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A Bisl Learning - Fact of the Week

Compiled by Rich Remenick.

Beth Israel's Adult Education Committee is proud to announce the revival of the "Fact of the Week" series that ran throughout the course of our Holocaust Survivor Scroll restoration project. We are reinitiating the series in order to uphold not just the Torah that we know of as the 5 Books of Moses, but the broader Torah of the Jewish people's historical and cultural experience...the Torah of the Jews in the Yiddish speaking heartland of Poland-Lithuania, the Torah of the Jews of Spain, the Torah of the Sephardic Jews, etc. We may even revisit the town of Prostejov, where our Holocaust Survivor Scroll comes from! All this history contributes (in ways hidden and open) to our identity as Jews today, and our awareness of this history can only strengthen that identity and our community. This time the series will be different in that several successive weekly facts will be connected to each other through some significant theme in Jewish history. 

"We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of ages." - Abraham Joshua Heschel

  1. Landsmanschaftn
  2. Community in the Old World
  3. What is the Jewish Community?
  4. An Obstacle to the Kehillah
  5. The Kehillah and Jewish Education
  6. Oy! There IS Jewish Crime!
  7. The Kehillah and Jewish Labor
  8. The Demise of the Kehillah
  9. The Mizrahi Jews
  10. Before Mohammed
  11. Judaism and Islam
  12. Jews in Muslim Lands
  13. Maimonides and Muslim Rule
  14. Jews in the Ottoman Empire

Jewish Mutual Aid: Landsmanschaftn 

How did Jews support each other in times of crisis? (And when is there not a crisis?) Throughout history, Jews have responded in multiple ways depending on circumstance.

In the case of the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the cities of the United States, one response was the institution of landsmanschaftn, which were fraternal organizations based on ties to a hometown or region in the old country. These organizations alleviated the stress of a new and strange environment simply by providing a gathering space for people who could share memories of their town of origin. But they also provided material benefits such as burial services, financial aid to the sick and the indigent, and assistance with finding employment and job training. These organizations were so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that, according to an estimate by the Yiddish Writers Group of the Federal Writers Project, there were as many as 3,000 landsmanschaftn in New York City in the 1930's, with as many as half a million to a million members!

These organizations were an important vehicle not just for the maintenance of ties from the old country, but for the formation of a new, specifically American Jewish identity. This is something we will explore in A Bisl Learning's next fact of the week.    

"We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of the ages. -  Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Jewish Mutual Aid: Community in the Old World

When Jewish immigrants from Europe arrived in America, they brought with them a solid legacy of community organization (and the skills that went with it) which they then had to adapt to modern American conditions. The landsmanschaften that we mentioned last week are an example of this process of adaptation. But what was the original organizational inheritance?

The Council of the Four Lands was the overarching Jewish governing body in Poland-Lithuania. The Council's authority was strikingly oligarchic: its leadership was selected almost exclusively from the wealthy strata of the community (or the most learned) and the percentage of the population that could actually vote for leaders varied from about 5% to 14%. The percentage of the Jewish population that was eligible for office was probably no greater than 5%. The Council regulated a large swath of the behavior and affairs of Jews, from proper apparel for poor people to the salaries of teachers. Even voluntary organizations, such as craft guilds, were closely regulated by the Council, which in some instances went so far as to select the leadership of these bodies. In short, the ordinances of the Council (which were thought to express the will of the community) were extremely wary about any assertion of individual interests, which were seen as a threat to community cohesion.

Newly arrived Jewish immigrants had to grapple with these thorny questions of individual and community. For instance, how is it possible to build a community in a more free and open environment in which so many individuals know that they can leave the community, and may actually do so? Another response to this dilemma (besides the landsmanschaften) was a great Jewish social experiment in New York City that took place from 1908 to 1922, an experiment which we will talk about in our next fact of the week. (Return to Top.)

Jewish Mutual Aid: What is the Jewish Community?

In September, 1908, an article appeared in the periodical North American Review. Written by the New York City Police Commissioner, Theodore A, Bingham, the article stated flatly that half of New York City's criminals were Jews (mostly Russian). The prestige of the author and the seemingly impeccable statistics cited made the accusation seem "respectable" and therefore even more painful to the pride of an already struggling Jewish immigrant community.

A storm of outrage and indignation emanated from the Yiddish speaking immigrant population of the Lower East Side. All six of the Yiddish daily newspapers carried the story, along with angry commentary. A call went out for the resignation of the Commissioner. Eventually a deal was struck in which the Commissioner apologetically retracted his statement but kept his job. But the injury to the pride of Lower East Side Jewry still smarted. Nothing short of an entity (a kehillah) that could govern Jewish community affairs and organize and articulate Jewish aspirations could restore the Jewish community's dignity.

But before a city-wide kehillah could be created, all sorts of divisions within the Jewish population had to be managed. Different factions argued over the definition of the term "Jewish Community" and who it included. Did "Jewish" mean religiously observant? Did it mean "ethnically" or "nationally" Jewish? And if either of these, precisely what did those terms mean? The story of how these issues were resolved, and how a kehillah was constructed will be next week's Fact of the Week. (Return to Top.)

Jewish Mutual Aid: An Obstacle to the Kehillah

The deal whereby New York City Police Commissioner Bingham got to keep his job (in return for retracting his inflammatory statement about Jewish criminality), was brokered by prosperous, politically influential, less recently arrived and more Americanized (mostly German) Jews. They felt duty-bound to restrain the "hot-headed", "impulsive", and "self-righteous" demands of the unruly East Side Jews for the Commissioner's removal. Some of the uptown Jewish elite believed the Commissioner's statements about Jewish criminality to be true!

The East Side Jewish community, on the other hand, depended on the financial largesse of these wealthy "elite" Jews, and this only inflamed its sensitivity to the patronizing disdain of the uptowners. Suspicion and hostility abounded on both sides, constituting a serious obstacle to the formation of a city-wide Jewish governing body, a kehillah.

A great rabbi, Judah Magnes, was essential in bridging these divisions. Judah Magnes had wide ranging interests, a pragmatic temperament, and a powerful speaking style. Even though he was the chief rabbi of the elite, uptown Temple Emanu-el, he was beloved by the East Side community for leading a march up Fifth Avenue of 150,00 East Side Jews in protest of Russian pogroms. His connections to varied segments of the Jewish community, and his skillful cajolery, allowed him to sell an inclusive vision of the kehillah, which had to be tolerant enough to embrace all those who would join. In his vision, the leadership skills of the uptown Jews would merge with the ardor of the Lower East Side to produce a successful kehillah. Without his efforts, a kehillah might never have been born. (Return to Top.)

Jewish Mutual Aid: The Kehillah and Jewish Education

The New York City Kehillah experiment (1908-1922) was at least partially successful in the area of Jewish Education. The research conducted by the Kehillah's Education Bureau (which included Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan) painted a portrait of East Side Jewish education as unprofessional, substandard (even corrupt), and not even accessible to most Jewish young people, many of whom received no Jewish education at all. Most children who did receive Jewish education attended small, improvised schools (called hadarim) run by a few poorly educated and commercially harried men in dilapidated buildings or basements.

The Education Bureau tapped a professional educator from Baltimore, Dr. Samson Benderly, to attempt to organize a comprehensive Jewish educational system in the city. Benderly's policy of modernization accepted the primacy of the American public school as a vehicle of "Americanization" of Jewish youth. Jewish education was to be "harmonious to and complementary with" the American public school system. Under Benderly, Jewish education in America became truly modern in its pedagogical techniques.

Along with such innovations as standardized text-books, curriculum, and professional teacher training, Benderly acknowledged that the typical Jewish student would be tired from a day of public school attendance. Benderly therefore reduced the number of required hours of Jewish education to half the requirement of traditional schools! How the Orthodox rabbis on the East Side howled! And how grateful are modern Hebrew School students! They can all give thanks to Dr. Samson Benderly. (Return to Top.)

Jewish Mutual Aid: Oy! There IS Jewish Crime!

The issue of "Jewish Criminality" in New York City seemed to cool to a slow simmer after Police Commissioner Bingham retracted his famous 1909 statement that 50% of the city's criminals were Jews. It came to a furious boil once again in 1912, when a well-known Jewish gambler named Herman Rosenthal was gunned down on the street a few days after he publicly described an extensive network of crime on the East Side. Rosenthal's killer was his disgruntled former partner who was also a police detective! The ensuing trial, with its lurid descriptions of the partnership between Lower East Side criminals and corrupt municipal officials, was covered on the front page of the New York Times for almost forty days.

No longer could the Jewish community dismiss accusations of Jewish criminality as mere anti-Semitism. The Yiddish daily newspapers agonized over the problem and its possible solutions. The Lower East Side chose to protect itself from hostile criticism by making sure its own house was in order. Accordingly, the Kehillah created a "Bureau of Social Morals" in August, 1912.

Donations from wealthy uptown donors financed the hiring of eight professional agents who supervised an extensive neighborhood intelligence network. With the cooperation of the mayor's office and the police, gambling resorts, brothels, and gang hangouts were harassed with surveillance, suspension of licenses, and criminal prosecutions. Rabbi Judah Magnes even managed to organize a "Horse Owners Association" to fight the scourge of horse poisoning (yes, apparently that was a thing)! Although this program successfully closed many criminal establishments, changing political tides and financial problems led to the end of this ambitious crime fighting effort by about 1917. (Return to Top.)

The Kehillah and Jewish Labor

While the theoreticians of the Yiddish speaking left in New York City in the early 20th century fretted over the tension between a Jewish ethnic community and an international labor community, the actual Jewish laborers of the Lower East Side, unbothered by theoretical niceties, brawled on picket lines with management thugs on weekdays and attended shul on Saturdays (or at least High Holidays), sometimes with the owners of the businesses they were striking against!

Encouraged by this pragmatic temper, the Kehillah entered the fray of industrial relations, not to foment revolution, but to ensure the stability of the Jewish community. In 1912, Kehillah leader Rabbi Judah Magnes, along with the Kehillah's wealthy uptown donors, intervened in a strike of 9,000 furriers against their employers. The Kehillah's uptown patrician donors were essential for bringing the manufacturers to the bargaining table. The terms of settlement included union recognition, a 49-hour week, no homework, 10 paid holidays (exchangeable for Jewish holidays), a joint board of sanitary control, and a fairer procedure for determining wages.

The success of this intervention led the Kehillah to establish a professional bureau of Labor, which intervened in even larger strikes (one of them located in Newark!). The Bureau also involved itself in worker training and placement, and statistical research. It is an interesting historical irony that although the Kehillah was very much a moderate institution, it was so important in advancing the cause of unions. Another irony is that the Yiddish left acknowledged its debt of gratitude to Rabbi Magnes, but never formally affiliated with the Kehillah. (Return to Top.)

The Demise of the Kehillah

Without the leadership of Rabbi Judah Magnes, there would not have been a Kehillah. His connections with all factions of the New York Jewish community, his personal charisma, oratorical and administrative skills, and pragmatism were all essential in keeping a fractious community at least partially united around the cause of the Kehillah. In addition, he was arguably the most famous and prestigious leader of American Jewry at the time and the weight of his prestige was instrumental in finding funds for the experiment.

When America entered World War I in 1917, Rabbi Magnes shocked his devoted followers and the rest of the American Jewish community with the scandalous announcement that he was now a pacifist! Seldom has someone’s prestige evaporated so rapidly. For a sensitive community anxious to prove that Jews were loyal American citizens, this transgression was unforgiveable. The uptown donors quickly withdrew their support and the Kehillah limped on for a few more years as a shell of its former self.

This incident was only an example of larger forces at work. Protestant patrician social reformers were agitating for a professionalized, rationalized, and “non-parochial” form of government. Perhaps unjustly, they pointed to the corrupt Tammany Hall ethnic political machine as a potential scenario for any self-organized ethnic community. In the end, the Jews of America chose (perhaps because they had to) another kind of relationship to the American environment. (Return to Top.)

The Mizrahi Jews

Did you know that at one time the study of the history and culture of Eastern European Jewry was barely respectable? Many of the things considered “typically Jewish” today; Yiddish language and literature, Hasidism, Jewish humor were all overshadowed by a German-centric model that was anxious to demonstrate that Judaism was rational, modern, and compatible with a commercial market economy. Eastern European, or Ashkenazic culture was thought of as a repository of backward, rural superstition. As a field of study, it was at best negligible, and at worst, an embarrassment.

Eventually, Ashkenazic culture came to the center of scholarly and public attention with the help of scholars such as Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) and with the help of the Jewish influence on American popular culture and movies.

But now that Ashkenazic culture is widely acknowledged, there is another group of Jews with their own experience that have fallen into the shadows, much as the Askenzim initially had. This group is the Mizrahi, the Jews who have remained in the Middle East since biblical times. When the first Jews were trickling into Eastern Europe (some scholars place this in the 1300’s), perhaps 80% of the world’s Jewish population was in the Middle East! The fate of the Mizrahim is now an urgent issue in Israel, a state founded and staffed predominantly by Ashkenazi Jews. In order to widen and strengthen our understanding of Jewish identity, our Fact of the Week series will explore the history and experience of this branch of our Jewish family. (Return to Top.)

Before Mohammed

Today, we think of the Middle East as an area marked by the antagonism between the Jews of Israel and a surrounding ocean of implacably hostile Arabs, a division as clear and inviolable as the boundary between oil and water. But did you now that a thousand years before the birth of Mohammed, Jews were dispersed in well established communities from one end of the Middle East to the other?

Many of these communities thrived in cities that today we only know through newspaper photos of war-torn ruins. The city of Falluja in modern Iraq was home to the Jewish Academies of Sura and Pumbeditha. The city of Aleppo, destroyed in the recent Syrian civil war, was home to a great community of Jewish scholars. Jews arrived in Yemen as early as 629 BCE and they actually ruled there for almost a century. Persia (modern day Iran) for centuries was home to one of the most significant Jewish communities in the world. Jews in Cyrenaica (today’s Libya) fled into the desert after their revolt against Rome was suppressed and actually converted many of the Berber tribesmen who gave them refuge! To further confound our modern ideas of Middle Eastern cultural and political divisions, there are cases of Arab (and later Muslim powers) assisting Jews in their military struggles against the Christian Byzantine Empire!

How did these very complicated and fluid realities harden into the almost Manichaean divisions that we see today? Well…it took a long time. In our next fact of the week, we will look at the emerging relationship between Islam and Judaism to see if we can find roots of current conflicts. (Return to Top.)

Judaism and Islam

If there were prosperous and well-established Jewish communities spread all over the Middle East from before the birth of Mohammed (as we established in our last Fact of the Week), then why is the region so geographically and politically polarized now? There is at least part of an answer to be found in the early relationship between Judaism and Islam.

Initially, there were astonishing similarities between Judaism and Islam. For instance, Muslims first prayed facing Jerusalem! Mohammed recognized Jews as true monotheists (as opposed to Christians with their doctrine of the Trinity), and of course Jews and Muslims traced their ancestry back to Abraham. To this day, the dietary customs of kashrut and halal are virtually the same. The Arabs of Medina who were open to Mohammed’s message of one god had already learned about monotheism from Jews who lived in the Arabian peninsula.

For all these reasons, Mohammed anticipated an alliance of equals between Jews and Believers in which Jews would aid Mohammed in the struggle against his pagan Arab enemies. But Mohammed’s claim to be a prophet led the Jewish community of Medina to rebuff him. According to Jewish custom, the age of prophecy is long over, and the seal of the prophets will not be reopened until the return to Zion. After this Jewish rejection of Mohammed, hostilities quickly broke out. Jewish communities were enslaved, exiled, or massacred.  A crucial defeat of a Jewish community at the Battle of Khaibar led to the establishment of dhimmi status for Jews and Christians who refused to convert to Islam. We will talk about this crucial institution in our next Fact of the Week. (Return to Top.)

Jews in Muslim Lands

Did you know that at one time Jews fought alongside Muslims to retake Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantine Empire?  The Byzantines did not even allow Jews to live in Jerusalem, whereas the Muslim victors did allow at least some. This demonstrates how the political geography of the Middle East before the modern era was very fluid and much more complicated than today’s divisions. Even our team of crack correspondents at a Bis’l Learning were disoriented! But there is one constant throughout this span of history that helps us navigate this confusion and that is the institution of dhimmi.

Dhimmi status applied to non-Muslim residents in domains controlled by Islamic powers. Christians and Jews were protected from enemies by Muslim governments and were free to worship as they pleased, as long as they agreed to pay a tax called the jizya. In this arrangement, Jews and Christians had a definite slot within Muslim society, albeit as second-class citizens. In many instances, Jews had to wear clothing that marked them out as Jews. They had to ride donkeys rather than horses. They could not serve on juries in legal cases, or even testify. On the other hand, Muslim ruling elites frequently recruited Jews to perform specific functions, such as financial advising and medical treatment.

Depending on time and place (and which scholar you read), dhimmi status could be harsh, mild, or any point in between. In Moorish Spain, for instance, there was a flowering of Jewish culture and thought. In other cases, a harsh application of the terms of dhimmi led to extreme immiseration and wretchedness. In either case, Jews and non-Muslims who paid the jizya tax were within the domain of Islam, rather than outside of it, in which case the obligation of jihad, or holy war would have applied to them. Please join us for Future Fact of the Week episodes in which we will explore the eventual creation of a troubled boundary that separated Jews and Muslims in a much more polarized way. (Return to Top.)

Maimonides and Muslim Rule
The life of the great Jewish sage, Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), is a microcosm of Muslim-Jewish relations of his time. He had to navigate a Muslim environment that shifted, within his lifetime, between tolerance and repression.

He fled Spain when a harsh Muslim Berber dynasty, the Almohads, defeated the more tolerant Moors. He arrived in Fez, which was hardly better, because there he was forced to convert to Islam on pain of death. Apparently, his “conversion” was not convincing because he was later arrested for “relapsing” into Judaism. He was saved from death only because a Muslim friend attested to his good Muslim character. After five years, he traveled to Egypt, ruled by the Fatimids, a tolerant Shia dynasty that allowed Jews to practice their tradition. Here, he became the court physician to the Sultan of Egypt, Saladin. He also served as Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Cairo and eventually became Ra’is al-Yahud, head of the Jews, a post recognized by Muslim rulers as the official representative of the Jewish community.

All the time that he walked the tightrope between the poles of Muslim policy, he somehow made great contributions (written in Hebrew and Arabic) to Talmudic commentary, medicine, and philosophy. When he died in 1204 he was mourned by both Muslims and Jews. Later we will see how the crevices and gaps in Muslim society in which Maimonides and other Jews found refuge gradually closed. But before we do, we still have a few corners of the Medieval Arabic world to explore.  (Return to Top.)

Jews in the Ottoman Empire

In the 14th century, the Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman dominions, Rabbi Isaac Tzarfati, in a letter addressed to Jews in Europe, wrote, “Arise, my brethren, gird up your loins, collect your forces, and come to us. Here you will be free of your enemies, here you will find rest…”. This was not a complete exaggeration. In Europe, Jews were subjected to pogroms, blood libels, and in Spain and Portugal, mass expulsion. In the Ottoman domains, on the other hand, Jews could engage in commerce, build synagogues, own property, and maintain their own courts of law. Quite a few Jews were able to reach prominent status in the Ottoman imperial administration.

Jews residing in Asia Minor under the Christian Byzantine Empire were so oppressed that they “girded their loins” to help the Ottomans (the Muslim Ottomans) conquer Constantinople, whose walls were breached, with the help of Jews, in the Jewish quarter. The cities of Gallipoli, Ankara, and Adrianople were all conquered by the Ottomans with the assistance of Jews. The Jewish population of Constantinople eventually reached 10,000 people; in Salonika the population may have been as high as 20,000. It was under Ottoman rule that the city of Safed became a center for the study of Kabbalah and it was there that Solomon ha-Levi Alkabetz wrote our Lekha Dodi.

The shadow that loomed over all this thriving Jewish life was, of course, the dhimmi status of Jews. The whim of a capricious local ruler could turn a local haven into a local prison. Restrictive clothing for Jews could make it near impossible to even walk, the poll tax known as the jizya could become onerous, property could be confiscated, and in some cases the blood libel that forced Jews to flee Europe would reemerge like a virus in the Ottoman refuge. The condition of Jews in the Ottoman Empire may have been an improvement over Europe, but as always, Jewish life was precarious. The “rest” that Rabbi Tzarfati promised was fitful. (Return to Top.)


Mon, May 27 2024 19 Iyyar 5784