Commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the American Jewish Archives and the 10th anniversary of Gary Zola as the AJA’s current executive director, “New Essays in American Jewish History” is testimony to the variety — and vitality — of scholarship in Jewish Studies.
A new book draws on trial transcripts, memoirs, interviews and recently released KGB documents to portray Harry Gold, the son of Jewish immigrants from Kiev, who was a spy and courier for the Soviet Union.
As Elia Kazan wrote in preparation for a book on his craft, a director should “avoid being a nice guy, a decent guy, a conforming guy.” He should show no shame when accused of being arrogant, and he should say what he thinks, no matter whom it might offend. After all, he’s not about “to guide a children’s summer camp.” More likely, he’s “related to a zoo-keeper.”
Steve Luxenberg’s mother kept her institutionalized sister a secret until she died. In a new book, Luxenberg reveals a poignant tale of Depression-era Jewish immigrants and mental institutions in the 1930s and ’40s.
Convicted in 1894 of selling secrets to Germany, French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer trainee on the General Staff, was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment in a fortified enclosure on Devil’s Island, a rocky formation near French Guyana. Six weeks before his exile began, as he cried out that he was innocent and a French patriot, Dreyfus was forced to participate in “the Judas parade,” marching around the courtyard while just outside, a huge mob screamed, “Death to the traitor, the dirty Jew.”
‘The Arabs have attacked us unexpectedly, wanted to destroy our settlement work, have murdered and plundered,” Chaim Weizmann wrote in 1929. Although until now, the Jews “have given everything” to Arab leaders who “want only one thing, to chase us into the Mediterranean,” he added, “we are now pressed from all sides to conclude a pact with them.” Weizmann vowed to accept nothing less than a society in Palestine, “as Jewish as England is English and America is American.”
Born in Chicago in 1918, Isaac Rosenfeld was a wunderkind. he wasn’t even 20 when he collaborated with his buddy Saul Bellow on “*Der Shir Hashirim fun *Mendel Pumshtock,” a brilliant parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In 1946, his semiautobiographical novel, “Passage From Home,” was hailed by Diana Trilling as “the fullest articulation of generational conflict between Jewish fathers and sons,” and as a work of “profound universal meanings.” Irving Howe praised “Passage” as “rich and warm” and “bright with intelligence…. The novel is not merely a promise, though it is certainly that; it is a fulfillment.”
Throughout the 1930s, the home of Abraham and Henriette Epstein, at 389 Bleecker Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, was a salon where political reformers ate, drank and argued about how to provide social insurance for older Americans. More than half a century later, according to the Epsteins’ son Pierre, little remained in their house “to recall that glowing era, except the shredded and sagging sofa, the baby grand piano (no longer played, out of tune, and covered with letters and papers), the unsteady claw-footed desk (where Abe wrote and worked), and the books and papers on the overstuffed shelves, now carefully wrapped in plastic baggies.” Nor did anyone seem to remember that Abraham Epstein, the immigrant Jew from the Russian village of Lyuban, had popularized the phrase “social security” — and helped conceive and enact the legislation that laid the groundwork for the modern American welfare state.
Neither religion nor Yiddishkeit played a significant role in the life of young Harry Schwachter. A prosperous merchant in Williamson, W.Va., during the early 20th century, Schwachter ate fried apples and country-cured ham every Sunday morning. He “crashed the society set” by giving dancing lessons, and he appeared in amateur theatricals in an act called “Schwachter and Crank.” But, like more than a few others, Schwachter’s sense of Jewish identity received a big boost from a little persecution: In the mid-1920s, a friend heard him speak in his native Hungarian and “apologized,” because “I allus thought you was a damn Jew!” Hurt and stunned, Schwachter threw himself into a campaign to build a synagogue for Williamson’s 130 Jews. When the cornerstone was laid, he told the gentiles in the crowd that the temple proved that “we did not come for the purpose of filling our bags and baggage, but rather to live with you, work with you, and serve with you to the end of time. A handful of Jewish people have found a veritable haven in this community.”
Moses Levy has waited more than100 years for his biographer. Levy died in 1854, virtually unnoticed. Pilgrimage, his utopian colony in Florida and the first Jewish communitarian settlement in the United States, was long gone and forgotten. His anti-slavery pamphlet, “A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, Consistently With the Interest of All Parties Concerned,” the earliest anti-slavery document written by an American Jew, was published anonymously and had disappeared without a trace. And Levy’s pro-slavery son, whom he disinherited, dismissed his father as impractical, irascible and insane. The son would later become the first person of Jewish descent to serve in the United States Congress, but not before changing his name to David Yulee.