Our Israelitish Brethren

"Our Israelitish brethren are now subjected to a trial peculiar to themselves. From being persecuted everywhere, they are beginning to be honored and sought."

If any one desires to revive his detestation of caste, the oppression of class by class, of color by color, of race by race, let him mark in the history of this people how uniformly they rise and expand and ennoble when the stigma is removed and the repressive laws are abolished. Always complying with the fundamental conditions of prosperous existence, that is, being always as a people chaste, temperate, industrious, and frugal, they have only needed a fair chance to develop more shining qualities. Americans need not recur to history to learn this. We need only to walk down Broadway as far as Castle Garden (where all the histories of all the nations come to a focus and show their net results), and compare Israelites fresh from the countries where they have been oppressed and despised for many centuries with Israelites who have lived in the United States for one or two generations. America can boast no better citizens, nor more refined circles, than the good Jewish families of New York, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia.

Not that the repression of ages can be overcome in a few years. We must expect that many Jews will long continue to exhibit unpleasing traits peculiar to themselves; and in some instances we shall observe that those traits, subdued in a parent, will reappear in his children. We have a highly interesting example in the author of Lothair. The elder D'lsraeli, though descended from a line of moneyed men, was curiously devoid of the commercial spirit, caring for nothing but his books and his collections of literary curiosities—a guileless, unaspiring student. His gifted son revels is the external. After fifty years of familiarity with the sumptuous life of very rich people, he writes of jewels in the manner of a dealer, and of nobles in the spirit of a footman.

One of the happy effects of light and liberty upon a religious body is to divide it. It is only people who do not think at all that value themselves open thinking alike. Black night is uniform: daylight shows a thousand hues. Ignorance is a unit: knowledge is manifold. As long as the Jews were persecuted, they clung to ancient usage and doctrine with thoughtless tenacity; their whole strength being employed in the mere clutch. But when the repressive and restrictive laws were relaxed, the mind of the Jews resumed its office; divisions arose among them; and the world began to hear of the Orthodox and the Reformed. Women, for example, are profoundly honored by the men of Israel, as they are by all the chaste races (and by no others); yet they retained in their morning service that insulting thanksgiving: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a heathen; who hast not made me a slave; who hast not made me a WOMAN!"  While the men were uttering these offensive words, the women were required to accept their hard destiny by thanking God for having "made them according to his will," and imploring him to deliver them from “impudent faces," "a bad man," "an evil eye," "an oppressive lawsuit," “an implacable opponent," and other evils. All this had become unsuitable, but it was retained.  Then, in ancient times when almanacs were not, the festivals (all regulated by the moon) were required to be kept for two days, instead of one, lest the time of the new moon should not have been exactly ascertained. This inconvenient custom was maintained in rigor, although the moment of the birth of the new moon was known to every family.  In Palestine list eating of shell-fish and pork was forbidden, because in that country those articles were thought to induce leprosy; and so in New York and London not a Jew would eat an oyster or a sausage.  For similar reasons, minute directions were given by the ancient lawgivers respecting the mode of killing animals, all of which were, doubtless, necessary or humane at the time; and down to a recent period every Jewish community had its butcher and no man would kill a chicken except in the authorized way. The service of four hours on the Sabbath was much too long; but on high days the pious Israelites were engaged in public worship for eight hours without a pause. Veritable rams' horns were blown in the temple; and every Jew who built a house left some visible part of it unfinished to denote that the Temple was still in ruins. All life was overlaid with minute observances, and religion was to many families almost as much a burden as a solace.

In one of the stories published in “Friday Evening," there is a scene which illustrates the ruthless tyranny of ancient custom when it has acquired the sanction of religion.  A poor family of Jews had just seated themselves at the table to enjoy the Sabbath dinner, for which the father, in the midst of cruel misfortunes, had ventured to provide a fine, fat goose. The eagerly expected moment arrives; the children gaze breathless as the majestic bird is placed upon the table; and the happy father, with beaming countenance, begins to use the carving-knife.

"The goose was at length completely carved, and still rested in delicious morsels on the plate before him, when, suddenly, little Schimmele cried out: 'Look, look, there is a nail driven in the goose!’

“’Where? where?' demanded at the same time both father and mother. The child pointed to the place, and there, indeed, the nail was revealed.

"The knife dropped quickly from our Anschel's hand, who stood transfixed, his face paler than the cloth before him on the table. Esther at once removed the bird, and ordered Schimmele to hasten to the Rabbi's house, and Inquire of him if it were unclean or not. The boy seized the dish, covered it with a napkin, and staggered away under his tempting load as fast as legs could bear him.

"Meanwhile, gloomy and melancholy silence reigned throughout the house. The children gazed on with an expression of disappointment and dismay. Anschel lowered his eyes, whilst Esther sat immovably in her seat without uttering a word.

"A few minutes afterwards Schimmele returned, but his countenance foreboded no good; tears were in his eyes.

"'Well?' demanded Esther, as he stood irresolutely on the threshold.

"'The goose—the goose is unclean,' replied the boy, after a desperate effort, sobbing."

It was all over with the Sabbath banquet!  No one thought of eating a morsel of the goose.

I have before me a curious narrative of a young Jewish lady in Southern Russia, venturing to carry a parasol in the streets on the Sabbath. Her mother, reproached by the stricter Israelites for allowing her daughter thus to transgress traditional law, forbade the young lady ever again on the sacred day to interpose a human invention between her fair countenance and the sun's rays. The daughter, offended, refused to go out at all on the Sabbath, and after four months the mother relented, saying: "I am not so strict as my mother is, and you will not be so strict as I am. You may, therefore, just as well begin now to practise your laxer principles; it is of no use trying to make you what I am myself."  The grandmother, in fact, was a pilgrim in the Holy Land, whither she had gone to end her days; the mother was merely a good orthodox Jewess; the daughter was willing to carry a parasol on Saturday!

The recent movement among our lsraelitish brethren toward Reform is merely the revolt of emancipated intelligence against the rites, usages, and doctrines which had become unsuitable and obstructive. It is a reassertion of the supreme authority of human reason. The reformers, while clinging with the tenacity of their race to the two essentials, - God and the Sabbath,—demand and concede in all minor matters perfect liberty! Nor do they adhere to the weekly day of rest so much because it is commanded, as because it is best. The most advanced statement of the reformed ideas is a lithe work published a few weeks ago, "What is Judaism?" by Rev. Rafael D. C. Lewin of New York. Mr. Lewin, in discoursing upon the laws and rites ordained by Moses, asserts that they are obligatory only so long as they answer the end intended. "As soon," he remarks, "as reason has decided that the time for their observance has passed, that they no longer effect their purpose, that according to the age in which we live the religious Idea, if requiring an outer covering at all, needs one of different materials, then the observance of them has forever passed, and a continuance of them is but a violation of those grand eternal principles which constitute pure Judaism."

Sacrifices, according to this bold writer, were permitted only in condescension to the barbarism of primitive tribes, and he ventures upon the tremendous audacity of saying, that even the venerated rite of circumcision must give way before advancing intelligence! He evidently regards it as the merest relic of barbarism, and speaks of the coming abrogation of all such usages as "a glorious event." Again and again he holds language like this: "Judaism is religion, and religion is life, spirit; it is neither letter nor law. The Bible is the word of God only when it in construed from its spiritual signification. There in nothing supernatural about the Bible. It is not a revelation of God's will imparted to any certain man under mysterious circumstances, nor is it a direct communication from God to man. It is a book, and only a book; a book written by mortal hands, a book containing ideas, sentiments, and doctrines emanating from the brain of man." But, he adds, although the Bible is man's work, wherever in it the true spirit of religion is expressed, there, but only there, is it "the true inspired word of God."

Few of our Israelitish brethren are yet prepared to receive such advanced heresy as this. Perhaps one third of all the Jews in the United States are still orthodox; another third neglect religion except on the greatest days of the religious year, and are indifferent on the disputed questions; another third are in various stages of Reform, a few even going beyond Mr. Lewin. A very small number, both in Germany and America, are prepared, for reasons of convenience, to adopt the first day of the week instead of their Sabbath.  They say truly that the essential thing is to rescue a day from business for the higher interests of man; and, that great boon being secured, the only other point of importance is, that we should all have the same day. The idea, however, is held in aversion by a vast majority of the Jewish people, and it will be many years in making its way to general acceptance. Meanwhile they employ our Sunday in holding their religious schools and in transacting the business of synagogue and charity.

The difference of opinion between the Orthodox and the Reformed does not create visible division among them, because the Jews are congregationalists. Each synagogue is independent in all respects. There is no ecclesiastical body nor Chief Rabbi in the United States, to interfere in the concerns, to criticise the ritual, or censure the belief of any congregation. If a congregation is in need of a minister, preacher, a reader, a sexton, it simply advertises for one, stating the salary to be given, and usually whether the congregation is Orthodox or Reformed. In almost any of our Jewish papers we can find a long string of advertisements like the following;—

WANTED. – The cong. Anshe Chesed, of this city, desire to engage a minister for the term of five years from August next, at the yearly salary of three thousand dollars.  He is expected to deliver sermons in German, and to superintend the congregation school.

            Applications and testimonials to be handed before the 8th of April next.

THE Congregation Anshe Chesed, of Vicksburg, Miss., desire to engage a gentleman to take charge of their new temple.  It is requisite that he be able to lecture in the English as well as in the German language, and perform the functions of Chazan, leader and instructor of a choir. 

            A salary of $3,000 per annum will be paid.

            Competent men are invited to correspond with the undersigned on the subject, and enclose references and testimonials.

TO CONGREGATIONS. – A gentleman, who has for a number of years filled the position of Chazan, Baal Korah, and teacher of Hebrew and German in a rather large congregation, but on account of religious principles has given up his situation, is anxious to meet with a similar position in a Orthodox congregation, in either city or country.  He is well-qualified Shochet and practical Mohel, and, though not a professional preacher, able to lecture in both German and English languages.

The best of references can be given.

WANTED. – A CHAZAN and SHOCHET, (Orthodox) by Congregation K. Keneseth Israel, of Richmond, Va., within sixty days from date.  Salary, $1,000. Applications must have the best of recommendations, and must be able to deliver discourse.  No traveling expenses allowed.

WANTED. – A SHOCHET and CHAZAN (Orthodox) by the Congregation Beth Ee, or Buffalo, N. Y. Election to take place Sunday in Chalamood Pesach (April). Applicants must have the best of recommendations.  No traveling expenses allowed.

In every congregation there in, of course, a party inclined to reform, and a party of sticklers for “the good old ways of our fathers." The occasional election of a minister furnishes an opportunity for measuring the strength of the two and each member has always the resource of joining another congregation more in accord with his own disposition. Nor can there be very bitter contentions in a religious body that never thinks of winning proselytes, and has only a faint and vague belief in retribution beyond the grave. Among the thirty-two congregations in New York, the two most conspicuous represent the extremes of Orthodoxy and Reform, but there appears to be good-will between them, and they unite in the support of charitable institutions.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In