Page 195 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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In the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the
first few years of the twentieth, rabbis and scholars now resident
in America began to record their observations at firsthand. They
too decried the establishment of this new “aristocracy.” Rabbi
Nehemiah Mosessohn commented in 1895, referring to the tal­
mudic saying that “the sages are to be considered as kings”:
“But America is a topsy-turvy world. Here the saying should
read: The shoemakers, tailors and usurers are the sages.”4 J.
Jonathanson in a 1901 Yiddish parody of the First Command­
ment put it even more bitingly:
I Mammon am the Lord thy God who has brought thee out
o f the fatherland, where thou wast a sand carrier, a chimney
sweep, a vagabond, a swindler, an informer, a traitor, a horse
thief, and have brought thee here into the land of gold to become
a president o f a synagogue, a merchant, a landlord and a pol­
Rabbinic pessimism about Jewish life in America had vener­
able antecedents. As Arthur Hertzberg has pointed out, it was
as early as the 1830s and 1840s that “the question was then
seriously discussed in Europe for the first time, of whether J u ­
daism could flourish in America. The majority opinion was in
the negative, almost from the beginning.”6 And a half century
before Jonathanson published his witty American decalogue,
Rabbi Abraham Rice penned his oft-quoted comment that “the
religious life in this land is on the lowest level . . . I wonder
whether it is even possible for a Jew to live in this land.”7
Rice was writing from the urban setting of Baltimore, Mary­
land, where, after despairing of the rabbinate, he eked out a
living as a merchant. Similarly, most of the sustained pieces of
writing that attacked the new forms of Jewish com- munal life
were written by city dwellers about city dwellers. The most sus­
4. Quoted in S. Noble, “The Image o f the American Jew in Hebrew and
Yiddish Literature in America, 1870-1900,”
YIVO Annual,
Vol. 9 (1954),
p. 87, note 10.
5. Quoted in I. Davidson,
Parody in Jewish Literature,
(New York, 1907), pp.
6. Hertzberg, p. 2.
7. Rice’s comment appears in A. Hertzberg,
TheJews in America: Four Hundred
Years of an Uneasy Encounter
(New York, 1989) p. 127.