Flashback September 2007

The Jews in America

The Atlantic looks back at a time when country clubs were restricted, names were Anglicized, and Jews were struggling to find their place in American society.
Early Jewish American Leaders
JEWISH LEADERS gather for a portrait in 1922. From left to right: Nathan Straus, co-owner of Macy's; Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court justice; Stephen Samuel Wise, leading Reform rabbi and founding secretary of the American Federation of Zionists

American pluralism has always been a work in progress. The phrase “all men are created equal”—abstractly beautiful on paper—is continually being stretched and prodded into solid reality. Atlantic authors have always played an active role in this process, shaping public opinion and reflecting society’s shortcomings. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the magazine followed the struggles of Jewish Americans who were greeted, then shunned, and finally accepted into mainstream society. 

In 1870, the biographer James Parton published a gracious article entitled “Our Israelitish Brethren,” introducing the foreign-seeming Jewish people to their Gentile neighbors. The Jews, Parton pointed out, had many noble qualities: although “singularly adapted by natural disposition to agriculture,” they had adjusted brilliantly to city life. Their Sabbath, despite all its austere laws, was a festive occasion marked by poetic blessings and moments of pure abandon. “The Sabbath to the Jews,” Parton wrote admiringly, “is wholly joyous!”

At the time of Parton’s article, the gulf between Jews and Christians was, in fact, rapidly narrowing: most American Jews were Central European, and the Reform Judaism they practiced had a strong Germanic flavor. Parton described a typical service at Temple Immanuel, a Reform Temple that he deemed “the most costly and picturesque edifice in the Fifth Avenue, New York”:

The interior, which is bright with gilding and many-hued fresco, is arranged so much like one of our churches, that no one would suspect its Oriental character. Men and women sit together; the men are uncovered and wear no scarf; there is an organ…; some of the prayers are read in English, others in German, others in Hebrew…. A stranger coming in by chance… might suppose he had strayed into an Episcopal church where three professors from Oxford were conducting the service to a style recently introduced in England, but not yet known in America.

Parton could not have foreseen the series of violent events—launched by the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II—that would soon bring nearly 2 million new Jewish refugees to American shores. By the turn of the century, the Jewish demographic had shifted dramatically. What had once been a small, assimilating minority was now a mass of impoverished Eastern Europeans whose traditions seemed more foreign than ever.

“The Social Disability of the Jew,” a 1908 piece by a Chicago-based doctor named Edwin J. Kuh, homed in on what many Americans of the time saw as a serious concern. Kuh, a thoroughly assimilated Jew and self-proclaimed atheist, lamented that new Jewish immigrants were rising in rank without learning American manners. Doting Jewish parents, he wrote, were only exacerbating the problem: instead of encouraging their children to become strong, athletic Americans, they were raising a generation that was physically weak, mentally precocious, and thoroughly spoiled. Such people, Kuh insisted, deserved to be barred from all respectable institutions.

Do my Jewish readers wonder that the doors of summer hotels, where our parvenus sprawl in shameless familiarity, are closed to them and their people? I have not a single word of defense for the vulgar expressions of Jewish people in public places. These upstarts bring the blush of shame to the face of every decent Jew…. The exclusion of Jews from college fraternities is another case in point. In many frank interviews with fraternity men we have received the impression that they do not want Jewish boys because of their bad manners. This is a sane and commendable stand…. You cannot do the Jews and the community at large a greater service than by excluding the undesirable members of their race.

Not all assimilated Jews applauded the proliferation of “restricted” restaurants and hotels. In 1924, The Atlantic published “The Jew and the Club,” a piece by an anonymous Jewish author tired of explaining to his children why their family was prohibited from entering so many local suburban establishments. Although the writer himself was a graduate of “the most famous of American universities,” he found himself unable to attend Alumni Club meetings, “for the meeting-place is the University Club, to which I am ineligible.” The author voiced his concern that all of this exclusivity would force Jews to band together all the more tightly and form their own all-Jewish clubs and fraternities. “My children,” he noted, “… are likely to associate much more exclusively than I do with people of Jewish origin.”

This prediction largely came to pass: over the next generation, Jewish organizations multiplied, and occasional attempts to build bridges collapsed. In 1934, The Atlantic published a poignant essay by a non-Jew who unwittingly joined a Jewish fraternity. The writer, international correspondent Vincent Sheean, recalled his first year at the University of Chicago, when he eagerly accepted a pledge invitation from his hero “A. B.,” editor of the Maroon, the campus paper. On the day of his initiation, however, a pretty freshman named Lucy let him in on the shameful secret: “‘Look at them, idiot; look at them. They have noses, hair, eyes, features, mouths, all different from anybody else. Can you honestly tell me you don't know that ___is a Jew?’”

Sheean soon learned that he was part of a hopeful experiment: a traditionally Jewish fraternity had recently voted to open its doors to all students, and Sheean and his roommate were to be the first non-Jewish initiates. Overwhelmed, the two boys ran away to Aurora, only to be followed by a confused A. B. who wanted to know what had gone wrong. In the end, A. B. not only accepted their decision to leave the fraternity but went on to help Sheean in his career at the Maroon. Looking back, Sheean declared A. B. the most admirable person he had known in Chicago.

He could not have been more than twenty, but he was invested, in my eyes at least, with the wisdom of the ages. He had apparently founded great hopes for the fraternity on both of us, and our desertion was a blow to him. He had a sense of justice; he could see that there was something to be said on our side, and, having accepted the monstrous situation, he made the best of it.

Throughout the 1930s, as European anti-Semitism grew increasingly sinister, Atlantic contributors began to take on previously taboo subjects such as Jewish-Gentile intermarriage. In 1939, the magazine published the provocatively titled essay “I Married a Jew.” The anonymous author identified herself as the daughter of German Christian immigrants and her husband as non-practicing Jew from a large Orthodox family. The two were deeply in love, enjoying a union that was “calm as the night, deep as the sea.” However, problems did occasionally arise.

So strong are family ties, and the memory of a happy thirteen-month sojourn in the Vaterland a few years ago, that I frequently find myself trying to see things from the Nazis’ point of view and to find excuses for the things they do—to the dismay of our liberal-minded friends and the hurt confusion of my husband.

As she told the story of her marriage, the author displayed a remarkable blend of wifely sympathy and historical shortsightedness. On the one hand, she praised her husband’s generosity, wit, and open-mindedness, declaring Jewish husbands “the best in the world!” Yet when the subject turned to the Nazis, she gently ridiculed him for viewing Hitler as “a little, strutting monster whose sole purpose and pleasure in life is to flog, imprison, impoverish, humiliate, and plague Israel.” Instead, she urged him to take “the long view” and recognize that “a hundred years hence, the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England.”

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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