Sunday, June 25, 2023

The Yekkes Are Coming-Part 4 American Jewish Heritage


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.

Austrian vintage short 
jacke- jacket

Hungarian Bekishe Kapote


 There is a joke on the name which says it really is the initials of  Yehudi Kashe Oref, a Jew who is stubborn and stiff necked.Or as another joke has it, when God first calls out to Adam after the sin of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, he says in Hebrew ayeka which means “where are you” but sounds like a German Jew, A yekke.!

 By this term, we include Jews from the emerging Germany (which did not yet exist as a country) as well as those areas under German-language rule: Silesia—(Western Poland) under the Prussians, And the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which covered what would be modern Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Galicia( western Ukraine) and more. Deutschekulturkreise-The German Cultural Circle.

 This was a glorious page in American Jewish history for within a generation of arrival, they took their place in American Society and they even created an aristocracy of sorts. This became the topic of a very popular book Our Crowd by Stephen Birmingham. We had our Jewish grand Dukes in business : Macys( taken over by a Strauss) ,Gimbels ,Abraham and Strauss. Levi’s jeans, Wall Street's Lehman Brothers, Kuhn Loeb and company. in the arts we had the Guggenheims of the Guggenheim museum fame and in philanthropy we had the Schiffs and the Warburgs,in journalism the Sulzbergers and the Ochs and the Pulitzers and then we had our statesman also, Louis Brandeis, Herbert Lehman and more.

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?

 . Turn of  18th Century-French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars-new ideas of libery, equality,fraternity. It caught on, especially with Jews, (who had least of these three). Especially in the areas that had been under Napoleon' s rule-Germany, Austria, Italy. France.

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.]

 Eventually that wave of immigration would come to an end as the European governments began to restore general rights. So in 1850 ,the Prussian constitution granted civil rights to Jews and in 1871 with the new German empire ,those rights were extended to all Jews in the German domains.

 This German Jewish wave would eventually be overtaken by another wave of Jews from the Russian and Polish territories after 1881, but by that time they're already taking their place in industry commerce and the liberal professions.

 How are these new Jewish immigrants accepted by their brothers ,the Sephardic grandees who had preceded them? By now the Sephardim were successful businessmen, sophisticated and highly Americanized, and they looked down upon these German Jewish immigrants .

 They were poor ,soiled, they looked underfed ,they came in steerage class, they didn't speak English ,they had heavy German accents, they had relatively little education ,and they were aggressive and uncultivated, and worst of all they were  peddlers, the socially lowest occupation.

 The Sephardic Jews even closed the doors of the synagogues to membership to these newcomers.

 There would be an increasing social split also within the Jewish community ,of the “better class” of Jews compared to the “vulgar” Jews or the “refined Hebrew” ladies and gentlemen compared to Jews.

 So how did these new Jews start out?


German Jews and Peddling in America | Immigrant Entrepreneurship

( 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.” 



Door to Door: How Jewish Peddlers Changed the World, One Household at a Time (

( 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.[1][2][3] In May 1835, he immigrated to the United States paying his fare by working as a ship's hand.[2] Arriving in New Orleans, he worked two years as a dock worker.[2] 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.[2] He printed listings of his goods and nailed them to trees along his route.[2] After five years, he was able to purchase a horse and carriage and increase the variety of goods he carried.[2]

In 1842, he arrived at Vincennes, Indiana near where the Wabash River joined the Ohio Rive

It was a bustling town, and he sold out his entire inventory in one week.[2] …

Native Americans were particularly attracted to the standardized prices as they were often charged higher prices when negotiating.[2] Gimbel used the motto "Fairness and Equality to All Patrons." (Wikipedia)

 He went on to open multiple department stores to end up with this:

( Wikimedia)

 Only a block from the famous competitor, Macy’s ,Gimbel’s is now shut, but its affiliate still operates Sax Fifth Avenue.

 Jews now made their way into different aspects of American society:

 Macy’s was eventually taken over by two brothers, Nathan and Isadore Straus, but…


(The American Jewish Yearbook)

This was the Straus brother that did not go into the business!!

 Born in Ottenberg, Rhenish Bavaria, on December 23, 1850… his father, Lazarus Straus, decided to emigrate to America, landing in Philadelphia in the Spring of 1852. He settled in Talbotton, Georgia, whither he brought his family. This family, the only Jews in the little town, were received with kindness and hospitality. …1867 he passed the examinations for Columbia College. Upon graduation he was honored with the "Class Poem", and in 1871 he entered the Columbia Law School from which he was graduated in 1873.

 … In 1887 he was appointed by President Cleveland as United States Minister to Turkey, largely upon the suggestion of Henry Ward Beecher. ..journey to Egypt, Palestine and Syria and inspected [American based mission schools] schools. He defended American and also British agents who were engaged in the sale of the Bible, and gave his warm support to Robert College. When in Palestine, his attention was engaged by the discrimination practiced there against the Jews.

 [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


( Wikipedia)

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.


 In the field of journalism-Adolph Ochs worked as an office boy for the local paper in Knoxville,TN, And then clerk in a grocery store while attending night school in Rhode Island. From there, to work odd jobs at the local paper, and at age 19, borrowed $250 from the family to buy controlling interest in the Chattanooga Times and then become its publisher. He continued to work with different papers buying up papers and making some profit here and there and then at the age of 38 he borrowed money to buy the failing New York Times for $75,000.


 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.


In finance,

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.

 But this wave of German Jews was not focused only on business. It was focused on creating a Jewish life that would match the new American civilization. So they reacted to the pressure to assimilate in many ways losing Shabbat for example to be competitive in the non-Jewish world, and Kashruth was difficult in these isolated communities and certainly study was impossible with an absence of schools and teachers. Nevertheless a strong Jewish bond remained. Even the very smallest of communities set up synagogues they then set up many of the institutions and organizations of American Jewry today: Jewish federations for philanthropy for example,fraternal orders like Bnai Brith.

 They retained certain key customs such as Bris ,the bar mitzvah, the Jewish wedding ,Jewish burial traditions, and High Holy days. ,

 They sought to create a form of Judaism would be particular to the spirit of America in the 19th century. As far back as 1824 4,7 members of the Charleston synagogue led by Isaac Harby secceeded and created a Reformed Society of Israelites and then in 1841 they would get their first Rabbi, Gustav Poznanski. He would declare this country as “our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this House of God our temple. “That would be the new American motif.

 . They were influenced very much by the wave of European enlightenment and revolution that they had experience in Europe and the early movements for enlightenment and reform in those years. Some radical reformers stood out.

 For example Rabbi David Einhorn who was a famous abolitionist and was expelled from Baltimore for taking a stand against slavery in 1861 as the civil war was breaking out. He was an eloquent speaker publisher of magazines and of the official reform prayer book ,of which I once had a copy. it was appropriately enough all in German since that was still the language that they were speaking.

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 most prominent figure of American Judaism in this time was Rabbi Isaac Leeser. He was an early forerunner of the Conservative movement, produced an early edition of the pentateuch that afterwards  was used by synagogues in the United states ,published the major Jewish journal the Occident and the stablished the first official Sunday school, and he established it together with Rebecca Gratz who it is said was the model for the beauty insert Isaac Walters Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. 

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.









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