From Europe to America

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Life Is With People


That is the title of a book published forty years ago. The authors are Elizabeth Herzog and Mark Zborowski. However, Zborowski and Herzog were only two of the researchers preparing that book. In fact, the research was done by a committee chaired by the famous anthropologists, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Meade. It was written shortly after the second world war and attempted to recreate the experiences of Holocaust survivors who had at one time lived in a “shtetl” or Jewish small town. There were thousands of these “shtetls” all over eastern Europe. These “shtetls” were home to most of the eleven million European Jews. This was the world of the Yiddish speaking Jews, a world which was terminated by the Holocaust.

Today, almost 90% of American Jews are descendants of those Jews who lived in several countries but were tied together by a common culture, a common language, a common religion and a common history. Therefore, the immigrant ancestors of the American Jewish community were not really Russians or Poles or Lithuanians or Hungarians even if they lived in those countries. They were Jews whose common fate was underscored by the mass murders to which they were all equally subject, no matter what nation hosted them.

Life Is With People begins with a discussion of the Sabbath or Shabat and its meaning to the Jews of that day. The Shabat was so important to these Jews because then and now it allows us to separate ourselves from the tensions, anxieties and annoyances of every day life. For us, of course, this may mean no ‘phone calls from stock brokers or no arguments with bosses and customers.

For our Yiddish ancestors it meant a great deal more. Harassed every day, murdered on some occasions in so called “pogroms”, Jewish life alternated between repression and persecution and relaxation of such pressures at one time or another.

Life Is With People does not deal with that history. Instead that book tells you what happened on a daily basis in a Jewish school called a Cheder. It tells you what it meant to sell from pushcarts, how some men studied Talmud all day while their wives supported them, how a wedding was arranged and what people ate. In short, it you want to know just how your great grandfather and great grandmother lived, read Life Is With People. In that book you will also discover how we American Jews today are still indebted to that culture. For example, those poor Jews who lived like the blacks in Mississippi before the civil rights movement, accorded the highest prestige to their scholars. We too hold scholarship and education in high esteem.

Now having just read that book you need to now read World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe. Howe is a history professor. His book deals with the immigration of the Jews to New York during the late nineteenth century and takes that story all the way to the early 1970’s. Howe tells us how the Yiddish Jews traveled from Europe to America (some walked from Russia to Germany), who came and who remained behind and how some actually returned to Russia because they could not tolerate the sweatshops and overcrowded tenements of the Lower East Side. Here we learn about the “needle trades” which were practiced in the small, overcrowded apartments still visible in Manhattan today. We recognize how the Jewish religion gradually changed to adapt to American circumstances and how the Catskills became the “borsht belt”. We visit the coffee houses in which Jews talked endlessly and debated every topic. We learn how speakers on every topic were popular and attracted large audiences and how some of them became socialists and radicals who thought that the suffering of the immigrants in the slums could only be alleviated by communism.

Howe shows us how Jews first entered politics, not knowing that in 2002 ten of the 100 senators would be Jewish women and men from such un-Jewish states as Wisconsin and California.

Here we read about the Yiddish press, the Yiddish poets who wrote for Yiddish newspapers and the Yiddish theater.

Finally we learn from Howe how it came about that the grandchildren of these poorest of the poor established the magnificent American Jewish community which is a glorious achievement ipso facto.

There is much more in that book which will thrill you as you read about yourself or your parents.

Now when you have read those two books, then read American Judaism in Transition by Gerhard Falk. That book was published in 1995 and takes the story even further. Here we learn about the secularization of the American Jewish community. We see in that discussion how science, literature and education transformed Judaism in America and how we have secured our survival in this country by adapting ourselves to the needs and pressures America demands from us.

Read all three books. Forget TV. Go to the synagogue of your choice on Shabbat, enjoy being a Jew and thank Hashem each day that you wake up in the U.S.A., known to our Yiddish ancestors as Di Goldene Medine or the Golden Country.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders.

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