Author Archives: Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg

About Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

Fanny Brice

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
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Jewish comedians have made significant contributions to American popular culture. Jewish comic geniuses such as Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Sid Ceasar, Lennie Bruce, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Alan King, Gilda Radner, and Jerry Seinfeld, to name but a few, have enriched the nation’s culture by allowing Americans to laugh at themselves.

With the exception of Lloyd, Burns, and Seinfeld, the majority of successful American Jewish comedians attained popularity by fulfilling widely accepted ethnic Jewish stereotypes, or by employing a manic, burlesque style of humor. In the first half of the twentieth century, these expectations were almost impossible for Jewish comics to escape. No career illustrates the limits and possibilities of being a Jewish comedian better than that of Fanny Brice.

Born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1891, the third of four children of saloon-owning immigrant parents, Fania Borach chose a performer’s career early in life. Historian Barbara Grossman notes that, in an era that typically based entertainment on ethnic stereotypes such as the drunken Irishman, the ignorant Pole or the Yiddish-accented greenhorn, Brice’s “Semitic looks” slotted her into Jewish roles. Despite her efforts to succeed as a serious actress and singer, Brice–who spoke no Yiddish–rose to stardom performing comedy with a Yiddish accent. Just as Al Jolson donned blackface to make his mark in show business, Brice affected a Yiddish background she did not possess.

In 1908, dropping out of school after the eighth grade, the gangly, strong-voiced Fanny Borach worked as a chorus girl in a burlesque review. By the end of that year, she changed her last name to Brice. Grossman speculates that Fanny probably changed her name to escape limited Jewish stage roles. Ironically, a year later, she would make her first Broadway mark in a musical comedy, The College Girls, singing Irving Berlin’s “Sadie Salome, Go Home” with a put-on Yiddish accent while dancing a parody of the seductive veil dance in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. Her act brought down the house. Despite her desire for universality, Brice found her niche as a “Jewish” entertainer.

The St. Louis

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
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Occasionally, a name or a phrase such as “Remember the Maine,” or “Watergate” enters the national lexicon. One such name has been burned into the collective memory of American Jewry: the St. Louis, a German luxury cruise ship which on May 27, 1939, steamed into Havana harbor with more than 900 German Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression, each with the letter “J” stamped in red on their passport. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana, its Jewish passengers were forbidden to come ashore. Despite the efforts of the American and Cuban Jewish communities to persuade the Cuban government to let the Jews land, on June 6th the vessel departed to return to Germany–and certain death for the refugees.

Until the late 1930s, Cuba had been a haven for European Jews. Especially since Manuel Benitez Gonzales, Cuba’s director general of immigration, willingly sold visas for a fee, 500 refugee European Jews a month were landing in Cuba in early 1939. Some went on to other destinations, but the Cuban Jewish population rose to 4,000 in 1938 and continued to increase sharply. With the deepening of the worldwide economic Depression, the spread of Nazi propaganda and the association of Eastern European Jews with socialism, Cuban president Laredo Brú felt the public pressure to reduce the number of Jewish immigrants.

Brú also felt the wrath of Benitez Gonzales’s rivals in government, who wanted their share of the visa-selling business. They convinced Brú to curtail Gonzales’s authority, and persuaded Brú to announce that prospective immigrants must post $500 to guarantee that they would not become a public burden. On May 5, 1939, Brú decreed Gonzales’s old visas null and void; starting May 6, immigrants had to post the bond.

Henry Ford Invents a Jewish Conspiracy

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Henry Ford, the industrial genius who perfected the mass production of motorcars before World War I and thereby revolutionized the way we live, was a reclusive man who brooked no opposition or criticism. Ford’s determination to prevent unionism at his plants produced strikes and violence, mostly initiated by Ford’s own strikebreakers. He opposed various symbols of social and cultural change around him, including Hollywood movies, out-of-home childcare, government regulation of business, Eastern European immigration, and new fashions in dress and music.

In an age that celebrated industrial heroes, Ford was a true giant. In 1922, he considered running for the presidency. Public opinion polls reflected his widespread support. Despite his desire to occupy the most visible position in the nation, historian Keith Sward described Ford as “inaccessible as the Grand Lama” and an anti-democrat. One of the few individuals Ford trusted was his personal secretary, Ernest Liebold, whom historian Leo Ribuffo calls “an ambitious martinet” who took advantage of Ford’s dislike of paperwork and refusal to read his mail to control access to the great man. Ford would later blame Liebold for his Jewish woes.

In the period from 1910 to 1918, Ford grew increasingly anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-liquor, and anti-Semitic. In 1919, he purchased a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. He installed an editor and hired a journalist, William J. Cameron, to listen to his ideas and write a weekly column in his name.

Strangely, Ford came to believe in a Jewish world conspiracy. He blamed Jewish financiers for fomenting World War I so that they could profit from supplying both sides. He suspected Jewish automobile dealers of conspiring to undermine Ford Company sales policies. Ford vented his beliefs about Jewish power public in the pages of the Dearborn Independent. For a year, the editor resisted running Ford’s anti-Jewish articles and finally resigned rather than publish them. Cameron, Ford’s personal columnist, took over the editorship and, in May 1920, published the first of a series of articles titled “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.”

The Maryland Constitution and the Jew Bill

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.

In 1776, the very year that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” the people of Maryland adopted a constitution that set the standard for holding state office:

No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit than such oath of support and fidelity to the State . . . and a declaration of belief in the Christian religion.
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Lord Baltimore founded Maryland to provide a haven for England’s persecuted Catholics. Ironically, by the time of the Revolution, Catholics had become a small and unpopular minority in Maryland. Most of Maryland’s Catholics saw the provision to allow all Christians to hold public office as a guarantee of their equality.

With the adoption of the federal Bill of Rights in 1787, which ensured freedom of religion to all American citizens, such restrictions on the holding of public office in Maryland–including military service and the practice of law–became blatantly unconstitutional. At least it seemed that way to Jewish leaders Solomon Etting and Jacob Cohen of Baltimore, who along with other petitioners, appealed to the Maryland Assembly in 1797 on Sketch of proceedings in the legislature of Maryland, December session, 1818, on what is commonly called the Jew bill.behalf of “a sect of people called Jews” who “are deprived of invaluable rights of citizenship” and who want to be “placed on the same footing as other good citizens.”

Etting had fought in the Revolution and been active in public life in Pennsylvania before moving to Baltimore. An energetic individual who holds the distinction of being the first American-born shochet (ritual slaughterer), Etting served as a director of the first American railroad company, the Baltimore and Ohio. Cohen was a banker and Jewish communal leader. Both men were Jeffersonian Democrats and had influential friends in the legislature.

George Washington’s Letter to Newport

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, penned an epistle to George Washington, welcoming the newly elected first president of the United States upon his visit to the city. Newport had suffered greatly during the Revolutionary War. Invaded and occupied by the British and blockaded by the American navy, hundreds of residents fled, and many of those who remained were Tories. After the BAJHS Logoritish defeat, the Tories fled in turn. Newport’s nineteenth-century economy never recovered from these interruptions and dislocations.

Washington’s visit to Newport was largely ceremonial–part of a goodwill tour Washington was making on behalf of the new national government created by the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. Newport had historically been a good home to its Jewish residents, who numbered fewer than 500 at the time of Washington’s visit. The Newport Christian community’s acceptance of Jewish worship was exemplary, although at this time individual Jews did not possess full voting and office holding rights as citizens of Rhode Island. The Jews of Newport looked to the new national government, and particularly to the enlightened president of the United States, to remove the last of the barriers to religious liberty and civil equality confronting American Jewry.

The Touro Syngogue, Newport, Rhode Island
Touro Syngogue, Newport, Rhode Island
Credit: American Jewish Historical Society

Moses Seixas’s letter on behalf of the Newport congregation–he described them as “the children of the Stock of Abraham”–expressed the Jewish community’s esteem for President Washington. The congregation expressed its pleasure that the God of Israel, who had protected King David, had also protected General Washington and that the same spirit which resided in the bosom of Daniel and allowed him to govern over the “Babylonish Empire” now rested upon Washington. While the rest of world Jewry lived under the rule of monarchs, potentates, and despots, as American citizens the members of the congregation were part of a great experiment: a government “erected by the Majesty of the People” to which Newport Jewry could look to ensure their “invaluable rights as free citizens.”

The Jewish “Yentile” Governor of Utah

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
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In 1916, Simon Bamberger ran for the office of governor of the state of Utah. Bamberger was the first non-Mormon, the first Democrat, and the only Jew ever to seek that office. During the campaign, Bamberger visited a remote community in Southern Utah that had been settled by immigrant Norwegian converts to Mormonism. According to historian Leon Watters, the community’s leader, a towering Norwegian, met Bamberger at the train and told him menacingly, “You might yust as vell go right back vere you come from. If you tink ve let any damn Yentile speak in our meeting house, yure mistaken.” Bamberger is said to have replied, “As a Jew, I have been called many a bad name, but this is first time in my life I have been called a damned Gentile!” The Norwegian threw his arm around Bamberger and proclaimed, “You a Yew, an Israelite. Hear him men, he’s not a Yentile, he’s a Yew, an Israelite. Velcome my friend; velcome, our next governor.” The Norwegian was correct; Bamberger won the election.

From the founding of their religion in 1830, Mormons (or Latter-Day Saints, as they are named) have respected Judaism as a religion. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, proclaimed that “Lehi, a prophet of the tribe of Manasseh . . . led his tribe out of Jerusalem in the year 600 BC to the coast of America.” The tenth “Article of Faith” of Mormonism proclaims, “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion will be built upon this (the American) continent.” In Mormon metaphor, the Utah desert was a latter-day Zion, and the Great Salt Lake a latter-day Dead Sea. The Mormons who settled there under Brigham Young’s leadership were, in their own minds, direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews. Accordingly, the early Mormons referred to all non-Mormons–regardless of their religion–as “Gentiles.” Watters observes, “Utah is the only place in the world where Jews are Gentiles.”

Lepke Buchalter

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
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Most of our “Chapters in American Jewish History” have related stories about positive Jewish contributions to American life. Like every American ethnic group, however, Jews have produced an occasional villain. The notorious gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was one such figure.

Louis Buchalter was born in 1897 and grew up on the Lower East Side of New York, one of 13 children. His doting mother nicknamed him “Lepkele” and he is known in history simply as Lepke. When his father died in 1909, 12-year-old Lepke’s mother sent him to live with his older sister in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, he began a career that led him to the highest echelons of American organized crime.

By contrast, Thomas E. Dewey was born in 1902 in Ossowo, Michigan, to a comfortable, middle-class family. His grandfather had been one of the founders of the Republican Party. Bright, energetic, and handsome, Dewey went to Columbia University Law School and remained in New York City, where he became a deputy U. S. Attorney, prosecuting the leadership of Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic political machine.
Starting from such different backgrounds, operating at distant ends of the law, the lives–and fates–of Lepke and Dewey would intersect.

Italian and Jewish gangs dominated the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in which Lepke lived. In this world of small retail shops and light manufacturing, few commercial enterprises were untouched by the strong arm of the gangs, or syndicates, willing to provide “protection” or “insurance” against business disruptions such as strikes, government inspections, arson, vandalism, or direct violence. Of course, the businessmen knew that the mayhem they were being protected from was that which the “insurers” could and would impose themselves if not bought off. Since the police and political leaders were usually silent partners in the protection rackets, shopkeepers and small businessmen had no recourse but to pay. Petty gamblers, prostitutes, pickpockets, and speakeasy operators who worked outside the law had even less power to resist this extortion.

Solomon Hays Controversy

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In October of 1756, the hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City read a proclamation from his pulpit declaring that no member of the congregation should have “Conversation Correspondance or Commasty” with Solomon Hays. Thenceforward, Mr. Hays, his wife and children were excommunicated from Shearith Israel–officially cut off from religious interaction with members of the New York Jewish community. What had Hays done to merit such punishment? The hazzan explained that Hays was being expelled “because he has Candallise [Scandalized] us among the Christens.” In Yiddish, he had caused one of America’s first recorded shande far di goyim.

The affair, which has become known as “The Battle of Balcony,” began at Kol Nidre services on September 14, 1755. Historians Sheldon and Judith Godfrey describe that evening as “unseasonably hot and muggy and the weather unstable.” Solomon Hays’s wife Gitlah joined the other women of the congregation in the upstairs gallery. She sat in her assigned seat next to an open window. The window sash had been taken from its hinges to allow what little circulation of air was possible on such a stifling evening. According to the Godfreys, “Suddenly a violent storm arose. The rain poured in the open window drenching Mrs. Hays . . . When she arrived home after the service, she reported the incident to her husband.”

Solomon Hays went to the synagogue the next morning, searched out the window sash and replaced it on its hinges so that his wife, when she resumed her place, would not receive another dousing. The morning, however, continued to be “hot and muggy” and the other women consigned to the gallery wished to open the window in order to allow a breath–any breath–of fresh air. Mrs. Hays closed the window. Her neighbors opened it. She closed it. They opened it again. She closed it again. And so forth.

The Trefa Banquet and the End of a Dream

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.

On a hot and humid Cincinnati evening in July 1883, over 200 distinguished guests, Jews and non-Jews alike, gathered at the exclusive Highland House restaurant to celebrate a milestone in the history of American Judaism: Hebrew Union College, which Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded, had just ordained its initial graduating class. America had finally produced four homegrown, ordained rabbis. Most of the diners had just attended the eighth annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the first association of American Jewish synagogues, which Rabbi Wise had also organized. The graduates and guests looked forward to an evening of gastronomical pleasures. What they witnessed was the beginning of the end of Wise’s dream of American Jewish religious unity.

For the nearly four decades after his arrival in America from his native Bohemia, Isaac Mayer Wise envisioned creating and sustaining a unified American Judaism that balanced European tradition and New World realities. He built the Hebrew Union College to train American rabbis and created the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as a forum for traditional and reform-minded rabbis and congregations to air and resolve their differences.AJHS-logo1

By 1883, the fact that some traditionalists had introduced a degree of modernization such as English sermons and English prayers into their services and the more liberal ones even allowed organ music and mixed choirs of men and women encouraged Wise to hope for convergence. He was aided by his close friend, Reverend Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, a leading traditionalist figure who, like Wise, focused more on uniting American Jewry than on doctrinal differences.

Other rabbinical voices were not so united in vision and purpose. Especially contentious were the so-called Eastern radical reformers, led by Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore. Veterans of the radical reform German rabbinical conferences of the 1850s, the liberals intended to expunge what they deemed outmoded religious practices such as kashruth–derisively called “kitchen Judaism”–and the second day of holiday observances. Some radicals even advocated observing Shabbat on Sunday.

Lazarus Averbuch

Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
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On Monday morning, March 2, 1908, Chicago police Chief George Shippy reported that a young man, probably of Sicilian or Armenian birth, knocked on the door of his home, asked to see Shippy and was admitted by the family maid. Perceiving what he described as hatred in his visitor’s eyes, Shippy grabbed the young man by the wrists and started to search the suspect. According to Shippy, the youth squirmed free, pulled a knife from his pocket, stabbed Shippy under the right arm and then drew a revolver and shot Shippy’s son Harry, who entered upon hearing the commotion. The suspect then shot James Foley, Shippy’s bodyguard. Seeing Harry shot, Shippy pulled his own gun and shot the intruder, as did Foley. Struck by seven bullets, the youth died on route to the hospital.

Despite his wound, a few hours later Shippy wrote a widely published account of the shooting. Shippy believed the young man was an anarchist who wanted to kill him in retaliation for Shippy’s ban on “Red” Emma Goldman, the famous Jewish anarchist, whom he would not let speak publicly in Chicago. However, the dead man was not Armenian or Sicilian, but Lazarus Averbuch, a recent Jewish immigrant from Kishineff, Bessarabia.

After cursory investigations, the Chicago police and the Cook County coroner certified that Shippy was justified in killing Averbuch. In 1886 when an anarchist bomb exploded at a rally in Haymarket Square, killing two Chicago police officers, city officials effectively banned anarchist rallies. When Emma Goldman announced a speaking tour in Chicago in March of 1908, Chicago mayor Fred Busse prohibited her from appearing. Shippy expected her anarchist supporters to retaliate. In this heated political context, few were surprised that the inquests confirmed Shippy’s invocation of self-defense.

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