opportunity, openness, lack of institutionalized class structure, and, above all in the long run, its Constitution.
Indeed, the poor and powerless were not welcomed then out of any national magnanimity, nor out of popular desire to share the perquisites of liberty, but as sources of cheap labor. Also, large city political machines and other politicians, including presidents and potential presidential candidates, saw voters in those immigrants—nearly all of whom would become citizens.
Despite the large number of “new Americans” from the 1880s through the 1920s, there was a persistent anti-immigration strain running throughout the period, beginning as early as the 1890s—especially outside the major northeastern cities. Jews were not initially the exclusive or even the principal targets of nativist- and populist-driven sentiment, which could be aimed equally and without distinction at all “undesirable” ethnic or geographically based “foreigners.” But outright antisemitism came to play a transparent role later in proposed as well as passed legislation that would have excluded Yiddish-speaking Jews by virtue of required literacy tests in either English or the language of one’s country of origin.
In that regard, completely apart from religion, prospective Jewish immigrants of the period were sui generis among their non-Jewish counterparts (which was known to Congress), as Yiddish was the language of “no country of origin.” Even those who might have had some degree of everyday verbal fluency in Russian, Belorussian, or Ukrainian, for example, would not necessarily have been able to acquit themselves satisfactorily in written examinations in those languages, and in the case of Russian, they might not have had working familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet. Although there were certainly illiterate people among other ethnic groups who sought admission to the United States, and although they too would have been adversely affected by such tests, the literacy requirement—as it was spelled out—was interpreted then and afterward to have been designed in large measure to exclude Jews, because it applied in principle to them as a group.
One president after another vetoed such congressional bills: Presidents Cleveland, (Theodore) Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. President Wilson’s veto was celebrated on the Yiddish stage of Boris Thomashevsky’s Downtown National Theater as a topical couplet added to the song Lebn zol kolumbus (Long Live Columbus!). The presidential positions on this issue did not correspond to party affiliations, nor were their vetoes based on compassion or moral high ground—not that any of them were lacking in those attributes. Their vetoes were driven, not inappropriately, by legitimate, practical political considerations that did not apply to or concern many members of Congress outside states or districts that could benefit from cheap immigrant labor or where potential votes of soon-to-become citizens could be coveted.
In 1917, however, Congress finally summoned the votes to override President Wilson’s veto. But an exemption for those seeking or claiming to seek asylum from persecution based on religion (not only threats of violence but also legal or legally sanctioned restrictions) could work in the Jews’ favor if they chose to invoke it. Obviously, this did not apply to most other immigrant groups similarly affected by that provision. Illiterate Italians, for example, could hardly claim persecution in Italy because they were Roman Catholics.
Also, despite inherited negative perceptions of Jews in many quarters (often among those who had never had contact with or even seen a Jew), including socially grounded resentment as well as religiously based doctrines of hostility, generic sympathy for victims of religious persecution could still resonate in much of Christian America. This had been evident in the wide, cross-denominational Christian support for the Blackstone Memorial in 1891—a proposal by a committed Christian for an American initiative to galvanize international cooperation for resettling persecuted Czarist Empire Jews in Palestine in a Jewish national home (see the discussion of the Blackstone Memorial in the introduction to Volume 8); and it was even more forcefully shown in the endorsements of the proposal’s 1916 resubmitted version. Separately from whatever prejudices and discrimination abounded, Americans as a whole were not incapable of priding themselves in genuine Christian openheartedness, cherished beliefs in the nation’s self-perceived moral superiority over Old World societies, and an overall sense of fair play when it came to religious suppression or oppression—particularly when it was seen as a European phenomenon.
That dynamic could be especially relevant in the context of reminders of America’s purported long-standing tradition as a refuge from religious persecution dating to the early Colonial era, when the colonists had included Christian sects and nonconformist splinter groups that had been subjugated for their deviations from established churches in their native countries. Though hardly unalloyed, that image, with its typical evocation of the Pilgrims, the Quakers, the Puritans, and others, had always been part of American history as it was taught in grammar schools.
Antisemitism comes, after all, in a variety of shades and manifestations. (The term is an unfortunate misnomer for “anti-Jewish” that was coined as an outgrowth of a 19th-century German intellectual anti-Jewish construct in which the Jewish people was deliberately confused with the language family that includes Hebrew, yet one with which we are permanently encumbered.) It can range from violent hatred to “genteel” discrimination, and from social avoidance to the embrace of those who may be unaware—and who would sincerely reject the suggestion—that they might incubate a mild or dormant strain of the infection. If, during the long debate about immigration, some Americans and their elected representatives disliked Jews personally and irrationally (out of the same species of ignorance that drives all bigotry), they could at the same time bridle at the very notion of European persecution of Jews. That behavior might be perceived as simply inconsistent with American standards of religious freedom.
Thus Jewish immigration was able to continue for a while longer, further facilitated by the demonstrated ability of poor Jewish immigrants to rise economically through their own efforts, to become productive members of society from American perspectives, to adapt, and to integrate at least on some levels if they so chose—to become “true” Americans.
Another factor that probably muted antisemitic attitudes to the benefit of continued Jewish immigration through the legally provided persecution loophole was the nullification of reservations expressed earlier about the immigrants’ economic sustainability and the resulting problems this would pose. By the end of the second decade of the 20th century it was clear that even the poorest or least successful immigrant Jews would not be a burden on American society. At least that fear could no longer be employed as an excuse. By then it already had been demonstrated that Jews, both by tradition and by religious mandate, “looked after their own” through charitable communal structures as well as private family efforts. In 1897 Mark Twain wrote of his admiration for that organized self-sufficiency and acceptance of internal responsibility, observing that the Jew “has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him.”
A year later, in an article in Harper’s magazine, he wrote:
The Jew is not a disturber of the peace of any country. Even his enemies will concede that. . . . The Jew is not a burden on the charities of the state nor of the city; these could cease from their functions without affecting him. When he is well enough, he works; when he is incapacitated, his own people take care of him. And not in a poor and stingy way, but with a fine and large benevolence…. A Jewish beggar is not impossible, perhaps; such a thing may exist, but there are few men that can say they have seen that spectacle…. Whenever a Jew has real need to beg, his people save him from the necessity of doing it. The charitable institutions of the Jews are supported by Jewish money, and amply. The Jews make no noise about it; it is done quietly; they do not nag and pester and harass us for contributions. They give us peace, and set us an example.
Indeed, the eastern European immigrants had established their own mechanisms for assisting those in need. Apart from the landsmanshaftn that were concerned with fellow Jews from a common city or town in Europe, charity could be dispensed from synagogues as well as through the efforts of the few who had already achieved financial success in business; and Jewish volunteers worked in settlement houses to help non-Jewish as well as Jewish immigrants adapt and adjust to the new environment.
On more substantial levels and with far greater financial resources—contrary to later unfounded perceptions of abandonment or self-serving remoteness—there were elements (sometimes prominent) among the Reform German-Jewish establishment that stepped up to the plate to assist those immigrants in the context of organized formal strategies. Sometimes that beneficence was accomplished quietly and from behind the scenes, but even then it was generally an open secret.
Mutual cultural and social antagonisms were ingrained and became legendary, and they remained even past mid-century. Yet the eastern European immigrants were not unaware of the German-Jewish Reform establishment’s protection and its role in providing aid to them as well as to their fellow Jews caught behind and between enemy lines in Europe—despite the establishment leadership’s self-imposed absence of fanfare about its activities.
Nothing illustrates that better than the reported scene outside Temple Emanu-El in New York at the 1920 funeral of the preeminent financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff. Among the throngs lining both sides of Fifth Avenue that waited patiently outside as the service progressed inside were scores of immigrants, many of them visibly orthodox, with Old World appearances. Most would not enter a Reform synagogue (and they would have been discouraged from doing so by the officers and ushers). But they had come out of gratitude to pay their respects—many of them having walked all the way uptown from the Lower East Side and environs—because, obviously, they knew of his efforts on their behalf through his founding role in the American Jewish Committee, his contributions to the Joint Distribution Committee, and his many other charitable initiatives. During his lifetime he had given away much more than the value of his estate (estimated at $40 million at the time of his death, a far smaller amount than many had predicted), and the eastern European immigrants and their families knew that, directly or indirectly, they had been among the beneficiaries.
The knowledge of that protection and assistance from respected sources among the business world may, as some analysts have suggested, have served to reassure further the relevant “powers that were” that continued eastern European Jewish immigration would not undermine economic equilibrium and would not impose upon America or American resources.
In the decades following the Bolshevik Revolution, however, particularly in light of the Red Scare of 1919–1921 and its subsequent reverberations, Jewish immigration was confronted with new obstacles. In some ways the Red Scare was a heightened iteration of earlier panic-driven overreactions to the dangers of European-minted but American-tweaked versions of militant socialist and even anarchist movements and activities that had preceded the First World War and even the 1905 Russian Revolution—dating as far back as the 1880s to incidents such as the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago. Now, however, the palpable realization of Communist goals in Russia, with the brutally achieved replacement of its imperial order and society by the Marxist-Leninist Soviet Union, ignited a more pervasive and more plausible fear of imported Communism.
The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) was formed in 1919 on the heels of the Bolshevik success, though it was also viewed domestically as an extreme left offspring of the socialism that had been cultivated in various guises and brands in America for more than two decades. (The Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901 with initially inflated claims to a membership of 10,000, but by 1912 the documented membership had risen to 150,000.) The new CPUSA was in effect a sister organization or child of the Party centered in the Soviet Union and in control of its government; and it was emboldened by the Russian accomplishment. Inevitably, the movement soon splintered into dissenting offshoots born of internal factions and disputes that grew out of differing ideological nuances, strategies, and, sometimes, interpersonal conflicts—the Communist Labor Party, the Workers Party, and the United Communist Party, for example—all of which were nonetheless committed to basic Communist doctrines.
Alarm spread rapidly about native as well as immigrant agitators, organizers, and party recruiters, in addition to rank-and-file members. Although many (though not all) were innocent of the criminal acts with which they were charged and sometimes convicted, and were frequently subjected to police-sanctioned thug violence and police raids that would be adjudged unconstitutional today, those individuals and groups were indeed encouraged by and large, and in many cases supported, by the Party in Russia through the Comintern (the Communist International). Formed around the same time as the CPUSA, the Comintern was the extended apparatus for exporting revolution and fomenting and galvanizing class struggle on an international level. In the pre-Stalinist era, the Trotskyite version of the spread of the revolution to a perceived world proletariat in the West—to be imposed along Leninist lines “from above” through elite intellectual-political cadres—remained a priority for the Party. (Lenin himself is said on at least one occasion in the 1920s to have enquired casually of an American visitor about the progress of “the revolution” in America and the paving of its road.)
Apart from Communist Party membership, the various other shades of the Jewish left—its labor movement affiliations along with the moderate socialists, the Bundists, and even the Labor Zionists—were also easily suspected of hosting or protecting Bolshevik or other Communist sympathizers as well as inviting and encouraging Soviet influence and subversive action.
Still fresh in memory by the end of the decade was the broad enthusiasm and rejoicing among Yiddish-speaking immigrants that had met news of the forced abdication of Czar Nicholas II—a spontaneous reaction that crossed political lines and was confined neither to socialists nor to sideline socialist sympathizers. It echoed similar sympathetic jubilation when, before America’s entry into the war against the Central Powers, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were advancing into the Russian Empire and seemed for the moment to be giving its Jews cause for celebration; for many of them, that had the signs of Divine retribution for their oppression under Czarist regimes. In fact, many among the large concentration of Russian Empire Jews near border areas even greeted the invading German army as their liberator, and stories circulated to the effect that some even thought of Kaiser Wilhelm II as the long-awaited Messiah (Other versions claimed that, on seeing a German officer riding ahead of his troops on a white horse, some assumed him to be Elijah the Prophet, who, by tradition, would appear on a white donkey to herald the coming of the Messiah.) Naturally, once America was in the war—from which the Soviet Union soon opted out as a clash of capitalist and imperial powers irrelevant and counterproductive to the Revolution and its view of an international proletarian brotherhood—the bulk of American Jewry, including all but the far left and some unrelenting pacifists, patriotically supported the war effort.
Pesah in 1917, however, fell just shortly after the czar’s abdication and the installation of a non-Bolshevik provisional government, and the czar’s downfall was celebrated at American seders and even worked into the rituals. It should be noted that at the time, the imperial family was under house arrest in one of its palaces, with guarantees of its safety—pending, among other options, the outcome of approaches made to various governments to accept them as exiles. All, including most egregiously the British, whose king was a first cousin of both the czar and the czarina, lent a deaf ear. But the Jewish gloating in the spring of 1917 occurred well before the Bolsheviks’ cold-blooded murder of the czar and the czarina, their four daughters, and their fourteen-year-old son and heir to the throne, along with their entourage—now known to have been ordered directly by Lenin and not the result of unauthorized frontier justice by a local soviet, as was long insisted.
References to the deposed czar, both as an individual and as a symbol, appeared in Yiddish poems, songs, and even Second Avenue theatrical productions. But these were mostly lighthearted, even humorous, without much thought to the ramifications for the future of Soviet Jewry. They had nothing to do with political ideologies, Communist or other.
On the other hand, American Jewish prominence in socialism and—now more threatening by perception—in Communist movements and activities, was undeniable, even though the number of Jews so involved or even so persuaded represented a small fraction of American Jewry overall and of the eastern European immigrant generations; and Jews were not among Socialist or Communist Party candidates or chiefs.
In retrospect, and apart from traitorous or treasonous ventures on behalf of foreign enemies or potential enemies, Communism was never actually a serious internal or domestic popular influence or enterprise in the United States. For a host of reasons, it never had the potential to seduce anywhere near the national numbers required to dent, much less undo the established democratic order or the capitalist system. That was true even during the worst years of the Great Depression. Communist membership did increase temporarily under those circumstances, along with that of other left-wing and radical labor movements; and it might have increased further, perhaps to the point of danger, had unemployment and poverty approached something on the order of double its highest rate—in a confirmation of the view that the comparatively young (150-year-old) democratic “experiment” and the capitalist system were ultimately unsustainable. But that was precisely the scenario that the Roosevelt administration was committed to preventing, without being wedded to any particular political ideology or left-wing agenda. Most of the country, including those hardest hit, relied on the programs that were conceived expressly to forestall Communist incursions and restore confidence in the American political tradition by providing relief as well as permanent structural antidotes.
Nonetheless, “red-baiting”—admittedly not always without sincere beliefs in a visceral, looming Communist menace and not always targeted specifically at Jews—was a fixture of the political landscape by the 1920s; and it would reemerge during the Depression as well as in the postwar years in slightly different manifestations. Beginning, by most assessments, in 1919, more or less with the Justice Department at the direction of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the hysteria could extend downward all the way to local governments and municipal police departments. The disproportionate Jewish visibility in Communist circles (Yiddish as well as English-speaking sections of the Party) provided previously avowed enemies of Jews with a convenient pretense for exclusionary measures.
The suspicion that the Party was not always entirely independent or free of foreign infiltration, that it and even some of its related cultural organizations received foreign assistance in various ways and at various times, and that interaction with the Comintern played a role in some of its activities and directions could lend support to that anti-immigrant campaign as needed. (These assumptions in many instances have been vindicated by the opening of the CPUSA archives in the first decade of the 21st century.) The truth is, however, that the fractious nature of American Communism from its very birth; its splintered persona and the proliferation of organizations among which infighting and competing interests, ideological nuances and strategies were common; its lack of a broad national base of popular support or any avenues to the armed forces; and the absence of institutional means for party discipline—along with the clear anti-Communist predisposition of the overwhelming majority of American Jewry—should probably have dispelled many of the fears. But, like other invocations of imminent danger, red-baiting as a defensive response to a claimed existential threat could pay off at election time. And it is generally easier to see and acknowledge exaggerations and unfounded anxieties with the benefit of hindsight.
It was not only the ballyhoo about Jewish presence on the radical left on the home front that was at play in the immigration drama. Contributing to distended perceptions of Jewish support for Communism was also the prominent role of Jews in the making and continuing of the Bolshevik Revolution (though many of them were later murdered on Stalin’s orders). In some American circles, preexisting antisemitic tendencies could be enlarged to conclude that “the Jews” were, as a group, Communists, or “pink” or “fellow travelers”—as the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Senators Patrick McCarran and Joseph McCarthy, and others in their camp would three decades later brand suspected Communist sympathizers among intellectuals and artists in a different political context and in the coinage of their day
Meanwhile, the assault on Jewish immigration was further fueled by events that had been unfolding since the First World War in the western regions of the former Czarist Empire, which had been home to the largest concentration of its Jews. At the onset of the war, the military engagements between the Russian imperial army and those of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had trapped those Jews between or behind the lines, so that by the time America entered the war, an estimated one million of them on both sides of the front were already refugees. In America that situation was cause for anticipation—or fear—of a new wave of postwar immigration. For those who envisaged the Jews as one of the “undesirable” ethnicities, that fear became intensified in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Civil War between Red and White Russian forces. The Jews in those areas where the belligerents clashed were caught between the battle lines created by the Russian counterrevolutionary troops intent on undoing the Bolshevik takeover.
Adding to their peril was the eastward march of the fiercely nationalistic army of newly independent Poland—the former Russian Poland (Poland-Lithuania), now freed from imperial embrace and, after the war, the large area of historic Poland that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian (or Austro-Galician) Empire. It is estimated that by 1921 at least 60,000 Jews in those regions had been murdered by Poles and Ukrainians—either on the manufactured excuse that, with a score to settle with the czarist government, they had been loyal to the Bolsheviks, or out of older, historically ingrained apolitical or extra-political Jew hatred. The anti-immigration spokesmen’s consternation now broadened from “Russian” to Polish Jews, who became the object of heightened trepidation.
To counter a new wave of Polish-Jewish refugees, a two-year suspension of immigration was proposed on the grounds that America would otherwise be flooded with virtually all of Polish Jewry. This, of course, displayed typical American (and American Jewish) ignorance of Poland’s modern intellectual, cultural, and middle- and upper-middle class elements—as well as of its Bundists and its Zionists—none of whom were about to emigrate to America (or, except for the Zionists, to anywhere else), any more than were those who were still committed to profound orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the situation was used by Wilbur J. Carr, who presided over the United States Consular Service, to report to the House Committee on Immigration—in the wider context of characteristic xenophobia—that Polish Jews were the most undesirable element of all. They were, he was certain, having seen them in Europe, both “filthy” and inherently “un-American, incapable of becoming patriotic”; they were even “dangerous in their habits.”
Alternative legislation to the two-year suspension was proposed by the Senate, which the House approved. The new bill set the immigration quotas at three percent of each ethnic group based on its presence in the United States according to the 1910 census. Signed into law by President Warren G. Harding, that bill was particularly significant since, for the first time, the law enshrined the closing of gates not merely to immigrants seeking economic betterment or to victims of persecution, but even to those in imminent mortal danger.
Even then, the campaign continued unabated. The enemies of Jewish (as well as Slavic, Italian, and other southern and eastern European) immigration were still not satisfied. They continued to point to the increasing Jewish presence in American Communism, within and outside of the Party, even though it represented a small fraction both of American Jewry as a whole and of the eastern European immigrant population.
Also, it did not help that such a perception could be reinforced by the knowledge that many American Jews of eastern European heritage who had no use for Communism still harbored a measure of benign sympathy for the young Soviet state, based on its 1920s propaganda that claimed it to be both free of antisemitism (even “outlawed”) and a fertile climate for Yiddish literature and culture. Supposed evidence could be found in its state-sponsored Yiddish writers’ organizations and unions, Yiddish folklore research, and Yiddish theater. In reality, the motivations behind the permission and even support of those institutions and activities were in large measure political and self-serving. Their value to the state and to the Party resided in their use for extending pro-revolutionary, pro-Bolshevik, antibourgeois and anti-reactionary ideological messages—encased in serious fiction, poetry, and other literary and artistic media as well as ideologically cleansed or selected folklore—to the Jewish masses who were then still literate primarily if not exclusively in Yiddish.
That policy also provided “evidence” to a suspicious outside world that despite Marxist negativity to religion per se, the Soviet Union and the Party were not anti-Jewish and had no antisemitic agenda. Yet Jewish education, printing of new prayerbooks, and a host of other activities and rituals crucial to the perpetuation of Jewish religious life were or would become prohibited, with the hope of ensuring that the younger and following generations would, through ignorance, be emancipated from Judaism as a reactionary force inconsistent with Communist principles and not in the best interests of the state or the Party. Without attempting to prohibit synagogue attendance altogether, and thus unnecessarily incur the wrath (or greater wrath) of the West and of world Jewry, Judaism would eventually disappear by attrition once the older, still habituated generations died out.
In that spirit, some synagogues were permitted to function—especially the “show” edifices in Moscow and Leningrad, which for a while could give the false impression that Judaism could flourish there without restriction. The fact that, apart from visiting tourists, they were attended for worship purposes as late as the 1970s almost exclusively by Jews born before the Revolution simply provided the authorities with an easy demonstration that the next generation, once enlightened by progressive attitudes, had no use for religion. (A live recording of a complete Yom Kippur eve service at the Moscow Central Synagogue in 1956 illustrates the pattern of that self-fulfilling prophecy. It features a cantor, a lay ba’al t’filla who took over when the cantor became ill, a substantial traditional men’s choir, and an obviously full house of worshippers—all vocal in their prayers, liturgical responses, and congregational singing. But that recording is an incontrovertible sonic confirmation of an exceedingly aged congregation and choir, uncomplemented by any younger voices.) Those synagogues operated under the watchful eye of lay elders and state-sanctioned rabbis who were themselves perceived to be (and often actually were) loyal Communists—even ready to inform if necessary.
The short-lived late 1960s/1970s phenomenon of defiant but jubilant youthful gatherings in the Moscow and Leningrad synagogues every year on the eve of the holyday of Simhat Torah seemed as if it were auguring a resurgence. But ithad more to do with a combination of unarticulated protest at Soviet emigration restrictions, general social solidarity, and extra-religious self-discovery and identity than with any demand for return to Jewish religious life or for the education needed to participate in it. Those outpourings did not alter the elderly complexion of the regularly worshipping congregations that dated to the immediate post-Revolution era, nor did they reignite any continuum.
The immigrant-generation American Jews who were seduced into naïve admiration for the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, however, were often not the ones concerned with religious perpetuation. But those who were had no reason not to believe the Party line—to the effect that the elimination of the czar and a regime “of the people” had removed all antisemitic policies, which would logically have included religious as well as secular manifestations. The Moscow and Leningrad synagogues were, after all, open. (The latter had been closed initially by the Bolsheviks but had been reopened, and it boasted a young virtuoso cantor, Pierre Pinchik [Pinchas Segal], who would later emigrate to America and become one of the giants of all time in the art of hazzanut.) Information about Jewish life in the outlying regions of the former Czarist Empire (apart from newly independent Poland)—and information about the fate of those who might have resisted forced urbanization and pressures against religious practice—was hard to come by at a time when controlled secrecy was the order of the day.
American Jews with abiding interest in secular Yiddish culture could not have had any appreciation of the political nuances of the Communist motivations behind its encouragement, so that even many affirmed non- and anti-Communists among them continued to express some congeniality toward the Soviet Union—until the Stalin era disenchanted all but the dyed-in-the-wool American Communists and Communist apologists.
All these dynamics fed the mounting fear of an enlarged immigrant population. American Jews—immigrants, their succeeding generation, and sometimes even those of the German-Jewish establishment who had come to their rescue—came to be seen, by those who were predisposed to view Jews in a bad light, as collectively sympathetic in principle to the Communist cause, as potential agents of Communist infiltration and influence, and as new candidates for Communist Party membership. This provided one of the rationales for even further restrictions on immigration.
That campaign reached its apogee in 1924, bolstered by new, partly U.S. Army-based “studies” masquerading as scientific research that purported to confirm the genetic inferiority and proclivities for immoral behavior of eastern and southern Europeans—foreshadowing analogous Aryan fantasies of the National Socialists in Germany and, later in the 20th century, the twisted twaddle of an American, Dr. William B. Shockley. The resulting 1924 provisions based immigration quotas on 1890 figures rather than the larger numbers of the 1910 census. By that new system, only between 5,000 and 6,000 Polish Jews could immigrate per year, and no more than about 2,000 Jews from the Soviet Union, or so-called Russian Jews—if, of course, they could leave. The number permitted annually from Romania was negligible. Thus 1924 saw the curtain on the mass immigration era, though not only for Jews.
By the postwar period, the involvement in socialist and other left-wing movements—and certainly the dalliance with now discredited Communism—had become pretty much a chapter of an American Jewish past. That chapter, along with other, less-inflammatory aspects of the immigrant experience, was largely downplayed if not deliberately ignored among most of American Jewry. This was true even among the lingering, more circumscribed world of secular Yiddishists who nonetheless continued in several cities to pursue their own cultural activities and to send their children, albeit in steadily declining numbers over the ensuing decades, to nonreligious Yiddish afternoon and weekend schools and similarly oriented summer camps (the Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz schools of the Arbeter Ring [Workmen’s Circle], and the Sholem Aleichem network or Camps Boiberik, Kinderland, and Kinder Ring, for example). The Jewish culture, history, and values taught in schools, summer camps, and clubs continued to focus on Yiddish literary and musical expressions of Judaically derived humanism as well as on secular guises of Jewish religious traditions, but outright political expressions had already become dampened.
In the 1950s and 1960s, former impoverished circumstances, primitive habits and tastes, and the coarser aspects of urban folk culture had yet to be evoked with pride by the generations that had risen above those features of the immigrant experience. They were about to be recalled and celebrated, however, with the encouragement of academic reevaluation within the burgeoning field of ethnology. American Jewry was even less interested during those two decades in reminding itself or calling attention to disavowed political involvements that were understood to be left of the perceived, legitimized liberalism of the Democratic Party of that period—apart from the racial stance of its southern constituencies.
The Jewish presence in American socialism as a specific movement outside or in opposition to the basic two-party system—the historical significance and positive effects of which need not be discounted or disparaged—was already greatly diminished by the Second World War. It had begun its numerical decline well before that. In the postwar decades, to no one’s surprise, it was only in the greater New York City area that there were any significant remaining sediments, since the area’s overwhelming majority of America’s Jewish population and its unmatched Jewish diversity could still accommodate the continuation of virtually every shade and type of affiliation or activity. There, highly visible Yiddishist cultural events (including for a long time those involving the farthest-left choruses) as well as more directly political gatherings could give the false impression that Jewish socialism or at least socialist strains were “alive and well” as late as the 1960s, even though much of it could be attributed to nostalgia.
But the persisting afterlife of socialist-tinged Jewish activities should be seen in the wider context of New York’s continuing but unique postwar receptivity to alternative political movements and parties—those that were merely a bit left of center as well as truly left wing, and other movements neither right nor left. As late as 1964, for example, probably no other city could successfully have played host to a mass rally by a third party—the Liberal Party of New York State—at a venue such as Madison Square Garden, which was filled to capacity in support of the reelection campaign of President Lyndon Johnson and designated state and local candidates. (The Liberal Party—founded as an anti-Communist alternative to the American Labor Party—nominates and thus endorses other parties’ candidates whose progressive positions are in line with its own.) Among those who addressed the capacity crowd that evening, in addition to President Johnson, was A. Philip Randolph, former president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a major figure among the nation’s black leadership and an eloquent spokesman for the Civil Rights movement. Carol Channing, who was appearing at the time on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!,came by from her dressing room at the theater—only partially made up and with her hair still in curlers—to sing “Hello, Lyndon!”
Hundreds if not thousands of former Jewish socialists were in attendance, many of whom had once been active in socialist parties and some of whom were still members of the Arbeter Ring. Even though ballots still had provisions for multiple parties, including the Socialist Labor Party and the Socialist Workers Party, all of them were obviously voting for President Johnson. Although some had no doubt voted for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas in 1936, most, depending on their age, had probably voted for President Roosevelt in all four of his campaigns.
Ranging across party lines, most of American Jewry by the 1950s—including its most politically liberal elements—largely avoided reference to, much less celebration of, the past involvement of its small minority in socialism. This was not merely out of reticence to call attention to that experience in the hostile postwar and Cold War climate of heightened suspicion of the left. Naturally, the old Jewish fear of association with Communism (whose distinction from socialism was, and often still is, lost on most Americans) played a role. But an equally operative dynamic probably resided in the fact that by then so many of the children and grandchildren of Yiddish-speaking and other Jewish socialists were typically invested in the American capitalist system—either in the professions or in the business world, or at least on their way.
Moreover, they would insist that many of Jewish socialism’s old demands—particularly those of the socialist-leaning Arbeter Ring—had long ago been incorporated and assimilated into law and the basic American expectations and cushions of an equitable and just society: Social Security, the eight-hour workday for the labor forces, workmen’s compensation, safe working conditions, the right to organize, union contracts and collective bargaining, federal assistance for the disadvantaged, and regulation of child labor, among other ideals; and programs such as Medicare, for which the seeds of a campaign were already being sown in advance of the Kennedy campaign in 1960, were yet to come.
But socialism as a distinct political movement promoting a particular ideology had lost whatever thrust it once may have had. Its formal, active adherence was now more or less confined to a fringe. It had become as exotic as it was irrelevant in postwar America, and the episode of Jewish involvement still awaited its retrospective, romanticized clothing
The design and stitching of that attire began on a new popular plane in the early-to-mid 1970s with the launch of a trend toward prideful, self-confident, and heightened attention to the eastern European immigrant experience. Intended as a genuine effort to extend historical appreciation beyond the readership of existing intellectual and literary sources, that aggregate effort would supposedly find easier reception with the benefit of greater perspective and hard-won security. For the first time in such transparent public view, that exploration was pursued with no shield against revelations or awareness of the full range of American Jewry’s past political predilections, activities, and directions. Indeed, its leftist history was now openly trumpeted as part of the overall inclusive exploration—one that perhaps betrayed a wafting if subliminal scent of influence of the so-called youth counterculture of the time and its dilettantish flirtation with revolutionary slogans and fantasies.
The expanding profusion of related projects was conceived partly in anticipation of the American bicentennial in 1976. It was also an offshoot of the widespread and growing fascination with political and social exotica that had been born in the 1960s, as well as a response to the public’s burgeoning interest in its diverse ethnicities and their role in the nation’s history. By the 21st century the field had become inundated with a surfeit of newly made and newly available recordings, school curricula, quasi-historical popular accounts, photographic exhibitions and coffee table books, radio and television programs, songbooks, anthologies, and documentary films—all devoted to excavating the immigrant experience.
Almost without exception, these instruments have ignored the more artistically oriented Yiddish culture that did flourish (albeit among smaller circles) in the later part of the immigrant era—the cantata in this volume, for example, or serious Yiddish literature—in favor of exposing and extolling the Yiddish urban folk culture of former mass appeal.
Yet many of those coarser songs and other entertainments—with topical references, localized situational humor, and evocation of stock characters and personalities—are fundamentally period-bound, with little if any contemporary resonance when divorced from the contexts that give them sociological meaning and valuable ethnological significance. American Jewry, including much of its predominant sector with eastern European roots, would have found much of this material embarrassing in the 1940s and 1950s, when stereotypical photographic images in print featured “respectable,” well-dressed families at the Sabbath table, at seders, or on their way to modern synagogues, rather than the frayed pictures of pack-laden peddlers on New York’s Lower East Side, cigar rollers, sweatshops, overcrowded tenements, pushcarts, vaudeville entertainers, street demonstrations, and Labor Day rallies and marches became ubiquitous thirty years later as proud illustrations of its humble but defiant beginnings.
At the same time, these post-1970s vehicles—especially the elaborate documentary productions, but also many of the more strictly musical reflections—tended to glorify and magnify the socialist parameters of immigrant-era Jewry. It has sometimes been made to appear as if the ideology of socialism and organized labor commitments were dominant forces, trailed only secondarily in the pre–World War I years by more radical anarchist and revolutionary seductions. In reality, socialist participation and, to a lesser degree, sympathies have been puffed far out of proportion to the actual numbers involved—and to the sentiments that prevailed among the majority at any given time.
Apart from the popular appetite for romantic illusion, an explanation for this after-the-fact distortion may lie in the public attention attracted by socialist activity and left-wing labor movements in their day, and in the related accumulation of one-sided contemporaneous intellectual and ideological literature that has little or no anti- or nonsocialist counterpart. Rallies, parades, and other public meetings and protests, fortified and galvanized by—as well as reflected in—columns, editorials, pamphlets, and tracts made more noise and created more stir than the daily work-filled life of the average immigrant who continued to operate within the system in which he expected sooner or later to prosper. Moreover, those who were not lured by socialist remedies for delay or disappointment did not routinely express their ideological disinterest or rejection in theoretical or propagandist writings or public forums—except perhaps, mostly with humor, via the stage. Vocal minority protest is by its very nature louder than quiet but optimistic majority acquiescence.
Without statistical research with regard to party and organizational memberships, it is also easy to be misled by the sheer volume of musical and poetic residue. Both socialist and farther left sentiments and activities inspired hundreds of Yiddish songs and poems, in addition to polemical prose. Tenacious pursuit of economic betterment within the system did not. But it is more than a safe bet that far more immigrant-era Jews sang or knew the apolitical songs of Second Avenue stages, some nostalgic but politically neutral Yiddish folksongs learned in Europe, and even the tunes if not the English words of current American popular songs than were familiar with the so-called “sweatshop songs” or the labor poets.
Hundreds of Second Avenue plots and story lines—virtually all of which eschewed socialism and, if they were set in America, celebrated instead its societal provision for upward social as well as economic mobility—are a far more realistic barometer of the political attitudes of the vast majority. Socialism, which never characterized the heroes or heroines onstage, was routinely mocked in those musicals—if, for example, an acquaintance, a sibling, a cousin, or perhaps a prospective brother-in-law became drawn to such ideals. (See, for example, Joseph Rumshinsky’s Fifty-fifty—a spoof on contemporaneous socialist musings that illustrates that prevailing current.)
That antisocialist orientation persisted throughout the life of the Yiddish musical theater. Even during the worst years of the Great Depression, Second Avenue—which continued as the primary entertainment for the masses—reflected no change in attitude.
The scripts of Second Avenue productions, however, were never published or otherwise circulated, nor have written synopses been available. Without the painstaking original research pursued by the Milken Archive to locate and reconstruct them—often from primitively typed fragments and conflicting versions or stages of completion, and sometimes even from handwritten pencil drafts filled with margin notes (see in the notes to Volume 13)—they have not been available for scholarly assessment that could serve as a counterweight to prevailing conclusions about the degree of Jewish involvement in socialism. Similarly, popular prose of the shund variety would better round out the picture. But until recently, scholars have tended to ignore that (often vulgar) resource, even with regard to surviving documents.
Equally revealing on an intersecting plane is a chronological perusal of the Yiddish sections or contents of songbooks and anthologies published in America during the 20th century and intended for popular consumption or for use in schools apart from those specifically under auspices of left-leaning Yiddishist organizations. Many of those published prior to the 1970s include a selection of Yiddish folk or folklorized songs, almost exclusively European in provenance and with accompanying translations or singable English versions (sometimes with adapted English text underlay). But only rarely can one find in them any of the American-born, politically overtoned songs with lyrics by the serious labor and socialist poets—songs that reflected disillusionment with American society, protests at economic injustice, socialist sentiments, or hints at nonbelligerent socialist remedies. Even folklorist Ruth Rubin, who did not always hide her partiality to the Soviet Union and, in her choice of material, her acceptance of its claims of pro-Jewish policies, included only two such songs in her 1950 collection, A Treasury of Jewish Folksong. The texts of both are by Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923), one of the most important (but not the most radical) labor poets, who became known in America as “the poet of the sweatshop” after Upton Sinclair referred to him in 1915 as “the genuine voice of the sweatshop workers.” At least one of those two poems stemmed from his European years, and both are relatively mild in tone, without outright calls for action; they are presented in her publication without editorial commentary referring to their socialist or revolutionary significance. The Songs We Sing, the much more widely disseminated volume compiled and edited by Harry Coopersmith and published the same year by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, contained no socialist or labor-related songs whatsoever in its Yiddish section.
|Hundreds of Second Avenue plots and story lines—virtually all of which eschewed socialism and celebrated upward social and economic mobility—are a far more realistic barometer of the political attitudes of the vast majority of immigrant-era American Jews.
Mir trogn a gezang: The New Book of Yiddish Songs, the first anthology to bring to wider public attention a judiciously annotated sampling of songs by important Yiddish labor, socialist, and even revolutionary poets, was compiled and edited by Eleanor Gordon [Chana] Mlotek and published in 1972 by the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) Education Department. A heterogeneous compilation that also embraced a variety of themes, it was intended not only for Workmen’s Circle audiences but also for those completely outside and divorced from Yiddish-speaking or leftist-oriented groups; and in that it succeeded admirably, obviously filling a gap and answering a need. It juxtaposed the American-born songs of social protest and consciousness against those emanating from Europe but which once enjoyed equal currency on both sides of the Atlantic. The four representative songs of this category that appear in Volume 12 of the Milken Archive are contained in Selections from Mir trogn a gezang, recorded in newly commissioned artistic choral arrangements.
These songs and poems—and especially the political uses to which they were put—represent only one aspect of the immigrant experience. Still, although they eluded the collective awareness of the greater masses, they are important as documents of currents, which, though not numerically preponderant, are of historical significance. The two Rosenfeld songs are also remembered, probably more than most others in this category, for their literary and melodic merits.
Songs of the American Jewish Experience: A Bicentennial Presentation—an anthology published three years later by the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago (later reissued by Tara Publications)—was even bolder in its inclusive approach to the song repertoires of radical movements. Perspective is not lacking, for these appear in one section (out of twenty-two) under the heading “The Struggle,” while in another section there is nearly an equal number of so-called patriotic songs from the same time frame and afterward, applauding the virtues of American society in English and Hebrew as well as Yiddish: songs such as Elayikh artzi amerika (To Thee, My Land, America!), offering thanks “for all the things you are, my blessed country”; Ikh dank dir got far amerike (I Thank You, God, for America), admonishing that “Jews should never forget that this is the best home they have ever had”; Ikh hob dikh lib amerike (I Love You, America), which reminds American Jews always to defend its flag “to the last”; Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which, in a Yiddish version, was a standard hymn sung at Arbeter Ring meetings almost from the moment it was introduced to the public; and Amerike mayn vunderland (America, My Wonderland), proclaiming the nation a land of “freedom and joy for rich and poor alike”—a song by Mikhl Gelbart with words by Nahum Yud that was especially popular among children at Workmen’s Circle and other politically midstream Yiddish summer camps.
Unlike Mlotek’s compilation, that bicentennial anthology was not devoted exclusively to Yiddish or to secular songs; and its focus was limited to the United States. Nor was it conceived to emphasize left-wing political sentiments over others. Its purpose was to expose the entire gamut of the American Jewish experience, which it did through samples from the Colonial era through the early 1970s. Still, some of its far-left contents would have been excluded from publication a decade earlier by virtually any mainstream Jewish agency. Its songs to words by Morris Winchevsky (1856–1933), for example—who settled in the United States in 1894 and became regarded by some as “the first Yiddish proletarian poet” as well as a founder of the socialist press—speak of bringing to the streets “arms for the oppressed” (Frayhayts gayst) and urge workers who are readying themselves for the coming revolution to “fight capitalism” and “oppose the rich tyrants” in cooperation with their victims everywhere (Hert ir kinder).
Another song to an Edelstadt poem (Arbeter froyen) calls upon Jewish women to be inspired by their “Russian sisters who were killed by the czar in the struggles for freedom.” Even anarchist sentiments—overall opposition in principle to any state as an enemy of individuality—are reflected in a song such as Vos vet zayn der sof? (What Will Be the Outcome?), which the poet Isaac Reingold (1873–1903) wrote in response to the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago in 1886. Admonishing workers for their silent and permanent acceptance of their enslavement, he encouraged them to rouse themselves from their lethargy: “You create a good life for others, but you prepare only a slow death for yourselves.”
In retrospect, one might almost marvel that a major Jewish communal agency, servicing more than fifty congregational and day schools and funded principally by the umbrella Jewish Federation, which represents the mainstream establishment, did not shrink from acknowledging so openly that part of American Jewry’s past—however much it might have been relegated to a fringe. The more so since that publication and the similarly inclusive curricular and program materials issued by it and its sister bureaus (the Chicago case is only one example) were aimed primarily at schools, although some of them transcended that function to become general resources for the interested Jewish public.
By the 1970s, however, American Jewry had come to feel more secure than ever in its recently achieved level of social arrival. The old fear of antisemitic suspicion regarding Jewish loyalty—the canard that Jews were collectively if secretly adherents of Communism or apologists for the Soviet Union, or both, as part of an overall agenda for transnational dominance—was by then greatly diminished and of minimal concern. Even the small but once more conspicuous Jewish intellectual and artistic coteries (concentrated for the most part on the East and West coasts) that had succumbed to the appeal of Communist doctrines in the 1930s and had fallen for Soviet propaganda about its supposed successes, had already begun to be disabused by the 1940s. With further attrition by the 1950s, many of the remaining hangers-on outside hard-core cells with negligible political influence had become naïve “parlor” sympathizers—hypocritically clinging to Communist apologetics and beguilements from the comfort of economic circumstances that, whatever their occupation, could have been attained only in a capitalist society and for the most part only in America.
By the bicentennial, that entire phase no longer posed a serious liability for American Jewry. Moreover, any lingering charges of Jewish friendliness toward the Soviet Union, its Communist system, or the Revolution from which it had evolved, were hardly plausible at a time when organized American Jewry was publicly galvanized to pressure the Soviet Union—now understood as an agent of Jewish subjugation as well as confinement—to permit unrestricted Jewish emigration. Save Soviet Jewry placards adorned parking lots and entryways of synagogues across the country.
We can hypothesize about an additional dynamic in the atmosphere of the time, which might have reduced the reluctance to expose and celebrate the Jewish socialist past in terms of its early advocacy of social justice. American Jewry had, as a group, wholeheartedly embraced and assisted the civil rights movement in the 1960s only to experience an unfortunate rift with some among the now diversified black leadership and their followers after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—an unshakable and genuine friend of the Jewish people. For much of the Jewish leadership, especially within the Reform and Conservative movements, finding some common ground in historical struggles for a more fair and equitable society could not hurt in the efforts to mend that rift.
Also, the student protest movements and antimaterialistic left or pseudo-left agitations that engulfed campuses throughout the nation were not without some influence on the parent generations in raising wider social consciousness. Inviting attention to an exaggerated socialist past—especially through so seemingly harmless a medium as archaic Yiddish songs—was perhaps one way of reconfirming American Jewry’s liberal credentials and their foundations. And indeed, that measure of pride was not without a kernel of truth. Socialist parties had, like other legitimate third parties, a history of contributing ideas to the debates between the two major parties that could sometimes have beneficial results. One can imagine that American Jewry would not have been averse to claiming its share of credit.
Still, the resuscitation of leftist Yiddish song repertoires that was spawned initially by bicentennial materials and programming—typically supplemented by interweaving but often amateurish narrative commentary and stirring archival photographic images of parades and rallies—tended to create a skewed impression of the degree and weight of American Jewry’s past political tilts. The overimagined story line and overclaimed credit made their way into freshly fashioned accounts that have been broadcast into the 21st century.
As many of the immigrants soon experienced a level of exploitation beyond what they might have anticipated—at the hands of Jewish as well as non-Jewish owners and managers (the hated “bosses” in popular socialist literature)—“America the ganef (thief)” became a familiar theme of disillusionment and even bitterness in songs, poems, dramas, and other vehicles. That epithet referred to perceptions of stolen youth, dreams, and time with families, as well as severed ties to relatives left behind in Europe. Such sentiments were expressed not only in serious poems such as Rosenfeld’s Mayn yingele and Mayn rue plats, but also in songs of contemporaneous popular entertainment. One of the most famous songs of the era, for example, is Di grine kuzine (The “Greenhorn” Cousin), written in 1921 by Abe Schwartz with lyrics by Jacob Leiserowitz and Hyman Prizant. Having slaved away in a millinery shop “collecting paydays” for a lifetime, until she was nothing but a wreck, a once healthy and beautiful young immigrant proclaims that “Columbus’s land can go to hell!” Like many other songs of that period with similar denunciations, however, it is still a satirical, humorous, and perhaps even accepting song, not a call to arms.
More numerous by far on theatrical and vaudeville stages were songs such as the aforementioned 1915 hit Lebn zol kolumbus (Long Live Columbus!) by Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl, with lyrics by Boris Thomashevsky. A toast to America’s boundless opportunities, it was sung in the context of its surrounding musical comedy, Der grine milyoner (The New Millionaire), by two immigrant roommates living and barely subsisting in a tiny coal cellar. So soundly did this song resonate with tenacious immigrant-era optimism that it quickly became popular as an independent rendition, its strains wafting from vaudeville houses, music halls, cabarets, floor shows, and bandstands.
The ganef theme notwithstanding, very few immigrants returned or seriously considered returning to Europe in the face of disappointment at delayed or postponed prosperity. (The small handful that did return mostly comprised those who were unwilling to compromise their orthodoxy when confronted with the near impossibility of maintaining halakhic observance in the new environment.) The goldene medina conceit has been overplayed as a literal European expectation of what awaited immigrants in the new country. Most came prepared for struggle, but struggle that would produce results better than anything available or attainable for them in Europe. The vast majority continued to reassure themselves that patience and relentless work within the system would eventually pay off—if not for them, then certainly for their children. Even so, the number of first-generation immigrants who did manage significantly to improve their own economic circumstances and live to enjoy them—in some cases acquiring the ability to participate in meaningful charitable efforts and, especially, to enable the founding of new synagogues and the construction of their edifices—is higher than is usually assumed.
Perhaps more important to the retention of confidence in their decision to uproot themselves was the immigrants’ understanding that, unlike in Europe even in its most lenient phases and regions, in America the law was, in theory, neither their adversary nor a vehicle for restrictions on Jews as Jews. The extralegal combination of societal prejudice and economic disadvantage had still to be overcome, but the American brands of social, socioeconomic, or religiously taught antisemitism were neither creatures nor provisions of American jurisprudence. For the first time in their experience—apart from the battles over immigration legislation—the law did not, and could not threaten to, define Jews separately once they had passed through the nation’s portals.
The exaggerated perceptions of immigrant-era Jewry’s aggregate involvement in socialism are refuted by the numbers, which speak for themselves. A comparative consideration of the Arbeter Ring’s history in that regard, for example, yields some revealing insights. It identified itself broadly and loosely as a socialist or socialist-inclined (but explicitly anti-Communist and, after the 1920s, anti-Soviet Union) organization until the postwar period or later, when the socialist parameter had lost much of its practical significance. Its socialist orientation and sympathies, however, were relatively modest by comparison with other organizations whose raisons-d’être were more narrowly political and tied to concrete ideologies, programs, and agendas. The Arbeter Ring was never a political party or even a quasi-party, and its constituent branches in numerous cities have typically included secular-oriented Jews across a varied spectrum of left-leaning political affiliations. Moreover, its socialist associations and activities were part of its wider cultural, fraternal, mutual aid, and humanistic identity, so that over the years since its founding in 1892 (and its formal chartering on a national basis in 1900), many of its members never voted for a Socialist Party candidate.
Given that degree of inclusiveness, the Arbeter Ring’s membership was understandably larger than the combined formal (“card-carrying”) Jewish component of the Socialist Party, its offshoots, and other left-wing labor parties or movements. (It is of course difficult to arrive at anything near precise figures applicable to the Socialist Party’s Jewish membership, since individual members’ ethnicities, religion, or religious backgrounds were not designated or officially indicated.) Yet its peak national membership was at most 100,000. But the total United States Jewish population is estimated to have ranged throughout the 1930s and 1940s, when the Arbeter Ring was at its maximum, from four to five million. The maximum membership of the much farther left Ordn (the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order and/or the Jewish Workers Alliance) was about half that of the Arbeter Ring.
It is true that, beginning with the first Roosevelt administration in 1933 and thereafter increasingly, a significant number of Jews—including many Arbeter Ring members—abandoned their former socialist identities and circles altogether to join the overwhelming majority of American Jews by pinning their hopes instead on President Roosevelt’s domestic recovery programs and by realigning themselves as “New Deal Democrats.” (In 1936, on the other hand, there were still many vocal proponents of patriotic socialism within the Arbeter Ring, and they voted for the Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas.) But that political readjustment did not ipso facto involve leaving the Arbeter Ring, which had no political litmus tests and retained its appeal through its cultural, educational, and other benefits.
The peak membership of the Labor Zionist Organization of America—Po’alei Zion (Labor Zionist Farband), a mostly Yiddish-speaking United States branch of the Socialist Zionist party that represented a synthesis of socialism and Jewish nationalism was far smaller. (The Arbeter Ring was, at least before 1948, decidedly non-Zionist, but never anti-Zionist.) The Labor Zionists were more concentrated in the Northeast, particularly in the greater New York area, whereas the Arbeter Ring had vibrant branches across the country as far west as Los Angeles. Both organizations made valuable contributions to Yiddish culture in America, but neither ever represented more than a small minority of American Jewry.
Few immigrants who thought of themselves at one time or another as socialists—to whatever degree—actually espoused authentic proletarian-driven ideologies that would have glorified a permanent but improved working-class status over prized American upward mobility. While they sought to obtain government programs and legislation to advance causes of social justice, economic betterment, a more equitable society, and remedial provisions for those at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, few were actually prepared to renounce aspirations to capitalism entirely.
To the contrary, most were, in retrospect, at best “temporary socialists” who would have preferred ideally to own or manage their own business concerns—however modest—rather than to remain by choice members of an idealized working class. It would have been a safe bet at any juncture of the immigrant experience that seamstresses, cigar rollers, hat or cloak makers, barbers, taxi drivers, vest stitchers, or finishers still aspired—to the extent that it was realistic—to own their own dress shops, tobacco stands, millinery salons, barbershops, taxis, and clothing stores even as they labored under sweatshop conditions and joined in organized socialist protests to alleviate the harshness of their circumstances. Even fewer inculcated in their children true proletarian ideologies, hoping instead that they would advance to become owners or managers of wholesale or retail concerns or practitioners of professions—in both cases as beneficiaries of America’s fundamentally free enterprise society that could nonetheless allow for redress of egregious inequities, imbalances, or institutionalized barriers to equality of opportunity.
It is undeniable that some of the ideas and measures advocated by socialists eventually were accepted by a large segment of America as part of its vision of fair play and as part of its evolving democratic, constitutional heritage. And for veteran Arbeter Ring members, Labor Zionists, and Jewish labor movement activists would proudly and often appropriately claim their share of credit.
But the overwhelming majority of immigrant-era Jews did not even go so far as to flirt with socialism as an organized ideological force or as a competing strategy for bettering their lives. They were not easily dissuaded from their faith in the future and their ability eventually to overcome deprivations and hurdles without undoing the existing system; and nearly all realized that despite disappointments at realities that might have turned out to be harsher than they had anticipated, they were and would continue to be better off in America than they would have been in Europe. Calls for redistribution of wealth had little appeal even for the least comfortable among them—not because, as revolutionary ideologues would have charged, they were ready to accept permanent poverty or humble circumstances out of docility or lethargy, but because they looked forward to a time when they or their children would have, if not wealth, then at least sufficient means, which they would not want redistributed. On the other hand, to be in a position someday to be able to share their means through voluntary charitable undertakings could be—just after economic and social arrival for their own sake—an incentive to persist.
Moreover, they understood that support through the inherently American democratic process for reasonable government protections and for the cushions required by any civilized society was not to be conflated with any commitment to demolishing the basic order and replacing it with a proletarian-driven alternative. In the 1930s, when American Jews almost universally stood behind the Roosevelt administration, they did not view the New Deal’s intended relief from the severe consequences of the Depression and its mechanisms for regulation and for restraint of exploitation as in any way socialist. To the contrary, they acknowledged, even if subliminally—along with their non-Jewish fellow Democrats or Democratic Party voters—that the very survival of the basically capitalist, unplanned economy and of American political institutions depended on such bold reinforcement at a time when the system itself was under assault from the far left. They remained confident that they and their families could ultimately thrive without turning to socialism or to any of the socialist or labor parties. The road might be longer than they had expected when they landed on America’s shores, but their turn would come.
It is to the socialist-leaning Yiddish choruses, however, that we owe the inspiration and creation of a rich body of sophisticated Yiddish choral literature. Poet and playwright Peretz Hirschbein’s classic song, A malakh veynt (An Angel Weeps), is typical of the many arrangements made by Lazar Weiner for the Abeter Ring Khor (Workmen’s Circle Chorus) during his long tenure as its director. Over the years, a sizable corpus of larger musical-dramatic works were written expressly not only for that chorus and its affiliates across the country but also for those of the Labor Zionist Farband, the Ordn, and other similarly oriented ensembles whose focus lay on Yiddish cultural exposition in addition to advocacy of social consciousness. The original repertoire of those choruses was mostly limited to arrangements of workers’ songs. But as they evolved, they became capable of learning and performing more serious works that could appeal to wider audiences while still reflecting their extramusical missions.
Dozens of cantatas were written expressly for those choruses by such composers as Weiner, Leo Low, Maurice Rauch, Vladimir Heifetz, Meyer Posner, Jacob Schaeffer, Eugene Malek, and Samuel Bugatch. Most of these cantatas contain social messages and, in some cases, sentiments of protest. Lazar Weiner’s Legend of Toil concerns impoverished and exploited coal miners. His The Last Judgment (forthcoming in Volume 17), the libretto of which is based on one of the most famous stories by Isaac Leyb Peretz, Bontshe Shvayg (Bontshe the Silent), explores the intricacies of that tale (which has been interpreted in various ways) about a relentlessly abused and victimized Jew who appears to suffer his torments and indignations in silence. When—as a compensatory reward upon his entry into the next world—he is offered the prompt fulfillment of any request he might make, he chooses the simplest of material pleasures over anything that might benefit humanity or change the world.
Maurice Rauch’s cantata Oyb nit nokh hekher (If Not Higher), to a libretto by the esteemed Yiddishist Itzik Goldberg, is based on and titled after another Peretz story, which places a higher value on human kindness and concern for the less fortunate than on mandated ritual observances and practices—and perhaps thus on action over prayer and humanism over religion in its commonly understood sense. Among the many other composers who have addressed this story was Sholom Secunda, whose cantata—based on an English version and titled If Not Higher—was written for the world-renowned American operatic tenor and hazzan, Richard Tucker, who premiered the work. Leo Low’s Rosh Hashana Lilanot (New Year for the Trees) is a tribute to nature—less profound than the other cantatas here but charming in its evocations.
These cantatas are documents of Yiddish culture that underscore its social as well as literary dimensions. Yet they also transcend those functions and messages through their wider, underlying secular humanism and universal perspectives as well as in their objective musical merits. In these respects they represent a high point of the immigrant experience and the artistic creativity to which a part of it led.