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Adventures in San Diego Jewish History, September 17, 1954, Part 4

Compiled by San Diego Jewish World staff

Since 1854: A Noted Historian Views American Jewry’s Last Century
Southwestern Jewish Press, September 17, 1954, pages 6, 7

By Dr Salo W. Baron, president, American Jewish Historical Society

When one looks back on the past 100 years, one finds that that period started as a period of divisiveness in the American Jewish community. We were an internally divided community—a community divided by groups—and as time went on the divisions increased rather than diminished.

That was not always so. Most of the 300 years that we have been in this country we had been a united community.  Up to the Revolution and into the 19th century every city which had a Jewish community had one congregation only. Even New York, the oldest of the3m which now celebrates its 300th anniversary, did not have a second congregation until 1825.  In other words, for nearly 175 years—or 171 years, anyway – there was only one congregation and any Jew belonging to a congregation at all belonged to the Spanish-Portuguese group and there were no divisions.,

It is a matter of record that when the Spanish-Portuguese congregation in New York built its first structure, its first synagogue—back in 1730—the majority of the members were already Ashkenazim, German and Polish Jews, even though the ritual was Sephardic.

This went on until, in the 19th century, there began a division between Spanish-Portuguese and German communities. It was then we began having more and more communal groups. This was the period of division; between Sephardic and Ashkenazic; between the German Jews, coming in the first part of the 19th century and the East European Jews; divisions between the Russian Jews and Polish Jews; Rumanian Jews and Hungarian Jews – and what not.

These divisions, at the beginning of this century, assumed an almost catastrophic character. It is unbelievable when we hear it today, but it was true, that for a Russian Jew to marry a Galician Jewess—or vice versa—amounted almost to intermarriage.

What is even more tragic is that you needed, at that time, an FEPC among Jews, because one group of Jews discriminated, on principle, in employment – certainly in communal employment, but even in private employ8ment—against Jews of another country of origin.  What made it even more tragic is the fact that these divisions were so artificial and devoid of historic background.

It is true the Sephardim and Ashkenazim have been divided for a thousand years. There are distinct Sephardic rituals and Ashkenazic rituals and the differences, right or wrong, are explainable on grounds of principle. But the divisions between German Jews, Polish Jews and Russian Jews are artificial divisions only a few generations old.

To be sure, there were vital differences between orthodoxy and reform and conservatism. There were differences between religious Jews and non-religious or even unthinking religious Jews. Those differences were not artificial. Those were based upon ideology, upon conviction, upon belief or disbelief.

The divisiveness of the late 19th century—or orthodoxy, militant orthodoxy, soon militant reform and before very long, militant Zionism and militant anti-Zionism—all are based on ideology. That divisiveness was fully justified—but it was here that this community became a house divided against itself. Early in the century it looked as if people couldn’t get together around one table.

It is against this background that we can understand the great services rendered by the Jewish Community Center movement which started  exactly a century ago. There were antecedents to it a few years earlier. Those German Jews who were coming here in the 1830’s and 1840’s came from a country and area in Europe which still deserved at that time – unfortunately not much longer thereafter – the name of a nation of poets and thinkers.  When they arrived in this country they found that the civilization was not as high as it was in the country which they left.  But they realized that was only a temporary shortcoming and that this country was making great strides forward. They were looking forward to the next generation or two in which America would far outstrip the old lands of Europe in its cultural achievements and its civilization.

It was that group of German Jewish immigrants who organized back in 1850—even before ’54—the first “Young Men’s Hebrew Literary Association.” It was founded in Philadelphia in 1850. The first Young Men’s Christian Association was established late in 1851—a whole year later!  The name is not borrowed from the Christian group, but, if you want to say so, the Christians borrowed it from the Jews – although the connection is not fully established.,

But it was a literary association – to read books.  Social contacts were outlawed. You couldn’t dance in the quarters of such a society, for example, and certainly you couldn’t gamble.  In 1854, however, came the first regular YMHA and its principle was – let’s get together on an informal basis regardless of ideology, regardless of economic or social background, regardless of whether they were Orthodox, Reform, German, Galician or anything else. It was thought “Jews should get together.”  They should cultivate their social contacts, cultivate an informal type of education and bridge the chasms which existed between one group and another.

It is difficult for us to imagine how vital a function such a Jewish Center performed in that sharply divided community.  No other placed served as such a neutral meeting ground for Jews of all groups.

This informal type of Jewish meeting ground, this informal type of adult and adolescent education was a distinct American contribution.  It is one of those forms of American Jewish pioneering which covers many areas in American life.

Here was a disorganized community, a militantly divided community which needed a neutral meeting place. They explored the new possibilities and found the answer in the Jewish Community Center movement. That Center movement grew into such tremendous proportions that it now has not only 350 groups in this country but is spreading into the Old World. Even Jerusalem is now building a Jewish Center!  I was in Johannesburg a few years ago and they were deeply involved in planning for a Jewish Center.  In other words, a purely American pattern has been taken over and adjusted to local needs in different communities because it is an advanced form of Jewish co-existence—of Jewish communal cooperation – which meets the needs of emancipators everywhere.  Has the Jewish Community Center already fulfilled all its historic functions or can it look forward to a second century of great contribution?  There is no question in my mind that the American Jewish community has grown more and more cohesive in the last generation.

With the stoppage of immigration in 1924—with a trickle thereafter – the vast majority of American Jews now living in this country have been born and bred here. For the first time in a century and a quarter, this is an American-born generation, a generation which has gone through two world wars—together with its non-Jewish fellow citizens.  It is a generation which went through American schools, American theatre, movies, sports. That generation has forgotten much of those old divisive lines of the Old World.

They are not so much interested in ancestry. They are not so much interested even in the old type of ideologies. There is, of course, a difference between Orthodox and Reform today, too, but even the Orthodox is more and more an American type of Orthodoxy. Reform has its particular American coloring and its German origin is n longer in its bones.  In this American community the divisive forces have been losing ground, whereas the uniting forces have been gaining from year to year.

An additional element of cohesion has been the fact of Jewry being under attack in the last twenty years or more. Unfortunately, it is true that anti-Semitism has often helped cement Jewish unity. Under pressure from the outside Jews often united – and they had been divided without that pressure.  Certainly, Hitler united this American Jewish community more than any individual factor could have.

Whatever the reason, here is a much more united cohesive community, however, which is still searching for its rationale –for its peculiar characteristics. We are in greatest need, practically as well as ideologically of developing a real feeling for the American Jewish heritage.

Until now we have been accustomed to being nurtured I our thinking by ideologies developed elsewhere. The orthodoxy that came to this country was either the East European type or the Frankfurt type. Reform was a direct continuation of Geiger and Holdheim, with minor variations – or for a long time Zionism was, of course, the Zionism of Pinsker, Hess, Nordau, Smolenskin, Ahad Haam and Herzl, with some minor modifications. Even our Jewish Socialism was an importation from the outside.

We have been much too long nurtured in our lifeblood by a perennial stream from the Old World but with relatively few creative additions of our own.  In this united community the need of cultivating an American Jewish heritage has become increasingly imperative, particularly with the stoppage of immigration, the destruction of the great centers of Jewish learning and thinking in the Old World and the rise of the State of Israel. Because it is a state and a nation, Israel has, by its very nature, a different approach to life, a different approach to culture, and a different approach to language. Hebrew is a daily language there.

In order to preserve their identity in a fruitful, creative way, American Jews must develop something new.  Because of that, it is doubly imperative for them to try to reconstruct their own great heritage.  The failure  of our ancestors to preserve records, the failure of scholars for generations to keep that heritage alive is, therefore, not merely a matter to be deplored by some specialists or scholars.  It is a vital concern to the community at large.

The JWB was and is on the right track when it developed such peculiar institutions as Jewish Book Month, Jewish Music Month, Jewish History Week-=-with emphasis on American Jewish history – when it is cultivating that  heritage creatively, beneficently for a future community which, I for one, believe may yet achieve  creative compound of American and Jewish culture – of an American Jewish culture which may rival and perhaps even outshine some day the great creative cultures of Hellenistic Alexandria or the golden age of Spain.


“Adventures in San Diego Jewish History” is sponsored by Inland Industries Group LP in memory of long-time San Diego Jewish community leader Marie (Mrs. Gabriel) Berg. Our “Adventures in San Diego Jewish History” series will be a regular feature until we run out of history.  To find stories on specific individuals or organizations, type their names in our search box. 


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