How the Gilded Age Created American Jewry

Mike Hale ruined “The Gilded Age” for me.

After reading his New York Times article on the HBO series about old New York — he called it “a confusing, sloppy portrayal…that constantly descends into caricature” — I thought there was a lot of other series that were worth my time and attention.

However, he didn’t ruin for me the Golden Age, that is, the actual historical period, roughly from the end of the Civil War to the end of the 19th century. Like many others, I am fascinated by the hallmarks of overage: the lavish homes of robber barons, the mind-numbing cultural codes of Four Hundred high society, the literary treatments of Edith Wharton, Henry James and Booth Tarkington.

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I am also appalled by the squalor of the time: the abject inner-city poverty captured in the photographs of Jacob Riis, for example, and the racist terrorism and white supremacist laws that ended Reconstruction. As historians Adam Mendelsohn and Jonathan Sarna describe the time, it was a “dizzying era marked by freedom and disenfranchisement, excess and impoverishment, opportunity and exclusion, trust and ‘anxiety”.

What I rarely thought about was the place of the Jews in this picture. I have known figures like August Belmont and the Lehman Brothers, who amassed great fortunes but were branded as upstarts by the WASP elite. I knew that Jewish immigrants from Romania and the Russian Empire had started pouring into New York in the 1880s, but I always felt that their history belonged to the 20th century (when, not so coincidentally, my own great -parents have arrived). When I read a Wharton novel, my encounters with Jews were both rare and unfortunate.

Mendelsohn and Sarna set out to restore the place of the Jews in the post-Civil War period. They edited the massive forthcoming anthology, “Yearning to Breathe Free: Jews in the Gilded Age” (Princeton University Library). The title is taken, of course, from the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty and written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, as fascinating a Golden Age figure as there ever was.

Earlier this month, the American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan held a day-long conference, “Jews in the Gilded Age,” with panels featuring many authors who contributed to the new book. It was a bit like Comic Con for history nerds, or at least buffs like me, who regularly listen to New York history podcasts such as “The Bowery Boys” and its spin-off, “The Gilded Gentleman” by Carl Raymond. Like the book, the symposium fleshed out a complicated time, including describing the seeds it sowed for American Jewry as we know it today.

A big seed was the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, founded in 1886. Before becoming the flagship of Conservative Judaism, the JTS was the attempt by traditionalists to thwart the rise of liberal and intimidating Reform Judaism. Only later did it emerge as American Judaism’s third way between Reform and Orthodoxy, as Sarna explained during a panel that included Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York and current JTS Chancellor Shuly Rubin Schwartz.

The huge economic expansion of the time created enormous opportunities for Jews. Mendelsohn and another panelist, Roger Horowitz of the Hagley Museum and Library, described the conditions that allowed even poor immigrants to get a boost, from the booming market for ready-to-wear and cheap consumer goods to news industries like vaudeville, sheet music, and movies.

And as these “alrightniks” moved into the ruling class, Jewish workers began to organize in a way that anticipated the labor movement – ​​and liberal voting patterns – of the 20th century. The new wealth also freed Jewish women from housework; historians Pamela Nadell and Esther Shor have explained how Lazarus and essayist Nina Morais Cohen used this freedom to defend their fellow Jews against emerging anti-Semitism.

This anti-Semitism was the inevitable backlash of Jewish success. Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University spoke of the founding of the American Jewish Historical Society itself, saying that one of its main functions was apologetics – that is, chronicling and sometimes the exaggeration of Jewish contributions to the founding of the United States in order to counter growing anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant nativism. You recognize today that uncertain impulse whenever a Jewish friend forwards a list of Jewish Nobel laureates or the latest evidence that Christopher Columbus was Jewish.

During a session on portrayals of the Gilded Age in film and TV, Hale reiterated his criticism of the HBO series, but also noted how the show’s Jews are “present by their absence “. The character George Russell is not identified as Jewish, but, as Hale and co-panellist Miriam Mora agreed, he is coded Jewish by his attempt to intrude into old New York society and the attempts of WASP characters to keep him away. He is also one of the few characters on the show played by a Jewish actor, Morgan Spector (who also starred in HBO’s “The Plot Against America”).

For Mora, the program director at the Center for Jewish History, Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 film “Hester Street” was a more honest portrayal of the Gilded Age. Set on the Lower East Side in 1896, the independent film dared to portray “Americanization as a negative,” she said. Its protagonists are a Jewish husband who strives to hate the Old Country and a wife who tries to hold on to its traditions. No sweet Hollywood depictions of the Golden Age — like “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “Hello Dolly!” — would have dared to recognize these costs.

For many Jews today, the Golden Age looks like a grainy black-and-white photograph, but instead of a lavish black-tie dinner at Delmonico, it shows an ancestor standing in front of a store window. advertising “complete grocery stores” and “jobbers”. of dry products.

Learning about the Jewish Golden Age is like watching this photograph develop in a darkroom.

On the one hand, the image reveals the anxieties that still haunt us: anti-Semitism, internal divisions, the high price of assimilation.

It is also a portrait of success. As Benjamin Steiner writes in “Yearing to Breathe Free”, “Hard work, traditions of mutual aid, respect for education, centuries of diaspora experience, structural economic forces linked to capitalism and the fact that most Jews were white-skinned in a society where blacks were the primary outgroup – all of which enabled Jews in the mid-twentieth century to become one of the most prosperous minority groups in America.Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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