Page 70 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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TWO P R O G E N I T O R S OF HE BR EW
L I T E R A T U R E I N AME R I CA
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HE EIGHTIES OF the preceding century were the febrile
indicators of a new deal for Jewry. The pogroms of 1881-1882
in the great centers of eastern Europe—in Kiev, Odessa, Warsaw—
struck a harsh blow to the tenets of enlightenment. Only the
naive and the blind continued to believe in legal and in social
emancipation. Even Judah Leb Gordon (1831-1892), foremost
champion of enlightenment, had to modify his philosophy of life
under the impact of harsh events and preach emigration at all
costs—either to America or to the Holy Land. The ideals of
emancipation were swept away by an ardent nationalism which
eventually led to the establishment of the State of Israel. But
only the few found their way to Palestine. The many sought eco-
nomic and cultural freedom in the New World.
The waves of immigration to these shores brought not only
the flotsam and jetsam of Jewry but the finer exemplars as well:
men of letters and scholars. What they found was less than
enough: two incipient schools of higher Jewish learning—the
Hebrew Union College which was founded in 1875 and the
Jewish Theological Seminary of America which was established
in 1886. There were no colleges for the education of Hebrew
teachers, there were no Hebrew periodicals of any distinction, no
libraries of Judaica or Hebraica that amounted to anything. At
the turn of the century America was the cultural desert of
Judaism.
The bewildered intellectuals who emigrated from Russia and
Poland suffered mental shock in this country: they were driven
to occupations which they despised—peddling, salesmanship, store-
keeping, tutoring. And they frittered away their residual time in
ineffectual and intramural squabbles or academic pleas for a cause
like enlightenment which was dying in its most entrenched locales
in Eastern Europe.
The end of the century was a field-day for mediocrity in
Hebrew literature of America. Gerson Rosenzweig (1861-1914),
who settled in this country in 1888, was the typical
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