At a time when Jews in Rome were forbidden to study medicine or sing in public, an Atlantic author urged Americans to embrace their "Israelitish bretheren"
A stereoscopic view of Manhattan's Temple Emanu-El, constructed at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in 1868 (Robert N. Dennis Collection/Wikipedia Commons)
In October 1870, as American Jews were observing the High Holidays, The Atlantic published an article called "Our Israelitish Bretheren." At the time, it served as a sort of crash course about a tiny, mystifying minority. Today, it survives as something quite different: a snapshot of a transitional moment in Jewish history.
Here's what the world looked like in 1870: European countries had just, and only just, begun to emancipate their Jewish residents. "Within these few weeks," writes author James Parton in this article, "Sweden has swept from her law books every remaining statute which made a distinction between Jews and Christians and now, except in Russia and the Papal States, there is, I believe, no part of Europe where an Israelite has not the essential rights of a citizen."
Those exceptions were worth dwelling on, and Parton did. In Rome, for example, he pointed out that Jews were still forbidden to study art, practice law or medicine, or ("cruelest and absurdest of all") perform music in public. But his tone was hopeful. He singled out Germany, where, he said, "the Jews are masters of everything." He meant this as a compliment, not a conspiracy theory -- he hastened to add that the Rothschilds of Frankfurt were "bountifully liberal in charitable gifts."