Sunday, July 9, 2023

The Russians Are Coming! Conclusion of American Jewish Heritage Series


Part 5 American Jewish Heritage

The Russians Are Coming!

 Discussion Part 1- July 1 Video:

Discussion Pat II- Jully 8 Video:

Tongue in cheek- title”  The Russians Are Coming!"

You may remember the movie with Alan Arkin( who just passed away) & Theodore Bikel.

 From the 1880’s to 1920’s ,huge wave of migration, from Eastern Europe ( but from other parts of the Jewish world also). Would begin at the bottom of the barrel to shape America into the “American Century”- creating new categories of industry-film and media—new categories of culture-Tin Pan Alley-Vaudeville-to Broadway- to Berlin, Gershwin Bernstein- and leaders of American finance, advisors, Justices and Senators, shapers of the literary and Academic world

As I mentioned earlier, the new America started with 3000 Jews, and with the German wave, grew to 150,000 Jews.


In but a few decades, 2,400,000 moved to the US in this time period. What spurred it on?


At the end of the 18th century , three major European powers carved up the Kingdom of Poland. The very fortunate ones were in Silesia, the western part of Poland that came under Prussia, the future German empire ( Some parts had already been taken over a few decades earlier) . Next in luck were those in the realms under the Austro Hungarian empire which took over southeastern Poland, Galicia, also encompassed the Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and the Balkans. Both regimes gradually extended civil rights to Jews.

The least fortunate would be the ones of Poland proper and the Ukraine as well as the Baltic states. They would come under the control of Tsarist Russia.


Kievan and Muscovite Russia had relatively few Jews for centuries, but suddenly found itself with a gigantic Jewish population. It policies went back and forth from grudging tolerance to attempts at eradication. This would include drafting of Jewish youth, as young as 8 or 9 even, into the Russian army for 25 year service with the expectation that they would die off or at best assimilate to Russian orthodox Christianity. It affected an estimated 25,000 to 70,000 draftees and forced Jews to betray each other to make the required quota.


Also, restricting the right of Jews to settle beyond the “ Pale”,those territories that had just been swallowed up and a few regions to the east where they were grudgingly allowed to settled.



 There was a period of liberalization for Russia in general under Tsar Alexander II, such as when the Russian serfs, essentially slaves, were granted their Emancipation, freedom, around the same time that slaves in the US were emancipated. However in 1881 tzar Alexander was assassinated by revolutionaries.

This led to a wave of repression and the need to find scapegoats. Jews were the perfect scapegoats. Thus one of the major policymakers of that period, Nikolas Pobedonostsev, pushed the idea,” one third of Jews die out, one third, move out, and one third dissolve into the masses.” Indeed, within 50 years, that is what had happened,!

There were increasingly oppressive moves against Jews, as well as the terrible three day pogrom against Jews in Kiev. The pogroms and other actions against Jews were carried out by reactionaries, but they were also encouraged by the revolutionaries, Narodnya Volya,in the illusion that it would spur the proletariat into open revolution. For Jews, there were three routes available: aligning with the revolutionaries in an attempt to create the worker’s paradise ( Trotsky, Ziniviev, Kaminev); the route of Jewish nationalism in the land of Israel, as in BILU and later, political and cultural Zionism; the route of Ellis Island ( and Argentina and South Africa as well). The later proved the most immediately doable.

Fortunately for our fellow Jews, and other immigrants, that period coincided with the growth of American industrial power. The new world power needed workers to fuel the factories and provide the goods that underpinned its sudden burst upon the world scene.

It may have been the Statute of Liberty and Emma Lazarus famous poem that gave a warm feeling of acceptance:

 "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

But it would be the new American capitalist system that made immigration a necessity, not a luxury. The Irish, English & German would be brought it, then the Italians, the Jews, the Poles, the Lebanese, Chinese and Japanese, somewhere over 35 million in those years! All competing to make it. Add to this, internal migration of African Americans to northern cities at this same time.


So who are the Jews that came to die goldene Medina, a country where it was told, the streets were paved with gold.

Because Eastern Europe, under the Tsars especially, had been cut off culturally from Western Europe, the enlightenment that had caught hold of Jews in western and central Europe was slow in getting into Eastern Europe. Thus the western ideals of a secular and practical education were just beginning to take effect in Eastern Europe. As a result, most of these immigrants had much poorer general background and education than the Jews that came before them, whether Sephardi or German. Their skills were limited, although they brought some experience as merchants and shopkeepers, as well as crafts, such as tailoring. They did have to their advantage to a great extent a traditional Jewish education which included literacy Yiddish literacy, some Hebrew literacy, and some skills in analytic reasoning that they may have picked up in cheder. That was already more than what other immigrants from Europe brought with them. All is relative.

The great rabbis, the educated elites , did not come to America. To them, it was a treife medina, not goldene ,but treife. They rightly feared that they would lose their souls in the transition. The few leading Rabbis of the Orthodox world that came here quickly turned around and headed back.

Indeed at the beginning, for many Jews the transition to America was devastating. It is never pleasant to be an immigrant even with the Statue of Liberty welcoming you.

Here are the words of a contemporary of that period , Marcus Ravage.

“ With every day that passed I became more and more overwhelmed at the degeneration of my fellow in his new home,.”

[Note: Photos of slum life in 19th and 20th century New York taken from video compliation .The originals were taken by journalist Jacob Riis in his work, How the Other Half LIves,whch shocked the proper middle and upper classes and prompted them to institute services to alleviate these conditions.]

They were often lost souls , verlorene menschen, and thus a common slogan was playing on the words of the Talmud, “Akabiah ben Charlie said,” consider three things and you'll be able to exist in America. Forget who you are, wear your mask before those who know you, and do anything you can. “

They were so poor that the New York Times of a century ago could write, in shock, that these were not the fat, rich and jewel- bedecked people that Times readers expected and as they knew of the settled successful German Jews. They were so poor that a Jew in a tenement could have twice as high a chance of dying of tuberculosis as their fellow New Yorkers and tuberculosis was called the tailor's disease a specialty of the sweatshop workers.


JAMA , Volume XLIV (3) – Jan 21, 1905 ( Paresis- a psychosis associated with syphilis)



So here's the description of home life for the new immigrants in that period. A typical flat two room apartment on Allen street in New York held two parents, six children, 6 borders. in one case ,the father was a Cantor so the flat was also synagogue on Saturday mornings. During the week ,it was a workshop for the two dressmaker daughters and shoe repair shop for the cobbler who is one of the borders. As the border described it “the Cantor rehearses, the tram passes, by the Shoemaker bangs, ten brats run like goats, the wife putters in the kosher restaurant and at night we tried to sleep in the two rooms.”

There were even such jaundiced stories in the Yiddish press as follows. A Lithuanian Jew marries a girl for her money. At 1:00 o'clock they are married. In the evening two roomkers, little rooms are rented. On the following day furniture is purchased and in the evening the couple already have three borders and three borderkes (female). On the third day the husband goes back to work and the wife runs off with one of the borders.”

We have to recognize that this funny story reflects the tragic reality. The American experience had a tremendously demoralizing effect on the new Jewish communities in those years -There was crime, wife desertion, juvenile delinquency, gangsterism, and yes even “loose women” on Allen St., Houston, or Delancey, plying their trade, even at the steps of the synagogue.

 As the Forwert, ( Forward) the Yiddish paper of note of the period would describe, in the windows of some shops you could see human flesh instead of shoes. There were so-called “dancing academies” advertised in the Yiddish papers and the muckraking journalists of the period were excited to find evidence of a white slave trade run by Jews.

Famous biography of the period: A House Is Not a Home  by “the Madame”,Polly Adler

Polly Adler's "house"―the brothel that gave this best-selling 1953 autobiography its title―was a major site of New York City underworld activity from the 1920s through the 1940s. Adler's notorious Lexington Avenue house of prostitution functioned as a sort of social club for New York's gangsters and a variety of other celebrities, including Robert Benchley and his friend Dorothy Parker. According to one New York tabloid, it made Adler's name "synonymous with sin."( Description on


 We know of course that there was also a Jewish mafia, with names like Joseph Klein or Charlie Jacobowitz , good Jewish names, later a Bugsy Siegel, a Meyer Lansky, founders of Murder, inc, which was an example of cooperation  across ethnic lines—Jews and Italians ( Note- I officiated at the funeral of the attorney  that served them as well as Al Capone. As a Rabbi, you get to meet many interesting characters, such as  the son of an early competitor of Al Capone, a figure in the Israeli Mafia, and the Russian( real Russian) Mafia.). The smart ones knew to get out of the business in time—like the father of a member of a previous congregation who tried to go head to head against Capone, realized it was a dead end game, and turned to legitimate ventures, building a successful scrap metal business.

[PS- it was  HTBE’s very own Edward G Robinson who played the Capone-like character, L’il Ceasar


Or- our very own John Factor, aka Jake the Barber, who was a master-mind finagler, the owner of the Stardust Casino in Vegas, who later on cleaned his reputation with a very big donation to JFK ( paying for the Bay of Pigs invasion), paid for the building that is now Neman Hall—and was also a generous developer of churches, gyms, and parks for LA’s impoverished black neighborhoods. (


Slum living breeds juvenile delinquency. Jews were no exception. In 1906 ,as much as 30% of all children in juvenile court were Jewish. As the Yiddish press phrased it, home life was unbearable and escaping such home life, the delinquent could enter more sophisticated crimes.

 Take an example from an Arnold Rothstein who fixed the 1919 World Series(  "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business run like a corporation"-Leo Katcher The Big Corporation),[ and Isaac Zucker who ran a Jewish arson ring. Jewish youth could attend an Academy for crooks run by mother Mandelbaum ,a school for burglary, safecracking blackmail ,and confidence schemes.

Most Jews were able to steer clear of this life of gangsterism and crime but the new American civilization took its toll certainly on their Jewishness, their Jewish traditions. My father told me of the legend that deep under Ellis Island lay hundreds and hundreds of tefillin that Jews threw overboard as they realized that this was a country where they no longer had to be bound literally by tefillin or figuratively by Jewish obligations. It is an exaggeration, but life in this new country did put an end to a lot of devotion that Jews had brought with them. Keep in mind these were not the ultra orthodox that came here, not the most observant, but certainly they had been brought up in Jewish tradition. 


The new world did its job on them. One of the great classics of this period was The Rise of David Levinsky by the founder of the Forward Yiddish newspaper, Abraham Kahan who described in great literary detail how a promising yeshiva student succumbed to the temptations of American life.

So how was it that the children and grandchildren of the “ Greenhorns” were able to climb out of their mud.

You do what Jews in time of poverty did- Luftgescheft—You made business out of air, out of whatever came to hand.

Here was a case that I knew of personally:

My father led a congregation one time in a small town in the heart of West Virginia. There was a Bar Mitzvah for a child that came  from a town even more isolated, an hour’s drive away. The grandfather came for the service and was astonished to find a familiar face on the Bimah- the President of the congregation. “ I remember him—I had him thrown in jail many years ago!”

The grandfather in this case had been the mayor, judge , and police of this small town, all wrapped in one. The President had come as a poor immigrant from Lithuania and had been peddling door to door—but it was illegal to do so in that small town without a license, Hence, the night in jail.

From peddling, this “greenhorn” had managed to start a scrap metal yard and by the time I was there, had become what Jews would say,” Comfortable”. So comfortable, that a major Jewish philanthropy sent it’s top operator, an old friend of my father’s, who had been the special advisor for Jewish affairs to the American military government over West Germany, to this isolated town to ask for a major donation to build a school in Israel.



You used your skills from the old world as a “shneider”, a tailor.

They did have a reading skill, even if in Yiddish , which enabled them to learn the new ways of life in America, via vehicles such as the very popular Yiddish newspaper, Der Vorwerts, edited by Abraham Cahan. Here, a “greenhorn” learned what it meant to become a “ yankee”.

The daily column, A Bintel Brif”, was a source of information to guide them in this new world.

Furthermore, as the slogan of the Forward stated: Arbeiter fun allen lender, vereinigten sich- Marx’s slogan, “Workers of all lands, unite”. It served as  the voice of poor workers organizing and gaining the upper hand against oppressive employers in the early years of unionization. In this, Jews , such as Samuel Gompers, led. He went from cigar maker to head of Cigar Maker’s Union to founder of AFL ( later to merge with CIO) ( by the way Union, yes, socialism, no, which remained true of American labor movements over the decades—American unions decided not to kill the goose that lay the golden egg, but to get a bigger piece of the egg).

 This November 1, 1936, magazine section of The Forward illustrates its evolution from a Democratic Socialist publication to a Social Democratic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal"

Then, too, it was our fellow German Jews, who had become so successful, who were embarrassed by their “Green” brothers and sisters. They could be an existential threat to this well-off segment of American society. That was generally the case for many other ethnic groups, where the ones who made it often left their less successful counterparts to wallow in their troubles.

 However, instead of hiding from them, they realized that the only way they could ever feel secure here, was for their “ landsmen” to move up the ladder as quickly as possible. Thus, they supported “ Settlement houses” to provide tools for advancement for the newcomers.

When I first came to the Jewish Theological Seminary as a new student, I was surprised to find the names of prominent donors whi helped it get started- all  German Reform Jews! They were among the strongest supporters of the new Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, because they realized that well-educated, Americanized , Rabbis, speaking correct English, a scholar and a gentleman, from a traditional, not Reform  perspective, could serve to “ Americanize” these Jews as well.

Then, there was certainly, the still respected concept of learning for its own sake, so that the Yiddish speaker made sure that his children mastered English and the civilization of this new land. Thus, Jews soon flocked to higher education, such as to City College of New York:

“CCNY's …the 1920s and 1930s, when Jewish students took their place in the line of immigrant communities hungering for higher education. Known for its academic excellence as "the proletarian Harvard," and for its student radicalism as "the little Red schoolhouse," the college had a special meaning for an immigrant Jewish community that was largely denied access to the elite schools of the Protestant establishment. CCNY was a center of leftist intellectual ferment during the 1920s and 1930s, … recalled in the memoirs of Jewish intellectuals like Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin. Other notable alumni: jurist Felix Frankfurter, the financier Bernard Baruch, the medical researcher Jonas Salk, the actor Edward G. Robinson [HTBE President!], Mayor Edward Koch, and General Colin Powell.( He was a Yiddish speaker, after all) (

Jews easily stood out:

 A writer in a 1923 edition of the Nation ( a generally liberal-left publication ) put it bluntly: the upwardly mobile Jew “sends his children to college a generation or two sooner than other stocks, and as a result there are in fact more dirty Jews and tactless Jews in college than dirty and tactless Italians, Armenians, or Slovaks.”

 during the early 1900’s... According to one observer: “At every university and college that I have visited, I have heard ungrudging praise of the exceptional ability of the Jewish, especially of the Russian-Jewish, students.” …One comments begrudgingly: “History is full of examples where one race has displaced another by underliving and overworking.”

Francis Russell, came from an old-guard Protestant family and attended Boston Latin School, an elite public high school that sent its best students to Harvard. By 1920 it had become over half Jewish. Writes Russell:

My own background was middle-class, Protestant, non-competitive, like that of most Roxbury Latin boys…

In contrast, Jews:

worked far into each night, their lessons next morning were letter perfect, they took obvious pride in their academic success and talked about it. At the end of each year there were room prizes given for excellency in each subject, and they were openly after them. There was none of the Roxbury solidarity of pupils versus the master. If anyone reciting made a mistake that the master overlooked, twenty hands shot into the air to bring it to his attention.”

Jews fought to excel, and then fought to overcome the entrenched authorities in the major universities who feared the drive to excel.

That drive to excel expressed itself then, in every aspect of the new Jew in America. Rather than allow the mire of the slums and tenements to keep him down, he and she moved out and up with drive and forcefulness.

By the latter half of the 20th century, the United States was the pre-eminent leader of the western world. By the end, with the fall of the Soviet system, it was the sole pre-eminent leader. This was known as the American Century. The Jew, in America, was uniquely positioned to be at the core of this new America.

The New Entertainment- From Vaudeville to Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood ( and Hollywood Temple Beth El)and radio and television.

The new music- Irving Berlin creating Christmas music, Gershwin creating a Black musical, Porgy and Bess ( with Jewish cantorial riffs in  it) and Rhaphsody in Blue

Full involvement in American government, Senators, Cabinet officials, the so-called” Jewish seat” on the Supreme Court.

Literature: the 20th century "Jewish American novels" by Saul BellowJ. D. SalingerNorman MailerBernard MalamudChaim Potok, and Philip Roth. Jews were so dominant in Americas writings and publications that there were even charges of  a Jewish Literary Mafia.( The Literary Mafia, Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature by Josh Lambert )

Academia: Jews became so prevalent at the leading Universities, that the horrid “numerus clausus” of the European Universities began to be implemented, until Jews proved to be too powerful, and the gates were forced open.

The waves of new Jews have kept on coming, refreshing and replacing the earlier waves. In the past ¾ of a century, we have had the second wave, of German Jewish intellectuals who dominated the sciences ( such as Oppenheimer, of the bomb and movie—of course Einstein—but also a successful movie actress who , on the side, developed a method of “ frequency hopping” that made American torpedoes” invisible” against enemy detection. It later became a basis for systems like Bluetooth and Wi-fi! ) psychology and social sciences( Viktor Frankl, Kurt Lewin, Ruth Westeheimer), and the intellectual foment of the 60’s ( Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse) and the uppermost echelon of world affairs- Henry Kissinger. Then, we had the wave  of ultra-Orthodox , both Yeshiva and Chasidic Orthodox, who essentially pushed aside what was normative Orthodoxy, now modern Orthodox, and reinvigorated that wing of the Jewish community. We had the second wave of the Russian Jews, those of the former USSR, far more educated than the Jews that came a century before, and producing, among other things, a “Google”- ( yes, Sergey Brin.) Iranian Jews- also far better off to begin with than the earlier waves , who brought us such an entity as Qualcomm ( computer chips- a Nazarian). Israeli Jews, who brought us Power Rangers and new media moguls ( Chaim Saban) as well as every other building contractor in LA.

Now, the $ 64,000 question—is the American Jewish century winding down, as is the American century? That remains to be seen.

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