Commentary Magazine


Zion in America, by Henry Feingold; Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness, by Harold Gastwirt; American Zionism from Herzl to the Holo

Zion in America.
by Henry Fein-Gold.
Twayne. 357 pp. $12.95.

Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness.
by Harold Gastwirt.
Kennikat Press. 227pp. $12.50.

American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust.
by Melvin Urofsky.
Anchor Press. 538 pp. $12.50.

American Jews and the Zionist Idea.
by Naomi W. Cohen.
Ktav 172 pp. $7.50.

For the serious historian, as opposed to the mere antiquarian, the history of American Jewry poses weighty problems of interpretation. These problems, as Henry Feingold points out in the preface to his solid introductory survey, Zion in America, have to do with finding a proper conceptual frame-work. Should American Jewish history be seen as a part of the ongoing Jewish historical experience? Or should it be regarded as an aspect of the history of American ethnic groups? Feingold, for his own part, strongly argues the case for American Jewish “exceptionalism”: “within the framework of American ethnic history and world Jewish history, American Jewry is a unique group.” This uniqueness, in his view, is compounded of two basic factors: on the one hand, Jews were alone in coming to the United States as the bearers of an internalized national culture of the spirit; on the other hand, America was alone in encouraging Jews to become full-fledged citizens. Thus, American Jewish history is the “story of a unique and exceptional people placed in an equally unique and exceptional milieu.”

Whatever the merits of Fein-gold’s suggestive thesis, it is clear that the study of the American Jewish past has been handicapped by a failure to see the subject in its broadest contexts. At least until quite recently, much of the work in the field has been characterized by the compiling of honorific, Who’s-Who-type lists of prominent and not-so-prominent Jews, and by a failure to gain proper perspective on major themes and issues by placing them against their appropriate backgrounds. A typical “study” of this kind has been devastatingly parodied by Mordecai Richler:

President John F. Kennedy . . . drove into Dallas on November 22, 1963. Dallas, it is worth noting, was the birthplace of Izzy Lubin, the first Jew to be arrested for jaywalking in Macon County. The city is also the setting for Neiman-Marcus, of department-store fame, and home of the Chevra Kadisha congregation, president Benjy Taub. Indispensable community leaders are Hy Green, Sam Farber, Mort Weiner, the Fiedler family, and Norm Levi.

Tooling into downtown Dallas, which welcomes Jewish shop-keepers, among them Sid’s Deli, President Kennedy rode in an open Lincoln Continental. . . .

As the car passed the Texas Public School Book Depository, with lots of titles by Jewish authors in stock, somebody called Oswald shot and killed Kennedy.

Feingold is free of any filiopietistic or self-congratulatory urge of this kind. Before turning to a discussion of Colonial and Revolutionary Jewry (a discussion which is appropriately brief considering the small size of the Jewish population of the time), he sets the stage by tracing in separate chapters the “Old World Jewish Background” and the “Genesis of American Religious Tolerance.” Similarly, in examining Jewish economic and political activity in the ante-bellum period, Feingold consistently makes reference to trends and developments in the larger American society. Likewise, his analysis of the “Early Reform Movement in American Judaism” is informed by an awareness of the situation prevailing within both German Reform and American Protestantism. Finally, in describing at some length the East European Jewish immigrant experience, Feingold draws upon recent research on modern Jewish history, on non-Jewish immigrant groups, and on American labor history. Zion in America always treats American Jewish history in context.

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The importance of a careful attention to context is underscored by Harold Gastwirt’s Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness, a fascinating study of “The Controversy over the Supervision of Jewish Dietary Practice in New York City, 1881-1940.” To the average reader, the idea of such a study must seem ludicrous, but Gastwirt convincingly demonstrates the importance of his subject for “the development of Jewish communal structure in a pluralistic society.” Traditional Judaism, after all, is very much a “pots-and-pans” religion, and knowledge of the state of kashrut in any given period tells us a great deal about the overall condition of Jewish life at the time.

American Jews are forever waxing sentimental about the “good old days” on the Lower East Side of New York. A reading of Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness, however, shows that in matters relating to kashrut, at least, the Jewish immigrant community was a veritable wasteland. In chapter after chapter Gastwirt documents a sordid history of outrageous lawlessness. It is reliably estimated, for example, that in 1915, 40 per cent of New York’s kosher butchers fraudulently sold some non-kosher meat, while 20 per cent fraudulently dispensed non-kosher meat exclusively. In 1922, it was reported that “95 per cent of the delicatessen sold as kosher was really [non-kosher].” The kosher poultry industry in the late 1920′s was characterized by “threats of physical violence, assaulted butchers, destroyed [delivery] vehicles . . . and bombed poultry shops.” The “most notorious case of fraud” of all occurred in the late 1930′s and involved kosher-for-Passover products: a certain Hyman Rabinowitz, passing himself off as a rabbi authorized to certify the kashrut of such products, “solicited his clients by mail and usually required them only to purchase a few new cooking utensils before giving his hekhsher (certification). He had never checked into the ingredients of the products nor had he appointed any mashgiah (supervisor) .”

How did this sorry state of affairs come about? Gastwirt maintains that it was largely attributable to the absence of communal control of kashrut, which had been the rule in Europe. Because of the separation of church and state in America, because pluralism and voluntarism were the order of the day, any possibility of coercive communal pressure was precluded. Efforts to centralize kashrut supervision in New York City, therefore, invariably fell prey to personal rivalries, internal group clashes, and sheer economic greed. Small wonder, then, that the element of the Jewish community most concerned over kashrut abuses increasingly turned to government intervention as the only way out of an intolerable situation.

Despite the impressive array of evidence marshaled by Gastwirt to demonstrate the pitfalls of voluntarism and pluralism, his analysis is incomplete. Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness tells us next to nothing about the larger religious life of the Jewish immigrant community. Gastwirt takes it for granted that the bulk of the Jews on the Lower East Side were “driven by a steadfast loyalty to the Torah and Jewish tradition,” that they were committed Orthodox Jews who desired to see kashrut rules strictly enforced. But Charles Liebman has persuasively argued that most Lower East Side Jews had only the most tenuous ties to religious Orthodoxy. Might this not mean that the scandalous kashrut situation was only a symptom of a more general collapse of religious standards? In the post-World War II period, when large numbers of committed Orthodox Jews actually did come to the United States, there was a radical improvement in kashrut supervision. And today, with Orthodoxy making rapid strides on the American Jewish scene, kashrut standards are stricter than ever before, despite the continuing impact of pluralism and voluntarism. Because Gastwirt fails to relate kashrut to a larger pattern of religious observance, he falls short of providing a definitive analysis of his subject.

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Like Gastwirt, Melvin Urofsky focuses on a specific aspect of the American Jewish experience in American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust. His study is a first-rate piece of work, and it is so precisely because he never loses sight of the broad context framing his subject. Indeed, it is Urofsky’s contention that American Zionism can only be understood in situ:

It is the argument of this book that Zionism in America has not been limited to a narrow Jewish experience, but has been part of and reflective of larger trends in the overall society; that in the United States, the movement has not only been Zionist, but American as well; and that it has enjoyed the greatest successes precisely when its goals and methods have coincided with the dominant trends in the broader society.

The nature of American Zionism, Urofsky argues, has been determined by the double desire of American Jews to help in the rebuilding of Palestine as a Jewish refuge, and to live and be accepted as American citizens. Harmonizing these two desires has by no means always been a simple matter; prior to 1914, in fact, the vast majority of American Jews shunned the Jewish national movement. To the established German Jewish community, Zionism raised the specter of the charge of dual loyalty. To the newly arrived East European Jewish community, Zionism seemed a “luxury” that could ill be afforded amid the hardships of ghetto life.

World War I changed all this, by making evident to American Jews the imperative need of a refuge for the hapless and helpless European Jewish masses. The war also brought to the fore a new group of Zionist leaders—men like Louis Brandeis, Stephen S. Wise, and Julian Mack—who, deeply imbued with the spirit of American Progressivism, propounded the view that Zionism was a “natural extension of Jewish and American ideals.” The bulk of Urofsky’s study is given over to an analysis of the work of Louis Brandeis and his associates—their attempts to “legitimize Zionism by Americanizing it,” the conflicts between them and the more nationalistic wing of the Zionist movement, and their efforts to assist European Jewry in the years between the two world wars. By 1940, Urofsky concludes, the American Zionist movement “spoke and acted in terms that could be effective in the context of [America's] social and political requirements.”

The key figure in the Americanization of the Zionist movement was of course, Louis Brandeis, and he is very much Urofsky’s hero. A number of theories have been put forward to account for Brandeis’s turn to Zionism—his political ambition, his sense of blood kinship, and his economic philosophy have been among the factors adduced. Urofsky believes the root factors were Brandeis’s Americanism and his commitment to Progressive reform ideals. For Brandeis, as well as for Stephen S. Wise, Julian Mack, Henrietta Szold, and Felix Frankfurter, Zionism was, as Brandeis himself put it, “the Pilgrim inspiration and impulse [all] over again.” “The highest [Zionist] ideals,” Brandeis declared, “are essentially American in a very important particular. It is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideals of the 20th century.” Urofsky writes:

A careful examination of Brandeis’s writings and his activities as head of the [Zionist] movement clearly reveals that his approach to the Jewish problem remarkably resembled his approach to the problems confronting industrial America. . . .

. . . Brandeis saw Palestine as a small country free from the “curse of bigness,” one that could experiment in enlarging the bounds of freedom and social justice, much as a state within the United States could serve as a laboratory for legislative experimentation. He assumed from the start that the Jewish homeland would be a democracy, with men and women equal partners in building up a free society. . . .

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The reader interested in the development of American Zionism but unprepared to wade through Urofsky’s hefty volume will probably find Naomi W. Cohen’s American Jews and the Zionist Idea an attractive alternative. Dr. Cohen presents in brief compass an overview of American Zionist history from its beginnings to 1967. Her perspective on, and analysis of, American Zionism is strikingly similar to Urofsky’s; like him she focuses on Zionism “as an integral part of the American matrix,” and emphasizes “what Zionism has meant to American Jews, how it [has] interacted with government policy and American social moods, and, above all, how Zionism [has been] Americanized.” In arguing that “American Jewish interest in a Jewish homeland has been the product of the American environment no less than of the Jewish heritage,” Dr. Cohen notes:

On one level [American Zionism] was a byproduct of . . . the needs of European Jewry. In large measure it was determined by the degree of Jewish affluence and security. It also reflected the views of government and society on Zionism and on ethnic loyalties generally. . . . On another level, Zionism was more than a fixed quantity to be responded to, independent of the American Jewish experience. . . . Just as Zionism needed the support of American Jewry, so did the latter need Zionism in charting a viable course between the antagonistic poles of assimilation within the majority and survival of the minority group. . . . A product of acculturation, American Zionism from 1917 to 1967 reflected the maturation of the Jewish community in the United States.

American Jews and the Zionist Idea is based largely on secondary sources, and thus does not break new ground. It is, however, always intelligent and informative.

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Different in subject matter, these four books reflect a shared commitment to a serious understanding of the American Jewish past. What sets them apart from the majority of writings on American Jewish history is the striving of their authors to keep a steady eye on those general American and Jewish currents which are pertinent to their themes. Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness is somewhat flawed in this respect, but remains a valuable monograph. Also of value is American Jews and the Zionist Idea, while Zion in America is easily the best introductory text to American Jewish history available today. As for American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust, it is nearly in the same class as Arthur Goren’s New York Jews and the Quest for Community (1970) and Moses Rischin’s The Promised City (1962), the two best studies in the whole field of American Jewish historical writing. If these volumes are an indication of the general level of work currently being done, there is reason here to celebrate the beginning of a new era in the study of the American Jewish past.

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