BackStory; Judaism in America
This is backstory. I'm Ed Ayers. In 1825, a Jewish American businessman named Mordecai Noah had a dream. He was reading about the persecutions and the pogroms in Europe, and he decided that the solution to their misery was a colony in New York State. Now, European Jews never came to history as Zion, but half a century later, tens of thousands of Jews began seeking refuge in America. They settled in cities and communities across the country. Today on backstory, we'll explore the place of Jews in American history. We'll also look at how America has shaped Judaism from Yiddish pop music to Hanukkah. In Atlanta, for example, they wrapped the Torah in an American flag for one of their celebrations. A history of American Judaism today on backstory. Major funding for backstory is provided by the Shia Khan Foundation,
the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is backstory with the American History Guys. Welcome to the show. I'm Brian Ballot, and I'm here with Ed Ayers. Hey Brian, and we're happy to welcome Yale historian Joanne Freeman to the show today. She's filling in for Peter Onuf. Hi guys. Hi Joanne. Hey Joanne. We're going to begin the show on August 17th, 1790. That day, President George Washington and his entourage paid a visit to the seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island. There's a wonderful welcome, naturally, for George Washington, who was a hero everywhere. This is Jonathan Sarna, a historian at Brandeis University. And four addresses, as they were called, kind of open letters, are read out to him that was per the custom of the town is, of course, the first to welcome him.
Then the Christian clergy made a speech. That was followed by the Mason's. Finally, it came the Jewish, or as they called it, the Hebrew congregation. Sarna says there were only about 2,500 Jews in the entire country in 1790, maybe one tenth of one percent of the population. Newport had a small but prominent Jewish community, which was why its members were invited to address the president. The warden of the Newport Synagogue, a man named Moses Satius, spoke on their behalf. Sir, permit the children of the stock of Abraham to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport. Jews, although they had more rights in colonial America than they had in most places, certainly did not have full rights. In Rhode Island, at least two Jews had been denied citizenship because of their religion.
Many of the colonies, now states, tied citizenship to a Christian oath, which meant Jews were often denied the right to vote or hold office. Standing before the president, Satius chose his words carefully. He knew the policies of the new federal government were still being fleshed out in 1790. Deprived as we here to for have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now, with deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty, disposer of all events, behold a government erected by the majesty of the people, a government which, to bigotry, gives no sanction to persecution, no assistance. I think that Moses Satius is very hopeful that the revolution is really going to be a revolution for everyone, including Jews. What he wants, I think, is to hear this directly from the president.
And Washington? Well, he got the message loud and clear. A few days later, he wrote back to the Jews of Newport. The letter he penned is now considered one of the founding documents of American religious freedom, written even before the first amendment had been ratified. Gentlemen, all possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance. It's a beautiful phrase. That indeed is what George Washington said, reassuring the Jews that their hope was in fact also his hope indeed, his assurance. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land
continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit in silence. I am not familiar with any other country that was providing those kinds of rights to Jews at that time. This is a much more radical statement about religious liberty. It's not a matter of toleration, which means, well, maybe I shouldn't do it, but I sort of tolerate you even though you don't deserve it. It is a matter of right. It is a policy. But Washington didn't stop there. His staff reprinted the letter and newspapers throughout the young republic, so everyone could read it. Washington was deliberately setting a precedent. One that subsequent generations of Americans have referenced to defend religious freedom. His letter has even
been cited in several Supreme Court cases. Now, it might seem obvious that Jews are entitled to the same rights as other Americans. In fact, that sarn is point. He sees a strong connection between George Washington's promise and the place of Jews in America today. It's been a story of gradual acceptance and assimilation that moving from outsider to insider. That's really the American story. And if we want to understand the moment when three presidential candidates can have close Jewish associations, when he's Jewish and two of them have Jewish sons-in-law, well, we need to look at letters like George Washington's letter to help us understand what the great ideals are that help to shape the American dream. Today on the show, we're marking this year's Passover by exploring the history of Judaism in America.
We'll hear about two rabbis and Cincinnati who made Hanukkah a more American holiday. We'll also explore New York delis. They offered a lot more than just schmalz and belly locks to Jewish immigrants. And we'll hear how the lynching of the Jewish businessman in the early 20th century galvanized American Jews across the country. But first, let's travel the 19th century of state New York. Now, we just heard about Jews embracing America's promise of religious freedom. Well, on September 25, 1825, a very public spectacle in Buffalo took that idea one step further. Thousands of people filled the streets accompanied by a marching band. They were celebrating the dedication of a city of refuge for the world's Jews on a nearby island. And they all started walking in line headed by the self-proclaimed Judge of Israel, Mordecai Noah, clothed in judicial robes of crimson silk trimmed with ermine fur and wearing a medal of embossed gold.
That's historian Iran Shaliv. He says the man leading the parade, Mordecai Noah, was the most prominent American Jew in the early 19th century. Noah was a flamboyant newspaper publisher, playwright, and New York City sheriff, who'd also been the US ambassador to Tunis. This new Jewish colony was his idea. Noah called it Ararat, after the mountain in Turkey where another Noah, the guy in the Old Testament, landed his arc. Was that a pun? Calling his city Ararat, or, you know, was it a sign of megalomania? It might have been both. I mean, you know, he's the guy that walks around with a crimson robe and with fur and with a golden medal on him, calling himself the judge of Israel. There was just one small problem. Ararat, this Jewish colony, didn't exist yet. Noah still needed to raise money for it. He also had to persuade Jews to move there. I think he was reading about the persecutions and the pogroms in Europe that were occurring regularly in Europe
and in the Levant. And he decided that the solution to their misery was a colony inside the United States in New York State. But so what was it to know about the United States in 1825 that led him to think, ah, this is the ideal country for a Jewish city of refuge? You know, the zeitgeist in the within the United States was one in which the Old Testament had a huge place within the American imagination. And the idea that the United States was a reincarnation of the biblical Israel. Those notions were as old as the Puritans were, who were saying that they were fling the British Pharaoh and crossing the Red Sea and arriving at the the Promised Land. But after the American Revolution, there was a second life of that kind of thinking in which the American states were seen as a analogy of Israelite tribes. So in creating this refuge city for Jews,
was Noah trying to help Jews integrate or was he trying to create a place for them to be a people apart? His plan is fragmentary. We're not sure exactly what he was planning for the hundreds of thousands of Jews he was expecting or hoping for. I think he wanted them to be a people apart. Perhaps something along the lines of a shining city upon a hill to the American Gentiles to have a sacred community for the American world to see. Because if he just wanted them over, you know, he'd call them over without congregating them on one island. I mean, the tension he was working with was on the one hand he wanted some kind of autonomy. That's clear from what he says. But on the other hand, he knew that he needed to sell that plan to American Protestants. There were hundreds of people in that procession. But there were very few Jews if any. I mean,
you know, a handful of them. Well, that's really interesting, though, that there's this big procession. They're dedicating a Jewish community. And then most of the people who were there watching are not Jewish. So what was what was bringing those people? What what how did American Protestants feel about this plan? Well, New York in the 1820s was a special place. It was what we refer to as the burnt over district that just saw waves of religious groups from the Millerites who became the Seventh Day Adventists to the Mormons. You know, so seeing a guy clothed in crimson and proclaiming himself a judge of Israel was part of the reality. You know, this all comes together and makes sense of a plan, you know, that on the face of it is very bizarre. Okay. So let me ask you a really basic question here. I grew up in New York. And I'm pretty sure that there isn't an hour at an upstate New York. So what the heck happened? Why did this all fall
apart when it seemed to have such a dramatic beginning? Well, first of all, the Jews didn't come. So, you know, that's on the pull end, but on the push end, the, you know, very potent republicanism did not tolerate a guy proclaiming himself a judge and amassing political power without being elected. And they immediately start calling him a prince who wants to amass powers that are not his to begin with. We're talking the scary evil bad thing of the early republic, which is gasp monarchism. And Noah is aware of that. So he repeatedly says that he will be working within the framework of the American constitution and under the American constitution, but that is not enough to quill the fears of contemporaries. So that's really interesting. I mean, it sounds like you're saying, well, some people thought this was wacky and maybe they had
a reason to think this was wacky, but also that some people protested it not because it was going to be a Jewish community, but because it was going to be a community that was testing some of the bounds of the constitution and its sense of whether a nation within a nation was a feasible thing. Right. There was very little, I mean, there was some hinted anti-Semitism, but very little. I mean, there were a good few thousands of Jews back then in the United States, but nothing like the Jewish American community that would grow out of the big migration ways of the late 19th century. Right. So the vast majority of Americans have never laid eye on a Jew, but Jews and Israelites and the Old Testament had a huge place in the American political and national imagination. Would you say that Noah was articulating an early kind of Zionism? I mean, is he a man who's
ahead of his time? Well, he senses the pain and the troubles that eventually give rise to Zionism. So he is considered a proto-Zionist, but the solution he found was one that even decades later would not have worked the way he thought it will. Right. Because the children and grand children of the people he wanted to bring over eventually did come, but never seeking some kind of autonomy or a colony or an empire within an empire, but just to be American. Right. Just the opposite. Right. They were they were searching for just the opposite in a sense. Exactly. A wrong shallow is a historian at Haifa University in Israel and the author of American Zion, the Old Testament as a political text from the Revolution to the Civil War. Earlier, we heard from Jonathan Sarna, a historian at Brandeis University. He's the author of American
Judaism, a history. We just heard about an attempt to create a Jewish colony in upstate New York in 1825, and that the core of that interview was the question of the competing impulses of separatism and assimilation. So, Brut, I've heard you talk about those issues in your own family. Yeah. You and Joanne know that I come from a middle class Jewish family and my parents' generation and their family just seemed always to be trying to fit in, basically assimilate into what they viewed as America, which wasn't a particularly Jewish America, rebelling against parents who quite literally had come over in my case from Russia and from Hungary where Yiddish was spoken, where religion prevailed. Now, if you fast forward to my experience shortly after college,
I ended up working in New York City, and all the young Jewish people I knew were rediscovering their Jewish roots. When was this? This was in the late 1970s and early 80s. So, is this something that repeats itself throughout American history or have I just described 20th century phenomenon? Well, I always speak for Ed, but for the 17th and 18th century, I don't think you can say Jews rediscover their identity because to rediscover you have to lose in the first place. And in the New World as opposed to the Old World, they were better able to ultimately integrate into society. I don't think that's the same thing as assimilate, no matter how much they were in the community and contributing to the community, you know, fighting during the revolution, helping to fund the revolution. I still think that the Jewish community felt like the Jewish community. So, Joanne, where did the Jews who came to America and these periods come
from? These early Jews were Dutch. Some of them came from England. The first Jews that came to New York, which then was New Amsterdam, they actually were Dutch, but they had been in Brazil. And when Portugal took over Brazil, they were not really happy about having Jews there. So, they moved. So, I gather when a significant number of Jews arrived anywhere they went to work building a synagogue. You would think that. But no, actually, the first thing that Jews normally tended to when they felt that they really were going to settle someplace was a cemetery and not a synagogue because what really mattered, of course, was people who were they were going to leave there for eternal rest. It mattered where they would be and they needed a separate burial ground. So, that was the first thing that was tended to. And you know, when you sort of look across the coast there and you see different Jewish communities, you know that it's when they find and start to create a cemetery that they're starting to think that they're going to plant roots.
You know, I think knowing the subsequent history of Jews in America, it's surprising how many of them settled in the American South. I mean, you'd have found one of the largest communities in Charleston, others in New Orleans, suddenly popped in my mind, the Jewish section of the Confederate Cemetery in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. It's so puzzling because we just don't have in our minds in the story of Jewish Americans what the heck they're doing, A, in the South to begin with, other than second, siding with the Confederacy, and then third, dying for the Confederacy, then fourth, being buried alongside Confederate. So, I think that when you say we don't have it in our minds, I think that relatively recent memory was fixed in a way by the perhaps overly romanticized alliance between Jews and African Americans in the fight for desegregation and anti-discrimination in the 1940s and 1950s. But I'm curious to know what it was really like where Jews discriminated against all that much in the South? Not so much before the Civil War, which raises
hard questions about Jews and slavery. Obviously, part of the fundamental Jewish identity of being delivered from that. And I think that the studies have shown that Jews did not have a particular position relative to slavery. They were neither the largest slave traders or owners, nor were they excluded from it or felt that that was not something they wanted. So in that regard, they were typical. They were white, typical white. Yeah, that's right. But that's interesting, because of course, they would be sitting down at Passover every year, praying thanks for being released from slavery. But what striking is in between serving for the Confederacy and that period of alliance with African Americans, you're talking about Brian, is that the South became much less Jewish, because all these waves of new immigrants who came in avoided the South, because it was poor and there was competition with African Americans, who were very
businessly trying to create their own economic structures and so forth. So Brian, I mean, continue the pattern here. What's the pattern as far as Jews arriving or departing or being in America over the course of the 20th century? I would start Joanne with immigration restriction in the 1920s. That really, in many ways, forced a lot of ethnic groups to turn inwards towards their own identities. And the second really important shock in this story was the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany. As that story began to come out after World War II, it changed the very meaning of what it meant to be an anti-Semite. One of the most violent acts of anti-Semitism in America took place in Georgia in 1915. Back then, Atlanta had a thriving Jewish community.
Atlanta's Jews were German. Many of them had been there at the time of the Civil War. Many of the fathers and grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy. So there was never any sense that there was anti-Semitism in Atlanta. This is writer Steve Oeney. I note to our listeners, the following story is graphic. If you have young children listening, you may want to turn down the volume. It all began when a 13-year-old factory worker named Mary Fagan was found murdered on April 27, 1913. Authorities soon arrested her supervisor at the National Pencil Factory, 29-year-old Leo Frank. He was an Ivy League-educated engineer who was also Jewish. Oeney says the state star witness was an African-American janitor from the factory named Jim Conley. Conley claimed that Frank had spent years praying upon the girls he supervised. He also testified that Frank had asked for his help in disposing of Fagan's body after he had murdered her.
While Oeney says the evidence against Leo Frank was weak, Conley's lurid testimony shocked the courtroom. Conley was a great storyteller, and in the midst of his testimony, he alleged that Leo Frank not only seduced his young female workers, but that Leo Frank practiced what would have then been thought of as perverse sexual acts on these girls, and that he did so because he was, in Conley's words, not built like other men. Now that phrase had to do with circumcision, and this brought into the open court the idea that because Leo Frank was Jewish and had been circumcised, he was a devotee of oral sex, that he was not just seducing these girls, but he was introducing them to a kind of wild European prophecy that in Georgia in 1915 seemed exotic at best and sinful and evil at worst.
So was anti-Semitism a theme in the coverage of the case when he's brought to court? How quickly does it surface in sort of the public conversation? Anti-Semitism does not become explicit part of the conversation until the very end of the trial when one of Frank's lawyers and his closing arguments said, look at this, had Leo Frank not been a Jew, he never would have been prosecuted. So he stated overtly for the first time that Frank was being prosecuted because he was a Jew, and Frank was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. It was utterly anomalous in the history of the Southern courts that all white jury would convict a white man on the testimony of a black man. And shortly after his conviction, various powerful northern Jewish leaders began to rally Americans to this case, which soon became a call celeb about anti-Semitism.
So Frank has found guilty, he sentenced to death, but then he goes to appeal. And in some ways, it's during this time that a lot of this debate really spins up his mind, is that right? That's exactly right. In the teens in America, immigration and the pressures of social change brought by immigration were very much on everyone's mind. And so there was a uprising of anti-Semitism at the time, and Adolf Oax, the publisher of the New York Times, who grew up in the south. He decided that he understood the south and that if he could just equate southerners in all Americans with what he saw as the facts of the Leo Frank case, which he believed exonerated Leo Frank, then they would come to their senses. And Frank would be granted a new trial based on new evidence. And the New York Times experimented with advocacy journalism. And it did not just editorialize in favor of Leo Frank. It reported in favor of him on its front page. And this set off
a firestorm down south of reaction against what southerners called outside interference. Oni says that Georgians fought back with their own publications, setting off a war of words between north and south. The most explosive rhetoric was pinned by a Georgia politician and publisher named Tom Watson. Watson went after the northern newspapers, saying they were run by Jews. He also said that Jim Connelly's testimony proved that Frank was a Jewish predator who prayed on Gentile girls in his factory. I asked only whether these anti-Semitic charges camouflage other anxieties among southern white men at that time. Yeah, there was a lot of unstated shame. Right. Atlanta was a boom town. Atlanta was the capital of the new south. Atlanta was already the shining success in Dixie. And poor southerners would come in from the hill country or from the flatlands and think they would find success. But instead they would find really brutal
economic reality that ended up forcing them to send their kids to work in factories. So there was a real feeling of having been taken advantage of and also of not protecting your children. In this instance, there was just deep shame. So the appeal process goes on. But the guilty verdict still stands. The governor of Georgia actually decides to commute to sentence. He's not going to sit Frank free, but he's not going to insist that he'd be executed. And my understanding is that this leads to a remarkable series of events. Well, Governor John Slayton did commute Leo Frank's death sentence in late June of 1915. That decision by Slayton so inflamed Georgians that the next morning a mob took over the state capital. Another mob marched on Slayton's mansion. He had to call out the National Guard and Tom Watson, who had been the firebrand driving the attack against
Frank all along, editorialized in his paper that the state had been shamed and abused by these outsiders and these Jews. And Watson said it's time for Lynch Law to take hold. And I'll just read a bit of it. Jew money has debased us, bought us and sold us and laughed at us, bought and sold. Mary Fagan pursued and tempted and entrapped and then killed when she would not do what so many other girls had done for this Jewish hunter of Gentile girls. In the name of God, what are the people to do? Well, that's pretty direct. And that sort of we's anacemitism into all the themes that would rouse men to lynch somebody in the early 20th century south. Can you briefly tell us how that turned out? After Watson issued the order that Frank belenched, the citizens of Marietta, Georgia, which is about 20 miles north of Atlanta and was Mary Fagan's hometown. And the leading citizens
of Marietta worked to create a conspiracy to abduct Leo Frank from the state prison. They abducted him on the night of August 16th, 1915. And then in a mission of considerable daring do, drove him back in the dead of night in a caravan of automobiles. And 150 miles later, they get to a oak grove across from Mary Fagan's ancestral home. And there's a table awaiting them there in the grove. And they put Frank on the table and they put a rope around his neck and they hang him to death. And they disappear. It was a hideous day new mob. So do we have a sense that Jews all across the country were galvanized and alarmed by this case down at Atlanta? Yes, there were mass meetings in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston in the aftermath of Frank's lynching. There was crying and shrying and a great deal of public dismay. And no one was ever
prosecuted for the Leo Frank lynching. As it happened, the anti-defamation leak, which is an organization that lobbies for justice for American Jews had been formed in 1913, but it was driven to start seeking justice for American Jews. And my understanding too is that not only did this sort of lead to the birth of the anti-defamation leak, but it also led to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. How would that be a result of this? Well, 1915, the year of the Leo Frank lynching was kind of a fraught year. It just so happened that the DW Griffith movie, Birth of a Nation, premiered that year and Birth of a Nation glorified the original Klan. The combination of this movie and the lynching of Leo Frank was the spark that ignited the Klan. And that's why the Leo Frank case is such a touchstone because you have these two polarly opposed forces in American life,
the ADL and the KKK that really grew out of it. This Leo Frank case marks some kind of pivot in the history of Jews in America. American Jews always felt that America was in the famous phrase the Great Exception and that the anti-Semitism that had marked Russia and Europe would not be found here. And the lynching of Leo Frank just galvanized all these racial and regional differences that are in some ways still out there is the topic of our polarized conversation. Steve O'Neigh is the author of and the dead shall rise, the murder of Mary Fagan and the lynching of Leo Frank. This week Jewish families are sitting down to a Passover sater. It's one of many holidays on the Jewish calendar. There's also Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur,
the Day of Atonement, Sukkot, Feast of Booths, the list goes on. There's one Jewish holiday that is particularly American in the way that it's celebrated, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. For most of its history, Hanukkah has been a relatively minor religious holiday. But scholar Diane Ashton says that in the 1860s Jewish leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio started thinking about the holiday in a new light. Cincinnati became a place that was actually very important for American Jewish history where reform Judaism grew up. There were two rabbis in particular, Isaac Mayor Wise, who was really the big institution builder for reform Judaism and Max Lillianthal, also a rabbi, very good friend of Wise. They believed that the religion should be simplified and that traditions like keeping kosher or not working on religious holidays weren't the most important parts of the faith. And those kinds of modifications, this made Judaism easier to do in the US where the big challenge to Judaism was the clock, the demands of work that really
interfered with so many Jewish rituals that really asked you to stop work and pay attention to the religion. So that sounds, you know, as you say, that they would suit this for America very well. But Wise and Lillianthal were concerned that something else was being lost in the process, right? They weren't bringing young people into these congregations. They just weren't getting the youth. And so Max Lillianthal, he was invited to speak at a church. And he noticed that the churches were doing things to keep their children, as he called it, in happy expectation of religious events. And so he decided that reform Judaism needed to do something for their children as well. And so he and Isaac Mayer Wise developed a Hanukkah celebration in the synagogue for the children of the religious schools that they supervised. I thought it was very interesting in your book when you talked
about the lack of proselytizing among Jews. And so that securing the children's sense of connection to the faith is very important. It seems to be maybe heightened significance in the Jewish tradition. Oh, I think that's true. Jews had never been allowed to proselytize since I think before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. But certainly once Christianity became the dominant religion, Jews were never allowed to proselytize. Jews are also not allowed to proselytize in Muslim countries. And there's a great sense of responsibility for the rabbis who see all these new congregants coming. And they want to be sure that the children are secured in their faith. Yes. And they wanted children to develop a warm feeling towards the synagogue. Right. And so this Hanukkah celebration was something that they could really easily adapt for children. It's a small ceremony so they could elaborate upon it with things that children would
like, like songs. And of course, they would treat children to something sweet to eat. In those days, things like oranges or maybe ice cream. The blessing is very brief. The candles, there are eight little candles, one lighted each night. And so it's not a holiday that requires a lot of time. It doesn't require you to change your schedule. So this sounds great. It looks as if everybody benefits from this, right? You know, everybody enjoys seeing children being happy. Children enjoy being happy. Did it spread quickly? Was this a hard sell? Oh, it was a very easy sell. And tell me how it spread then. So we're in Cincinnati, which I think if we had a quiz and ask people where the version of Hanukkah that they know came from Cincinnati might not have been their first guess. And then how does it spread from there? Well, both Lillian Thal and Wise edited newspapers, national newspapers, which was really helpful in helping them spread their ideas. So congregations around the country could
read about what different congregations were doing. In Atlanta, for example, they wrapped the Torah in an American flag for one of their celebrations. In Denver, they had boys and girls do special kinds of marches and dancing around the synagogue. So each local community created a festival that they thought their kids would like. And then they shared that in their newspapers. And this really helped the idea to spread around the country. So it sounds as if Hanukkah was both a very welcome connection to long-standing tradition, but also a way to kind of ease the Americanization of all these immigrants who are coming into the country. Yes. And the complaint that has been heard among Jews about religious practices in the US for centuries is that Jews were not doing enough. In this country where Jews are free to be Jewish, they are also free to
neglect religious obligations if they want to. And so Hanukkah gives the example of a religious obligation and a religious event that became more popular and more likely to be celebrated in America and kind of reassure them that they can be successful in both being American and being Jewish in the US. Diane Ashton is professor of religious studies at Rowan University and the author of Hanukkah in America a history. We're going to turn now to an iconic symbol of Jewish culture, the Delhi. It's heyday dates to the
1920s and 30s where there were 1550 kosher delis in New York City alone. Those delis were important gathering places for the children of recent Jewish immigrants and over the course of the 20th century they kick-started a new secular Jewish American identity. To get a taste of that culture we sent backstory producer Kelly Jones to a deli in Washington DC. She broke bread with a historian who literally wrote the book on delis. Ted Merwin knows what a Jewish deli should feel like. Lines at the counter made to order food, grumpy staff, sausages hanging in the windows. The whole place would be perfumed and permeated with the aroma of these foods that were mostly pickled and smoked and spiced. That is not this place. We're at an upscale sit-down restaurant in DC's Dupont Circle that calls itself a next-generation delicatessen. The walls are exposed brick.
The menus have a crisp, clean typeface. It's less historic Brooklyn, more hipster Brooklyn. But that's okay. The proof should be in the pastrami, right? And these sandwiches have been on Merwin's radar for a while. I keep kosher so I don't tend to eat in non-kosher delis like this one. I had to get a special dispensation from my rabbi to be able to eat here on the condition that I bring him home the sandwich. Merwin is kidding. As we settle in, I ask Merwin to order the standards. Whatever we would have eaten in New York in the 1920s. Could we have the pickles please, the chop liver, the potato locus? Merwin's connection to delis runs deep. Growing up in New York, his family deputized him to pick up Sunday dinner from their local deli. And within five minutes, there was not a speck, there was not a morsel, there was not a crumb of food that was left on that table. It was like the plague that we're going to be reading about during
the Passover Seder of the locus that come and devour everything in sight. It was like our Judaism came in like a wave and overwhelmed us and made us feel like we had this tangible connection to our roots. As a historian, Merwin's research is more than gastronomical. He's curious about what the deli as a cultural space meant in its heyday. In the 1920s and 30s, the children of Jewish immigrants had one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world. So the deli was really the primary space in which Jews could create a kind of way station on the path to Americanization because they weren't yet in a position to make the jump from the immigrant experience to being fully American. Sunday nights at the deli replaced Friday nights at the synagogue. The deli was a place where Jews could relax into their new secular American Jewishness. They could kind of let their hair down, they could eat with their hands. I think that was a big part of the appeal
for Jews of sandwiches. Jews had often been stereotyped as being vulgar and uncouth and not really ready for primetime in terms of their participation in society and eating out was itself seen in those days as being a kind of American thing to do and yet they could do it in a Jewish context. We're interrupted by the arrival of a plate of pickles, half-sours as well as pickled carrots and cauliflower. It's followed by a huge stack of potato lattes with a side of apple preserves and a glass gravy boat with a hefty scoop of chopped liver. And it's topped with red onion marmalade. So this is definitely not sort of my grandparents delicatessen. Merwin tentatively nibbles at each dish and the chopped liver wins him over. It's really good. It's really creamy and it's hard to stop eating once you start eating it. So these are very newfangled versions of traditional Jewish dishes. This is kind of the new wave of the Jewish Deli. Merwin says the first wave of the Jewish
Deli coincided with the rise of Jewish celebrities on stage and screen. Those stars helped popularize delis in the hearts, minds and stomachs of Jews and Gentiles alike. Al Jolson who was the biggest Jewish star of the day in the 1920s, after his performance as at the Wintergarten theater on Broadway, would invite the entire audience back to Lindy's for a sandwich. And the delis became places where both Jews and non-Jews could soak up this stardust atmosphere almost like it was the brine and the barrels of brisket on their way to becoming cornbuffin pastrami. But Merwin's quick to point out that the early 20th century was not a golden era for American Jews. Discrimination and anti-Semitism were very real. So there was a kind of fiction that the delis promoted that because of this celebrity atmosphere that Jews had already attained their aspirations in America. And the irony was that they really hadn't yet, that that was for the next generation, that was
for the post-World War II generation. Merwin says that fully assimilated generation would witness the delis decline. They just didn't need a way station anymore. Which is why when our pastrami finally arrives, Merwin inspects it thoroughly, turning it 360 degrees, lifting the top slice of bread, looking for hints of authenticity. It has that really rosy colored meat. You can see the lines of fat. You can see the pepper and the spices that are used to spice it. The rye bread slathered with mustard. I don't know if it's really kind of melt in your mouth good. It tastes just like a pastrami sandwich should taste from a traditional New York telly. That taste is important. It's solid. It's memorable. And if you grew up with it, it can transport you to another time. But Merwin's left hungry for a place that can't be recaptured. I don't think there really are very many of those kinds of places anymore where
Jews of all different backgrounds can get together and celebrate being Jewish in public. Join me my sweet, for a bite to eat in the delicatessen of my dream. That story was produced by our own Kelly Jones. Ted Merwin is professor at Judeaic studies at Dickinson College, an author of Pastramian Rye, an overstuffed history of the Jewish Devil. One prominent theme this hour has been the push and pull between assimilation and the desire to preserve old world traditions. An example of this push and pull is Yiddish entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. Yiddish was the language spoken by central and Eastern European Jews. And starting around 1890, Yiddish language newspapers, literature
and theater all enjoyed huge audiences thanks to the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. In the 1920s, Yiddish language radio programs began broadcasting theater, advice columns and music. And one of the most beloved Yiddish cruners was a fellow named Seymour Rexite. He sang on the radio for the better part of four decades. His repertoire included traditional clasper music, but he was best known for American show tunes translated into Yiddish by his wife. Radio producers Henry Supasnik and David Isay visited Rexite at his Manhattan apartment before his death in 2002. Surrounded by stacks of tapes featuring Rexite's performances, they captured these memories. Here is Seymour Rexite and the melody box, brought to you by kosher and parava brillo. Listen. The melody box. Yes, that's me. This is Seymour Rexite. Since I was in the radio, it's been quite a few years,
but I have all the tapes of all the programs for many, many years, and I'd like it to hear it. Butonis Spaghetti, present here the melody box made Seymour Rexite and Aebel Stain by the piano. I started on Yiddish radio in the 1920s. My wife and I married Kressel around for about 40 years. We were on for so many years. We didn't have enough material for Yiddish. I said to my wife, let's do English songs in Yiddish. You've got both. You've got the English crowd, you've got the Yiddish crowd, and it became a very, very big success. Chicken catch his life in the hurry. When I've named the Rexite in my sorry, says Abrichi Shankain, and I'll remit a friend. It's a friend, nothing tough. Oh yes, that's one thing I never forgot, is all the lures from all the songs. And you know how many there are.
Oh, don't ask. I got to play these for you. Any song that you can think of, anything that you want. English, we didn't Yiddish love and marriage, love and marriage, main to Melchishem, a baby carriage. Somebody translates, I'd put in a word, but my wife, she was not that type of translated. Each word that was translated was the word that should have been there. Wherever we heard, whenever we went, we heard a song. We did it in Yiddish. We went to see Pogi and Bess, and the Maryam said, oh this is something. I said, yeah, but I'd like to do summertime in Yiddish. I did an interview with Irving Caesar. I said, Irving, how did you write?
Tea for two. And he says, why should I tell it to you? You'd do it, Yiddish, better than I did in English. Please sing it for me. Oh, it became a very big hit. I had English dancers. I had a barbersold program on Saturday night. I'll play it for you. I put the syrup in barbersold, brushless, shaving cream, presenting Simo Rechzeit, me it's Sam Meader, Badapian. Barbersold, barbersold, he'll talk in brush, can save me day, shaved so we can sit all day. Barbersold, barbersold, barbersold. Oh, oh, sure. I use it every day in the morning or in the evening. Another jingle that I did was H.H.H.P.
Power was a great, great hit. With many, many lessons I used to get letters. Wonderful, wonderful letters. Oh, we heard you today and you sang a wonderful, wonderful, keep it up, keep it up. Girls used to wait until I got through singing. And then they mobbed me like they did Sinatra. It's very sad, but nobody cares for Yiddish radio anymore. But I still have my tapes, hundreds of tapes of all the songs that you can think of. I have two, three machines going all day. And if you're anxious, give me a call, and I'll invite you over, so you can listen to all you have to do is mention the name and we have it in Yiddish and in English. Tomorrow, Simor will sing.
Tomorrow, Simor will sing. Thank you for listening. That's Yiddish singer Simor Rekzite. He died in 2002 at the age of 91. This piece was part of the Yiddish radio project, a documentary series produced by Henry Supasnik and David Isae. We'll have links to more of their stories on our website, backstoryradio.org. So we covered a lot of ground today. Do we see themes that would unify these stories?
Well, you know, I think one of the themes that comes out in a lot of the conversations that we had today is that Jews were very much insiders and outsiders at the same time. What do you mean, Joy? Well, I mean, we've talked a lot about assimilation. We've talked about a lot of different ways in which the Jews are Americanizing a variety of different aspects of Judaism. And yet at the same time, we also are talking about a people who always at least feel to some degree a little bit on the outside. One of the things that does strike me as being distinctive, it seems like numbers matter. I mean, they're very, very small numbers of Jewish people for a very long time and even to this day, it's one of the smallest minorities in the United States. Yeah, Brian, that's right. And yet the influence of Jewish Americans seems far larger than their numbers alone. Absolutely. I mean, even if we look at the most superficial, pop cultural measures, the bagel has certainly become a part of American life every bit as much as the taco, for instance. But the numbers are much smaller.
How much do you guys think that has to do with Jewish identity? Yeah, if you think about American pop culture, in many ways, the dominant tone of our humor has been sort of a gift from Jewish Americans. It's all the way from Milton Burl to Lenny Bruce through Seinfeld to John Stewart, now to Larry David impersonating Bernie Sanders. And you left out Mel Brooks. Yeah, and Mel Brooks, right? You're just making my point, Brian. And so it's like, it's hard to imagine America without that. And I think what the gift is is that playing with what Joanna was talking about, this sense of being inside and outside at the same time. It's a great affection for American culture, but we can also see just how funny this situation is in a way you might not quite appreciate on your own. Right. It really does rely on being an insider and an outsider, truly, that you have to be enough of an insider to sort of know what's going on, but enough of an outsider to step back and point a finger at something. And I do think there is one more element, and this is a gross generalization, but I think for much of the history of Judaism in the United States. The vast majority of Jews have wanted very much to be American.
And I think that that kind of love of America and desire to be American has been reciprocated. And that burning desire, at the same time, not a company by desire to lose your own identity, well put. Now when Israel was in each of land, let my people go. That's going to do it for today, but you can continue the conversation online. Head to our website where you can tell us what you think about today's show. While you're there, we're taking questions for our upcoming shows on the history of gambling and America's relationship with foreign royalty. You'll find it all at backstoryradio.org or send email to backstory at virginia.edu. We're also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at backstory radio. Whatever you do, don't be a stranger.
Backstory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Bridget McCarthy, Nina Ernest, Kelly Jones, and Emily Gettick. Jamal Milner is our technical director. Diana Williams is our digital editor with help from Brianna Azar. Melissa Gismondi helps with research. Special thanks this week to Isabel Torres and Nick and Dave Weisman at DGS Deli. Rob Vaughn and Elliott Majerzik were our voice actors. And thanks to the folks at backstory for letting me fill in for Peter Onaf this week. Backstories produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the ShiaCon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the tomato fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, humanities, and the environment. And by history channel, history made every day. Brian Ballot is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onaf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. At heirs is professor of the humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.
Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Backstory is distributed by PRX, the public radio exchange.
- Judaism in America
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- On Dec. 24th, Jewish communities across the country begin celebrating Hanukkah. The annual holiday celebrates the victory of the Jews over the Greeks, and marks the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. Roughly 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish, but the influence of American Jews far outweighs their relatively small numbers. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys (along with guest host Joanne Freeman of Yale University) explore the history of Judaism in America.
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- Chicago: “BackStory; Judaism in America,” 2016, BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 4, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-h41jh3fc4q.
- MLA: “BackStory; Judaism in America.” 2016. BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 4, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-h41jh3fc4q>.
- APA: BackStory; Judaism in America. Boston, MA: BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-h41jh3fc4q