Commentary Magazine

Remembering Jewish History

Although Jews are always much concerned with “history”—in the sense that traditionally they expect much of it—very few Jews, in my experience, know very much about their own history even in modern times. When I was growing up among East European immigrants, I discovered that despite the wealth of reminiscence about the old country, the speakers usually had little information about the immediate social background of their lives; they were usually so vague on names, dates, and circumstances in their own family history that I decided that those who had “yichus” seemed really to be proud of their memories, not of any unusual achievement in the family. Why was it, I wondered, that even the pedants with a passion for “facts” not merely knew so few facts about the history of the Jews in Russia and Poland, but were astonished by the effort to locate some?

In the wake of Hitler, momentous efforts have been made by archivists to preserve the memory of East European Jewry; even during the war, as we learn every day, heroic efforts were made by Jewish leaders in Poland to keep records of their doomed world and of its last struggles. But these represent the spiritual agony of a few unusually responsible people. Among American Jews it is a fact, as Professor Uriel Weinreich wrote recently in the Columbia University Forum of his effort to create a cultural atlas of East European Jewish life, that “. . . when it comes to things Jewish, vague familiarity with the emigrants’ world still qualifies as expertise; pedantic professors and critics finicky about other subjects here tolerate sentimental knowingness in lieu of knowledge . . . . How many admired raconteurs of Jewish stories can step up to a map and point out the birthplace of their parents?” No doubt much of the ignorance even of their own family history is a cultural necessity for American Jews, and can be matched in the convenient blacking-out of painful or demeaning associations with European poverty that is found among all descendants of recent immigrants. Yet whatever the motivation that American Jews may have for being imprecise about their parents’ past, I think that in this respect, at least, they are perpetuating the East Europeans’ own lack of historical objectivity and information. The Russian Jews, most of whom lived in the Pale of Settlement and often had nothing in common with the Poles and Russians themselves, not even a language, must be an extreme example in history of a collective or group identity sustaining and enforcing its separateness. And so profound was the effect of both this separateness and group experience that an inner consciousness obviously took precedence over its civic relations with the “outside world,” and through the intense family life, the only institution trusted by East European Jews, pressed itself into the feelings of the next generation.

Jewish history has become internalized in Jews. The more deeply Jewish a person was in Eastern Europe, the less he knew about what was actively happening around him. A Yiddish writer once said of a student studying the Torah that he

has roamed as far and as wide as an ancient who has outlived the years of Methuselah! He has been in Mesopotamia, in Canaan, in Egypt, in Persia and Medea, in Susa its capital, and in multiple other lands as far as India and Cathay; also the wilderness and the desert has he frequented, and there he has hearkened to many marvelous things . . . . of a sort which to all other people are an incomprehensible mystery; but among Jews it is a common everyday event. Only with Jewish children does it transpire that they sit day and night rooted to one spot, not knowing what is happening roundabouts, what they need learn to do in order to live among people . . . . All thoughts are in another world, in other epochs; they are oblivious to the world right under their noses and devote themselves wholly to that which transpired long ago, for which eyes and the other crude human senses are not so much needed as an acute imaginative faculty—a stark naked soul—devoid of body, devoid of life itself; . . .

Shloimele has only been born here; he is not exactly a native but resides somewhere over there . . . . His times are beforetimes, his world is another . . . .

Their ancient or sacred history replaced for the Jews their own worldly history. Religious indifference to the “world” was encouraged by the fact that theirs was obviously not a Jew’s world. Yet even when, as in this country, Jews in the mass no longer thought of themselves as participating in sacred history, their inner group-minded-ness has had the effect of dulling their historical awareness about themselves. It has made them more objective about the condition they share in common than about the facts of this condition—which, as facts in social history must, make discriminations and render a group less common-minded about itself. In this country, for example, the German Jews, earlier arrivals and more quickly assimilated into middle-class American patterns than many descendants of East Europeans are even now, had attained a conscious genealogical sense of their own history which emphasized the contrast with the lack of historical-mindedness about themselves so often found among East European Jews. For East Europeans, in fact, any effort to search into the ascertainable “facts” of their social condition in the ghetto was regarded as a challenge to the solidarity of the family as well as to the inner loyalty of the group. While the children of the immigrants were often unwilling to look into the past precisely because they wanted to break with it, the immigrants themselves uneasily recognized that “history” threatened the connection with their children.



Given these difficulties, books like Moses Rischin’s The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-19141 (which came out in 1962 and which I have just been reading) are noteworthy above all for their rarity. And given the particular historical-mindedness in every direction that it requires, the exacting labors in the history of New York City itself and on the Hebrew and Yiddish materials of the period that are the prime basis of his book, it is not likely that so scholarly a work on just this subject will be done again. Mr. Rischin, who begins with a survey first of “old New York” before the great wave of Jewish immigration, then of the condition of East European Jewry just before its momentous encounter with the city, goes into many forgotten corners in order to bring home the immediate historical background of most American Jews. Here is the world of the old Russian Pale, where the Jews were literally “captive”; and side by side, the vanishing old Knickerbocker New York, the world of the lower East Side, the struggle in the Jewish community between “Germans” and “Russians”; the Enlightenment, the reform movements in the New York of the 80’s and 90’s that so often came to focus on the tenements and sweatshops of the East Side, the rise of the Jewish labor movement, the essential part played in the American socialist movement by Jews. Anyone who wants to get at the historical facts about Jewish life in East Europe can learn a great deal from Mr. Rischin’s accounts of the founding of the Jewish Labor Bund in 1894 “in an obscure valley in Vilna” (“the first attempt to organize Jews for secular independent political activity”), in his moving documentation of the misery of the East European Jews (in Galicia, five to six thousand Jews regularly died of starvation each year), in his description of emigration procedures (Jews had to steal over the old Russian frontier into German territory, and usually sailed direct from Bremen or Hamburg, at a cost of thirty-four dollars, some “for a saving of nine dollars travelling by way of Liverpool”).

Only a handful of East European Jews benefited from overseas ties, for they came from regions which had little direct trade with the United States. Poverty was so acute on the Lower East Side that in 1888 two hundred immigrants were shipped back to Europe on cattle steamers; a report of the period states that among the pushcarts on Hester Street, “every conceivable thing is for sale, chiefly candles, dried fruit, and oilcloth; and the yolk or the white of an egg, or a chicken leg or wing, or an ounce of tea, coffee or butter is not an uncommon purchase.” The struggle for existence, as it used to be called openly in those days, comes home to us in the fact that in 1899, within the Eighth Assembly District, 2897 individuals were engaged in 182 different vocations and businesses. Yet between 1899 and 1914, an estimated 66 per cent of gainfully employed Jewish immigrants possessed industrial skills. They were usually the predominant group among the city’s hat and cap makers, furriers, tailors, book-binders, watchmakers, milliners, cigarmakers, tinsmiths, and often as much as half of the tanners, turners, undergarment makers, jewelers, painters, glaziers, dressmakers, photographers, saddle-makers, locksmiths, butchers, and metal workers in other than iron and steel. They ranked first among immigrant printers, bakers, carpenters, cigar-packers, blacksmiths, and building-trades workmen.



Some items in Mr. Rischin’s history are now just quaint, like the early reluctance of Russian immigrants to train for the bar because of their distrust of government, or the dress factories where work was regularly interrupted three times a day for prayer, or such exotica of the period as the Max Hochstim Association of white slavers. Mr. Rischin says that at the end of the century, the majority of patients at Mount Sinai Hospital were already East European immigrants, but that no doctor of this background was as yet admitted to the staff. And citing the statistics that are often more chilling than any naturalistic novel of the period, he brings home the incredible pressure of numbers on the old Tenth Ward, “the most densely settled spot in the city,” where in 1890 there were over 523 inhabitants to an acre, and by 1900 more than 700. He describes the old “dumbbell apartments,” and quotes from a magazine article of 1888 a description of “great prison-like structures of brick, with narrow doors and windows, cramped passages and steep rickety stairs. They are built through from one street to the other with a somewhat narrower building connecting them . . . . The narrow court-yard . . . in the middle is a damp foul-smelling place, supposed to do duty as an airshaft; had the foul fiend designed these great barracks they could not have been more villainously arranged to avoid any chance of ventilation.” The summers were particularly horrible. The tenement inhabitants, “bred in colder and dryer climates, writhed in the dull heat. Added to the relentless sun were the emanations from coal stoves, the flat flame gas jets in lamps, and the power-producing steam boilers.”



Against “conditions,” the messianic force of Jewish radicalism sometimes beat in vain. The Forward was founded in 1897 at a meeting where workmen filled collection plates with “love offerings” of prized pocket watches, watch chains, and personal jewelry. Abraham Cahan said: “If ever there was a paper supported by the holy spirit—upon holy inspiration—it was ours.” The Forward greeted the new Rand School as “the socialist yeshiva . . . . where the rabbis and teachers of our movement” were being trained. In “Yiddish New York,” says Mr. Rischin, humanitarianism, brotherhood, and the socialist-Jewish faith in progress so flowed together that “to the holidays of the Jewish calendar were added Labor Day and May Day, the Fourth of July and the exciting weeks before Election Days . . . . Each passing year recorded the forward march of progress, the anniversaries of the French Revolution and Paris Commune, and the martyred assassins of Alexander II. At home and closer in time, the Hay-market victims, the Hazleton and Colorado miners, Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone, and the Children of Lawrence, aroused an instinctive philanthropy, compassion, and identification. When in August of 1908 anti-Negro violence reached a climax of blood-letting at Springfield, Illinois, the Yiddish dailies responded with banner headlines and editorials ringing with indignation and disbelief, terming the riots ‘the Pogrom in Springfield.’”

On the part of “old New York” itself, one of the most telling reactions was the surprise of Police Commissioner McAdoo that Jewish children had so austere a childhood. “Think of it! Herbert Spencer preferred to a fairy story by boys and girls.” Mr. Rischin does not touch on the liberating effect that the old East Side had on the literary imagination of the time. Lincoln Steffens of California said that he felt about the ghetto as other boys felt about cowboys and the Wild West, and John Reed of Oregon was proud that within a block of his house was “every adventure in the world.” Henry James’s outcry in The American Scene against Jews crowding up the Lower East Side is well-known. But quite apart from James’s usual haughtiness on the subject (which reflects the prejudices of his British circle and is in such contrast to his brother William’s open views), the Lower East Side was Henry James’s old stamping ground. It is a pity that Mr. Rischin, in dealing with the effect of the mass Jewish immigration on the mind of old New York, emphasizes the reactions of reformers like Jacob Riis and Hutchins Hapgood more than the remarkable testimony of writers like Stephen Crane, among other reporters of the subject.

But of course Mr. Rischin’s subject is not so much life on the East Side as it is “the search for community in New York between 1870 and 1914”; the group approach, so planted in the instincts of Jews that it can become a barrier to historical curiosity, has here provided a suitable subject for a scholarly history, just as nowadays the group makes a convenient subject for sociologists and psychologists, who can make relevant generalizations about the quality of life in the group without having to labor at historical demonstration. By contrast with so many facile and vague findings in “social science,” Mr. Rischin’s book stands out by reason of its sobriety and its valuable factuality.



Yet at the same time, no one could possibly call this book a work of historical literature. It is stilted in style and on occasion so clumsy in expression as to be virtually unintelligible. These seem to me not so much barriers to literary creation as they are symptoms of a limited approach to Jewish history. In order to be this much of a scholar in Jewish history, the historian will now be absorbed in his subject to the point where he becomes uncritical of it. Another way of saying this, and one that Jewish writers in this country recognize, is that the sympathetic participation in Jewish history that gets a writer to deal with so much human material that is strange and even repellent to other people also forces him to justify everything in it. The continuity of Jewish experience is too wonderful, if not simply too miraculous a fact to be done justice to in secular history; so secular history ignores what is really interesting about Jewish history and central to it, the perpetuation of an idea, its spiritual loyalty, and turns the subject into the history of a people only, the group, the clan, the tribe, the Jews. In the interests of this group—I am speaking here of the writing of history, not of one’s feelings as a Jew—the historian makes the hero of his story a “community.” When you read the history of a “community,” whether it is the gushing and indiscriminate history of the Jewish community in . . ., Arkansas, or so scholarly a book as The Promised City, you become aware of how many intellectual passions and loyalties are smoothed out and become undifferentiated by the fact that the hero of the story has become a “community”—a term that is suitable to a scholarly project but is too broad to permit the necessary modulations and ultimate interest of history as literature.




1 Havard University Press, 342 pages, $7.50.

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