How “Frum” was Rabbi Jacob Joseph's court? Americanization within the lower east side's orthodox elite, 1886–1902

  • Jeffrey S. Gurock


East Side Lower East Side 
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  1. 1.
    “Broadside of Association of the American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, April 1888” published in Appendix 3 of Abraham J. Karp, “New York Chooses A Chief Rabbi,”Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 44, 3 (March, 1955): 191.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    “Broadside,” in Karp, 191. The sad saga of Rabbi Jacob Joseph's career in New York has attracted the attention of almost every historian of that city's Jewry as well as most chroniclers of the general history of American Judaism. Relying on the excellent account of the Rabbi's travails, offered by Abraham Karp in 1955, the focus of accounts invariably centers on the chief rabbi's failures to control the kashruth industry he set out to regulate. While this debacle was truly Rabbi Joseph's undoing, it was, to my mind, not the sole or even the major goal or story of his administration. Rather, if the aforementioned broadside is to be believed, kashruth regulation was important — along with effectively controlling marriage and divorce procedures — in terms of putting Orthodoxy's house in order towards the pursuit of a loftier goal of returning immigrant youngsters to the world of Torah Judaism they remembered from Eastern Europe. This present study looks at the true nature and degree of commitment harbored by the Association and the chief rabbi's circle towards these values. Unfortunately for the chief rabbi the goals of transplantation were submerged beneath the morass of his troubles controlling meat production. On “brazen outlaws” in control of synagogue life, see Moses Weinberger,ha-Yehudim ve ha-Yahadut be-Nuyork (1887). This work has been translated into English asPeople Walk on their Heads: Moses Weinberger's “Jews and Judaism in New York,” Jonathan D. Sarna, trans. (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982), 44.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    “Broadside” in Karp, 191. For a discussion of the interrelatedness of the founders of Etz Chaim with the leadership of the Association, see Jeffrey S. Gurock,The Men and Women of Yeshiva: Higher Education, Orthodoxy and American Judaism (New York, 1988), 12–13. On the founding of Etz Chaim and its early curriculum, see Gilbert Klaperman,The Story of Yeshiva University: the First Jewish University in America (London, 1969), 17–34. For specific reference to Rabbi Joseph's visit and his favorable views of the school, seeYiddishes Tageblatt, July 27, 1888: 1 noted in Klaperman, 28.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Weinberger, Sarna trans.,104;Ha-Ivri, September 17, 1897: 1a; October 15, 1897: 1e quoted in Klaperman, 40. ForHa-Ivri editor Gerson Rosenzweig's approbation and relationship with Etz Chaim, see Klaperman, 29.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On the founding of and course of study at the Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan, the relationship between those founders, the Association and Etz Chaim group, and the mutual affection the Yeshiva and the Agudath ha-Rabbanim had for each other, see Gurock,The Men and Women of Yeshiva, 18–21.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Gurock, “Resisters and Accommodators: Varieties of Orthodox Rabbis in America, 1886–1983,” inThe American Rabbinate: A Century of Continuity and Change, 1883–1983, Jacob Rader Marcus and Abraham J. Peck, eds. (Hoboken, 1985), 15–22; idem, “The Orthodox Synagogue,” inThe History of the Synagogue in America, Jack Wertheimer, ed. (New York and London, 1988), 47–52.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Thirty years ago, Abraham Karp, in his seminal study of Rabbi Jacob Joseph's career noted in passing that the “wealthy Orthodox businessmen⋯ in control of the Association [were] worldly in outlook [and] wanted a scholarly chief rabbi to be accepted by the larger Jewish community and the non-Jewish world. To be a master of Talmud was important, but equally important were general culture and knowledge of the tongue of the Americanized element of the community.” See Karp, 139. But he did not pause to fully evidence the truth of that assertion. We will presently note how correct Karp's intuition was as we study lay and rabbinic attitudes within that court.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    “Broadside” in Karp, 191.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    On the curriculum of Etz Chaim in its earliest days, see Gurock,The Men and Women of Yeshiva, 11–12, 15 and Klaperman, 24–25.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    It should be noted that Rabbi Moses Weinberger, whom we have noted, was very close to, and in sympathy with, the goals of the Association opened a second downtown all-day Orthodox school in 1895. His Yeshivat Or ha-Hayyim was really a “high school” taking students up towards the age where they might be ordained. Maybe it was, as Shnayer Z. Leiman, who uncovered this school's history suggests, the first advanced yeshiva in America. In all events, like Etz Chaim, it too had the goal of devoting little attention to secular subjects. However, starting as it did almost a decade after Etz Chaim and possibly learning from Etz Chaim's example, this schoold recognized the unavoidable desire of American students to learn about their new society. Accordingly, they provided some exposure to secular subjets since they knew “full well that American students will not confine their study to the four ells of Halakhah” so long as these teachings did not conflict with the traditions and required the religious heads of the school to make sure that the nonessential secular subjects not become too important for pupils. See, on this ephemeral institution, Shnayer Z. Leiman, “Yeshivat Or ha-Hayyim: the First Talmudical Academy in America,”Tradition 25, 2 (Winter, 1990): 77–88.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Ira Eisenstein, “Mordecai M. Kaplan,”Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (Clinton, 1963), 253. See too Simon Noveck, “Kaplan and Milton Steinberg,” 147. On Kaplan, Fuenn and Kohut see,The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan (hereafterJournals) I, 256 (January 30, 1917), 256–58 (February 1, 1917). These references from the journals on file in the Rare Book Room; of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America are published with the authorization of its Chancellor Dr. Ismar Schorsch. My thanks to Chancellor Schorsch for his permission. For just a taste of the issue of the impinging of modern ideas within the traditional world of Eastern Europe, most specifically the controversies that surrounded the question of introducing vernaculars and secular subjects in East European yeshivas, with a particular focus on the Volozhin Yeshiva, see Meier Berlin,M'Volozhin Ad Yerushalayim (Tel Aviv: Yalkut, 1939), 88–101; Moshe Tzenovitz,Etz Hayim: Toldot Yeshivas Volozhin (Tel Aviv: Mor, 1972), 317–44, Shaul Stampfer, “Three Lithuanian Yeshivas in the Nineteenth Century” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1981), 79–80, 120–21; Jacob J. Schacter, “Haskalah, Secular Studies and the Close of the Yeshiva in Volozhin in 1892,”The Torah U-Madda Journal 2 (1990): 91–96.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    For more references to Israel Kaplan's early life and training, seeJournals 4: 217 (January 17, 1929); 6: 181 (October 4, 1929); 19: 264 (March 7, 1959). For more specifics on Israel Kaplan's relationship with Rabbi Reines, see William Berkowitz, “Interview with Mordecai M. Kaplan” inDialogues in Judaism (Northvale, 1991), 31 where Kaplan refers to his father as a “student-colleague” of Reines. The Mordecai Kaplan Archives in Wyncote, PA also contain two letters written by Reines to Kaplan in 1908 which reflect their friendship.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ehrlich was the author of the three-volume HebrewMikra Ki-Feshuto (Berlin, 1899–1901) and the seven-volumeRandglossen zur hebräischen Bibel (Leipzig, 1908–1914). On the Kaplans' relationship with Ehrlich, seeJournals 15: 239 (June 24, 1949); 19: 104 (June 13, 1958); 254 (February 7, 1959). Ira Eisenstein, 255; M. Kaplan, “A Founding Father Recounts,”Alumni Association Bulletin, Teachers Institute and Seminary College of Jewish Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1959) and “The Influences That Have Shaped My Life,”The Reconstructionist 8, 10 (June 26, 1942): 30.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    There is some discrepancy within the sources about how long Kaplan studied at Etz Chaim and at what point in his schooling he left for public school. One account has him at Etz Chaim for a year and a half. Other sources suggest his stay was almost three years. In all events, by age 12, he was off to the Jewish Theological Seminary. On Kaplan's early education, see Berkowitz, 32; Kaplan, “The Influences,” 29; idem, “Response,”Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America 15 (1951): 214. The only contemporaneous source that criticizes rabbis from Eastern Europe — but not Israel Kaplan specifically — for sending their sons to public schools is Weinberger's pamphlet that describes the reason he established his school, Yeshivat Or ha-Hayyim, referred to in note 10. See on this, Leiman, 83–84.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Lloyd P. Gartner, “From New York to Miedzyrecz: Immigrant Letters of Judah David Eisenstein, 1878–1886,”American Jewish Historical Quarterly (hereafterAJHQ) 52, 3 (March, 1963): 236.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Ibid., 242–43.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    Judah David Eisenstein, “Yesod ha-Seminar ha-Chadash,” inNew Yorker Yiddishe Zeitung (1888) reprinted in Hebrew translation in Eisenstein,Otser Zichronosai (New York, 1929), 206–11.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    For a listing of the members of the original Board of Trustees of the Jewish Theological Seminary Association, see “Certificate of Incorporation of the Jewish Theological Seminary Association,” in Moshe Davis,The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in Nineteenth Century America (Philadelphia, 1965), 386–87.Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    For information on Lewin, see “Certificate of Incorporation,” in Karp, 189–90 andProceedings, title page.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Germansky and a S. Bernstein of 89 Division Street are listed as “Subscribers” to the JTSA throughout most of the 1890s. SeeProceedings for the listing. Germansky and a Moses Bernstein also of 89 Division Street — very possibly the same person as S. Bernstein — are listed as founders of RIETS. See “Certificate of Incorporation, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary Association,” in Klaperman, 244.Google Scholar
  21. 23.
    It must be noted that the transplanted East European rabbinate in this country was never monolithic. As I have indicated in “Resisters” and elsewhere, a number of important rabbis both inside and outside of the Agudath ha-Rabbanim were more favorably disposed towards the questions of Americanization. But as an organization, the Agudath ha-Rabbanim took a harder stand than seen earlier within Rabbi Joseph's court. See on the variety of hard line positions taken by that rabbinical group, Gurock, “Change to Survive: The Common Experience of Two Transplanted Jewish Identities in America,” inWhat is American about American Jewish History, Marc Lee Raphael, ed. Forthcoming to be published in 1994 by the College of William and Mary. For the text of the organization's charter which, nonetheless, does note some slight concessions on the question of English in their favored schools and which speaks also of training Jewish youngsters who attended public schools, seeSefer ha-Yovel shel Agudat ha-Rabbanim ha-Ortodoksim de-Artsot ha-Brit ve Canada (New York, 1928), 25–26.Google Scholar
  22. 24.
    For a concise synopsis of the history of the transformation of the old Seminary into the institution associated with Dr. Schechter, see Marc Lee Raphael,Profiles in Judaism: the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Traditions in Historical Perspective (San Francisco, 1985), 88–91. For references to contemporaneous criticism of the new leaders of the Seminary and their orientation, seeAmerican Hebrew 75:5 (June 17, 1904): 130; 75: 7 (July 1, 1904): 174, 180.Google Scholar
  23. 25.
    On the controversies that surrounded Willowski, see Aaron Rothkoff, “The American Sojourns of Ridbaz: Religious Problems Within the Immigrant Community,”AJHQ 57:4 (1968): 557–72; Karp, “The Ridwas: Rabbi Jacob David Willowsky, 1845–1913,”Perspectives on Jews and Judaism: Essays in Honor of Wolfe Kelman (New York,1978), 215–37. See also Jenna W. Joselit,New York's Jewish Jews: the Orthodox Community in the Inter-War Years (Bloomington, 1990), 30–31.Google Scholar
  24. 26.
    American Hebrew 75:5 (July 1, 1904): 180. It needs to be noted that despite Eisenstein's backing of Willowski and his attack on the graduates of the pre-Schechter Seminary, the first years of the twentieth century did not necessarily witness a full fledge retreat on the part of this very complex ghetto-based Jewish observer from his favoring acculturation within Orthodoxy. For as late as 1897, Eisenstein was among the founders of the Orthodox Union, headed up by the American orthodox rabbis and lay people who were active at the old Seminary. And that group promoted in its own way modern Orthodox services which included English language sermons. What can be certain is that he was no longer favorably disposed towards Seminary graduates — even those who finished really before Schechter came on the scene. It is most probable that Eisenstein was not fully committed to every aspect of any organizational agenda, be it the Orthodox Union or the Agudath ha-Rabbanim. In all events, Eisenstein's public critique remains an indication of Agudath ha-Rabbanim's influence upon the community.Google Scholar
  25. 27.
    American Hebrew 76, 2 (December 9, 1904): 93.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Haifa University Press 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeffrey S. Gurock
    • 1
  1. 1.Yeshiva UniversityUSA

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