The Yekkes Are Coming
Part 4 American Jewish Heritage
For the video of the discussion:
Of all the Jewish communities in recent history, the most successful in assimilating and mastering western culture and society were the German Jews, both in Europe and America.
German Jews gained the nickname of YEKKE , by common assumption from the word in German Jacke. That referred to the short coat that the Germans wore as opposed to the long coats worn by the supposedly backwards Polish Jews. It was to have been a sign of modernity.
Hungarian Bekishe Kapote
The origins-very humble
.What was American Jewry after independence? Mostly of Spanish & Portuguese origin-these families had their place high in American society. Only a handful-3,000 in 1776, 4000 by 1820 ,In 1850,jumped up to 50,000, by 1860-150,000.Mostly from Germany or Germanic speaking areas. Why did they suddenly come here?
The revolutions for rights were soon put down. Jews were caught in middle. All their hopes were crushed and they left for the New world were Jews could be allowed to flourish.
[ The century form 1820s to 1920s saw the largest mass migration of Jews in world history, one half of all Jews moved from Europe and the Middle East to the Americas and to distant parts of Asia and Africa.]
( Hasia Diner, NYU)
Most of the men among these immigrants opted for on-the-road peddling as their start-up occupation in their new American home. Those who did not peddle owned shops, peddler warehouses, and manufactured the goods that Jewish peddlers sold. The near universality of the decision of so many German Jewish immigrants to begin their lives in America as peddlers shaped much of their subsequent lives as well as of the families and communities they built.
The peddlers operated on a weekly cycle. They left their base on Sunday or Monday, depending on how far they had to go. … They peddled all week and on Friday headed back to the town from which they had gotten their goods. Here on the Jewish Sabbath and, depending on geography, on Sundays as well, they rested... .. Saturday night, after sundown, when the restrictions of the Sabbath lifted, the peddlers came to the shopkeepers and or other creditors to whom they owed money, paid up from the goods they had sold that week, and then filled up their bags, ready for another week on the road.
…they sold a jumble of goods that might be considered quasi-luxuries. In their bags they carried needles, threads, lace, ribbons, mirrors, pictures and picture frames, watches, jewelry, eye glasses, linens, bedding, and other sundry goods, sometimes called “Yankee notions.”
( from the same author, book Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, )
What was it like:
they sold on the installment plan, so once they made a sale they had reason to go back to the same house and, after getting payment for what was owed, open their bags and say, “Oh, by the way, this week I have...”
… also.. May I lodge here for the evening?
Crossed racial lines:
… they were forced, by the dictates of the market, to treat their African American customers just like they treated their white customers. So at a time when, in a place like Helena, Arkansas, a black person wasn’t allowed to try on clothes in a store, and had to get off the sidewalk to let a white person pass, the peddler comes into the house, takes of his hat, and bows to the African-American woman. He calls her “ma’am,” not “girl.” And she can slam the door in his face if she wants to! .. But the Jew comes in and has no power over her, so the tables are turned. He has to be deferential to her. That must have been an amazing revelation to African Americans, or Africans in South Africa, or Native Americans on reservations—to know that they didn’t have to always be treated the way they were in the larger sphere.
Eventually, they would save up their pennies, buy a cart, then a cart and horse, then a store ( and still peddle; on the side). From the seller of notions and ends of cloth to big and bigger.
Here’s a typical story: Adam Gimbel
Gimbel was born to a Jewish family in Bavaria in 1817 where he worked in the local baron's vineyard. In May 1835, he immigrated to the United States paying his fare by working as a ship's hand. Arriving in New Orleans, he worked two years as a dock worker. Noticing the itinerant peddlers who moved up and down the river peddling their goods, he saved his earnings and purchased an inventory of needles, thread, and cloth and headed north in July 1837. He printed listings of his goods and nailed them to trees along his route. After five years, he was able to purchase a horse and carriage and increase the variety of goods he carried.
It was a bustling town, and he sold out his entire inventory in one week. …
Native Americans were particularly attracted to the standardized prices as they were often charged higher prices when negotiating. Gimbel used the motto "Fairness and Equality to All Patrons." (Wikipedia)
Jews now made their way into different aspects of American society:
(The American Jewish Yearbook)
This was the Straus brother that did not go into the business!!
[Became an advocate for Jews under Tsarist Russia and helped Herzl. Long time Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, advisor to US administrations on many issues—and a visibly loyal Jew, active in his synagogue]
[Note: It was recently announced that the pilot of the ill-fated subermersible Titan was married to a descendent of Isadore and Ida Straus, who had given their life jackets to save others on the similarly ill-fated Titanic!]
Another example-Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis
The child of Jewish immigrants to Kentucky from Prague, then the Austro Hungarian empire. They fled the counter revolutions of 1848 and settled in Louisville,, operating a grain merchandising business. They made sure that he had a good education and he and he graduated from Harvard Law School . He entered legal practice and soon made such a good reputation for himself that he rose to the position of justice on the United states Supreme Court. Probably one of the most important and concepts that he or gave to America was the idea of a right to privacy. That concept influenced the framing of many laws to the point that it became recognized by the Supreme Court itself. He also promoted the concept of freedom of speech in American law.
This was the concurring decision ( with Justice Holmes:
Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of free speech to free men from bondage of irrational fears ... Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty ...( Wikipedia)
While his family was not particularly observant and they're even accusations that they were associated with the messianic Jacob frank movement in Europe, as he matured he found greater connection with the Jewish community to the point that he was a major supporter of Zionism and in his honor we have such institutions as brandeis university and the brandeis bardeen camp here in Los Angeles.
From there on all else is history and his newspaper has become always the paper of note of the United states. It is still held by members of the family descendants of Ochs and the in-laws, the Sulzbergers.
A Jewish immigrant from Mainz in Hesse, Abraham Kuhn, came to the US in 1840 and married his wife, Regina,the sister of his future business partner ,Solomon Loeb. He began his career like so many as a peddler from being a peddler to manufacturing men's clothing and dry goods business till they entered banking. By 1867 they had opened a company Kuhn Loeb and company made it into a major financial powerhouse brought in another family member Jacob Schiff and that company grew to become the second largest investment bank in the United states.
|Gebetbuch der Israelitische Reform Gemeinden ( from my personal collection)|
But the great institution builder for the new American Judaism was someone who tried to bridge between the new reform and the old orthodox world, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Weiss.
He was a scholar writer publisher editor theologian and historian very prolific author of 12 novels 2 plays edited two periodicals one in English and one in German was active in creating civic institutions. His main concept was Minhag America which meant a form of worship that would be the American version of the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic forms of worship. That would become the original Union Prayer book. And they created the Union of American Hebrew Congregations with the intention of the word Union ,not Reform but Union. And then he created the Hebrew Union college and again with the concept of Union college, not reform not orthodox ,but a union. Unfortunately it's all blew up on the very first banquet when treif food was served in violation agreed upon the policies and the traditionalists walked out.
So that would become then the start of the Reform going one way and Conservative going the other way in American Judaism.
This new Conservative approach which reflected what was happening also in Europe at that time sought to apply Jewish scholarship to modifying Jewish practice in the needs of the time without abandoning it. To some extent the first people behind it were Sephardim ,such as Saboto Morais ,the 1st president of the Jewish Theological Seminary and this school brought to it solid scholars trained in Wissenschaft, which was the critical science of Judaism, such as Benjamin Szold, Marcus Jastrow ,Alexander Kohut.
The further development of American Judaism would soon rest in the hands of a new wave of Jewish immigrants, this time from Eastern Europe. This wave would swallow up all of that had come before them.