Charles Reznikoff here adds the Jewish community of Boston to COMMENTARY’s gallery of American Jewish community “portraits”—which has so far included the communities of Richmond, San Francisco, Montreal, New Haven, and various other cities. Mr. Reznikoff, author of a number of volumes of fiction and poetry, has devoted himself in recent years to studies in the history of the Jews in this country; and he here gives a chronicle of the Jews of Boston, up to the time of the coming of the newer immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Visitors did not think well of the early Bostonians. One of them in 1699 described the place as follows: “The buildings, like their women . . . neat and handsome. And their streets, like the hearts of the male inhabitants, being paved with pebble.” Another visitor, described as “an unpleasant Englishman” by a historian of Boston, said of them, “Money [was] Their God, and Large Possessions the only Heaven they covet.” John Adams was later to cry out: “The morals of our people are much better; their manners are more polite and agreeable; they are purer English; our language is better; our taste is better; our persons are handsomer; our spirit is greater; our laws are wiser; our religion is superior; our education is better.” This statement, it may be assumed, would persuade few outside of New England.
No English colony in what was to become the United States has left the record of Massachusetts for bigotry and cruelty. And yet Jews ventured there, and there is no record of the persecution of a Jew as such. On the contrary, they seem to have been fairly well treated.
Solomon Franco reached Boston with a cargo in 1649, nineteen years after the settlement was founded. But he was no match, it seems, for the early Yankees and he was stranded—penniless. They were much kinder to him than they would have been to a Quaker and let him have a few shillings a week out of the public treasury until he could get passage back to Holland.
In the next century, a number of Jews were “warned out” of Boston by the selectmen: among them, perhaps, Isaac Moses (d. 1818) who was to become a leading merchant of New York. He financed a cargo of corn sent for the relief of Boston during the Revolution. But the selectmen in “warning out” were not acting against Jews but against any stranger who might become a “resident” within the meaning of the poor laws and for whose maintenance the township would be liable.
In so religious a community there was, of course, much spiritual pressure against lonely Jews to become Christians, and a number were converted. There is a tale of Cotton Mather that he used a little trickery in his eagerness to convert one of the early Jewish residents of Boston, Joseph Frazon (or Frazier); but the minister was found out and Frazon would have none of his arguments and died a Jew. His body was carried to Newport (1703/4), where there was “a Jew burying-place.” The most conspicuous of the early converts was Judah Monis (16831764), who taught Hebrew at Harvard for about forty years to the reluctant students.
The first Boston tax list (1674) has the name of a Jew—Rowland Gideon. Joseph Frazon and his brother Samuel were merchants. (Their father and grandfather had lived in the Dutch possessions in Brazil.) Isaac Lopez, who came to Boston from London in 1716, was also a merchant. He was elected a constable at an annual town meeting and paid a fine not to serve. In 1722 he had permission to put up a timber building. At about the same time another Jew, Joseph Benjamin, came from the West Indian island of Barbados, where the English had settled. In 1716, Michael Asher was running a snuff mill and fifteen years later, with characteristic Jewish versatility, had a shop where he sold chocolate, “milk bread,” and “New York strong beer.”
It was hard, no doubt, to make a living in Boston. In 1728, Isaac Lopez was in hiding from his creditors. Michael Asher lost the plot of ground where he had a shop with Isaac Solomon. The two had set part of the plot aside as a burying ground for “the Jewish nation.” Many years later at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill, according to the notes of Sir Henry Clinton’s advice to the British on how to land their troops, there was a “Jews burying ground” in Charlestown. If there was such a burying ground, no other reference to it has been found.
In 1739, Joseph Brandon was selling “choice Dum-fish salt and West India Rum.” Emanuel Abrams was selling snuff, in 1754, and had to deny by advertisement the advertisement of a competitor that the snuff was “musty Trash.” And young Jews studying how to become merchants under the great Aaron Lopez of Newport would stay in Boston from time to time upon his business.
The most distinguished Jew of Boston at the end of the 18th century was Moses Michael Hays (b. 1739) of a family that came from Holland. He was probably born in New York City. When he became a freeman of that city, his occupation was described as watchmaker. From New York he went to Jamaica and from Jamaica to New-port, and here he was a merchant. After the Revolution he settled in Boston, where he was an insurance broker: “a man much respected, not only on account of his large wealth, but for his many personal virtues,” to quote the Reverend Samuel J. May (17971871), the abolitionist. The business of insurance broker was itself much respected: certainly, it was on the side of the angels. (Insurance in Boston was limited in those days chiefly to marine insurance; it was not until 1795 that a company for fire insurance was incorporated, and it was not until 1823 that the first life insurance policy was issued.)
In 1784 Hays helped organize the first bank in Boston. Like other Jews, he was drawn to the Masonic order by the benevolence of its principles and was grand master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts (1788-92). He died in Boston in 1805. A copy of his portrait by Gilbert Stuart (the original was lost in a fire) shows a rather handsome face—firm mouth, strong chin, and dark, appraising eyes.
Hays brought up his two nephews, children of a widowed sister who had been married to the rabbi of the Newport congregation. The elder, Judah Touro (1775-1854), later astonished the country by the munificence of his gifts to Jews and Christians. Although he had long been a resident of New Orleans at the time, he gave $10,000 to finish the Bunker Hill monument His younger brother, Abraham (1777-1822), left $10,000 to the city hospital of Boston and $5,000 each to the city orphan asylum for boys and the city orphan asylum for girls. (Judah Touro left the same institutions the same amounts.) To be exempt from the tax for support of the Congregational Church, imposed on those who were not members of some other church, Abraham Touro appeared before the selectmen of Boston in 1816 and requested the town clerk to set out in the records that he was a Jew and belonged to a synagogue.
Judah Hays (1772-1832), the only son of Moses Michael Hays, was elected a fireward in 1805—the first Jew elected to public office in Boston (except for Isaac Lopez’s selection as a constable almost a century before). He was one of the founders of the Boston Athenaeum. Two of the sisters of Judah Hays married Jews of Richmond, and the other two followed their sisters to Virginia.
Abraham Touro was the largest shareholder in the company that owned the Amoskeag Canal (chartered 1798) and its vice-president, and he owned a few shares of the Middlesex Canal; but Touro and his uncle, Moses Michael Hays, and Hays’s son, Judah, were exceptions among the merchants and bankers of English stock to whom the prosperity of Boston in those days was chiefly due. And it was many years before there was a Jew of consequence again in Boston. There was none among the owners of the packet ships and clippers that made the city a great port in the first half of the 19th century; none among the owners of the first factories along the rivers of Massachusetts; nor among those who made Boston, as its historians say, “the undisputed literary center of America.”
A Number of Algerian Jews, it is said, settled in Boston in the 1830’s. German Jews began to arrive about 1837. They were chiefly of two kinds: those who came from Southern Germany and those from “hinter Berlin” (back of Berlin)—which to other German Jews classed them practically as Poles. (The Prussian province of Posen had been part of Poland half a century before.)
These German immigrants were great believers in the principles of democracy that were making the United States a great nation and agitating Central Europe—culminating in the unsuccessful revolts of 1848. Few of the German immigrants came from Europe directly to Boston as the Irish did; for, if the terminus of the Cunard Line was originally Boston, that of the Hamburg-American Line, which began to operate in 1848, was New York. (To this day, a number of distinguished Boston Jews have come from other cities of the United States: several became part of the community by way of Harvard.) But in 1840 “a Hebrew was [still] an unusual sight in Boston,” according to Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston (1883).
In 1842, when the German Jews who were to establish the first synagogue in Boston first met for prayers, it was a city of about 80,000; shipping was its chief business; it had twenty-nine banks, twenty-eight insurance companies, and sixty-eight churches.
The manufacture of ready-made clothing, in the sale of which many German Jews were to make money, had begun in Boston about 1830—probably for the seamen and whalers. The immigrants were immediately concerned, of course, with the problem of making a living. But another important question was that of a proper place to be buried in; and, even if an immigrant was not very religious, at the season of the Days of Awe, if not on the Sabbath, he, too, felt like pouring out his heart before the Lord who listens to the miseries of a peddler as to the problems of princes.
At the celebration of the circumcision of Peter Spitz’s first son in 1843, a number of the immigrants who had been meeting regularly for prayers decided to form a congregation. There were eighteen of them: the owner of the Railroad Hotel on Church Street, his assistant, and, among others, two capmakers, a furrier and hat-presser, a dealer in soap (which he also manufactured), someone in the dry goods business, and a couple of peddlers. They called the congregation Ohabei Shalom, that is to say, “Lovers of Peace,” but it was translated by them modestly as “Friends of Peace.” This was the second congregation in New England. (The first had been organized in Newport in 1658—almost two centuries before.) The congregation of Ohabei Shalom was soon joined by two more capmakers, another peddler, and a dealer in lace. There are pictures of Peter Spitz and his wife. His long dark hair is carefully combed to one side and he has fashionable chin-whiskers; his dark tie is carefully knotted under the narrow collar of his white shirt; his wife has her dark hair parted twice, at the right and left, and the hair in the center brushed straight back; she wears a narrow black ribbon about her white throat and has a large jeweled pin on her dress: friendly faces, already substantial citizens in whose home many a poor immigrant, no doubt, had a warm welcome and plenty of good food such as he had not had since he left Germany—if he had had it there.
In 1844 the congregation was permitted to have a cemetery in East Boston. There had been opposition in the city council: the first petition by “trustees of a religious soctiety of the Israelitish denomination” had been denied; but in the second petition the purchasers were buying the land as a cemetery for themselves. Now they were ready for this world and the next. A Christian clergyman who visited the congregation that year “on the feast of trumpets” found them worshiping in an upper room in the house of one of the members, probably their reader, Abraham Saling, and contrasted this place of worship with Solomon’s temple. There were about forty present, and many were reading their prayers, the clergyman concluded, as if they understood the Hebrew. “Every man,” he noted, “took part in the service,” and he did not mind—apparendy even approved—that at times they called upon the Lord with a loud voice: “There was far more voice used,” he wrote, “than is often heard in the beautiful responsive service at Trinity or St. Paul’s.”
Congregation Ohabei Shalom was incorporated in 1845. It had then forty members. The ritual first adopted was that of the Bavarian city of Fürth—a city friendly to the Jews and which had become prosperous because of it. This was the ritual of the synagogue until 1852, according to The By-Laws of Temple Ohabei Shalom Prefaced with an Historical Sketch (1907). The religious school was established in 1849. At about that time, the congregation had as an auxiliary—to help the congregation and those in need—the “Society of Brotherly Love.” It derived some of its funds by fining members who were absent from services. It was not until 1851 that the congregation could build a synagogue. That year one of its members, Alexander S. Saroni, advanced the money for a plot of land on Warren Street (now Warrenton), and here the first synagogue in Boston was dedicated in 1852. A number of Christians subscribed to the building fund. The mayor of Boston was present at the dedication and so was the abolitionist Theodore Parker (1810-1860), preacher of a radical Unitarianism. B’nai Jeshurun of New York sent its rabbi, Morris J. Raphall, who delivered a sermon in English, and the New York congregation also lent Ohabei Shalom a Scroll of the Law.
The synagogue was of wood and two stories high; the auditorium, including a gallery for the women, was large enough for 400 (not too large for the eighty members and their families), “finished in a very neat but plain manner,” according to the report in a newspaper. On top of the Ark was not only a white marble slab with the Ten Commandments in gilt letters but also “several varieties of choice flowers in pots.” In front of the Ark was a small desk on which was a copy of the Scriptures, and the reader stood on a stand about three or four feet from the Ark and faced it: between the Ark and stand was the usual passageway. In the rear behind the auditorium, according to another report, were “bathing rooms for the females of the society, after the ancient customs of the Israelites.” The religious school, according to one report, was in a room opposite the synagogue; according to another, the classroom was also in the rear. About thirty children were taught Hebrew and German.
A congregation of Polish Jews, known as Beth Israel, did not last long. In 1854 Ohabei Shalom, the “Lovers of Peace,” divided into two factions over the hiring of a hazan or cantor: those who came from “hinter Berlin” and Poland and prayed according to the minhag Poland, and the minority who wished the services to be according to their own minhag. The latter formed Congregation Adath Israel.
The president of Ohabei Shalom belonged to the faction that organized Adath Israel and he took along the account book of Ohabei Shalom, their shofar (ram’s horn trumpet), and the Scroll of the Law. The shofar has been in the possession of Temple Israel, as the congregation is now known, to this day. But then the members of Adath Israel gave up any claim to the cemetery and the synagogue and to the legacy of $5,000 that Judah Touro had left “Ohabaye Shalome.” The new congregation rented a long narrow wooden building, painted yellow, on Pleasant Street, which—with a gallery for the women—would seat about 250, and hired the hazan who had caused the secession. There is a reference to both congregations in the Boston Daily Journal of that year (October 2, 1854): “The present is a most interesting season with the Jewish nation, being near the commencement of their New Year. Services are held at the synagogues . . . and they are thronged both at Matins and Vespers. The celebration of the Passover commences, we believe, tomorrow.”
Mishkan Israel (afterwards Mishkan Tefila) was organized in 1858, also by former members of Ohabei Shalom. In the program for the Purim Ball of Temple Mishkan Tefila in 1935 there is an advertisement by a restaurant serving “Chicken, Steak and Lobster Dinners,” reading “where your Grandad and Grandmother wined and dined one hundred years ago.” This may be doubted, for all the congregations were Orthodox.
In 1856 Ohabei Shalom had 120 members. Adath Israel had only seventeen members in 1859, but they purchased land for a cemetery that year: when one of their members had died the year before he had to be buried in Maiden. At the beginning of 1860 the membership had grown to fifty; and it was generally agreed that this was because the congregation now owned a cemetery. Mishkan Israel had a hard time of it until 1870 when the congregation bought a place of worship on Ash Street. Both Ohabei Shalom and Adath Israel had religious schools. Adath Israel’s was in a small room near the synagogue—across an alley. Here the children came three times a week to learn Hebrew and German; in 1863 there were twenty-six pupils. There had been an attempt in 1858 to organize a daily free school in which Hebrew and English were taught the Jewish children of the community, but it was abandoned after five years: Boston’s excellent public schools, except for the fact that Saturday was also a school day, were more attractive.
There were about 125 Jewish families in Boston in 1851; by 1864 there were about 1600 Jewish residents, most of these from Germany. Simon Wolf lists 172 Jews from Massachusetts in Union regiments during the Civil War in his The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. Because of the hard times as a result of the war, Adath Israel, for example, had only $5.25 in its treasury in 1862. The membership had fallen to forty and that there might be enough for a minyan at the services, they were divided into groups of eight who were bound to attend: the shammes (sexton) and rabbi made up the requisite ten. But Ohabei Shalom had money enough and the patriotism to subscribe $120 in 1862 to a fund in aid of wounded soldiers.
Nathan Straus and twenty-six others in 1864 organized the United Hebrew Benevolent Association to grant some relief to those in need. The annual budget was no more than $500, assistance was limited to $2.00 a week, the needy called at the place of business of a member of the board, and what they got depended on how he felt just then. Hardly any records were kept, on the theory that the right hand should not know what the left was doing. But by 1876 matters were better organized: there were set hours for applicants and some investigation. In 1878 Lina Hecht, the wife of Jacob H. Hecht, then president of the United Hebrew Benevolent Association, organized the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Circle to supply the poor with clothing and blankets. Leopold Morse founded a home for aged Jews and needy Jewish children in 1888—the Leopold Morse Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews and Orphanage.
Joseph Shoninger had been elected hazan of Adath Israel in 1856 to serve not only as reader but as teacher of the children—all for $200 a year. In 1874, although Reform Judaism had made a beginning in Germany sixty years or so before and was firmly established in a number of communities in the United States, the services of Adath Israel were still Orthodox. But that year, after almost twenty years of service, Hazan Shoninger had to resign and Rabbi Solomon Schindler succeeded him. Rabbi Schindler was elected, to use the words of the leader of the “Reform” movement in the synagogue, “to bring Judaism abreast with the time and to win for it the respect of the Gentile world.”
According to Rabbi Schindler, “Reform” meant no more to its advocates in Adath Israel than “an orderly bearing of the worshippers during the hours of divine service.” However, Rabbi Schindler managed to have family pews take the place of the old seating with the women in the balcony, a small organ was installed, a choir with a woman soprano hired, and a new prayer book with prayers in German used; the second days of holidays were no longer observed, the shammes became the “messenger,” the Schule a “temple,” and the rabbi delivered sermons regularly—at first in German. His suggestion that the men remove their hats was rejected at first as going too far.
As it was, the changes met with much displeasure and fifteen of the fifty or so members of the congregation resigned—some to join Ohabei Shalom. But this congregation soon followed Adath Israel into the Reform movement. In 1871 a choir of men and women had been organized in Ohabei Shalom by the cantor, but after a year or two this had been abandoned for the traditional choir of boys. In 1875, however, the president of Ohabei Shalom, Israel Cohen, had the traditional seating of women in the gallery done away with for family pews—against the protest of many. In 1877 the choir of boys was replaced by a quartet. Confirmation of boys and girls at both Ohabei Shalom and Adath Israel took the place of the Orthodox rite of Bar Mitzvah for boys. (However, today boys are again Bar Mitzvah at Ohabei Shalom, the members of the congregation still wear hats during the services, there are daily services morning and evening, and, though Ohabei Shalom is affiliated with the Reform congregations in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregation uses Jastrow’s prayer book instead of the Union Prayer Book.) In 1877 the first services in celebration of the American holiday of Thanksgiving were held in Adath Israel, in spite of the governor’s proclamation calling for “praise to Almighty God” for “the fruits of the prosperous industry, for the intellectual, social, and civil benefactions, for the redemption of the world by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and for His Holy Word.”
By this time, members of the community were beginning to be active in civic and national politics. Leopold Morse (b. Bavaria, 1831; d. Boston, 1892), who had been compelled to leave Germany in 1848 because of his small part in the movement of political rights, was among the first in American politics and urged others to join “in order to be worthy of the liberties which had been granted to them.” He had been in the clothing business in New Bedford at first, but in 1851 moved his business to Boston. Here he became wealthy. He was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1876 and served all five terms.
Leopold Morse’s younger brother, Godfrey Morse ¢b. Bavaria, 1846; d. Dresden, 1911), was a lawyer. He was the first Jew of Boston to receive an A.B. degree from Harvard (1870). At Harvard, he had been an editor of the Advocate and manager of the first crew that went to England to row against Oxford (but this post has been scorned as nothing but a “water boy”). Elected a member of Boston’s School Committee in 1875, he was afterwards assistant counsel of the United States before the commissioners judging the “Alabama” claims (188285), and was president of the Boston Common Council in 1883. He was the first president of the Boston Federation of Jewish Charities and also of the Elysium Club. Isaac Rosnosky (b. province of Posen, Prussia, 1846; d. Boston 1907) was the first Jew to serve on the Common Council (1878) and also the first Jew in the state legislature. He was re-elected time and again to both posts serving seven years on the council and five in the legislature. For a time he was assistant water commissioner of the city.
Before 1847, the German Jews of the community had organized a “Hebrew Literary Society.” It met twice a week and had Jewish, German, and English periodicals on file. The Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, at first known as Bundes Brüder, was organized in New York in 1843 by twelve Jews from Germany. It had benefits and a secret ritual in which Abraham’s staff as a shepherd, the tablets of Sinai, and “the chandelier of the Temple” were the chief symbols. There were several lodges of that order and of the Order B’rith Abraham in Massachusetts, and also those of rival orders. “For a number of years lodge matters were the topic of daily conversation among Boston Israelites,” wrote Rabbi Schindler in 1889, not without a note of impatience. The wealthier Jews had their own social organizations of which the Elysium Club was the most noted. According to Rabbi Schindler, the club made a point of never celebrating Jewish holidays but only American holidays, such as Thanksgiving Day and Washington’s Birthday.
In 1881, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association was organized in the South End. It soon had about 400 members and was the center of Jewish life: all the lodges held their meetings in its rooms; even the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Circle met there; it had a gymnasium, classes in French and German, lectures and concerts, and ran an employment bureau.
In 1881, with the beginning of the Russian pogroms, the great migration of Jews from Eastern Europe began, and one stream of it poured into Boston. In 1877 the number of Jews in Boston was estimated at 7,000. In 1894 it was estimated that the Jewish population of Boston was 20,000—14,000 of these immigrants living from hand to mouth. But these were not the only newcomers. In 1900, about a third of the residents of Boston, then a city of 560,892, had been born outside the United States; of the foreignborn, more than a third were Irish and about 7 per cent, or about 13,000, were said to be Jews. Furthermore, the parents of somewhat more than 72 per cent or 404,999 of the inhabitants of Boston, were of foreign birth: somewhat more than 44 per cent had both parents born in Ireland; almost 14 per cent had both parents born in Canada of English stock; 6.29 per cent had both parents born in Russia, and were chiefly Jews. Then there were those who had both parents born in Germany, Italy, England, Scotland, Sweden, or Poland—in this order.
None of the Jewish immigrants found their way into the almshouses: “. . . the most noticeable thing . . . is the entire absence of Jews,” wrote Frederick A. Bushee in 1903.1 “. . . natives of the British Isles furnish a larger proportionate share of dependents (on public and private charity) than any others. Among the remaining foreign peoples in the city the Germans and Swedes represent the smallest proportion of dependents; the Jews are not far behind, and the Italians follow the Jews closely,” wrote, in the same year, Winfield S. Alcott·2
The Irish, who began to come to Boston in the 1840’s, originally settled in the North End, where wealthy Boston families had once lived. From there the Irish immigrants spread into the West End. The immigrant Jews also crowded into the North End and then into the West End and into the South End. The old buildings in the North End and in the West End were divided into flats, new rooms were added, and the cellars became stores. The mortgagees and landlords who found this swarm of immigrants looking for homes profitable were Yankees and Irish, but the workingmen who made the old buildings into warrens were Jews—the carpenters, the painters, the dealers in building materials, and so were the lawyers who wrote the mortgages that supplied the money. Wooden tenements for the immigrants were also built along the empty lots of South Boston and in the South End.
There were those who did not look kindly on these rows of new tenements as places to live in; nor did the “Jewish tenements” escape the notice of the literary sociologist Frederick Bushee, who, in the same article referred to above, says: “In the West End there is a peculiar type of Jewish tenements which were built primarily to rent, not to live in; but incidentally they serve as dwellings for many families. These dwellings are not always new. . . . Bay windows and fancy ornaments make them beautiful to look upon, while bells and speaking tubes raise them to the dignity of apartments. In fact, they look as though the Jews had put them through the old clothes process and they had come out ‘cleaned, repaired, dyed, and pressed.’“
The immigrants did not find the mean streets of the poor neighborhoods as dreadful as they seemed to those who lived in better quarters. Many a Rebecca remembered long trips from the well with heavy pails of water in a Ukrainian city and here water flowed from the wall at the turn of a faucet or, at worst, from a pump in the yard. Mary Antin, for example, was favorably impressed by the brick pavement of the alley to which her father brought his family, for she knew the streets, deep in mud, of the Russian city in which they had lived. But, above all, they were in America, the land of free education and where all men, Jew and Christian alike, were equal—at least before the law. Many, too, knew the kindness of non-Jewish Bostonians: the Boston Provident Aid Society helped many, and a talented youngster like Mary Antin or Bernard Berenson—with his shock of thick hair, full mouth, pointed nose, and sharp eyes not unlike a young quattrocento painter himself—found not only patrons but friends.
Although the value of the new immigrants to the United States was recognized and the immigration welcomed (see, for example, the article by Alcott cited above), anti-Semitism among the vulgar might take pleasure in a circus parade through the streets of Boston—in the first decade of this century—that carried among the flags of the nations a replica of a dollar bill as the Jewish flag and among the learned might be found such a statement as appears in the Bushee study mentioned above: “It is a noticeable fact. . . that Jewish children are more acute than others in certain mathematical calculations. An example may appear complicated in the book, yet the suggestion ‘How much do you make?’ clears up the matter as though a new sense had been brought into play. Jewish children have the greatest contempt for their mates who get the gains mixed up with the losses in a business transaction.”
Incidentally, a Jewish flag, designed by Jacob Baruch Askowith, had been displayed in Boston in 1891—probably for the first time in any modern country—at the dedication of a new assembly room by the B’nai Zion Educational Society. The flag had two horizontal blue stripes painted on a white cloth about a yard long; between the stripes was the “Shield of David” and in the center of the “Shield” the Hebrew letters for “Maccabee,” also painted in blue.
It was not until 1892 that the legislature of the state granted Jewish ministers the right to perform marriages—a right that had been limited to preachers of the Gospel. The act also legalized marriages that had been performed by rabbis but declared illegal all divorces granted other than in a court of the state: its passage was due in no small measure to Isaac Rosnosky.
The immigrants that came to Boston after 1881 found in the North End an Orthodox synagogue known as Shomrei Shabbos, organized many years before. Its members had been chiefly peddlers who were away during the week and met only for services on the Sabbath—at each other’s homes before they leased a room on Hanover Street. They had a burial ground in Dedham. Some time in the 70’s, younger men, for the most part sons of members of Shomrei Shabbos, had organized another Orthodox congregation, Beth Abraham. The two congregations were united in 1886.
A few years afterwards, some members of Beth Abraham left it to form Beth Israel.
The new congregation had a synagogue on Baldwin Place—the first synagogue in the North End. In 1893 this congregation and Beth Abraham were also united in one congregation for the same reason that Shomrei Shabbos and Beth Abraham had united: to have the burial ground in Dedham where the parents of many of the younger congregation were buried. The union was celebrated by a parade from Cockrel Hall at Hanover and Richmond Streets, where Beth Abraham used to meet on the top floor, to the Baldwin Place synagogue; the members carried the Scrolls of the Law and American, as well as Jewish, flags. One of the rabbis of the Baldwin Place synagogue was in a perpetual quarrel with “kosher” butchers whose zeal for kashrut was tempered by practical contingencies. After the wedding of his daughter, the dinner guests were taken sick, and it was said that the butchers were to blame. But the guests were better in the morning and the rabbi’s dinner became one of the community’s humorous tales.
The community’s charitable work was still chiefly in the hands of the earlier immigrants—the German Jews. In 1889, Mrs. Lina Hecht organized the Hebrew Industrial School to train immigrant girls in cooking and sewing and to give them religious instruction: this became the Hecht Neighborhood House. She and her associates also organized “Country Camp” for girls and women. The first recreational program by a Jewish philanthropic agency of Boston was already in existence—”Poor Children’s Parties”: no false delicacy here.
The Benoth Israel Sheltering House was chartered in 1891 as a temporary shelter for immigrants (its building in the North End was bought in 1896); the Charitable Burial Association for immigrants was also organized in 1891, and the next year the Free Employment Bureau of the Baron de Hirsch Committee. In 1895, the Federation of Jewish Charities was organized to coordinate the work of Jewish charitable societies and do away with haphazard raising of funds: this was the first organization of the kind in the country among Jews. Rabbi Schindler was the first superintendent The Federation had 489 subscribers the first year and they contributed $11,909 to its funds. The Jewish community now had institutional care for the aged and orphans, health and employment services, a program of recreation for the poor, and an attempt to coordinate the charitable work of the community.
The Mount Sinai Hospital Society opened the first Jewish out-patient clinic in 1902, particularly for immigrants unfamiliar with English. That year, too, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was established in Boston.
The attitude of the German Jews toward the later East European immigrants was not lacking in sympathy. Yet the two groups got along none too well. The friction was not caused by the Polish and Russian immigrants’ envy of the German Jews who, by this time, were for the most part completely Americanized and, oftener than not, in business for themselves. Nor was it due merely to irritation on the part of the German Jews at the dress and manners of the Polish and Russian immigrants that reminded the earlier immigrant (and the Gentiles) that he, too, was a Jew among Gentiles. But the German Jew did not like the stubborn interest of the Polish and Russian Jew in Yiddish. Then, although the economic theories of many a Russian Jew were not far from those of the German immigrant of 1848, such theories had become quite distasteful to the average German Jewish man of business in 1900. Again, the earlier immigrant, particularly if well-to-do, was generally a Reform Jew; the later immigrant was either zealously Orthodox or just as zealous against all religious rites and ceremonies. Even in their theories as to the proper way to help those in need, as Samuel C. Kohs has also pointed out in The Jews, earlier and later immigrants differed: the German Jew was ready to give; the Russian Jew favored loans without interest. When the later immigrants became established, they organized their own charitable institutions.
During the Spanish-American War, Samuel H. Borofsky (b. Lithuania, 1865), a member of the City Council in 1898 and of the state legislature in 1900, formed a Jewish company (6th Company, Provisional Militia): it had forty-six members on its roster. The war was over before it could be be mustered into Federal service. However, twenty-two Jews were in the 9th Massachusetts Regiment from Boston that fought at Santiago.
At the turn of the century, the community was beginning to have Jews who were American by birth and education. It was only to be expected that without the hardships and handicaps of the immigrant, a number of these would go far, and a number did. It may be sufficient to take only the names of three, although one of these, Kirstein, did not become a member of the community until 1911. The three were typical of Boston, particularly Boston’s early Jewry, in that none was born there: Louis D. Brandeis (18561941) was born in Louisville, Kentucky; Edward A. Filene (1860-1937) was born in Salem, Massachusetts; and Louis E. Kirstein (1867-1942) in Rochester, New York.
Unlike men of similar eminence in any Jewish community, say, of Germany or Poland a century or so before, none of these three was noted for his formal piety. All were practical men and financially very successful. Filene made his father’s little dry-goods shop with its single room—boasting a marble floor—one of the greatest stores in the country; Kirstein, after a successful career in business in Rochester, was Filene’s associate; and Brandeis was an exceedingly able lawyer—how able only the lawyers who read his opinions when he was a member of the Supreme Court of the United States can judge: unrhetorical, clear, and solid.
The three were very much aware of their responsibilities as citizens. As others gave their money, so Brandeis gave his services to causes that he thought deserved them: for example, the sale of insurance by savings banks. Filene began to see business as a way of life: service to the community, and profit not the incentive as much as the proof of service. He advocated credit unions (small loans to members at low rates) and—though Brandeis, hating “bigness,” thought the less of him for it—helped organize the United States Chamber of Commerce. Kirstein was chairman of the Boston Port Authority. He was president of the Boston Public Library—to which he gave a library on business and the building to house it. He endowed a chair of labor relations at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration.
Filene had “no interest—not the vaguest, in Judaism,” to quote Jacob De Haas in the Jewish Advocate. Brandeis took no part, perhaps was not even interested, in Jewish affairs, until, well in his fifties, he became a Zionist in 1910. Kirstein, as soon as he felt himself secure in his business, took a leading part in Jewish philanthropy. In 1917 he was chairman of the newly organized Federated Jewish Charities of Boston; using the fundraising technique of the Liberty Loan drives, the organization raised a quarter of a million dollars that year. On the other hand, the interest of Brandeis in his fellow Jews was that of the statesman, the philosopher, rather than that of the practical philanthropist.
With Emerson, Brandeis saw every man as “an omnibus on which all his ancestors are seated,” although Brandeis could never create so striking an image. It was more characteristic of him to say as he did in his bread-and-butter way: “The phrase ‘self-made man’ is most misleading. We have power to mar, but we alone cannot make. The relatively large success achieved by Jews, wherever the door of opportunity was opened to them, is due, in the main . . . to this treasure which we have acquired by inheritance; and which we are in duty bound to transmit unimpaired, if not augmented, to coming generations.” He justified his Zionism on the ground that “Jews collectively should likewise enjoy the same right and opportunity to live and develop as do other groups of people. This right of development on the part of the group is essential to the full enjoyment of rights by the individual.” To Brandeis, this country was not a “melting-pot”; its future, he hoped, would continue to be “in differentiation, not in uniformity”; and he advocated a cultural pluralism or, as he preferred to call it, an “inclusive brotherhood.” To think of Boston, he might have said, a Jew need not forget Jerusalem.
At the beginning of this century, the words “Jew” and “Jewish” and, of course, “Yiddish” were avoided, it seems, in the better circles of Boston. According to Bernard G. Richards, then a reporter for the Boston Post, that newspaper at the suggestion of A. Shumanmdash;never Abraham Shuman but “A. Shuman”mdash;who had a large clothing business in the center of the city, did not use the word “Jew” or “Jewish.” In reporting a play in Yiddish, Mr. Richards had to describe it as “a Hebrew play.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his article on Boston in Historic Towns of New England (1898) wrote that
“Foreign dialects have greatly increased within a few years” and that “the Italian population . . . makes itself very apparent to the ear, as does also latterly the Russian. Books and newspapers in this last tongue are always in demand.” One can only suppose that Mr. Higginson meant “Yiddish” but was not rude enough to say so.
Several magazines and newspapers for the Jewish community had been published for a while—and were gone. In 1903, the Jewish Advocate was established and is being published to this day.
The newcomers were beginning to take root. There were twenty-one synagogues in Boston at the beginning of the century. And if there were Jews who put aside, if they could, what was left of their Jewishness, as they or their fathers had put aside prayer shawl and phylacteries, there would be others who, like sons of the earlier immigrants, were to bring to their activities as Jews the disciplined thinking that would win them eminence in business or the professions. Plain Jew or eminent, together with earlier immigrants and their descendants, the newcomers were to become a great Jewish community, American and part of Brandeis’s “inclusive brotherhood”: fifth in size among the Jewish communities of the country and numbering about 140,000 in 1950 (about 18 per cent of Boston’s total population, and only the cities of New York (28 per cent) and Miami (24 per cent) with a greater percentage of Jews. But that is another chapter.
(See Lee M. Friedman’s Early American Jews, Jewish Pioneers and Patriots, Pilgrims in a New Land, and his article in Old-Time New England, October 1948; Early American Jewry by Jacob Rader Marcus, Vol. 1; Oscar Handlin’s Boston’s Immigrants; Fifty Years of Jewish Philanthropy by Abraham K. Cohen; The Story of Adath Israel by Stella D. Obst; Israelites in Boston by Solomon Schindler; Aaron Pinkney’s articles in the Jewish Advocate, April 14, 1949, September 22, 1949, and March 30, 1950 [with Joseph I. Gorfinkle]; “Louis D. Brandeis” by Louis E. Leventhal, American Jewish Year Book 1942-43; “Louis E. Kirstein” by Benjamin M. Selekman, ibid., 1943-44; Gerald White Johnson’s Libera’s Progress [Ed ward A. Filene]. I am also indebted, for the quotation from John Adams, to Lucius Beebe’s Boston and the Boston Legend, p. vii; to Oscar Handlin for the reason for Abraham Touro’s appearance before the selectmen of Boston; and to Miss Fanny Goldstein of the Boston Public Library for other information.—C. R.)
1 ”Ethnic Factors of the Population of Boston,” Publications American Economic Association, Vol. IV, No. 2, 3rd Series (May 1903), p. 85.
2 ”Immigration,” New England Magazine, N.S. Vol. XXIX (Dec 1903), p. 410.