A once well-circulated and colorful anecdote in the lore of the American Jewish attitudes toward Zionism and the State of Israel still succeeds in illustrating the vast, unbridgeable distance between the extreme ends of a field of diverse sentiments and leanings. The story—probably apocryphal and no doubt embellished (though some insist on its factual basis)—centers around a putative exchange in 1948 between two unrelenting but otherwise mutually hostile and radically divergent opponents of modern Zionism. While President Truman was known (or thought) to be deciding on his ultimate position vis-à-vis the nascent Jewish state and its imminent declaration of sovereignty, the president of the American Council for Judaism is said to have sent a telegram to the Szatmár Rebbe(the charismatic leader of the right-wing insular Hassidic dynasty from Hungary that had been transplanted in America after the war). In that communication he suggested that they might collaborate in devising a strategy to dissuade President Truman from granting official United States recognition of Israel.
Founded in 1942, when the mainstream of the Reform movement, its new generations, and its leadership had abandoned and indeed reversed its former anti-Zionist stance, the American Council for Judaism (which still technically exists in obscurity with a small mailing list, a numerically irrelevant membership, and a minuscule operating budget) had as its raison d’être the active, even virulent opposition to any form of Zionism—including the very notion of a Jewish state. Its adherents at the time were primarily socially and culturally assimilated Jews whose religious affiliation remained largely within the Reform fold—albeit by then on the outskirts of the movement with respect to Zionist sympathies. The council denied all concepts of peoplehood, ethnicity, or remaining historic nationality, maintaining that “Jewish” as an adjective was applicable exclusively to a particular religion or faith. Judaism in that construct was, as it had been for the 19th-century Reform leadership, devoid of any ethnic or national connection, or anything beyond a range of organized belief systems, spiritual considerations, and related worship practices. A Jewish state, therefore, was no more valid than a Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, or Christian Science sovereign nation. In the council’s scenario, in which the ultimate Zion was now on its own shores, American Zionism or Zionist sympathies could suggest divided political loyalties—even disloyalty—and the chauvinistic evils of nationalism per se. Even four years after the state’s formal birth, the council described Zionism as racially driven, segregationist, and un-American.
The Szatmár Rebbe is said to have replied that even though the two of them shared a common goal in trying to prevent a modern Jewish state in the former Palestine, and to forestall its American recognition, he could not collaborate or in any way be associated with the council in that endeavor. The council, he explained, opposed the existence of a sovereign state precisely because it would be Jewish. The rebbe and his followers, on the other hand, opposed it because, according to their religious tenets, it would not be Jewish. Modern Zionism had been a secular enterprise all along; the new state would now be a modern secular liberal democracy rather than the biblically predicted and assured theocratic polity—the culmination of messianic redemption from exile, return to Zion, and restoration of the ancient Temple for which orthodoxy fervently prayed. For Hassidism in particular, that redemption would follow the spiritual repair of a broken world (tikkun olam). There could be no alliance of the minds between those two spokesmen.
Between those two extreme postures, American Jewry has hosted a broad spectrum of outlooks and positions relating first to Zionism in principle and the Zionist undertaking and then to the State of Israel itself—once the establishment of a recognized sovereign Jewish state transformed the movement’s strivings into a fait accompli that in effect replaced political Zionism as a Diaspora aspiration. As the 20th century progressed, that spectral arc came to encompass virtually every conceivable orientation, viewpoint, and inclination, in all their various shades—ranging from indifference to pride, from purely emotional attachment to cultural identity, from valuable volunteerism to substantial philanthropy, and from political support to hard-core commitment and activity, including espousal by modern orthodoxy and, eventually, even endorsement or acceptance on certain levels by the less-radical dynasties among Hassidim.
Dating to the 19th century, American Zionism has a history and continuum of its own in terms of formal organization and activities in response to the European movement. Going back as far as the Colonial era, with some sympathetic reception to emissaries from the Holy Land seeking aid for its Jewish residents, positive sentiments concerning Zion predate political Zionism. T’rumat Hakodesh,an American organization for the purpose of collecting funds for Jews in dire financial straits in Palestine, was founded in 1832. A year earlier, Isaac Leeser—the traditional-leaning American prototype and herald of the “preaching rabbi” who, as the hazzan-minister of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, initiated sermons in English—had delivered an address in which he spoke for the centrality of the Land of Israel to Jews and Judaism:
Which is the country that the collective nation of Israelites can call their own land? . . . it is the favored land of the East … the land where the once beautiful Jerusalem yet stands although in ruins … the land which is the Israelite’s home and he should always regard himself as having an interest in its soil … be we slaves or citizens, as Jews we should ever regard the non-possession of Palestine as a great national evil which we cannot enough deplore.
As he did with respect to many other, unrelated religious and liturgical issues, Leeser was expressing sentiments about the perpetual and undiminished role of Zion and the Land of Israel in contemporary Judaism that stood in direct opposition to the positions soon to be voiced by many of his counterparts along the path toward organized Reform, as well as by its eventual inaugural platform. That divergence of views is exemplified by the statements of Reform leader Isaac Mayer Wise, who ultimately emerged as the acknowledged founder of the Reform movement and who, in 1869, wrote in the The Jewish Messenger:
On the whole we think it about as well to let the old Jerusalem rest under the accretion of ages as it is described in the Bible and Josephus. The consequence to mankind cannot be found under the rubbish of 2000 years.
Meanwhile, active American Zionism is often said to have begun with the organized support for the efforts to establish Jewish colonies in Palestine. For that purpose a Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) society was founded in New York in 1894. Modeled on the Hovevei Tziyon movement and organization in the Russian Empire, it spawned small branch societies in American cities as far west as Chicago whose membership comprised mostly eastern European immigrants. They did not advocate the idea of an actual Jewish state, or even a politically unified homeland, but—like the original movement in the Czarist Empire—merely colonies for victims of czarist persecution. A few more forward-looking Jews banded together to purchase land in Palestine, with the unfulfilled hope of eventual settlement there, but by the time Theodor Herzl proclaimed to the world his concrete vision and program for a Jewish state in 1896, the Hovevei Zion movement in America had all but fizzled in practical significance—even though a few additional small branches continued to sprout.
Only four American Jews attended the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, which Herzl convened in 1897, and only one of them was an official delegate. But in its wake, buoyed by the challenge and spirit of the young world movement and perhaps by the chance to demonstrate to European counterparts the “arrival” and maturation of American Jewry, Zionist sympathizers in the United States founded their first organization on a national level: the Federation of American Zionists. Although the initial focus of its members remained more narrowly on providing refuge for persecuted and endangered Jews in the Czarist Empire through Zionist-oriented colonization, out of a variety of sometimes divergent motivations they were soon swept up in the broader and bolder aims of the movement. Even for those whose visions of America as their permanent environment for full and equal social, economic, cultural, and eventually political participation as Jews remained firm and undiminished, sincere political Zionist activity and promotion could provide simultaneous connection or reconnection to the continuum of Jewish history and thus to the rest of the Diaspora. Without jeopardizing the American part of their identity, they could now be part of the most exciting, the most radical, and the most positive development to take hold of world Jewry in two thousand years. They could be part of the reinforcement and promulgation of the Zionist conception of an historically reconstituted, single worldwide Jewish people (in some views, partially imagined and oversimplified) whose exile from its rightful land for nearly two millennia was finally approaching its end. Moreover, the new self-reliant, non-messianic nature of that road had never before been envisioned.
From the 1880s on and into the first decade of the 20th century, and then in the years leading up to the First World War, the Balfour Declaration, and General Allenby’s wresting of Jerusalem from the crumbling Ottoman Turkish Empire less than a year before the armistice, Zionist adherents and spokesmen in the United States attempted to find receptive ears among newly arrived and arriving eastern European Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Some were attracted to the cause on purely sentimental levels. But in general they were not about to forgo or replace the hopes and expectations for economic opportunity, social advancement, and new lives in the “golden land” of America that had brought them to its shores in the first place, even in the absence of personal experience with physical persecution in the “old country”—and even, as in many cases, after brief honeymoons disintegrated into desperate struggle and disillusionment for the initial generations.
Some eastern European immigrants became committed to vehemently antinationalist labor or labor-oriented movements such as the American branch of the Bund (in only some cases rooted in earlier involvement in or exposure to those currents in Europe), which precluded Zionist affiliation. A socialist exception was the Labor Zionist Farband (Labor Zionist Organization of America—Po’alei Zion, a United States branch of the Socialist Zionist Party, Po’alei Tsiyon), which represented and offered to Yiddish-speaking working classes a synthesis of socialism and Zionism. Others became attracted to non-Zionist (but not anti-Zionist) socialist or socialist-leaning groups—most conspicuously the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), whose peak national membership was only about 100,000 at most, or, in smaller numbers, to more blatantly Communist-tinged circles and organizations such as the Jewish National Workers Alliance and its affiliate, the Jewish Workers Music Alliance; the Frayhayts Gezang Farayn chorus (Freedom Singing Society); and the Ordn(the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order), which was aligned with the Soviet Union and with Communist Party thought, ideals, and programs, and on some levels with the Party itself.
For the mostly still Yiddish-speaking working classes associated with either the patriotically socialist Arbeter Ring, the internationalist and socialist elements of the wider labor movement, or organizations further to the left, the promise of a better and more equitable future resided in socialism—especially their Yiddishist brand, which could preserve and perpetuate their secular cultural heritage—rather than in Zionism. Moreover, both homegrown socialist and international Communist (and, from the 1920s on, Soviet) propagandist organs were sometimes successful in painting Zionism as an ultimate if veiled tool of capitalism. In that scenario, wealthy Zionist supporters were merely attempting to siphon fuel from socialist movements and to weaken their foothold in the United States; and in a Jewish state, Jewish workers would eventually be exploited by Jewish bosses and entrepreneurs whose business bases now happened to be in Palestine—or worse, manipulated from the West. This was, of course, a ludicrous picture, but it could be effective.
Neither socialism nor the leftist labor movements, however, and less so anarchist or Communist participation, ever attracted more than a minority of the eastern European Jewish immigrants or their succeeding generations—even though those who did participate often created disproportionate ado, perceptions, visibility, and publicity in the largest cities, both then and in retrospect. Post-1960s romanticized accounts have often blown those involvements way out of numerical proportion, as the numbers confirm.
Apart from the Labor Zionists, socialist and other leftist Jewish groups were naturally disinclined to evince interest in any form of brewing Jewish nationalism, even in its modern Hebrew cultural aspects—and certainly not in its political aspirations. Still, once the Jewish state was a reality, their musical adjuncts (the choruses and mandolin orchestras) were not always immune from a measure of pride in its establishment. In 1948, for example, the annual Town Hall concert in New York of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus (essentially the Frayhayts Gezang Farayn), which avoided modern Hebrew altogether, occurred coincidentally only a few days after the proclamation of Israel’s independence and statehood. No acknowledgment of that momentous event was expected at the concert. Yet to the shock of the audience (though not necessarily dismay), the chorus spontaneously burst into “Hatikva,” and much of the audience joined in enthusiastically. The chorus and many among its regular audiences had never accepted the status of “Hatikva” as the “national anthem of the Jewish people,” as it had been proclaimed at the Eighteenth Zionist Congress in Prague in 1933, nor its unofficial status as the de facto anthem of Jewish Palestine under the British Mandate from the end of the First World War until 1947. Now it was the perceived national anthem of a sovereign Jewish state (although not actually so confirmed by the Knesset until 2004).
Four years later, there appears to have been no immovable ideological barrier to a concert tour of Israel by a similarly left-wing choral ensemble: a combined chorus of the Jewish Music Alliance (the organization having previously dropped “Workers” from its name out of caution and political expedience). Even if its participation in that first Israeli-sponsored and hosted international choral festival (the Zimriya) was driven in part out of a sense of kinship with Israel’s labor movements, as well as the socialist dimensions of the newly born state’s gestation period, it was nonetheless also an acknowledgment that the irreversible reality of the Jewish state now rendered opposition meaningless and feigned nonrecognition foolish; and it also represented a postwar apolitical brand of Jewish connectedness.
During the full bloom of the eastern European immigrant era, Zionism did find positive albeit usually simplistic expression in the popular Yiddish theater of the Second Avenue variety. Zionist elements and references were embedded in many of the plots of the shows and in the song lyrics; and many star performers harbored an almost automatic approbation. But deeper and more practical commitment and support in terms of political activity and organizational memberships did not usually derive from that professional theater world. Both within and beyond the borders of the audience base, however, before and after statehood, the Zionist enterprise in principle could find easygoing reception and tacit approval—viz., among the much wider general population comprising those immigrants and their immediately succeeding generations who were uncommitted to any of the specifically left-wing antinationalist Yiddish-speaking groups or to the uncompromising wing of orthodoxy that opposed (or at least remained disinterested in) modern secular Zionism for reasons of traditional religious doctrine. That level and spirit of support could range from simple concern to modest monetary contributions such as donations to the tree-planting campaign of the Jewish National Fund. Eventually, a smaller number of devoted Zionist organization members and activists, who made the Zionist cause and then the needs of the state a significant part of their lives, came from those ranks as well—as did future generations of philanthropists.
The situation was quite different among the entrenched establishment of formerly German or German-speaking Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them thought Zionism was an embarrassing, half-baked, impractical, and fantasy-laden scheme. Even as a well-intended plan for resettlement, it was, for them, irrelevant to American Jewry. At its worst, some believed, it could provoke antisemitism, dredging up and confirming the old trumped-up fabrication of an international Jewish conspiracy for power and domination—so real that it could create a government in temporary exile tied to an imaginary, heretofore landless nation of worldwide Jewry, replete with a proposed Jewish Colonial Bank, and could influence other governments and heads of state to support the program. It could lend credence to the typical antisemitic charge that the Jews’ primary loyalty was not, and never had been, to their own countries of residence.
Moreover, that American Jewish establishment overlapped, and was linked to, the Reform movement, whose official policy at the time was to deny both the notion of a “Jewish people” apart from a religion and to reject any modern significance of the Land of Israel. For them, therefore, Herzl was no more legitimate as a secular messiah than the discredited and now irrelevant one still expected by the orthodox Jews, the Messiah predicted in the Bible and in Hebrew liturgy, whose coming would be heralded by Elijah the Prophet and who—as Maimonides had confirmed centuries earlier—would appear at such time “as it might please the Almighty.” He would preside over a resurrection of the dead and restore the Jews to their land, where they would resume their ancient Temple rituals.
Nevertheless, the early American Zionist adherents who began recruitment efforts in the 1880s refused to be intimidated in their attempts to win over some prosperous members of the German-Jewish Reform establishment. Indeed, they did succeed in finding a few who were inclined to remain open-minded and became persuaded. They lent their support to the cause as early as the Hovevei Zion movement and, after it had dissipated, more so in the wake of the first few Zionist congresses in Europe. Even so, Herzl, Max Nordau, and other principal architects of the world Zionist movement were disappointed throughout that period at what they saw as the sluggishness and inhibited pace of American Zionism.
Later, a small but vocal and important minority among those Reform-infused leadership circles (lay as well as rabbinical) gradually emerged as ardent Zionist proponents, swimming thereafter against the tide of the Reform movement’s official anti-Zionist and antinationalist position. Despite their limited numbers, they played a significant role in the work of the American Zionist Federation even from its early years, and then, strengthened by a new generation of like-minded supporters by the 1930s and 1940s, in its successor umbrella organizations as well as those aimed more narrowly at specific charitable missions in Palestine—and ultimately, of course, in the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).
Among the very few Reform rabbis prior to the 20th century who took an active Zionist stand was Bernhard Felsenthal, whose pride in his self-assessment as the first of the “non-Polish [viz., non–eastern European] American Jews who came publicly forward as an advocate of Zionism” was printed in an 1897 edition of The American Hebrew, an organ of the 19th-century so-called Jewish revival movement.
Felsenthal served the pulpit of Zion Congregation in Chicago from the time of its founding in 1864. He had moved from another rabbinical post in the same city. During the 1860s he was still fully in accord with Reform’s basic principle vis-à-vis repudiation of Jewish nationalism, which was enunciated in the resolutions of a Reform rabbinical conference in 1869 in Philadelphia: namely, that Judaism’s—and therefore Israel’s—embodiment and mission were exclusively religious and spiritual, and in no way nationalistic.
By the last decade of the 19th century Rabbi Felsenthal had reconsidered and radically revised his thinking. In 1891 he was one of the American rabbis to sign on to the potentially inflammatory and much-publicized but short-lived and now little remembered proposal by William E. Blackstone—a devout if eccentric and tencacious Christian in Chicago—for the permanent restoration of the Jewish people to Palestine under international guarantees and protection.
Known as the Blackstone Memorial, the plan went beyond mere colonization schemes to which the Hovevei Zion movement and the American Zionist adherents had been largely restricted up to that point. It called first for the securing of Palestine, through the combined efforts of an international coalition. It would be a permanent, autonomous, and self-governing haven for the oppressed Jews of the Czarist Empire—of whom, he was certain, the Russian imperial government would be more than happy to rid itself, but who, in their full numbers, would not find lasting and unassimilated refuge anywhere else; nor would any land other than Palestine be appropriate. The document opened with the question, “What shall be done for the Russian Jews?” [i.e., the Jews of the Czarist Empire].
That goal was to be accomplished by convening a summit conference of the major European powers—including representatives of Czar Alexander III and the Turkish sultan, Abdul Hamid II—which was to be initiated by the president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, and his secretary of state, James G. Blaine. Blackstone had met personally with them both in order to present his plan and to underscore the need for it, and it was to President Harrison that the proposal was formally addressed. Blackstone considered the ethnic-political restorations under the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 a precedent by which his plan could find diplomatic and historical justification:
Why shall not the powers which under the treaty of Berlin, in 1878, give Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Servia [Serbia] to the Servians [Serbians] now give Palestine back to the Jews? These provinces, as well as Roumania, Montenegro, and Greece were wrested from the Turks and given to their natural owners. Does not Palestine as rightfully belong to the Jews?... If they could have autonomy in government, the Jews of the world would rally to transport and establish their suffering brethren in their time-honored habitation…. We believe this is an appropriate time for all nations, and especially the Christian nations of Europe, to show kindness to Israel…. Let us now restore them the land of which they were so cruelly despoiled by our Roman ancestors.
He also cited the 1884 Berlin Conference that had established the Congo Free State.
Blackstone was convinced that Palestine could be purchased outright from the Ottoman Turkish Empire, while private ownership of land and property would still be “carefully respected and protected.” At the very least, or to begin with, he proposed that any rights of possession could be “easily compensated, possibly by the Jews assuming an equitable portion of the national debt.” In his cover document, he elaborated on his expectation of international Jewish financial support for the acquisition of the land as well as for the costs of resettlement, noting that—notwithstanding the antinationalist and anti-Zionist convictions of “ultra radical, reformed, Jewish rabbis”—the majority of world Jewry, including its prosperous elements, “still cling to their time-honored hopes of national restoration and will quickly respond to any such opportunity with abundant energy, means, and enthusiasm.” In light of the poverty of the Turkish government, funding of a portion of its national debt by Jewish bankers with the necessary means might actually be welcome. Also, he predicted that the “unsettled indemnity claimed by Russia against Turkey” could be used to gain the latter’s cooperation.
He viewed the United States as the logical initiator of the movement because it was on “such friendly terms with Russia” and had “no complications in the Orient.” In a supporting article published in Our Day that same year, he offered practical inducement by alluding to a measure of economic and social self-interest for both America and Europe. If those “Russian Jews” who had already left or felt forced to leave were creating “such friction in the labor and social circles, what shall we see when the four millions are pushed out? One stands appalled before the prospect.” But his principal argument remained rooted in humanitarian concern and Christian charity, if not obligation: “It seems as if the agony and horror of 1492 were to be quadrupled in 1892. Will the Christian nations of this nineteenth century stand by this wreck and launch no life-boat?” The large number of American signatories to the restoration plan confirmed that Palestine, not absorption by any other society or societies, “would be the wisest and most natural solution of the dilemma.”
The language, tone, and supporting biblical references left little doubt that the transfer of “Russian Jews” to Palestine was to be part of a larger, longer-range strategy for the eventual revival of the Jewish people’s—Israel’s—supposed former luster in its ancient biblical land. Nowhere did the proposal contain any suggestion that American or other contented Jewry relocate there, nor was there any hint of delegitimizing the continuation of a voluntary Diaspora in the United States or elsewhere. Nonetheless, apart from the dismissal of certain provisions as impractical or naïve, Blackstone’s underlying motivations were suspect in some quarters as part of an unstated but purportedly hidden agenda: a setup for the eventual Christian Apocalypse and ultimate conversion of the Jews. It is true that the proposal and its cover document, along with the article in Our Day, emphasized the Israelites’ biblical claims to Palestine and the related prophecies and assurance of future reclamation. It referred to the plan as a “privileged opportunity to further the purposes of God concerning His ancient people.” It was signed by several dozen prestigious Christian clergymen representing many diverse Protestant denominations,as well as the Roman Catholic Church (including the archbishops of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore), and by many parochial Christian newspapers and other periodicals; and Blackstone identified himself as “chairman of the Conference of Christians and Jews lately held in Chicago,” referring to an interfaith meeting he had called at a Methodist church there.
None of that Christian enthusiasm or biblical foundation amounted on its face to evidence of any ulterior motives. Blackstone’s own motivations—which can appear mysterious and may still be debatable—could just as easily have arisen from religious ecumenicism coupled with human considerations, as could the support from so many Christian quarters. Nonetheless, as might have been expected, some dyed-in-the-wool anti-Zionist Reform rabbis as well as lay Jewish leaders seized upon that suspicion—whether or not they actually believed it—for convenient and further ammunition in their opposition against any form of Zionism or Jewish nationhood.
No such doubt clouded the reception of the Blackstone Memorial by a significant number of serious as well as astute pro-Zionists of the day, whose focus on what appeared to be the increasingly persecuted and endangered bulk of the Jews in the Czarist Empire—and on the wave of post-1881 pogroms—had been paramount in their backing of the colonization scheme. They accepted the genuine humanitarian concerns behind the proposal. Others insisted that only the stated objective and its realization mattered, regardless of what apocalyptic agendas might be in the minds of non-Jewish supporters.
Rabbi Felsenthal was indeed in the good company of an eclectic and interesting array of signatories that included the future president of the United States, William McKinley; the Chief Justice of the United States; the Speaker of the House of Representatives; the governor of Massachusetts; New York City’s mayor as well as mayors of other cities; federal as well as state court judges and other dignitaries; nearly one hundred newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.—including, in addition to the many specifically Christian organs, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Enquirer, and the Boston Daily Globe, along with numerous Jewish periodicals; and many prominent business leaders, non-Jews as well as Jews, such as Cyrus H. McCormick (and other family members); the president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company; Potter Palmer; J. Piermont Morgan; John D. Rockefeller; and dozens of others. The proposal was heartily endorsed by the only Hebrew periodical in the United States at that time, Hapisga.
Rabbi Felsenthal and a number of other Reform rabbis and influential Jewish leaders, however, lent their name only after an amendment had been added to clarify that generally, Jews in the Diaspora had not been involved in agriculture (“not been agriculturalists”), primarily because they had been prevented (“almost universally”) for centuries from owning land in “the countries of their dispersion”—not because, as the proposal might unintentionally suggest, Jews had not felt invested in the countries of their Diaspora residence nor because they could only selfishly be interested in productivity in a country of their own.
Attached to the Blackstone Memorial’s resubmission to President Wilson in 1916 were, in addition to a host of new signatories, official resolutions of endorsement from the Baptist Ministers Conference, the Methodist ministers meeting, the Presbyterian Ministerial Association, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.
By that time, of course, Europe was embroiled in the Great War, never imagining that it would one day be only the first of two “world wars.” Most of the nations or empires that Blackstone believed would cooperate in an international effort on behalf of the restoration of the Jews to Palestine were now at war with each other, aligned either with the Allies or with the Central Powers. Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire were on opposite sides, and on the assumption that the Jews of Palestine would sooner or later side with the Allies, the Turkish authorities had issued an expulsion order that was then countermanded by Germany (perhaps in an effort to court American Jews on the misguided perception of their influence in Washington)—all before the United States entered the war. By the time the war was over and after the Versailles Treaty, three empires had ceased to exist (four, if one counted the German pretensions to empire), and Palestine became a British Mandate of the League of Nations and would remain such until the League’s dissolution and until the Zionist movement was about to realize its goal of statehood.
In the years since 1891, many more Jews of the former Czarist Empire, whose regime had been overthrown and replaced by the Bolshevik Revolution in the midst of the war (from which the new Communist state then extricated itself), had emigrated to the United States and in smaller numbers to Canada, England, and other countries. Much of the large Jewish population remaining in the new Soviet state now either found itself trapped there, despite the new regime’s and the Party’s disingenuous pretense that antisemitism per se (viz., apart from economic or class tensions) had officially ceased with the Revolution. Moreover, a truly autonomous Jewish polity in Palestine, let alone a sovereign state that would be open to the immigration of all Jews worldwide who so desired, was soon the last thing the British wanted now or would tolerate, in view of its new relationship with the Arab world and the artificial entities the British and the French had created after carving up the remains of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
The entire political order of both Europe and the Near East was thus radically and irrevocably altered. The Blackstone Memorial was not only no longer applicable, it was irrelevant—even as the Zionist movement became more determined. The proposal became consigned at most to a historical footnote. Studies of Zionist history have yet to explore adequately all its ramifications, subtexts, and missing links.
Despite the polemics it engendered, the Blackstone Memorial probably gave American Zionism increased perceptions and images of dignity, legitimacy, and status—and certainly a new level of visibility. Its open endorsement by so large a number (nearly four hundred in all) of prominent Christian clergymen and other leaders, organizations, churches, businessmen, and government officials demonstrated that it was not necessarily true that American Jews’ espousal of Zionism would jeopardize Jewish respectability, loyalty, or even social standing; nor that Zionism would evoke non-Jewish ridicule. Some opponents, mostly in the Reform-affiliated camp, continued to stake part of their argument on that fear. But for those who truly harbored such concerns after the Blackstone episode, one may question whether their argument translated into what contemporary psychological rubric would characterize as a projection of their own unfounded insecurities. At the same time, some Zionist advocates preferred for a while to pursue their objectives inconspicuously, while still others looked upon public recognition and events as valuable tools for galvanizing followers and attracting new ones.
Rabbi Felsenthal’s support of the Blackstone Memorial did not conclude his pro-Zionist efforts, even though he was retired at that time. He continued enthusiastically for the rest of his active life to promote both colonization and the longer-range goals of Zionism, and he was instrumental in the establishment of various local Zionist organizations and in arousing interest and involvement in the world congresses.
In 1903, even though he opposed the idea, he advised open-minded exploration of the British offer of Uganda as an alternative to Palestine for a Jewish national home; he was willing at first to consider that proposal as an interim measure. In an issue of The Maccabean that year, however, he made it clear that even a free, self-governing Jewish settlement in East Africa should never be accepted as “the final and highest aim of the Zionist movement,” and that Palestine must never be abandoned as the ultimate goal. “The Zionist movement,” he wrote, “cannot cease and shall not cease until Israel dwells again, a fit people in its own land.”
The base of Zionist support among Reform circles and the German-Jewish establishment began to broaden in the aftermath of the Kishinev Pogrom of April 1903. That horrific event more or less put an end to any trace of reality in arguments advanced earlier by some (but not all) of the most extreme anti-Zionists to the effect that the “Russian Jews” could and should work out their own problems with the Russian imperial authorities. The pogrom also aroused some pro-Zionists out of the previous lethargy of which they had been accused by world Zionist spokesmen. At the same time, it implanted within previously indifferent non-Zionist elements of American Jewry a heightened consciousness concerning the condition of Jews in the Czarist Empire, which led in some cases to consideration of Zionist aims and strategies.
Moreover, the event and its reporting in the American press engendered an unprecedented degree of public Jewish solidarity, transcending Zionist and non-Zionist boundaries as well as the barriers otherwise separating the various religious orientations. In some respects that reaction anticipated the renewed and expanded receptivity to Zionism that came with news of the mounting danger to European Jewry in the 1930s and the obvious urgency for a refuge in Palestine; then with the Holocaust; and later, in ever-increasing volume, with the mortal threat that confronted Israel in 1967 and ignited the Six Day War. That evolving change in attitude was visible in the Reform movement’s shift in policy by the 1930s. Those events also affected Jews among traditional and unaffiliated ranks.
Meanwhile, the Reform presence at the public outpourings of rage over the Kishinev Pogrom, and at protest rallies demanding official United States condemnation and action, demonstrated that contrary to exaggerated charges, the Reform lay as well as rabbinical leadership was not lacking in concern or compassion for oppressed Jewry in other lands—despite their earlier hopes and beliefs in non-Zionist solutions and less-conspicuous avenues. The visceral images in the press of the Kishinev Pogrom, showing rows of enshrouded Jewish corpses lying in the streets, brought home on a newly heightened plane the reality of Russian barbarism against Jews and surpassed in effectiveness all previous written or verbally transmitted accounts of the series of pogroms since 1881.
Still, the Reform movement’s earlier reticence to seize upon or consider Zionist-related solutions did not necessarily represent calculated abandonment or the absence of behind-the-scenes efforts. Certainly no analogies should ever be drawn to, nor equations be made with, expressions of total disengagement such as the tape-recorded statement in 1973 by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (himself a Jewish refugee from the Third Reich) to President Nixon that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Whether he actually meant those words as some bizarre distortion of realpolitik, whether they amounted to bluster intended to test the president’s reaction or to forestall potential defeat of his wider (and assumed more important) strategy for U.S.-Soviet relations, or whether there was some other complex, murky strategic motivation remains a matter of interpretation.
Even Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch’s publicized (probably unfairly) and subsequently infamous disassociation from “Russian” Jews and their plight that he expressed at a forum in Chicago in 1900—and his purported suggestion that their conversion to Christianity would solve the problem for everyone concerned (and thus make Zionism once and for all unnecessary)—were very likely cited out of context, misreported, or misunderstood. Hirsch, the rabbi of a major Reform congregation in Chicago (Temple Sinai, now Chicago Sinai Congregation) and a principal avatar as well as architect of the Reform movement nationally, was, after Isaac Mayer Wise, perhaps the most vocal and committed foe of Zionism in his day. Toward the end of the 19th century he had referred to Zionism as the “vulgar” embodiment of nationalism, which he opposed in any form and which he claimed had seduced Jews into believing that “a Jew, to be a Jew, must belong to the Jewish nation.” The Chicago incident followed an appeal by American Zionist leader Richard Gottheil at Temple Sinai (which Hirsch could have prevented had he wanted to) that tethered the oppression of Czarist Empire Jews to the need for a Jewish state in Palestine. The Hebrew press reported that Hirsch had proclaimed that American Jewry had nothing to do with—and had no appropriate interest in—the “Jews of Russia.” If their Judaism per se was the cause of their suffering, he was reported to have said, they could convert to Christianity and thereby end that suffering. The illegitimate Zionist cause need not be invoked.
In the ensuing series of exchanges, Hirsch implied that he had been goaded into those remarks, and that in any event they had been twisted. Moreover, his defense revealed a now infrequently cited aspect of Reform rabbinical opposition to Zionism at that time: viz., the secularist and even antireligious nature of the world Zionist movement and the agnostic if not atheistic orientations of at least some of its principal leadership, including Herzl himself. Hirsch maintained more or less that his remarks, which he did not deny outright, had been a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the antireligious underpinnings of modern Zionism, which he described as “fraudulent if it is based upon an ideology of pessimism and atheism as stated by Dr. Nordau.” Nordau, Hirsch reminded, was on record as denouncing all religion as foolishness. If Nordau’s view were to be accepted as a modern Zionist principle, then the “Russian” Jews—like anyone else—might as well convert from one faith to another and be no more the foolish for it.
Hirsch’s target for that orchestrated attack was thus not the cause of Russian Jewry, but rather the Zionist movement and its leaders. Since, as he pointed out, he knew full well that the bulk of Jews in the Czarist Empire were not about to convert anyway, there may indeed have been little chance that he meant his remarks to be taken literally. Still, in overextending himself to make a point, he clearly touched an understandably raw nerve.
In any case, that exchange occurred more than three years before the Kishinev Pogrom. In the ensuing years, Hirsch relaxed and even contradicted his position on more than one occasion. Upon news during the First World War that the British army had taken Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks in December 1917, a little over a month after the Balfour Declaration had promised the British government’s best efforts to secure a Jewish national home in Palestine, TheSentinel—Chicago’s principal Jewish weekly—reported that Rabbi Hirsch had “declared that he might be expected to wish for the success of Jewish efforts to establish a nation in Palestine and that he ‘might even try to help them.’ ”
Because it alerted American Jewry to the reality of undiminishing persecution, because it confirmed predictions that life-threatening antisemitism could remain a permanent condition in other parts of the world, and because of the response it generated in the United States, the Kishinev Pogrom is generally considered a major crossroads in the progress of American Zionism. It did not silence continued opposition from Reform as well as other quarters, and it did not instantly convert the majority of habitual anti-Zionists. But for some whose Zionist sympathies had been passive up to that point, as well as for others who had resisted Zionist thinking altogether out of optimism for human progress, the Kishinev Pogrom became in a sense what the Dreyfus Affair had been for many in the founding generation of the Zionist movement in Europe: the ultimate realization that active antisemitism would never disappear—latent and manageable or at least tolerable as it might seem at times—and that the only solution resided in a permanent Jewish national and political entity.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the anti- or non-Zionist spectrum, some socialist Yiddishists in America were disillusioned when they were told that non-Jewish Russian workers—members of the supposedly united, trans-ethnic and trans-religious international proletariat—had participated in that pogrom. That their working-class status had not precluded their hatred and murder of fellow victims of czarist oppression and subjugation jolted some American Jewish socialists out of their naïveté. This sober realization played a role in intertwining socialist and labor-infused ideals with Zionist sensibilities and visions in the molding of certain Yiddish-speaking (and Yiddish-singing) organizations that combined both orientations—notably, the Labor Zionist Farband / Po’alei Zion.
Other Yiddish-speaking socialists, for whom the shock was short-lived or who refused to believe the reports of Russian workers’ participation or to attach much importance to them for the long run, persisted in their faith in internationalist socialist ideals. Ironically, in one respect, that reaction momentarily seemed to interface with a long-held Reform-oriented conviction: that the antidote to antisemitism and the hope for the dissolution of negative barriers between Jews and non-Jews lay in universal humanism. For those undiscouraged socialists, however, antisemitism—or at least its concrete manifestations and consequences—would eventually be overcome not only by the shared belief in universal humanism but also by working-class solidarity. They were certain that international solidarity would somehow not jeopardize their commitment to secular Yiddish culture.
In the year of the Kishinev Pogrom (1903) the leading Jewish socialist media organ, the Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward)—which, throughout most of its life had the largest circulation of any Yiddish daily newspaper in America—came out in favor of exploring the Uganda proposal as a possible solution to the condition of Jews in the Czarist Empire. Rabbi Felsenthal, as we have seen, also favored at least exploring that offer. But the paper retained its solidly anti-Zionist position, emphasizing that any such territorial plan must still be informed by internationalist socialist—not nationalist-Zionist—principles. Moreover, the Forverts charged that those conventional Zionists who were prepared to reject the British offer of Uganda out of hand were unrealistically allowing a naïve, amorphous dream of Palestine to take precedence over a practical home in East Africa, where socialism could nonetheless prevail.
In an editorial that year, the Forverts—which was foreign and virtually unknown to Reform Jewry—addressed the Russian Zionists who remained opposed to the Uganda offer, opining that their steadfastness to the Palestine ideal obscured or took precedence over their more appropriate loyalty to fellow “Russian” Jews (those in the vanguard of the movement that led to the 1905 Revolution) who were “prepared to live and die” for socialist convictions just as Zionists were ready to live and die for theirs. Then, to leave no doubt as to the paper’s basic anti-Zionist stance, a subsequent editorial predicted that once Jews had their own country (as opposed to being part of an international social brotherhood), they would be fervent and intolerant nationalists who would “dispatch police to bind and silence all who dared to be even moderately liberal.” In effect, according to that line of reasoning, the realization of national hopes was bound to lead to a type of totalitarian control—so much so that “there would no longer be a Jewish problem in this world.”
In that same time frame, another Yiddish periodical, the Tagblat, editorialized that prosperous Jews (read Reform, German-Jewish businessmen) who favored the British East Africa plan were so inclined primarily because it would be a damper on Russian Jewish immigration—of which they had had enough and which they were finding to be an economic burden and a social problem, if not an embarrassment. This was an unfair jibe at the Reform establishment. In fact, many among Reform’s leadership were on record as opposing congressional attempts to restrict if not cut off eastern European immigration (in bills that were vetoed by Presidents Cleveland, Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt—and later by President Wilson). Inhospitality to eastern European immigration—and to the immigrants—was not absent among the German-Jewish establishment then, more for social than for economic reasons, but it has sometimes been invoked in distorted analyses. Moreover, prominent Reform Jews lent significant charitable assistance to the immigrants, and they were a major force behind the efforts of the Joint Distribution Committee.
Another avowed Zionist among the Reform rabbis in the late 19th-century even before the Kishinev Pogrom was Gustav Gottheil, who occupied the pulpit of Temple Emanu-El in New York from 1873 until 1903. According to his son, Richard—a more prominent and more active force in American Zionism as president of the American Zionist Federation who attended the Third Zionist Congress in Basel in 1899—the senior Gottheil had a private agreement with his anti-Zionist assistant and Hebrew Union College graduate Rabbi Joseph Silverman, by which neither was to include the subject of Zionism in his preaching. (Rabbi Silverman justified his much-publicized, vigorously anti-Zionist sermons in 1902 on the grounds that by then Rabbi Gottheil was “Rabbi Emeritus” and for all practical purposes nearing full retirement, so that, in his view, the terms of that agreement were no longer in effect.)
It was common knowledge, however, that Rabbi Gottheil had been advised by the trustees not to speak about Zionism in principle, even before Rabbi Silverman’s appointment, because it could be a dangerously divisive issue among the congregation. Yet even with his cooperative silence on the subject, he was apparently more or less forced into quasi-retirement status because his Zionist sympathies were too well known. That very fear of divisiveness suggests not a scenario in which a rabbi is pitted against his congregation, but one in which a congregation harbors a pro-Zionist (or potentially pro-Zionist) faction along with other neutral but open-minded members who might be susceptible to persuasion. Only then would there be a risk of division, perhaps followed by secession and formation of a rival congregation.
Indeed, that theme has reappeared and been played out in other congregations throughout the United States over the course of many decades—even in the post-1948 statehood era. Together with our knowledge of pro-Zionist Reform rabbis long before the movement reversed its stance, such occurrences can contribute to our reassessment of the usual, oversimplified characterization of Classical Reform as ipso facto anti-Zionist—notwithstanding the relative numbers on each side (which may be less important).
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s synagogue in New York, founded in 1907, is named to this day the Free Synagogue because of his trustees’ assurance that, unlike the pulpit at Temple Emanu-El, he could speak freely there about Zionism—and, in his case, about the American labor movement or anything else he felt should be a matter of individual conscience. Much later, when Rabbi David Polish’s Reform congregation in Evanston, Illinois, forbade him to speak about Zionism or Israel (again, supposedly a divisive issue), and after he had been barred from entering the synagogue when he refused to comply, his followers resigned along with him and formed a new congregation. It, too, attached the word “free” to its name. That model has applied to congregational divorces elsewhere.
Sermon topics were not the only potential detonators of such intracongregational disputes in the years preceding and immediately following Israel’s birth as a nation—sometimes for as long as a decade. As late as the mid-1950s, music in Reform Sunday or weekly/weekend “religious schools” was another issue that could threaten an uneasy détente between those of the old guard who still adhered (despite Reform’s official reversal by then) to fossilized antinationalist vestiges of Classical Reform and the rapidly overshadowing postwar surge of new members who had traditional backgrounds and no anti-Zionist baggage. In those surroundings, rabbis who might already have sown some seeds of antagonism by accommodating those newer elements—presiding over the introduction of more (or even some) Hebrew into services; the revival of abandoned ceremonies (including, especially, bar mitzvah, no matter how streamlined); and the institution of weekday afternoon Hebrew school programs—often found it necessary, or politically expedient, to forbid music teachers to include any Israel-related or similarly perceived “Zionist” songs.
In the most popular contemporaneous anthologies, such as Harry Coopersmith’s The Songs We Sing (1950)—which were intended for general use in schools of all orientations—ḥalutz, aliya, kibbutz, other folk and quasi-folk “songs of the Land of Zion,” and Israeli dance tunes were included as expressions of modern Hebrew culture. These songs were incorporated in such compilations not out of any organized propaganda efforts, but, more broadly and more neutrally, to instill awareness of and pride in a Jewish accomplishment, as well as simply to provide modern secular replacements for the Yiddish folksongs taught to children of earlier generations. In reality, their exclusion for a time from some Reform classrooms (by no means universal) amounted merely to symbolic pacification, just as the provocative capabilities of the songs themselves were equally irrational. Most of them celebrate agricultural resumption and reclamation, rebuilding of the land and its historical attraction, and its spiritual as well as physical attributes—all in a mood of optimistic idealism without reference to political goals or belligerent sentiments. To the remnants of fervent anti-Zionism in Reform circles, however, whose pre-1948 antagonism could be reconfirmed now by their perception of a sovereign rival for American Jewish political loyalty and their fear of antisemitic suspicion, the slightest echoes of Zionist enthusiasm in those songs could smack of youth-targeted indoctrination.
Ultimately, the decade following Israel’s founding turned out—as we shall see—to be a follow-up stage to the Reform laity’s ongoing transition from anti-Zionism to more benign non-Zionism and then to a decidedly pro-Israel stance. By some interpretations, that process began as early as the interwar period, when elements among the Reform establishment displayed clear sympathy for the needs of the Jewish community in Palestine and participated in growing numbers in relief efforts through the Joint Distribution Committee, in which they had an important presence. Most of those influential Reform Jews still saw these efforts as humanitarian concerns, and not as a function of political Zionism. But such assistance to the (the Jewish communal settlement in Palestine, especially under the British Mandate) could not remain so neatly divorced from the political dimension for long.
It has been estimated that during the period framed by the beginning of the First World War and the armistice, the Zionist movement in America increased its formal membership nearly fifteenfold. Although there was subsequently some diminution in numbers, Reform Jews became increasingly involved in the cause over the next three decades. Gradually, Reform moved from assistance to the y’shuv to a more open attitude toward Zionism in principle, and then from a positive reception of the new state and its society to a permanent commitment to and relationship with both. By the late 1960s many of those congregations that had once forbidden harmless, apolitical Israeli songs were displaying Israeli flags alongside American ones in their sanctuaries. Synagogue members who were prominent in the business and professional worlds were becoming active in organizations that supported and assisted Israel. With the threat to Israel’s existence in June 1967 and her astonishing victory in the resulting Six Day War, whatever reluctance there had been to cause division within congregations virtually evaporated in all but the most rigidly retrogressive circles. A prayer for Israel became common in mainstream Reform services by the 1970s, along with Israel-related sermon topics; and congregational missions and tours to Israel, participation in rallies, and the inclusion of curriculum units about Israel all became typical.
By the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and its aftermath, the pendulum had swung almost completely. Recalcitrant congregations that still clung to the fading American Council for Judaism or to its basic principles were the minute exception rather than the rule. And among their member families, younger generations often shed their parents’ anti-Zionism, sometimes even persuading them to rethink or mute their inherited atavistic negativity—Wordsworth’s child once again playing the role of the “father of the man.”
The Reform movement and its gradual Zionist-friendly incline represents, of course, only one segment of American Judaism—and, from the end of the 19th century until the dawn of the new millennium, not the largest one. Still, its evolution from denial to acknowledgment of Jewish peoplehood, and from condemnation to embrace of Zionist principles and aims—culminating in its full advocacy of the State of Israel—can be an instructive prism through which to refract the larger, overall development of American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. Whatever one’s personal religious alignment or convictions, it must be acknowledged that the Reform movement’s inherent flexibility, its openness to self-review, its hospitality to internal debate, and its ability to accommodate and take account of new circumstances and generational transformations has stood it in good stead to adjust and recalibrate. It is probably no accident that among the most prominent and most effective American Zionist leaders of the mid-20th century were two Reform rabbis who swam upstream against the movement’s tide of their time: the aforementioned Stephen S. Wise, and Abba Hillel Silver, a charismatic orator who condemned the Allies’ failure to organize a rescue operation for those Jews who might have been saved during the war.
Rabbi Silver insisted on their right to relocation in Palestine in the face of British policy to the contrary. His distrust of the British and their interests sometimes put him at odds with Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel who, priding himself in the high-level contacts and relationships he had cultivated, was content to work with—not against—the British. In Silver’s rejection of accommodation and appeasement, and in his advocacy of Jewish political power as the only ultimately effective tool of Zionism, his orientation appeared to some to border tangentially on sympathy with the militant Revisionists—although he never formally aligned with them and repudiated the methods they believed had become necessary.
At the same time, Rabbi Silver remained staunchly within the Reform fold as one of its most highly visible leaders. The Reform movement was never akin to either the religiously based synods or the ideologically driven political parties that had tools of totalitarian discipline at their disposal. Even in its early days of outright rigorous opposition to Jewish nationhood or nationalism, it fostered and sometimes hosted debate. Pro-Zionist rabbis and other leaders, though they could be denounced by their adversaries with sharp rhetoric, were never subject to expulsion or formal ostracism.
The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which announced the principles upon which “Reform Judaism in America” was to be united, unequivocally stated its position on peoplehood, nationhood, and the Land of Israel:
We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and, therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine … nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state.
Apart from any concerns about Zionism, this denial of a contemporaneous Jewish people in what today would be considered ethnic terms was a radical 19th-century departure from the accepted (indeed, unquestioned) historical inseparability of Jewish peoplehood from its religion. The one was always based on and central to the other, dating to the earliest biblical accounts and narratives. That unique dual feature of Judaism—viz., universal monotheism based on the Torah and its commandments and ethnically inherited religious belief, practices, and traditions—is encapsulated in the biblical description and rabbinic confirmation of the Mosaic revelation at Mount Sinai, when Moses is said to have proclaimed in God’s name, “mamlekhet kohanim v’goy kadosh” (You will be to me as a kingdom of priests and a holy people). Throughout the continuum of Hebrew sacred literature, Judaism is most commonly cited as dat yisra’el (the religion of the people Israel), and only far less frequently as the supposedly ethnically unconnected yahadut (Judaism, Jewish religion). Before the Emancipation era beginning with the French Revolution, distinction between Judaism and Jewish peoplehood had not been imagined.
The 19th-century American insistence on a religion or “religious community” divorced from peoplehood—from an ethnic-national historical continuum that remained in force—was not entirely original. It was patterned in part after earlier propositions of some radical reformers in Germany who had even suggested “the Mosaic religion” or ”the Mosaic faith” as labels to replace Judaism. That notion had in turn grown out of similar ideas floated by some “enlightened” French Jews early in the Napoleonic era, when, for the first time, they could be Frenchmen. It had not yet occurred to them that they could be both French and French Jews at the same time. For them and for the radical German reformers—followed by the original architects of American Reform—German, Viennese, Polish, English, French, Italian, Moroccan, and American Jews were merely and exclusively “coreligionists”—a once echoed term that has been heard rarely since the Second World War. Meanwhile, “Mosaic religion,” although it did not disappear in Germany, ultimately failed to gain wide or enduring currency there even among the mainstream Reform world. The central communal structure was known into the 20th century and until the Second World War—and is known today—as the Jüdische Gemeinde. (“Mosaic” could in theory apply equally to Christianity, in terms of its monotheistic roots in the Hebrew Bible.)
Consistent with that platform, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a unanimous declaration at its convention two years later: “We totally disapprove of any attempt for the establishment of a Jewish state.” Coming coincidentally just prior to the much-anticipated First Zionist Congress in Basel and the international excitement it was generating, that declaration emphasized repudiation of any specifically political dimension of Zionism. It thus left open the possibility for the subsequent acceptance and even support by many members for the colonization of Palestine by refugees from oppression—so long as that would not amount to or suggest Zionist aspirations to political sovereignty. Also, that declaration and the vehemence toward political goals it reflected did not necessarily preclude some outright anti-Zionist Reform rabbis—who were on record as denying the notion of any present-day Jewish nation or people—from subsequently voicing their acceptance of the congenital and perpetual inseparability of Judaism as religion from Jewish peoplehood.
The laity weighed in a year later when, at the 1898 convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) in Richmond, Virginia, a resolution was unanimously adopted calling for the formation of a committee of three to “formulate a statement of our thoughts on Zionism.” The resolution cited the “active propaganda” then being spread in American cities for the “so-called Zionistic movement,” which could give wrong impressions to the world regarding “the attitude of the great majority of American Jews in this matter.” Jews were not to be perceived as considering themselves part of any distinct national entity other than the United States: “We being Jews in religion alone, have no national hopes or expectations other than those of our fellow-citizens of other faiths.” In that vein, the committee articulated the “real mission of Judaism as a universal religion.”
The committee consisted of Rabbi David Philipson, by then an instructor at the Hebrew Union College and a member of its board of governors; Joseph Krauskopf, an HUC alumnus as well as the rabbi of Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia; and the Honorable Simon Wolf, chairman of the Union’s Board of Delegates on Civil Rights. Their report observed that although they were aware of and deplored the “abject conditions to which many of our brethren are subjected in foreign lands,” a condition that had naturally “but unfortunately, aroused in some of them a yearning for a reestablishment in Zion,” they now deemed it “necessary and proper” to issue the following statement, on record:
We are unalterably opposed to political Zionism. The Jews are not a nation, but a religious community. Zion was a precious possession of the past . . . a holy memory, but it is not our hope for the future. America is our Zion. . . . The mission of Judaism is spiritual, not political. Its aim is not to establish a state, but to spread the truths of religion and humanity throughout the world.
Equally revealing is the program of the 1911 council of the UAHC in New York, which was addressed by, among other dignitaries, former president Theodore Roosevelt—whose social programs had been among the first to be endorsed by the Reform movement. The official souvenir book of the convention opened with a sketch of the life and accomplishments of the Union’s founder, Isaac Mayer Wise. It lauded his repudiation of Zionism with typical (once he was no longer alive) hagiographic praise, so glowing that no reader would imagine that Wise had had either opponents or enemies within the Reform movement in his lifetime. That introductory essay recalled Wise’s opposition to “any movement on the part of the Jews in the United States tending in the least toward nationalism, and to those who clamored for a Jewish state as a ‘harbor of refuge’ or for a Jewish colony, it mattered not if they were actuated by religious, sentimental or commercial convictions, he stood opposed.” To reinforce the Union’s undiluted adherence to Wise’s position, even now, nearly seven years after the Kishinev Pogrom had changed so many minds, the program book recalled his admonition:
We are men and patriots everywhere: Americans in America; Englishmen in England; … and after we have protested loudly and emphatically against any and every denial of our civic virtues, now come these Zionists and proclaim us as members of a foreign nation, one that has not existed, in fact, in nearly eighteen centuries.
Continuing its invocation of Wise’s condemnation of Zionism and its current applicability, that publication went on to quote with obvious assent “one who knew him well,” who had, the editor claimed, written of him after his death:
Dr. Wise … set his face like steel against this retrograde movement wherein he saw a surrender of all that prophetic universalistic American Judaism stood for. And to this true insight of its lamented founder “The Israelite” [Wise’s newspaper, The American Israelite] remained faithful, believing that reform Judaism and Zionism are absolutely irreconcilable. Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political; Reform Judaism preaches the message of hope, Zionism is the counsel of despair; Reform Judaism founds upon the brotherhood of men, Zionism sets up the barriers; Reform Judaism is universal, Zionism is Oriental; Reform Judaism looks to the future, Zionism to the past; the outlook of Reform Judaism is the world, the outlook of Zionism is a corner of Western Asia.
In encapsulating the aims of the Union, an addendum to the 1898 resolution was added:
In harmony with his [Wise’s] sentiments the Union of American Hebrew Congregations has been a vigorous antagonist also of Nationalism and of Zionism. When the cause of Zionism was, for a brief period, in the ascendancy, when it was being preached by many estimable but visionary enthusiasts, when converts were being made, chiefly from among those who had recently arrived from Russia and other countries where persecution had made life a burden to them, when rosy pictures of a Jewish State in Palestine were being drawn by eloquent orators … in order that there might be no doubt as to where progressive Jews stood on the question of a Jewish State in Palestine or in any other part of the world, the Union took a stand which precluded any doubt as to the sentiment of its members.
Rabbi Samuel Schulman of Temple Beth El in New York had been invited to contribute an assessment of “American Judaism” to crystallize the goals of the Reform movement and the purposes for which the delegates had assembled. The American Jew, he emphasized, “glories in the adjective American.” “American” Judaism, he propounded, as it had developed from Isaac Mayer Wise’s constructions until the time of the 1911 convention, has
emphasized religion as the only thing which distinguishes the Jew in America from his fellow-citizens. We are a religious communion … and not an alien nation.
That was the first of the three “central ideas” upon which, in Schulman’s analysis, American Judaism had been animated consistently and upon which it must continue to rely. The final principle was the modern interpretation of the traditional messianic hope “in terms not of reestablished Jewish nationality,” but rather in amorphous terms of the “triumph of the Kingdom of God on earth … the perfection of mankind and the establishment of justice by all nations on earth.” The admittedly and historically glorious days of Israel as a priestly nation were long over, ancient Israel, as a “petty people politically,” having aspired nonetheless to an “empire of the spirit over the whole human race.” It had accomplished that goal by giving the world the “laws of righteousness and the ideals of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men,” and thus both the Jewish “mission” and entity were not only entirely universal, but also necessarily now devoid of any national character or component:
The nation became what it always aspired to be—a Keneseth Yisroel, a congregation of Israel . . . a congregation, a synagogue, a Jewish community in the midst of all nations, sharing in their life…. American Judaism has therefore gone back to the deepest impulses of historic Judaism . . . Jewish interests are exclusively religious interests. The American Jew has neither racial nor national ambitions which would impair his allegiance to American citizenship, or abate his enthusiasm for the great humanitarian aim of American national life, of which, without any reservation, he feels himself to be an integral part.
During the interwar years, the balance was already shifting within the Reform movement. The tide was beginning to turn with greater momentum to Zionist sympathy of varying shades and in some cases more solid (if still not unrestrained) commitment—notwithstanding the movement and its leadership’s post–World War I pacifist tilt through the 1920s and much of the 1930s, which, in that time frame, was not yet a perceived issue vis-à-vis mainstream Zionism. (Herzl himself had been silent on the subject of any eventual need for a Jewish army in a Jewish state, naïvely supposing that once the Jews were entirely out of Europe, there would be no need for self-defense. In his envisioned new Jewish state, Jews could be welcome by the indigenous Arab population, which would benefit from their immigration.)
The image of American Zionism received a boost during the First World War when Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis accepted an invitation to chair an interim body that was overseeing world Zionist affairs (the Provisional Executive Committee) at a time when the work of the World Zionist Organization in Europe was restricted by the war. Thus Brandeis was for a while perceived as the de facto leader of Zionism in America. That, together with his endorsement of the movement, gave American Zionism a new level of prestige and legitimacy as well as new standing in the Reform establishment.
Another factor in this change was the alteration in the makeup, identity, and background of the Reform laity and the rabbinate. In that process, the earlier acceleration of eastern European Jewish immigration in the decades prior to the war now played a significant role after the fact in diversifying the previously more sociologically, religiously, and culturally homogeneous persona of Reform. Between the First World War and the onset of the Great Depression, Reform congregational membership nearly tripled nationally. Some of that expansion involved the absorption into the aggregate membership of elements of the third-(and to a much lesser extent, the second) generation descendants from those eastern European immigrants who, if not committed to orthodoxy in daily life (as most were not or could not be), were basically traditional in religious outlook and habit. They had worshipped—if and when they did so—in nominally orthodox synagogues that perpetuated the liturgy, ceremonies, aesthetics, ambience, and ethnic inclinations of their former synagogues in Europe. Also, by the 1930s, Reform congregants who could boast unalloyed German-Jewish pedigree were no longer the numerically dominant force, and many Reform synagogues were losing their German cultural character. That, too, affected attitudes toward Zionism as much as it impinged on liturgical, ceremonial, and ideological reconsiderations.
Even if they were not versed in Zionism per se, the eastern European–descended newcomers to Reform were, like their parents and grandparents, not doctrinally opposed to it; and, also like their forebears, their natural tendency was to harbor emotional support at the very least. That inherited overall sensibility would become an even more potent determining influence when the phenomenon of Reform’s appeal increased more rapidly and with greater frequency after the Second World War.
Meanwhile, the background of Reform rabbis and rabbinical students was changing as well. In the 1920s and 1930s more Hebrew Union College students were of eastern European lineage than had ever been the case previously; and well before the Second World War more than two-thirds of them acknowledged positive attitudes toward one or more facets of Zionism. The number of ordained Reform rabbis who were drawn to Zionist sympathies by the mid-1930s was growing as well. Debates with opposing views within the Central Conference continued, and adversarial factions persisted—but on a more level field than before and with openly pro-Zionist Reform rabbis no longer perceived as an exotic or rebellious but tolerated breed. By 1935, when the presidency of the CCAR fell for only the second time to a committed and outspoken Zionist rabbi, Felix Levy, it has been estimated that about half of the member rabbis could be considered Zionists on some level, even though the previous resolutions in opposition to political Zionism, both of the Central Conference and of the UAHC, were still in effect. Recognizing the dangerously divisive power of the subject now, the Conference issued a declaration at its 1935 convention disavowing any official stand on Zionism—in effect leaving the matter to each rabbi’s own conscience. But that in itself could be interpreted as an interim victory for the Zionist proponents.
The jettisoning of anti-Zionism as a blanket emblem of Reform had begun even before that watershed accommodation when, in 1930, the Zionist anthem “Hatikva” emerged as a symbolic issue. At a session of the Central Conference that year, at which the overhaul of the Union Hymnal was under discussion in anticipation of its revised, third edition, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise—playing his role of Zionist advocate—asked whether “Hatikva” (words and music) had been excluded intentionally from the new hymnal specifically because it was the de facto anthem of the Zionist movement.
The initial response from the hymnal committee was that the volume was restricted to religious or spiritual hymns for worship in conjunction with the Union Prayerbook. That seemed to be an acceptable rationale, even though it was Wise’s contention that “Hatikva” had a religious dimension. When he learned, however, that the hymnal was to include both “America” (“My Country ’Tis of Thee,” the American adaptation of the British national anthem) and “The Star Spangled Banner,” he was not so easily placated; and he was supported by a band of younger protégés and Zionist followers. A number of them had attended the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, which Wise had founded in 1922 as a vaguely “nondenominational” alternative seminary for educating liberal rabbis to serve modern American Jewry in general rather than the Reform movement exclusively. It was merged with Hebrew Union College only in 1950, by which time the two institutions were no longer ideologically so far apart. Still, a formal motion to include “Hatikva” in the hymnal was carried by only a narrow margin.
The following year, as work on the hymnal was progressing, the CCAR even voted to include all five stanzas of Naftali Herz Imber’s poem (originally titled “Tikvatenu”). When that third edition of the Union Hymnal was published, in 1932, however (edited by Abraham Wolf Binder, who was also on the faculty of the Jewish Institute of Religion), “Hatikva” appeared in a section titled “The Nation,” where it was printed following “The Star Spangled Banner”—which had acquired its official status as the national anthem of the United States by congressional action only the year before. “Hatikva” was included in the Union Hymnal as the anthem of the Jewish people, but not specifically of the Zionist movement—which at that time would have risked more divisive provocation.
Even so, some of the rabbinical old guard expressed amazement at the acceptance of Jewish nationalism, even apart from its political dimension. The aforementioned Rabbi David Philipson, for example, who had once famously cautioned against any particularism that might make American Jewry appear “ridiculous before the world as it is now” (although by 1930 he may have adjusted to some of the movement’s altered attitudes in light of new circumstances), recorded in his autobiography a decade later his certainty that had anyone reported twenty years earlier that
nationalism would make such inroads as to succeed in having the Zionist National hymn “Hatikva” incorporated into the hymnal published by the conference [CCAR], I would have thought him ready for the lunatic asylum.
Only seven years later—and a little more than twenty-five years since the anti-Zionist diatribes at the UAHC’s 1911 convention, amounting roughly to a generation—the attitude of the Reform movement toward Zionism had shifted remarkably. The 1937 Columbus (Ohio) Platform of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (“The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism”) acknowledged in its preamble “the changes that have taken place in the modern world and the consequent need of stating anew the teachings of Reform Judaism.” Those changes included the political, territorial, and other consequences of the First World War; the Balfour Declaration and the continuing world congresses; the progress and development of the world Zionist movement and the much-enlarged number of American adherents; the proliferation of American Zionist organizations that now included greater representation of Reform; the greatly expanded population in America of eastern European immigrant Jews and their next generation; the precarious situation in Europe; the steadily mounting persecution by the National Socialist regime in Germany since its assumption of power as a result of the 1932 elections; and the organized aliya of Jews who were able to leave Germany before it was too late and to resettle in the y’shuv of Mandatory Palestine. All these factors had combined by 1937 to demonstrate the heightened need for a Jewish home and state in Palestine. Along with other considerations, they spurred the Reform rabbinical leadership to undergo a thorough review of the Zionist issue. While continuing to emphasize the centrality of Judaism’s religious substance and its universal perspectives, the Columbus Platform now stated that
Judaism is the soul of which Israel is the body. Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history…. In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren.
In retrospect, that statement comes across as an astonishing reversal. Moreover, the platform went further to maintain not only that the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine was now both relevant and important to all Jews, but that, as Jews, they had a duty to assist in the effort:
We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.
The Reform movement was thus aligning itself with a mainstream Zionist principle concerning universal participation. That was the position of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which had prevailed over alternative strategies, insisting that Zionism should be a communal endeavor and obligation rather than, as Justice Brandeis had believed (ultimately failing to persuade the American Zionist leadership), a private philanthropic enterprise. Also, the Reform movement was now acknowledging Zionism’s cultural potential in echoing Ahad Ha’am’s [Asher Ginzberg, 1856–1927] prediction that the epitome of Jewish cultural and humanistic creativity could and would flourish in and emanate from a Jewish national home specifically in Palestine, which would become world Jewry’s spiritual center. He thought Jews must modernize in the Diaspora before resettling in Palestine. At odds with Herzl’s brand of liberalism, which, he feared, risked removing Jews from their cultural uniqueness, Ahad Ha’am believed that a Jewish state had to be based on Jewish culture. Otherwise it might lure Jews away from their aspirations to “spiritual greatness” and render material and political pursuits the primary goals.
At the same time, the Reform leadership—still speaking primarily to a religiously based movement—preserved the religious element for its constituents by not attempting to define or limit Ahad Ha’am’s perception of spirituality—which, of course, can range from secular humanistic high art to theological engagements. And the statement was carefully worded so as not to preclude Diaspora creativity and spiritual development. Zion would be “a center” rather than the exclusive or single foundational one Ahad Ha’am had envisioned.
Still, the Columbus Platform sidestepped the goal of a sovereign state, which remained the central but most combustible and potentially divisive issue of political Zionism. A “national homeland” (the Balfour Declaration had referred to a “home,” not the commonly misquoted “homeland”—a subtle distinction that is often overlooked) was not quite the same thing. The Jewish nation whose existence Classical Reform had so vehemently denied was as much an ethnic construct as a polity, synonymous with “people”; and the national home or homeland that many Reform leaders had now come to accept could, in theory, exist as an autonomous region within a larger political entity. Indeed, the home to which the authors of the Balfour Declaration referred had most certainly been assumed to be within the British Empire (Palestine initially, though it was later regretted) rather than a vacated territory relinquished to an autonomous sovereign Jewish government.
By 1942, however, in the midst of the war and with growing awareness of the Holocaust in progress (if not its extent), the centrality of the political issue could no longer be ignored under the guise of neutrality. The percolating, inevitable, and deciding clash within the Central Conference of American Rabbis came to a head and ended in a showdown that year under the gavel of its courageous and uninhibitedly pro-Zionist president, Rabbi James Heller, who was not about to hide behind euphemisms or shrink from the political element in light of the changed circumstances affecting world Jewry since 1937. Ironically, especially in view of the pacifist stance and even isolationist leanings of much of the movement only a decade earlier, the ultimate debate now centered around open support for a Jewish armed force.
By that time, the Revisionists were agitating for a distinct military force composed of “stateless and Palestinian Jews.” That envisioned Jewish unit would fight under the overall Allied Command, but as an independent unit with its own officers, and—most significantly as well as symbolically—under a flag of its own.
In the United States that agenda was being promoted behind the scenes, with funds being sought for it by Revisionist emissary, Irgun fighter, and leader of Irgun activists in America, Peter Bergson (an alias for Hillel Kook) and his team, which was branded by their more moderate mainstream American Zionist opponents, as well as by the FBI, as “the Bergson boys.” On the organizational level, the campaign was being promulgated in America by such front groups as the Emergency Committee for the Rescue of European Jewry and the Committee for a Jewish Army in Palestine. Their activities and tactics were perceived by mainstream Zionist leadership as counterproductive to the relationships that had been cultivated with the British. Also, some prominent figures among them saw their own hegemony threatened by the Revisionists.
Bergson’s and the Revisionists’ position was more than a military strategy for independence, however, and its complexities are generally misunderstood and oversimplified. Their concept of what constituted or should constitute a commonwealth or state in Palestine differed in a number of substantive and ideological ways from the mainstream position in economic, social, and ethnic as well as political and military terms. So did their anticipation of partnership between Palistinian Jews and indigenous Arab residents in a future new society not anchored in Diaspora concepts (for which Bergson himself preferred the designation “Hebrew” rather than “Jewish” or even “Israeli”).
In reality, the Irgun was an offshoot of the Hagana, despite the fact that it was later discredited as a so-called terrorist organization. But Revisionists rejected the more patient, conventional approach of continued accommodation and accord with the British, in whose assurances about “working things out” they had no faith. They were also at odds with those leaders of mainstream Zionism who had established a political stake in their relationship with the British.
The Committee for a Jewish Army was one of the principal sponsors of the monumental 1943 pageant We Will Never Die, by Kurt Weill and playwright, screenwriter, and Revisionist adherent Ben Hecht, which played with a cast of nearly five hundred at New York’s Madison Square Garden and at similar venues in other cities in an effort to alert the American public to the reality of the Holocaust and, unsuccessfully, to convince the government to commit itself to devising a concerted Allied strategy for rescuing Europe’s remaining Jews and establishing a haven for them (read Palestine). Also behind the Jewish army idea was the committee’s sister organization, the American League for a Free Palestine, which cosponsored the second of Weill and Hecht’s Revisionist-oriented pageants, A Flag Is Born, in 1946—a transparent propaganda piece demanding Palestine’s total independence; the expulsion of the British altogether, by force if necessary; and the immediate declaration of a sovereign state.
Even the language adopted at the 1942 meeting in New York of world Zionist leaders referred to a “Jewish commonwealth” rather than a state. Although that distinction has been interpreted by some as an innocent substitution, conceived to sound less militant but not less politically independent than “state,” it might legitimately be construed slightly differently as leaving open the possibility of a continuing British umbrella. If so, that detail of pacification would have been understandable at a time when Great Britain was America’s most important Western ally and when cooperation was crucial to the defeat of Germany. (“Commonwealth,” after all, has more than one meaning or connotation: Virginia and Massachusetts, for example, are technically commonwealths, not states; and the term echoes the British Commonwealth of Nations, of which a Jewish national entity could, in theory, have been one.)
Ostensibly, the notion of a Jewish military unit during the war seemed to be a legitimate and politically neutral plan—indeed an offer—to aid and expedite the Allies’ defeat of the Axis in any engagements in the Near East or North Africa. It would also provide that needed Jewish manpower with an added sense of purpose and esprit de corps, while permitting and even encouraging the Jews themselves to fight in defense of Palestine specifically as their own national home. (Analogies to the Zion Mule Corps and the successor Jewish Brigade in the First World War were cited, although such comparisons were weak for a number of reasons—not least because both had been units of the British army and the latter had been attached to the Royal Fusiliers.) In reality, and especially before more direct, incontrovertible evidence of the full pace of the Holocaust was becoming available the following year, the plan thinly masked the underlying corollary agenda of the rescue strategy, which in turn was inextricably linked in the Revisionists’ program—as the British well knew—to opening Palestine to unrestricted Jewish immigration. The proposal thus hardly fell on receptive British ears, since its subtext would clearly have involved Palestine’s absorption of Europe’s rescued Jews. Moreover, the ultimate objective in the Revisionists’ scenario—symbolized most directly by the insistence that any such Jewish unit fight under its own banner or flag—was creating a precedent for and a core of a postwar sovereign, regular, and full-fledged standing Jewish army.
As with many causes in which supporting public apparatuses veil longer-range ideological agendas (some of the front organizations for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, for example), the full scope and significance of the Jewish military unit proposition was not always apparent, even to those who had come in principle to embrace political Zionism. It is unlikely that many—if any—of the Reform rabbis who supported the idea of a Jewish fighting force and introduced a resolution to that effect in 1942 were partial or even knowingly sympathetic to the Revisionists. (A few of the Revisionist representatives or emissaries in the United States even acquired their FBI files with the support of one or two American as well as world Zionist leaders.) Rather, they simply saw the plan as part of a form of Jewish autonomy in Palestine. Thus it was that the issue of a quasi-independent Jewish military force won the day for political Zionism within the Central Conference of American Rabbis while avoiding any Revisionist associations.
After a searing debate at the 1942 CCAR meeting, at which time compromises were offered in attempts to avoid a split and head off too radical a reversal of their previously maintained neutrality on the political question, a resolution calling for the Jews of Palestine to be permitted their own military force to “fight under its own banner” won by a nearly two-to-one vote. The CCAR had now established its position on the side of political Zionism without yet addressing actual statehood, nonetheless paving the way for its acceptance when it finally came six year later. Even though a future sovereign state was not part of the resolution, it is reasonable to assume that the significance of the Jewish unit’s banner or flag could not have been lost on all thirty-three of the original sponsors—nor on the additional thirty-one supporters they gained. The UAHC did not similarly approve the Jewish military plan, but it did endorse the idea of a commonwealth only a year later.
As was to be expected, an initial outburst of anger, with calls for disassociation, was aroused in anti-Zionist as well as merely non-Zionist elements among both the Reform rabbinate and the laity—including even some who generally sympathized with cultural and humanitarian aspects of Zionism but drew the line at the political intrusion. For a relatively short while, the cohesion and prosperity of the movement seemed in peril, with a sharp exchange of statements by a temporary splinter group that met with a nationwide, cross-denominational rabbinical response.
On balance, the anti-Zionist rabbinical and lay reactions—some of which reverted to the dated definition of Jews as exclusively a “religious community” in any particular country of residence—were more moderate, more reasonable, and more short-lived than they could have been. Still, the very fact that the movement had not only permanently mended fences with “the Zionists” but had gone on record to accept political Zionism and all that it implied vis-à-vis a perceived military arm apparently proved to be the last straw for fervent anti-Zionists who persisted in denying any Jewish nationhood other than unalloyed Americanism.
The fallout gave birth to the American Council for Judaism. Yet only for a brief time did it loom as a serious threat to Reform as a whole, much less to its pro-Zionist position, and never in any tangible way to American Zionism in general or the welfare of Israel. As the fracas settled down, and as some former non-Zionists even took silent pride in Israel’s founding and in the War of Independence, the impact of the American Council receded—although it never modified its party line. It came to be perceived as an extreme fringe organization by the mainstream of Reform and even by most of those disinterested in Israel; and by the mid-1960s it was not uncommon for members’ children (as young as high school age) to see it as a badge of embarrassment. To most of them, it comes as a surprise that the organization still technically exists.
By 1976, after the Holocaust, the founding of the state, and four wars foisted on Israel by which its sovereignty and survival were confirmed, the Reform movement had come full circle. The San Francisco Platform of the Central Conference of American Rabbis that year (“Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective”) acknowledged without reservation that “the State of Israel, through its many accomplishments, raised our sense of the Jews as a people to new heights of aspiration and devotion.” On the subject of peoplehood, the platform elaborated—now completely at odds with the position of a century earlier:
The Jewish people and Judaism defy precise definition…. [Jews] constitute an uncommon union of faith and peoplehood.
With regard to Israel in relation to the Diaspora, the platform referred with pride to a “third Jewish commonwealth” that had been established in our time and “in our people’s ancient homeland …”
we are bound to that land and to the newly reborn State of Israel by innumerable religious and ethnic ties…. We have both a stake and a responsibility in building the State of Israel, assuring its security, and defining its Jewish character…. The State of Israel and the Diaspora, in fruitful dialogue, can show how a people transcends nationalism even as it affirms it, thereby setting an example for humanity.
From a practical perspective, perhaps the most radical part of Reform’s new position was contained in its proclamation that permanent settlement or resettlement in Israel was not only a matter of refuge from unfavorable circumstances but could also be applicable even to American Jewry:
We encourage aliya for those who wish to find maximum personal fulfillment in the cause of Zion.
That statement was naturally followed by a corollary: “We demand that Reform Judaism be unconditionally legitimized in the State of Israel.”
Of the three main formally structured, religiously based branches of Jewish life in America, we have dwelt thus far at length on Reform, not only for its own history but as a wide-angle mirror of American Jewry’s ripening perspectives and attitudes with regard to modern Israel in general. That history is also a reflection of the evolution of its special, albeit sometimes complex and symbiotic, relationship with the State of Israel, its society, and its culture—all as a collective symbol of Jewish solidarity.
American orthodox Jewry’s encounter with Zionism and modern Israel was—and on some levels remains—fundamentally different in a number of respects from that of Reform. Yet its mainstream became no less a part of that relationship. Long before statehood, the Agudas Israel, representing orthodoxy’s rigidly antimodern right wing, was staunchly opposed to political Zionism on the usual historically entrenched theological grounds. For one thing, the secular state and society that Zionism’s founding leaders envisioned, along with its new nonreligious social and economic world order, ran counter to everything for which Agudas stood; it was anything but—indeed an obstacle to—the eventual theocracy in Palestine for which orthodox Jewry was prepared to wait as long as necessary. Moreover, the secularist and perceived agnosticism if not alleged atheism of modern Zionism’s principal architects and leaders, along with the general hostility to religion as the basis of Jewish life and culture, were offensive and repellent to the Agudas circles, for whom the triumph of such attitudes spelled the imminent end of Judaism and Jewish life.
In that one respect, the reactions of Agudas were ironically not dissimilar from those of the leading anti-Zionist rabbis of Classical Reform, who often railed against Zionism’s antireligious character and the negative attitude of its leadership; and Reform rabbis sometimes gave (or wanted to give) the impression that their objection to Zionism rested at least partly on that offensive rejection of Judaism. (Had Herzl, Nordau, and other Zionist leaders of their status and generation been fervent “believers” and regular synagogue worshippers, however, it is doubtful that Classical Reform’s overriding opposition would have been any less than it was.)
Also part of Agudas Israel’s unalterable religious opposition to modern Zionism was the familiar orthodox conviction that only the Messiah could and would eventually lead the Jewish people back to its ancient land and to communal and individual life, in accordance with the laws of the Torah and its rabbinic continuum—which meant the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of its sacrificial cult—and only when the Almighty decided that the time had come. For Jews to take matters into their own hands with regard to reestablishing a Jewish polity in Palestine amounted to sacrilege.
Indeed, during American Zionism’s first substantive phase there were occasional distasteful, fanatically driven incidents. For example, it was reported that in 1904, when Herzl died, an orthodox rabbi in a small synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side offered praise to God for having “struck him down.” But such radical occurrences were not the norm and not even much noted.
In eastern Europe, rabbinical opposition to Zionism could indeed be fierce and relentless. In hard-core anti-Zionist circles, there were unyielding rabbis who even blamed the settlers in Palestine for antagonizing local Arab populations merely by their presence, thus jeopardizing a previously harmonious coexistence between them and the centuries-old Jewish communities there that had no modern Zionist aspirations. Some issued condemnations on other grounds, particularly the abandonment of and freedom from the yoke of the Torah that modern Zionism would inevitably cause—even for those who would prefer to retain orthodoxy. Rabbi Israel Meir ha’Kohen [Kagan], a.k.a. the ḥafetz ḥayyim, who was known for his championing of the moral and ethical principles and values contained in and based on the Torah, rejected Zionism even as a means to freedom from persecution in Europe. For him, that freedom—as expressed in the words of the Zionist anthem (“to be a free people on our land”)—would only sever the historical bond between Jews and Judaism.
I fail to understand the expression “free Jews” used today . . . they may be free, but they are not Jews. The two stand opposed to each other, because the Jew is not free, and whoever is free is not a Jew. . . . They [secular Zionists] declaim against the Torah, an outlook based on the false concept that holds that one can be a Jew without the Torah and its commandments.
Those arguments, however, had little resonance in America. Many if not most of the forebears of the immigrants to America had been religiously traditional in eastern Europe, at least at some point or going back a generation or two, and an orthodox segment did exist in America during that time frame. But immigrants who subscribed uncompromisingly to the European Agudas brand of orthodoxy—or tried to—were very much in the minority.
The majority of Agudas-oriented Jews who were committed to the perpetuation of pious orthodoxy did not come to America in those years. They had been warned against the dangers to their children of the secular influences and attractions inherent in a free climate, and they knew that maintaining Sabbath observance and other requirements of orthodox life could be all but impossible in America then. In some of the most fanatic enclaves, there were even attempted rabbinic prohibitions against emigration. As late as the 1930s, Elazar Shapira, the firebrand leader of the insular world of Hassidim in Munkács, for example, famously exhorted Jews in near-hysterical terms not to go America, no matter how severe conditions might be in Europe. “Here, your lives might be in danger,” he screamed, “but in America your souls will be in peril!”
By the third and fourth decades of the 20th century, there appeared to be a more moderate midstream orthodoxy that had found ways of adjusting to modern American life, even incorporating and assimilating some of the cultural accoutrements that did not conflict directly with religious observance and traditional Jewish education. Although not necessarily hostile to Zionism on all fronts, some in those circles could be uncomfortable with its promotion in schools—not so much for its perceived negation of messianic theology, but because of the movement’s secular nature and abandonment of religion. There was concern that even politically neutral inclusion of Zionist-related history and culture in school curricula would distract attention and remove time from talmud torah and limudei kodesh (traditional Torah learning and study of sacred texts), and that it might accord heroic status to Zionism’s non- and even antireligious personalities rather than more exclusively and more appropriately to biblical, talmudic, and subsequent rabbinic scholars and other religious leaders.
In general, outside the greater New York area, that orthodox segment of American Jewry was largely “written off” by the intellectually enlightened and nonorthodox—but still basically traditional and Zionist-leaning—religious and educational leadership. They were objectively convinced that all orthodoxy was only an interim leftover stage in American Jewish life—a temporary vestige that could not possibly survive past another generation, or, if it insisted on prolonging its expiration, two at the most. For all the sociological and other reasons that made sense, orthodoxy could not and would not become revitalized or attract previously nonobserving Jews. Its perpetuation even that far was based on habit, nostalgia, and filial duty (or guilt), all of which would disintegrate in the face of modern rational examination and less-rigorous alternatives for religious observance. American society and orthodoxy were simply and inherently incompatible. For the college-age generation, the university experience would ensure orthodoxy’s end as a force with which to contend.
An example of that misreading of orthodoxy’s future and the ramifications for American Zionism can be seen in the handling of its 1927 dispute with the Board of Jewish Education in Chicago over curriculum content and the modern intellectual thrust of teacher training and professional advancement seminars and workshops. As they did successfully in other cities, the orthodox had demanded “equal time” in the form of more balanced approaches, and even separate programs that would bypass or downplay secular Zionism and also acknowledge their yeshiva orientation with regard to sacred texts. But the board’s superintendant, Alexander Dushkin—an eminent educator and scholar who was himself traditionally observant—saw no reason to accommodate them. When they threatened to secede and form their own bureau, he invited them to do so—which they did. “Let them go,” Dr. Dushkin advised his lay board. “In twenty years there will be no orthodox in America.” Thus was born the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago, saddling the community with supporting two Jewish education bureaus thereafter.
Neither Dushkin nor anyone else could have foreseen the postwar era revival and reappearance of orthodoxy, its accelerated escalation in the post-1970s period, or the successful influence of outreach groups with agendas of resuscitating and even replicating elements of eastern Europe’s extinguished orthodoxy—most visibly HABAD and its emissaries (or the Lubavitch Hassidic dynasty), but also other sometimes quasi-fundamentalist groups. The vast majority of this reestablished and reconstituted American orthodoxy long ago abandoned any aloofness toward modern Israel that its predecessors may have felt; and indeed the most vocal and most solid political support for Israel at the ballot box now often comes from its ranks.
During the first fifty or sixty years of Zionist activity in America, there were small clusters of adherents to unmodernized Old World orthodoxy, which—under the influence of uncompromising and sometimes charismatic rabbis—were, like their antecedents in Europe, passionately opposed to any form of modern Zionism. But as the 20th century progressed, these groups were the exception rather than the rule among an orthodoxy trying to find its way under the new circumstances in America. In large measure the attitude of the orthodox rank and file (committed as well as nominal or merely sympathetic) might best be described as lukewarm in that time frame—politically aloof though often emotionally receptive. Yet there was also a respectable amount of concrete, orthodox-oriented Zionist activity early on, through the establishment of orthodox organizations (including branches of European ones) committed to a religious brand of Zionism and to supporting orthodox life in Palestine.
One of the first orthodox synagogal associations to adopt or at least countenance positive dispositions toward Zionism was the Young Israel movement, which was founded in 1913. Originally, a large part of its raison d’être was to attract young Jews whose religious life and identity had become marginal, as well as worshippers who preferred an orthodox environment and ambience at services but were not or not yet committed to (or sufficiently conversant in) orthodox observances or prohibitions. Young Israel, which by the mid-1930s boasted a network of twenty-five synagogues in New York and five other cities, pursued a lenient, open, and soft-peddled approach to new worshippers and potential members. It also sought to undergird and revitalize orthodoxy by appealing to the unlearned, and especially new generations, with a relaxation of formality. In principle, for example (though one not always followed), bona fide cantors were replaced by lay precentors (ba’alei t’filla). The trained cantorial choirs typical of standard orthodox services in Europe and America became a rarity in Young Israel congregations, and congregational singing was increased as a hallmark of the movement. Young Israel prided itself in its material and moral support for the Jewish community in Palestine, and it was perhaps more enthusiastic than most other orthodox in its recognition of Israel in 1948.
Apart from synagogue life, probably the most significant organization of orthodox Zionists was (and has been) the American branch of the Mizrachi movement, which convened initially in 1914 as an independent group within the general American Zionist movement. Mizrachi originated in Vilna in 1902 (though it remained a minority among orthodoxy) to counter the secularism of the world Zionist movement as well as to promote religious interests within it. In America, religious Zionism was not forced—on the scale it was in Europe—to contend with the more right-wing condemnations of refusal to wait for the Messiah and meanwhile to endure the Diaspora as “God’s will.” Thus many leading orthodox rabbis affiliated with Mizrachi, including those affiliated with the Agudath ha’Rabbanim—the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada—which began as an organization of transplanted eastern European rabbis that was founded in 1902 to assert rabbinical authority and to counter American assimilation.
Constant tensions persisted in American orthodoxy, however, over the continually resurfacing issue of Zionism’s secularism. But even as early as Herzl’s death, in 1904, rabbis associated with Mizrachi and with Agudath ha’Rabbanim exhibited respect and sadness, conducting a memorial service for Herzl under Mizrachi auspices in New York. Upon news of the Balfour Declaration, they celebrated, as they did publicly on learning that the San Remo Conference in 1920 had made official the British Mandate over Palestine.
Once the state was a reality—recognized by both the United States and the Soviet Union (albeit out of Stalin’s ulterior motives: a rebuff to the British and their influence in the Near East)—all but the most extreme fringes of American orthodoxy welcomed the new addition to the family of nations. Moreover, it was in a sense the creation of the nascent United Nations, its 1947 partition vote (which Arab governments rejected), and then the armistice brokered in September 1948 by its now rarely remembered principal secretary of the U.N Palestine Commission and acting mediator on Palestine, Ralph Bunche. By the end of the 20th century, with the presence in Israel of politically significant blocs, so-called (if misnamed) modern orthodoxy in America, along with elements religiously and culturally farther to the right, had become decidedly and vocally committed to Israel—a commitment reflected in voting patterns and party affiliations.
Flourishing throughout most of the 20th century as a perceived middle ground between orthodoxy and Reform, the Conservative movement—in essence the Rabbinical Assembly and its lay arm, the United Synagogue of America—was basically friendly to Zionism from the beginning. The seminal scholar Solomon Schechter, who was brought from England in 1901 to preside over the reorganization of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which was eventually to educate most of the movement’s clergy, was staunchly opposed even to considering the British offer of Uganda as an alternative to Palestine. In that same year (1903), TheMaccabean printed his unequivocal position:
[The Jewish people, Israel] would prefer semi-starvation in the Holy Land to riches in any part of the world. In short, Zionism with Palestine is an ideal worth living and dying for; without it Zionism means nothing…. Any autonomous state of Jews outside Palestine means the destruction of Judaism and an utter break with all our positions.
Cyrus Adler, who headed the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1924 until 1940 and was an influential figure in the American Jewish intellectual and academic establishment, as well as a conduit to serious financial resources, was basically opposed (though not initially) to Herzl and his secularism and to political Zionism and its Palestine connection. He appeared willing to consider its possibility when Herzl first proclaimed his vision, but he came instead to favor the plan conceived by Paul Haupt even before the First Zionist Congress for resettling persecuted and endangered Jews of the Czarist Empire in Mesopotamia (Babylonia). By that time Adler saw a home within the Ottoman Empire as “an impossibility”; the proposed legal guarantees were meaningless: “Modern civilization … knows but one guarantee and that is force and the ability to use it.” The continued insistence on Palestine was, for him, a “theory,” whereas Babylonia appeared realistic. Moreover, he feared that further public agitation for Palestine would be “harmful to Jews all over the world.” He even theorized that if pursuit of the Palestine plan persisted and were to fail, disillusionment among Jews in eastern Europe as well as the Orient might drive “thousands into the Greek Church in despair.”
Yet Adler also supposed that a surge in Jewish immigration to Palestine could ignite negative reactions on the part of Orthodox Christians—a concern that appears to have had little foundation, especially judging from the Christian support of the Blackstone Memorial and from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch’s meaningful gesture of friendship and respect for Jews at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.
During his tenure as head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Adler’s views seem to have matured. In any case, with respect to Zionism or any other issue, he cannot be said to have represented the Conservative movement. The Seminary was not founded in connection with the Conservative movement nor with that intention—nor even as a nonorthodox school—but, independently, as a modern training ground for American rabbis based on the model of the seminary in Breslau. Even at mid-century, rabbinical alumni were not necessarily defined as “Conservative rabbis” (except insofar as they were members of the Rabbinical Assembly), but more often simply as “Seminary [JTS] rabbis.” The relationship between JTS and the Conservative movement developed only gradually. Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch was the first chancellor (1986–2006) to be recognized simultaneously and universally as the head of the Conservative movement by virtue of his JTS position.
For commencement exercises in the spring of 1948, JTS chancellor Louis Finkelstein refused to allow the proceedings to include the communal singing of “Hatikva.” Although not part of previous ceremonies, it had been requested by a group of graduating rabbinical students in view of the momentous occasion of Israel’s establishment. (A trio of those future young rabbis secretly arranged with the carillon player at nearby Riverside Church to have the entire melody peal audibly from the belfry during the outdoor JTS program.) But, like Adler before him, Finkelstein as chancellor still did not ipso facto represent the Conservative movement, nor did he necessarily aspire to that role. He was first and foremost one of the major modern Judaic scholars of his time (his groundbreaking work on the Pharisees, for example, remains unsurpassed). His pedagogic concerns were focused on educating and nurturing modern yet traditionally oriented, intelligently observant, and thoroughly knowledgeable and committed candidates for the non-Reform American rabbinate—rabbis who would be well versed in sacred texts and in the continuum of rabbinic literature and Judaic learning and would personify the desiderata of their application to American Jewry.
Finkelstein could not be called an anti-Zionist. If his refusal suggested institutional or official indifference—along with political astuteness—it was more that he deemed “Hatikva” and the fruition of Zionist efforts irrelevant at that time to the ordination of American rabbis headed for American pulpits. Moreover, the faculty as well as the lay governors of the Jewish Theological Seminary still represented varying orientations and sensibilities. An air of neutrality had been maintained in the previous decades, even if most of the student body was already more enthusiastically and more automatically disposed toward Zionist activity and, then, to the celebration of Israel’s founding. Although it would soon become inextricably intertwined both with the Seminary and with the Conservative rabbinate’s outlook, Israel as a state was still fresh. Before 1948 and into the 1950s, “Hatikva” was sung primarily in connection with expressly Zionist gatherings and meetings, but not necessarily at general Jewish occasions—later a frequent occurrence and symbol of solidarity. (The fact that the anthem had been in the Union Hymnal since 1932 did not mean that it was actually sung in Reform services or at other events in Reform synagogues during that time frame.) Nonetheless, it did not take long for the Seminary to align itself fully with Israel, its life, and its destiny.
By the 1950s the Conservative movement was already in the vanguard of Israel-related activities, involvements, and commitments. Conservative synagogues were among the first to adopt modern Israeli Hebrew in place of Ashkenazi pronunciation, to sponsor Israel-oriented youth programs and congregational tours of Israel, and to include awareness of modern Israel in their school as well as adult education curricula. The movement led the way in establishing summer study programs in Israel and, eventually, semesters or yearlong residencies of study there.
Another intersecting plane on which to explore American Jewry’s long-standing special relationship to Israel—as well as to understand much of the music in this volume—is the sometimes distinct or self-contained experience of modern Zionism’s cultural parameters and products. Widely known as “modern Hebrew culture”—with or without accompanying political dimensions or participation—this phenomenon came to comprise the folkloric, literary, and artistic expressions that sprang from modern Zionist-oriented sensibilities and developments and provided the potential material for a contemporary, youthful, and optimistic form of Jewish identity.
Indeed, apart from the rabbinical school, Hebrew culture as a transparent attribute of modern Zionism flourished at the Jewish Theological Seminary throughout the 1930s and 1940s and beyond, especially at its undergraduate Teachers Institute (now List College). The song and dance repertoires that emanated from the world Zionist movement and from the robust enterprise of rejuvenation in Palestine reverberated from classrooms, lecture halls, and the auditorium in the years before and after statehood. The linguistic and literary components of modern Zionism were also well represented in the curriculum and in student life. “Modern Hebrew was ‘God’ at the Teachers Institute in those days,” recalled musicologist and Jewish music pedagogue Judith Kaplan Eisenstein in a Milken Archive oral history interview in which she reminisced about her days on the faculty. Similar emphasis on cultural Zionism informed the environments and programs at independent secular Hebrew colleges, youth organizations, cultural clubs, and summer camps throughout the country.
Beginning before the First World War, and encouraged by the enthusiasm surrounding the Balfour Declaration, staunchly committed American Zionist groups seized on a 19th-century pre-Zionist movement precedent involving elaborate Hanukka pageants. Those grand events had been designed and presented originally (dating to the late 1870s) by a consortium of young “Jewish revivalists” and Jewish cultural and social “betterment” and benevolent associations (the Young Men’s Hebrew Associations, or YMHAs).
The purpose of the pageants was to resuscitate the so-called Festival of Lights, underscoring its legendary heroic nationalist message, and to restore and reconfirm the indissoluble connection between Jewish religion and peoplehood that the Reform movement persisted in denying. In addition to being cultural and educational pursuits in line with the YMHA’s missions, those events were part of a wider overall effort of the revivalists to restore religious and historical authenticity to American Jewish life without pretending to replicate European orthodoxy in all its rigor. But of all their activities and goals—which included the re-creation of the Sabbath on supposedly “ancient” models and reacquainting American Jewry with the centrality of Jerusalem and Palestine to Jewish heritage—the Hanukka pageants were the most visible and the most widely publicized.
One of the earliest if not the first was staged at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 1879, billed as a “Grand Revival of the Jewish National Holiday of Chanucka.” It was sponsored (“celebrated”) by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (and, as historian Jonathan Sarna’s research has revealed, jointly by members of Keyam Dismaya, the revivalist organization founded that same year—although it was not credited on the posters). The billing promised to reenact “the greatest Jewish event chronicled in Post-Biblical History, the recollection of which ever awakens the true Jewish spirit and patriotism” with “living representations of the stirring scenes and glowing events of the Maccabean war.” The tableaux concluded with a “grand procession of the return of the victorious heroes,” with “costumes new and original, historically correct.” A chorus of one hundred children of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and an orchestra of equal numbers rendered “Hebrew melodies,” followed by a grand ball.
For the specifically Zionist presenters and participants in the 20th century, Hanukka, which had been largely ignored by the Reform movement, offered an ideal mechanism for their purposes as well—similar pageants now serving as
thinly veiled propaganda tools for implanting popular support. Revised and yet again reinvented as a prism through which to refract Zionist aims and as a vehicle to instill Zionist sentiments, the holiday became transformed and reinterpreted in a new annual series of grandiose stagings presented at major public venues in northeastern and midwestern cities—but nowhere with quite so much opulence as in New York. By then the pageants were as much politically motivated as they were culturally constituted (if not more so). Using song, dance, drama, narration, scenery, and other typical accoutrements, they were—like their 19th-century models—designed to galvanize popular spirit, to imagine a modern secular version of the victorious Maccabean revolt (or its accepted account), and to stimulate audiences to identify with ancient Israelite heroism in the name of autonomy. Ironically, of course, the received Hanukka story centers around religious freedom rather than the secular political aspirations of modern Zionism. At the same time, those pageants planted the seeds for a more narrowly cultural Zionist awareness.
Secular Hebrew amateur choruses were already sprouting in the decade following the First World War. They provided a platform for cultural Zionist expression and participation, separate—at least at face value—from political purposes. For those interested in such Jewish choral experience and social camaraderie who could not relate so easily to the cultural, linguistic, or quasi-political socialist- and labor-oriented agendas of the various Yiddishist choruses also taking root, these modern Hebrew choruses offered alternatives. As early as 1923, for example, Hadoar—a weekly Hebrew periodical published by Histadrut Ivrit of America—announced the formation of such a Hebrew chorus in New York, to be led by Moshe Nathanson, who is credited with devising the words for “Hava Nagila.” That chorus claimed a membership of thirty choristers as of that date, and the announcement advised that “anyone who speaks Hebrew is encouraged to join.”
A year later, Hadoar—in its column “The Cultural Hebrew Scene”—announced a gala fund-raising event at City College of New York for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The program, which included modern Hebrew songs, was conceived to “demonstrate commitment to the Hebrew movement,” so that “every ‘Hebrew’ should attend.” Everywhere notices for such fund-raising events emphasized the musical features, often underscoring—as did, for example, one in Baltimore in 1925 for Histadrut Ivrit—“rich musical programs” of settings of poetry by Bialik and Tchernikovsky and their contemporaries or, more generically, selections from the repertoires of “Israel’s songs,” “songs of the pioneers,” or shirei eretz yisrael (songs of the Land of Israel).
Over the ensuing two or three decades, Hebrew choruses proliferated in several cities. Some were openly affiliated with or sponsored by specific political Zionist factions or tributaries, such as the Bet Ar chorus in New York or, later, left-leaning youth choruses of the Hashomer Hatza’ir movement, whose mission was to inspire young people to commit themselves to aliya and to joining the Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutzim. But many secular Hebrew choruses concentrated more neutrally and more liberally on cultural identification and awareness, even if, in theory, longer-range agendas in some instances gently underlay the apolitical musical participation. By the 1940s, those choruses fortunate enough to have the requisite capability had begun to go beyond functional folksong arrangements to include some sophisticated original compositions by leading composers in the y’shuv—a pursuit that continued during the 1950s and 1960s when those composers were now Israelis.
By the 1940s, in addition to the choruses whose raison d’être centered around exposure to modern Hebrew culture and the music of modern Israel, general Jewish communal choruses—whose mixed repertoires included liturgical as well as secular works from a variety of sources—were also programming selections that reflected cultural and spiritual emotional attachment to Zionist aspirations, accomplishments, and ideals, as well as a newly acquired (or reinforced) consciousness of the geography and landscape of Palestine and the wider Near East. By the 1950s it would have been rare for an ensemble such as the Halevi Choral Society in Chicago—or the Paterson (New Jersey) Singing Society, the Zilberts Choral Society in New York and Newark, New Jersey, and numerous others with a similarly wide embrace of Jewish choral music—not to devote a segment of each concert to modern Israeli repertoire. Choral settings of Julius Chajes’s Old Jerusalem and Adarim (presented in this volume in their solo versions) were particular favorites of those choruses and their audiences, as were various choral arrangements of songs incorporated by Max Helfman into his Israel Suite and his Ḥag Habikkurim and by Herbert Fromm into works such as his Yemenite Cycle.
During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and for a while thereafter, there were a number of small, intellectually driven American organizations and societies that attempted to explore and promote the music culture of modern Israel. Most of these were centered in New York, with a few branches elsewhere. The most prominent, most ambitious, and, for too brief a time, most effective of these groups was known as MAILAMM (Makhon Aretz Israeli La’Mada’ey ha’Musika). Founded in 1932 in New York, with chapters soon established in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Los Angeles, that society’s mission was to aid the Palestine Institute of Musical Sciences, which had been founded in 1929, and to encourage Jewish musical creativity through concert programs, academic seminars, and educational programs in the United States. In 1934 MAILAMM became affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among its objectives were the creation of a music research department there, as well as a serious music library and the forging of musical links between Palestine and Diaspora communities. Its impressive roster of members and active supporters included many luminaries of the Jewish music world in America, along with leading Jewish as well as non-Jewish figures in the general music arena. Its private programs and its public concerts featured a broad representation of the work of the y’shuv’s most important composers.
MAILAMM was disbanded in 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War, which diverted attention and presented an insurmountable obstacle to the group’s activities. A much smaller society, the Jewish Music Forum—begun earlier as a breakaway and putative rival entity when Abraham Wolf Binder, its founder as well as a MAILAMM member, became embroiled in controversy with the MAILAMM board—continued to thrive until 1963. It published a journal and hosted lectures and symposia, but neither its modest musical programs (aimed at a circumscribed audience of professional as well as educated lay Jewish music aficionados) nor its general purposes were focused specifically on the music of modern Israel.
MAILAMM’s voluminous archives and papers were donated to a major American public library, where they reposed unsorted and uncatalogued (even now) among its rare and effectively inaccessible collections—where they were virtually discovered by accident in the 1990s by a cantorial student pursuing research for her master’s thesis at the Jewish Theological Seminary under this writer’s guidance. The thesis, completed with distinction by Kim Komrad, was able to address only a small portion of those archives, which remain a rich resource for scholarship. Their exhaustive mining would reveal and clarify much about Jewish musical life in America during that time frame and the extent to which it succeeded in making American audiences aware of the music of modern Israel.
While the early 21st-century Jewish music scene in America and Europe is at times saturated by recreations and re-imaginings of a European Jewish past (sometimes unduly focused on the shtetl and folk life of the Yiddish-speaking world), at the middle of the 20th century familiarity with modern Israel's music was common. In fact, for a time it seemed that it was on a road to attaining at least equal footing with inherited and transplanted eastern European secular as well as sacred song. That development was particularly visible in the field of mainstream Jewish education, which, if belatedly, came to include the Reform movement and its schools and summer camps.
Of course, both the older and by then nostalgic songs of the Land of Zion and the newer melodies and lyrics of more recent aliya periods were already standard fare among committed Zionist circles and their youth programs. At the same time, a general curiosity about the “new” music of modern Israel had emerged and was blossoming among those who simply sought modern modes of Jewish identity and expression apart from actual Zionist affiliation or activity. (That gravitation did not preclude simultaneous attachment to European-based musical heritage, especially among older generations. Newspaper announcements of Zionist events reveal, for example, that cantorial and Yiddish selections could be presented in tandem with modern Hebrew songs and even, though less frequently, instrumental pieces.) Modern Jewish educators searched for ways to instill politically neutral awareness of Israel and its recent history and to offer music and dance that would be acceptable to younger generations and relevant to their sensibilities. In that quest they turned increasingly to the folk and quasi-folk song and dance repertoires of modern Israel. Secondary and higher levels of Jewish education in that time frame also addressed modern Hebrew literature associated with Israel—especially poetry.
Nowhere in America did that pursuit of modern Hebrew arts find so enthusiastic a reception, meet with such success, and aspire to such sophisticated heights as at the Brandeis Camp and the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Santa Susana, California, and its eastern branches. Indeed, that exciting episode provides a fertile case study of how cultural Zionism and modern Israeli forms of music, dance, and drama replaced European-born cultural activities and forged a new type of Jewish identity for the youth of that generation. (The camp still exists, but with a diluted emphasis on modern Israeli culture—and without the post–high school division.) The Brandeis-Bardin program quickly became a model for other secular Jewish summer camps and schools in the 1950s and 1960s, although none were able to follow its lead with the same rigor—and none were able to attract faculties of the same caliber.
The origins of the Brandeis-Bardin experiment can be traced to 1945, when the Histadrut Ivrit of America and the American Zionist Youth Commission jointly established a Jewish Arts Committee to promote Zionist/Palestine–oriented Hebrew culture and arts in the New York area. Its underlying goals were to mobilize, stimulate, and effect an ongoing dialogue with artistic life in the y’shuv, to attract American Jewish youth to Zionist ideals through the medium of artistic expression, and to forge ties between the two communities. To direct the musical program of the Arts Committee, its chairman, Moshe Davis, suggested bringing Max Helfman—a highly acclaimed choral conductor, arranger, and composer among far-left Yiddishist circles (director of the Frayhayts Gezang Farayn/Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus) as well as a director of synagogue choirs and one of the finest liturgical composers of his era. Davis was instrumental in Helfman’s appointment and in guiding him along his transition to what was, for him, a completely new repertoire. Upon commencing his position, Helfman organized and directed a new choral ensemble, which became known as the Hebrew Arts Singers.
It was during that time that Helfman conceived and wrote his choral pageant Ḥag Habikkurim (Festival of the First Fruits), a suite of original arrangements of modern Hebrew songs featured in this volume. In fashioning this pageant, Helfman was forging an important link with modern Hebrew culture as well as with the spirit of mainstream Zionist ideology. At the same time, the work provided a practical vehicle for promoting and disseminating the popular folksong repertoire of the Land of Zion. It was premiered in 1947 by the Hebrew Arts Singers under Helfman’s baton and sponsored by the Hebrew Arts Committee, and it received performances at the Brandeis Camp and elsewhere.
Like many of Helfman’s subsequent secular Hebrew works, Ḥag Habikkurim is an indicator of its composer’s own shift in cultural focus. But it reveals in turn a general trend toward Israel-related expression among an expanding segment of American Jewry of that time. In that sense, we may view Helfman’s own transition—through this work and others—as a reflection of the zeitgeist that attracted significant cultural involvement in new forms.
For Shlomo Bardin, executive director of the American Zionist Youth Commission, works such as these confirmed one of his guiding educational principles: that Jewish identity for young Americans could be reinforced by drawing inspiration from the music and dance of modern Israel, divorced from political affiliation. At the same time, there was a mutually beneficial aspect with regard to the organizations dedicated more directly to Zionist advocacy. The principal Zionist agencies (with whom Justice Brandeis, whose support never diminished, had disagreed strategically) hoped that such aesthetic exposure, even if purely cultural at first, would eventually attract some of the youth to actual political involvement and physical commitment in the form of kibbutz residencies and perhaps aliya.
Bardin was a profound idealist and educator who had emigrated to Palestine from the Ukraine in 1919 and had come to the United States to study at Columbia University. There he had made the acquaintance of Justice Brandeis, who was known not only for his Zionist support but also for his deep concern about Jewish youth—particularly university-age students and their alienation (or potential alienation) from Judaism, partly as an unavoidable consequence of the appropriate intellectual freedom of the university experience. The challenge as Brandeis saw it was to find a way to make Judaism meaningful and relevant to this new American generation while in no way detracting from its full participation in American society and culture. A similar challenge had faced an earlier German Jewry as it had sought to reconcile Jewish life and identity with modernity, not always with satisfactory results.
The Zionist example and its accompanying optimistic and youthful spirit offered a potential creative antidote to that feared disaffection. This struck a chord in Bardin, though he returned to Palestine and founded the Technical High School in Haifa (a part of the Technion). But when he was unable to return home to Palestine from a second visit to the United States in 1939, Brandeis inspired him to establish a cooperative-type institute based on the cultural aura and idealistic spirit of the kibbutz, also incorporating some elements of a Danish Folk High School that Bardin had witnessed. His first step was to seek a highly competent faculty that was committed to Jewish consciousness and was also gifted with the ability to inspire a genuine desire for Jewish identification. Reinforced in his instinct by the recommendation of Cantor David Putterman, whose choir Helfman conducted at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, Bardin engaged Helfman to be the music director.
Neither the Yiddish musical idiom that had informed Helfman’s work outside the synagogue nor the music of Hebrew liturgy—both of which still constituted the musical diet in most non-Zionist Jewish schools—were relevant to the goals or the student makeup of the Brandeis Camp. Instead, the musical program there was to relate to the young and exciting endeavor in Palestine (and soon Israel)—music evoking the return to an ancient homeland and songs about building the new society.
For anyone with Helfman’s background in left-wing, antinationalist Yiddish choral endeavors, as well as in synagogue music, this was a significant reorientation in attitude and focus. The music of Jewish identity at the Brandeis Camp obviously did not comprise the songs of Jewish proletarian class struggle to which musicians of Helfman’s ilk were accustomed (he had also devoted his previous energies to choral arrangements of those songs, including celebrations of the Bolshevik Revolution, which were published by the far-left Jewish [Workers] Music Alliance), but, rather, the music of Israel, of Zionist aspirations, and of the newly rejuvenated land itself and its geographical attributes. Like a number of other fellow composers whose Jewish musical efforts had until then been almost entirely rooted in European tradition, he began writing original works as well as arranging folk material according to a Near Eastern and Hebrew Palestinian melos—seeking appropriate harmonic language and experimenting with indigenous melodic features.
The Brandeis Camp’s Winterdale, Pennsylvania, location was the first to host Helfman. When the camp at Santa Susana, near Los Angeles, was established in 1947, he relocated there; composer Robert Strassburg took over the Pennsylvania post. By then there were three camps, the third in Hendersonville, North Carolina. In 1951 the two eastern locations were closed, and the California camp became the focus of all energies.
All the performing arts were offered and encouraged. On its faculty, for example, was Benjamin Zemach, the celebrated choreographer of Jewish dance forms whose goal was to create a new dance genre that would draw on various Jewish folk dance traditions but would be cultivated as a high art for performance. (He had choreographd Meyer Weisgal’s TheRomance of a People for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, “A Century of Progress,”as well as Kurt Weill’s monumental pageant The Eternal Road, which had been produced in New York in 1937.) Photographs from the Brandeis Camp archives reveal an astonishing level of artistry in dance productions, as well as participatory folk dancing. The musical activities directed by Helfman, however, constituted the most enduing and memorable part of the experience—as recalled half a century later in Milken Archive oral history interviews.
Helfman attempted to create what he called a “Jewish Renaissance” through music, parallel to the cultural, social, economic, geographic, and spiritual renaissance that was occurring in the Land of Israel. Both he and Bardin perceived that American Jewish renaissance as the ideal mediator between tradition and identity on one hand and rational modernity on the other. Alluding to competing intellectual and political positions within Zionism—among younger generations in particular concerning maintenance of religious tradition—he deferred to the cultural dimension: “They will argue with you,” he acknowledged, “but you cannot argue with a song or a dance.” Bardin concurred. “Music unites people,” he proclaimed. “It is stronger than words.”
With Bardin’s enthusiastic support, Helfman also envisioned another project for the Santa Susana campus: a sort of culturally “Jewish Interlochen,” or a Jewish version of Tanglewood within the Brandeis framework, where artistically gifted college-age youth could be trained for leadership in the cultural life of America. It would provide a forum for established Israeli and other Jewish composers to share their knowledge and experience with young American artists. This project was aimed not at amateurs or general students like the younger campers, but at those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who were already technically accomplished composers, writers, performers, conductors, and dancers.
Helfman’s and Bardin’s dreams thus achieved reality with the establishment of the Brandeis Arts Institute, which opened in the summer of 1948 and was held for five consecutive summers concurrently with the regular Brandeis Camp. The distinguished resident-artist faculty for music included such major figures as the famous Israeli folksinger Bracha Zefira, Jewish musicologist Alfred Sendrey, conductor Izler Solomon, and composers Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Julius Chajes, Eric Zeisl (whose viola sonata was subtitled Brandeis Sonata), Heinrich Schalit, Ernst Toch, and many others. A fruitful dialogue was established with some of the leading Israeli composers; and important personalities from the worlds of dance (in addition to Zemach), drama, and fine arts were also in residence. Among the young composers there who benefited immeasurably from the Brandeis experience and who became prominent contributors to American music—and for whom those summers were turning points in their outlooks—were Jack Gottlieb, Charles Davidson, Gershon Kingsley, Raymond Smolover, Charles Feldman, and Pulitzer prizewinner Yehudi Wyner. Works by all these composers are included in the Milken Archive, in this and in other volumes.
The Brandeis Arts Institute lasted only through the summer of 1952, but Helfman continued to direct the music program at the Brandeis Camp for seventeen years, and the focus on modern Hebrew culture remained undiminished during his tenure.
Significant American Jewish support for Israeli classical concert performers manifested itself soon after independence and transcended Zionist circles altogether. By the mid-1950s, American impresarios and concert promoters had already begun to seize on what they astutely perceived as commercially viable opportunities when—sometimes supported by charitable Jewish or Israel-oriented organizations—they presented Israeli artists (sabras as well as those who were born in the Diaspora but had grown up and been educated in the exciting classical music environment of the y’shuv and the infant state) as well as orchestras and other ensembles. Capitalizing on the near exoticism of those artists’ fresh Israeli personae—a factor that was naturally emphasized in publicity materials—those promoters were appealing not only to the usual classical music audiences in America—which were already heavily populated by Jewish devotees (especially among symphony orchestra subscribers)—but also to many who were not habitually drawn to classical music. For both, it was, in addition to an artistic experience, a matter of curiosity, support, solidarity, and pride.
When the young Israeli pianist Menahem Pressler toured the United States in the early 1950s, some of his recitals were booked at synagogue venues—including Reform congregations whose memberships had displayed little support for Zionism and even included vocal anti-Zionist factions. Suddenly that made no difference. People came to hear him precisely and primarily because he was Israeli, and the classical music aficionados among them were not disappointed. (Pressler went on to enjoy a brilliant career as the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio—probably the finest piano trio in the world, which played to packed houses until its retirement and farewell tour in 2007; and he taught for decades on the faculty of Indiana University.)
As the opportunities arose, impresarios and promoters continued to offer Israeli artists. Sometimes they took the usual risks of concert presentation, no different in principle from contemporary pop or rock presenters, albeit on a smaller scale and with less, but still appreciable, investment (classical presenters in major American cities at that time were for the most part private entrepreneurs or agencies, unlike the nonprofit grant-seeking entities that have now largely taken over that role in the classical arena). On other occasions they succeeded in persuading Jewish organizations to help in underwriting or cosponsoring those ventures by featuring such Israeli artists as the main or sole attraction at their annual fund-raising events.
When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra made its first American tour, houses were generally sold out with or without organizational cosponsorship, although, until the mid-1970s or a bit later, it was still possible to obtain Jewish institutional support for such concerts. By then, however, the novelty of Israeli classical musicians had begun to wear thin, concurrent with generational diminution of interest in classical music. Jewish day schools, communal philanthropic agencies, and other organizations—including even those dedicated specifically to Israel-related causes—began to “play it safe” by featuring singers and other performers from the Israeli commercial folk and pop music arenas; and the next step was often to turn to high-profile popular American performers.
In the early 1970s, for example, a major Jewish day school whose annual fund-raising concerts had typically featured Israeli artists or ensembles became disillusioned when for the first time it failed to attract a sufficient audience for an ensemble so prestigious as the Israel Chamber Orchestra; the following year it invited an American pop star. That was a practical “business” decision, and it worked. A decade earlier it would not have been necessary. However, it must be borne in mind that the Israeli label had lost some of its allure for positive reasons. By then Israel’s most accomplished classical artists had become part of the mainstream music world, without the need to be promoted for their Israeli roots.
Meanwhile, for numerous Israeli musicians who were engaged for American concert appearances through the 1960s, the “Israeli” association remained an effective instrument for attracting Jewish audiences and a useful advantage for presenters. But it was no gimmick. It was more a welcome revelation that so young, so overburdened, and so existentially preoccupied a nation could boast a roster of pianists, violinists, singers, and other soloists along with conductors and ensembles who were nothing short of world class. Still, when fifteen-year-old Daniel Barenboim made his American debut as a pianist in 1957 (he was not yet known as a conductor, although his exposure to conducting studies had begun at the age of twelve), he was perceived and billed as an Israeli prodigy. He was born in Argentina, and his parents had immigrated to Israel in 1952. Upon that American debut, as well as his immediately following annual American tours, audiences and critics alike recognized his enormous gifts, although some reviewers questioned the wisdom of anyone so young attempting to bring anything new to the late Beethoven sonatas. But his career in America both then and as a budding young conductor was launched and facilitated at least in part by his advertised identity. It was also assisted by his association with a coterie of Israeli musicians who were encouraged and aided by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation (founded in New York even before Israeli statehood), whose competition in Israel he had won in 1953.
By the 1970s, American popular recognition of a classical artist reached one of its high points far beyond the boundaries of the already committed concertgoing public with its discovery of Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman, who had made his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1963 at the age of eighteen and whose star continued to rise toward general celebrity status through such extramusical activities as television appearances with the Muppets and commercial endorsements for American Express—none of which detracted from his artistic integrity. Not since the even greater embrace of America’s own native pianist Van Cliburn, or its conductor, pianist, composer, and lecturer Leonard Bernstein, had a classical musician become such a public personality. Beginning with his first American concerts, Perlman took audiences by storm not merely because he was an Israeli—although American Jews instantly took understandable pride in that fact—but because, inasmuch as the young American violinist Michael Rabin had gone into virtual seclusion after so much initial promise, many heard in Perlman the most likely heir to a group of five widely considered to be the immortal giants of the instrument: Russian Empire–born Jews Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, and Jascha Heifetz; Soviet Jew David Oistrakh; and French virtuoso Zino Francescatti. (Of Paganini, who was thought in his day to be diabolically driven if not incarnated, we have no recordings from which to judge objectively; and the legendary Fritz Kreisler’s style of playing came to be considered dated and overly sentimental by contemporary standards.)
Israeli concert artists have not introduced American audiences to the robust and continually expanding corpus of music by Israeli composers, even though many of them have performed such works in Israel. By and large their programs have been confined to the European canon. (Israeli composers are virtually unrepresented even at specialized contemporary music events in the United States.) Occasional offerings in the 1950s (mostly by ensembles rather than soloists) of pieces by one or two of the most familiar Israeli composers at the time—Paul Ben-Haim or Marc Lavry, for example—have long ago been abandoned.
But then, mainstream American artists do not typically include American composers in their programs, either abroad or at home. What the initial tours of Israeli concert performers did provide, however, beginning with the American debut of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1950, was yet another demonstration that the Zionist visionaries had achieved their aspirations—that a Jewish state had arrived on the international scene not merely as an emotionally supported haven of refuge nor as an exotic anomaly in cultural isolation, but as a “normal” modern country. Not only did it now have “Hebrew-speaking prostitutes, policemen, and thieves”—to paraphrase Israel’s de facto poet laureate Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik’s famously predicted indicator of the ultimate fulfillment of Zionist dreams—but it now had Hebrew-speaking classical musicians of the first rank as well.
Beginning shortly after independence, some of the highest-profile American Jewish artists began performing regularly in Israel—often accepting a fraction of their usual fee. Among the first to do so were violinist Jascha Heifetz and the young Leonard Bernstein, who guest-conducted the Israel Philharmonic there and, along with Serge Koussevitzky and Izler Solomon, on its first American tour. Earlier, in a little-known episode in his life, an even younger Bernstein had performed in the United States on behalf of the Revisionist Zionist cause and in support of fund-raising efforts for the Irgun. (Non-Jewish future celebrities such as Marlon Brando had also performed and even given speeches in support of the Revisionists and their American emissaries.) Also among many American Jews to give concerts in Israel early on was violinist Yehudi Menuhin (who eventually became a knighted British subject). For many American soloists and conductors, invitations to perform in Israel quickly became a symbol of prestige, and those who were bypassed might even have felt insulted.
After the Six Day War, internationally beloved pianist Artur Rubinstein—who had not previously identified as a Jew other than to refuse (as part of an alliance of other major classical artists, which Menuhin declined to join) to play in Germany for some time after the Holocaust—fell virtually in love with the Jewish state as spiritually his own. He established a major piano competition and prize there in his name, and he gave regular master classes even after he had become nearly blind from shingles. For three decades after the Second World War, Rubinstein still considered himself a Pole of Jewish parentage. The only positive response to his 1906 debut American tour came in Chicago—because its large Polish population (second in size only to Warsaw) assumed him to be a Pole with a not uncommon German name. During the war he frequently preceded recitals with the Polish national anthem; it is doubtful that he even knew of “Hatikva.” Now Israel’s 1967 victory for survival planted in him seeds of Jewish as well as Israeli solidarity. By the 1970s he had become a vocal supporter of the hard-line position within Israeli politics vis-à-vis its security and unilateral evacuation of territories occupied as a result of Israel’s defeat of the nations that either attacked it or forced it into war with the proclaimed aim of annihilation. The same artist who had once flirted with apologetic explanations for antisemitism now requested burial in Israel.
American Jewish assistance for Israel’s musical institutions began with modest support even before statehood, through such organizations as MAILAMM and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and from unofficially organized private aid for the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra (renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1948)—an ensemble largely made up of refugee musicians from the Third Reich that was founded by violinist Bronislaw Huberman. Its inaugural concert was conducted in Tel Aviv in 1936 by Arturo Toscanini. In the years following independence, such support for the arts increased markedly as the American Jewish philanthropic community stepped up to the plate to ensure the vibrancy of Israel’s musical life. Proliferating fund-raising organizations included the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Friends of the Israeli Opera, Friends of Hebrew University (a portion of whose gifts assist its music departments), and Americans for a Music Library in Israel (AMLI), whose founder, Chicago businessman Max Targ, also provided musical instruments for Israeli schools and youth bands and orchestras.
Of the major private monetary contributions to Israeli musical endeavors, the most ambitious and far-reaching probably remains the gift of Frederic R. Mann. It provided much of the financing for the construction of the concert hall in Tel Aviv that would be the home of the Israel Philharmonic. In a perhaps apocryphal account of an incident that occurred shortly after its opening in 1957, a visitor remarked to a tour guide that it had been magnanimous for Israelis to name the hall (the Mann Auditorium) after a German author so soon after the war and the Holocaust, even though Thomas Mann was himself a non-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and resided thereafter in California, where he befriended many Jewish artists and intellectuals who were fellow refugees. “What did he ever write?” was the visitor’s response when told that the hall was named after Frederic R. Mann of Philadelphia, not the famous German writer. The answer was obvious: “A cheque.” Though it is unknown to most, Frederic R. Mann also previously gave moral encouragement as well as financial support, assisting refugee musicians in the y’shuv and helping Huberman to establish the Palestine Philharmonic. An amateur pianist throughout his life who had initially planned on a career, Mann was also the benefactor of many musical endeavors in the United States.
What little attention might have been paid to Israeli composers in the 1950s and early 1960s—when a few American orchestras occasionally programmed an easily appealing piece in the so-called Mediterranean style and when a few chamber ensembles and learned societies promoted awareness of Israeli music in intimate settings—had faded to near oblivion by the end of the 20th century. Sporadic chamber programs still presented (when given the opportunity) by the Jewish Music Commission in Los Angeles or the annual festivals at Ohio State University organized by Israeli-American composer Jan Radzynski are among the very few exceptions.
In New York, Leon Botstein, with greater resources at his disposal, has made important, higher-profile efforts to bring Israeli composers to public attention. Many of the music events held in the United States in celebration of Israel’s fiftieth anniversary generated justifiable criticism for their absence of Israeli music, or even Israeli performers. Botstein’s concert at Lincoln Center in 2009 with the American Symphony Orchestra, under his baton and preceded by his typically erudite lecture, was not only an antidote to those omissions, it was a brilliantly conceived model of the kind of program that, were it to tour the United States, could go a long way toward educating the public and broadening vistas for the general music world. Titled Composing a Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs, the concert avoided pandering to perceived popular tastes and instead featured solid works by five of Israel’s most prominent composers: Erich-Walter Sternberg’s The Twelve Tribes of Israel; Mordecai Seter’s Midnight Vigil (Tikkun Ḥatzot); Josef Tal’s second symphony; Odeon Partos’s Ein Gev—Symphonic Fantasy; and Paul Ben-Haim’s second symphony.
To no one’s surprise, however, fellow conductors and other American orchestras across the country or even in New York have yet to take Botstein’s cue—in part because this music remains outside the safety net of so-called mainstream symphonic repertoire upon which 21st-century symphony orchestras rely, and in part perhaps because encouragement is not forthcoming from Jewish quarters as it once was, but also because this type of program requires Botstein’s combination of vision and tenacity. Indeed, his annual themed festivals would be ideal vehicles for continued exploration in future.
It is not American Jewry alone that has neglected the cultivated serious music of modern Israel. For the overwhelming majority, if not virtually all of the general music establishment in America—performers as well as audiences, even among the otherwise more inquisitive world of 20th-century or contemporary music—it is as if the rich, diverse, voluminous, and expanding continuum of Israel’s music creativity is some figment of our imagination. Yet the aggregate repertoire, dating to the 1920s, embraces every conceivable style, form, and genre: symphonies and symphonic pieces of all types; operas and operettas; lieder and song cycles; sonatas, suites, and other solo pieces; concertos; oratorios and cantatas, along with other choral works of every imaginable conception, from miniature to large forms; electronic music with and without conventional instruments; dance scores; and chamber music in all conventional as well as inventive combinations. In addition to secular concert music, there is a wealth of original liturgical works based on numerous traditions, and many large-scale musical theater pieces.
A recent, admittedly random and nonscientific survey of highly visible and exceptionally knowledgeable American symphony orchestra conductors—Jews as well as non-Jews, a number of whom have conducted in Israel and are abreast of all other developments in Western music—revealed that not one could name a single Israeli composer, let alone specific works. Given hints with the hope of jogging memory, none knew the names of the two most obvious and once most familiar composers: Paul Ben-Haim and Marc Lavry. A legitimate analogy in reverse would pertain if not a single European or Israeli musician recognized the names of American composers Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, or Leonard Bernstein. That uniformity of innocent ignorance, however, would probably not have been the case in 1960, and the finding can strike us as alarming.
Perhaps it is not so surprising when we realize that no American music library has anything more than a handful of the entire stock of published Israeli works—and even those randomly acquired items are atypical of library holdings, with major composers entirely unrepresented. The hundreds if not thousands of scores published in Israel have never been available for purchase or prepurchase examination or browsing, even before the Internet age, when every major American city had at least one well-stocked music store with a physical location and an inventory of the otherwise complete range of Western music.
Although a large amount of deserving Israeli music has yet to be recorded, hundreds of pieces were indeed once either issued in Israel on commercial labels or recorded for broadcast—in which case they exist in archives, catalogued or not. The majority of the commercial recordings were never available at record stores in the United States, nor are they to be found in libraries. A glance at the manifests of classical FM radio stations will not reveal the inclusion of Israeli works.
When the aforementioned Max Targ, through his AMLI organization, offered in the late 1960s to provide a complete set of every work published in Israel free of charge to any American library that would want one and to continue to add all new works upon publication, only two institutions (both in his own city) took advantage of that offer: the Chicago Public Library and the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago. Nearly all those scores have since disappeared or been given away. (The New York Public Library accepted some of them, but nothing approaching the full collection.) Perhaps that absence of interest was a harbinger of the present situation, although lack of interest in this case—as in many—is probably more a function of lack of awareness. Still, the results of the conductors’ survey could, if channeled wisely, become a catalyst for a process of rectification and even reversal.
At this stage of deterioration in public consciousness, a comprehensive, exhaustive, and systematic recording, reissuing, and documentation project—along with a strategy for encouraging public performances—would yield results tantamount in scope and value to those of a major archaeological excavation. It would be an ambitious but not impossible undertaking, an invaluable contribution to our collective appreciation of modern Israel and to the rejuvenation and perpetuation of the totality of Jewish heritage.
In the choral arena the situation is only a bit less disheartening. Some amateur American Jewish choruses still sing a few Israeli pieces, but these are usually folksong arrangements or short original pieces that are relatively easy to learn.
One episode in the history of choral activity in America in which, for a time, more substantive Israeli choral repertoire was addressed with artistic sensitivity concerned the Zamir Chorale. Founded in 1960 in New York by Stanley Sperber, it was directed by him until his aliya in 1972, when Matthew Lazar assumed the reins. Its sister chorus in Boston has been directed by Joshua Jacobson.
Sperber sought, with a fair degree of success, to emulate the aura, sophistication, and spirit of some of the accomplished, classically oriented kibbutz choirs in Israel—in particular, the United Kibbutz Choir (Kibbutz Ham’yuḥad), directed by Avner Itai, Israel’s premiere choral conductor and one of the most artistic and gifted choral directors on the international scene. Although some of the difficult works in its repertoire would have been beyond Zamir’s reach, it did succeed in bringing to public attention in the New York area a level of Israeli choral art that had not previously been heard in America. Zamir’s membership comprised mainly young men and women ranging in age from about eighteen through their thirties, and it appealed especially to college and graduate or professional school students and recent alumni. Basic musicianship was a prerequisite, and auditions were competitive; and with its annual Town Hall concerts as well as others, it was a fixture of New York’s cultural scene.
Because modern Israeli culture was still a fresh attraction during Sperber’s twelve-year tenure and for a while afterward, the chorale was able to establish a following. It had no specific political Zionist affiliations, and its members ranged in religious identification from nonreligious or nonobservant to modern orthodox. But, although its repertoire included other elements, it made no secret of its essential dedication to modern Israel, modern Hebrew, and Israeli choral art. Its successor entities, too, under the umbrella of the Zamir Choral Foundation and under the capable leadership of its founder, Matthew Lazar, maintain an essential Israel connection as, in their terminology, “a dedicated Zionist organization.” The focus of their repertoires, however, differs in some ways from that of the original Zamir, including a broader base of American and other non-Israeli composers and styles in which the Zamir choristers and their audiences of the 1960s would have had less interest.
Commissioning of Israeli composers by American Jewish organizations (with either Israel-related or general communal missions) and even synagogues—and of course Jewish choruses—was once a common desiderata that often enjoyed fulfillment. Those ventures could be seen as ideal ways to celebrate anniversaries or other special occasions and to promote awareness, at the same time lending practical and moral support to Israel’s cultural continuum. Sadly, these undertakings have become increasingly rare, as such agencies—if inclined to commission at all—have turned to other media and other sources.
The three artistic synagogue services whose excerpts are included in this volume were all born as American commissions, which gives them their equal if not greater identity as music of American Jewish experience, as they were conceived exclusively for American synagogue formats; and they were selected from among many similarly commissioned Israeli works. Paul Ben-Haim’s Sabbath Eve service, Kabbalat Shabbat, was commissioned in 1966 by the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), the youth wing of the Reform movement; Marc Lavry’s Sabbath Eve Sacred Service was commissioned in 1958 by Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, that city’s most prestigious Reform congregation; and Yehezkel Braun’s Hallel Servicewas commissioned in 1984 by Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Minneapolis to celebrate its hundredth anniversary.
By far the most ambitious American effort yet undertaken both to promote awareness of Israeli music and to provide a forum for Israeli and American Jewish composers to interact and share experiences was the five-day conference-festival in New York in 1989, Counter-Harmonies. Sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (now the Foundation for Jewish Culture) under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and in cooperation with the Keshet Foundation in Israel, the conference brought to New York twenty composers from Israel, representing three generations, to engage in verbal and musical dialogues with twenty American counterparts and to preside over and introduce performances of their works in public venues, most of which were American premieres even if they had been composed long before.
In addition to the officially invited participants, many dozens of composers as well as other musicians and music scholars attended and contributed to the proceedings, along with general audiences. Orchestral, choral, and chamber music concerts and illustrated lectures featured works by Josef Tal, Mordecai Seter, Mark Kopytman, Ofer Ben-Amots, Tzvi Avni, Ben-Zion Orgad, Amnon Wolman, Jorge Liderman, Ami Maayani, Aharon Harlap, Yehezkel Braun, Noam Sheriff, Joseph Dorfman, and Haim Alexander, among several others. There were also performances of pieces by Israeli composers who were no longer living, such as Ben-Haim, Lavry, Joachim Stutschewsky, and Alexander Uriah Boskovich. Among the American Jewish composers who engaged with their Israeli colleagues and whose works appeared in tandem with theirs at the various presentations were Samuel Adler, Hugo Weisgall, Ralph Shapey, Judith Zaimont, Jack Gottlieb, Shulamit Ran (representing Israel as well as the United States), Milton Babbitt, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Yehudi Wyner, Richard Wernick, and Ezra Laderman. Choral workshops were taught by Avner Itai. There were also sessions on Israeli popular music and on Jewish influences on American popular song, along with symposia on a variety of other historical, artistic, and ethnomusicological topics.
Counter-Harmonies is still remembered in the Israeli music world these many years later as a watershed event about which many of those who were there still reminisce. It was a landmark for the American music establishment, as well as an important breakthrough in strengthening ties and building understanding among American, American Jewish, and Israeli cultures. Indeed, the time is long overdue for a follow-up event of similar if not expanded scope, the more so in view of the emergence since 1989 of a new and talented generation of Israeli as well as American Jewish composers. A second conference-festival of that nature could also be of enormous value in encouraging subsequent performances and even in helping to bring Israeli music into the mainstream repertoire—just as the Milken Archive has begun to see the fruits of its efforts in public performances of music of American Jewish experience that it has brought to artists’ attention through its recordings.
Whatever the case has been at any particular historical moment, the existence of a musical relationship between Israel and America has a been a constant in a sea of shifting attitudes, trends, and sensibilities. For even when ideologies have collided (inevitable under the circumstances), cross-cultural contact, collaboration, and communication has been the rule rather than the exception—a bridge moreso than a blockade—and has served to strengthen ties between Jews separated by half a world.
Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.