Strangers and Natives – new review

March 16, 2020

Midwest Book Review ● Judaic Studies Shelf

“Strangers and Natives: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America, 1734 – 1869” by Ron Rubin focuses on the daily life and customs of the Jewish community and the Jewish people; the formation of Jewish congregations and organizations; and the involvement of Jews in education, literature, journalism, politics, the marketplace, the military, and history itself.

While there are numerous historical accounts of early American Jewry quoting documents, diaries and memoirs, “Strangers and Natives” is the first that uses periodicals from that time period. Using scans of the original newsprint, most from Professor Rubin’s own extensive collection, “Strangers and Natives” displays the actual written words comprising newpaper accounts (the first blush of history) in visual form.

A unique and invaluable contribution to the growing library of American Judaic 18th and 19th century history, “Strangers and Natives: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America, 1734 – 1869” is an especially and unreservedly recommended addition to personal, professional, community, college, and university library collections and supplemental curriculum studies lists.

Editorial Note: Ron Rubin is Political Science Professor Emeritus at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York. A prolific writer, Rubin has had more than 100 works published globally since then. His books include Controversies Over the Objectives of the U.S. Information Agency (Praeger, 1968), The Unredeemed: Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union (Quadrangle Books, 1968), Rudy, Rudy, Rudy: The Real and the Rational (Holmes & Meier, 2000) and Anything for a T-Shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon (Syracuse University Press, 2004). In 2013 more than 75 of Dr. Rubin’s commentaries – focusing solely on topics relating to Israel, the global Jewish community and the American Jewish community – were anthologized in A Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin, edited by Peri Devaney (Syracuse University Press).


Integration of American Jews Through Journalism

March 9, 2020

Neville Teller ● Jerusalem Post

Ron Rubin is an avid collector of American newspapers stretching right back to the early 18th century. A professor of political science at the University of New York for more than 50 years, Rubin retired in 2016 and devised the idea of telling the story of America’s Jews through what appeared in the newspapers of the time. In Strangers and Natives he brings the concept to brilliant realization, hence his book’s subtitle: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America 1734-1869.

Turning the pages of this book is a continuous delight to the eye, for throughout the volume, the selected news items and articles are illustrated by reproductions of the originals. So as a by-product of the history, we also see how American journalism developed over the centuries. This triumph of book design is the work of the highly experienced Peri Devaney, who is rightfully credited on the cover.

Strangers and Natives tackles the development of the Jewish community in America from a variety of angles, starting back in 1734, some 60 years before the Declaration of Independence. On March 25 of that year, The New York Weekly Journal carried an advertisement urging anyone who believed they were owed anything by the late Benjamin Elias to come forward. Elias had been a merchant as well as a Hebrew teacher and shochet (ritual slaughterer) at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue that was the first Jewish congregation in North America.

Rubin ends his story, except for an additional item or two, with The Alexandria Gazette’s account of the first Rosh Hashanah after the end of the Civil War in 1865 – the Jewish New Year of 5626. Jews featured prominently on both sides of that conflict. The secretary of state of the Confederate States of America – the 11 breakaway states opposed to ending slavery – was Judah P Benjamin. In February 1865, with the South fast crumbling and already thinking of suing for peace, The Baltimore Clipper carried a front-page account of a speech by Benjamin advocating what must have seemed a radical proposal to the South generally. He proposed freeing African American slaves as a way of enhancing the manpower of the Confederate Army. Such a move, he said, would add 680,000 additional troops.

On the other hand, in April 1865, one week after President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, The Pittsburgh Commercial ran an article praising the Jewish contribution to the Union cause. It set out the numbers of enlisted Jews from the different states of the Union, calculating that a total of 40,000 Jewish soldiers had, in its own words, “shown a full share of patriotism since the war began.”

Across 12 chapters, Rubin traces the saga of how Jews slowly became integrated into the American way of life. He covers the development of Jewish communal affairs, including the expansion of synagogues across the growing country, and the part played by Jews in the fields of education and literature, in journalism, business, politics and various other aspects of the rapidly growing nation. He does not omit the obstacles placed in their way from time to time.

For example, antisemitism reared its ugly head quite early on, and Rubin records instances in The New York Gazette in 1746, and The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751, of the offer of rewards following the vandalism of Jewish burial grounds. Against this, the philo-semitism of Benjamin Franklin is well documented. As The Pennsylvania Gazette records, well ahead of the British Parliament, Franklin’s so-called Jew Bill of 1753 proposed allowing foreign-born Jews to obtain English citizenship, bypassing the required oath of loyalty to the Church of England. To its credit, the Gazette was strongly in support if the bill, but it was a proposal well ahead of its time, and popular opposition proved too strong.

A century later, the American press followed the long and intense struggle within the British Parliament on the related issue of permitting a practicing Jew to sit in the House of Commons without swearing loyalty to the Church of England.

In 1847, Baron Lionel de Rothschild was elected to Parliament as an MP for the City of London. As The New York Herald reported, he refused to take his seat because he was required to take an oath to the Christian faith. When he was reelected in 1849, the paper noted that he had won “by an overwhelming majority,” and commented that “the event is regarded as an unmistakable sign of the determination of the citizens to secure what is termed full religious liberty.” In point of fact, the impasse continued, as Rothschild won his seat again in 1852 and then in 1857. It was not until 1858, after the provision of Christian affirmation was removed, that he finally entered the House of Commons.

Rothschild’s struggle, reported in the American press, was carefully followed by American Jews. It may well have played a part in ensuring the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, 10 years later, which finally removed religious restrictions on holding any political office in the United States.

Strangers and Natives provides a unique perspective on American-Jewish history – the first account to draw its material solely from contemporary newspapers. By doing so, and because of Peri Devaney’s fascinating design, which shows the actual items in print, we are able to see history unfold as it was happening. The book goes well beyond news stories. We see also advertisements, announcements, obituaries and accounts charting the changing pattern of Jewish life and achievement. It is highly recommended.


Sages of the Talmud: A Review

April 7, 2013

by Rabbi Ari EnkinSages of theTalmud Web1

Sages of the Talmud is an encyclopedic work on 400 Talmudic sages that are found on the pages of the Talmud. The various sages are listed in alphabetical order. After the sages’ name, it is noted in which century he lived and whether he was a Tanna, Amora, Babylonian or Palestinian. The listing continues with stories and anecdotes which help the reader understand the sage’s personality and the social environment in which he lived. Their rulings, ethical teachings, and famous sayings are cited, as well. In some cases bibliographical information is also included, especially regarding the lesser-known sages.

For example, the entry on Pinhas ben Yair states:

“Rabbi Pinchas was a son-in-law of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and his student for many years. He lived in southern Israel, not far from Ashkelon, and was active in the mitzva of redeeming prisoners…It is said of Rabbi Pinhas that never in his life did he eat bread that was not his own…R. Pinhas b. Yair said, “Zeal leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity. Purity leads to self-restraint, and self-restraint leads to sanctity.”

The Talmudic sources for all such stories and sayings are cited. Entries range from a single paragraph up to several pages, depending on the prominence of the sage and his frequency of appearance on the pages of the Talmud.

Most people do not know when each of the sages of the Talmud lived and what the outside world looked like at that time. Many don’t even realize that there were hundreds of years between the earliest and latest sages of the Talmud. This is true even regarding different sages who are found on the same page of Talmud! And so, what is exceptionally unique in this work is that at the end of every entry, not only are the dates when each sage lived included, but readers are directed to an appendix at the back of the book which lists the historic highlights of regional events that took place during that time. For example, at the conclusion of the entry on Rava, we are told he lived between 250 and 350 CE. Turning to the pages that discuss these years at the back of the book one will find historical tidbits such as:

• Gallus became Roman emperor in 251 and was assassinated in 253
• Valerian attempted to recover the territories lost to King Shapur of Persia, but was captured by Shapur in 259 and held captive until his death ten years later, in 269
• Aurelian was assassinated in 275
• In 325, several hundred bishops led by Constantine attended the Read the rest of this entry »


History and Fiction

May 20, 2012

by Mordechai Nisan

I remember seeing Yehuda in the library at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. We would exchange greetings, and he would plunge into his reading.  I didn’t know that he was working on a labor of love – a book about Herod.

The story of Herod and the era associated with him is cut from the historical cloth of three primary dates: in 167 BCE the Hasmoneans [Maccabees] fought their way to Jewish independence from under Greek Hellenic rule and the Jewish state arose again; in 63 BCE the Roman Empire quashed Jewish independence; in 47 BCE Herod of Idumean and Nabatean parentage became the governor of the Galilee and then King of Judea in 37 BCE until his death in the year 4.

Herod, as Yehuda’s book grippingly describes, “had to be king.” He was driven by a passion for power and used any and all methods deemed necessary in his view – murdering his own sons, causing the death of his wife, killing rabbis of the Sanhedrin, slaughtering Jews – in order to rule Judea even under Roman authority. His regime was based on terror and cruelty, intrigue and plunder, while yet adorning the country with the rudiments of Greek culture and Roman construction. He built – rather enlarged – the Temple in Jerusalem, the port of Caesarea, roads and theatres, gymnasia and fortresses. One of them, Herodion where he is buried, bears his name until today. Read the rest of this entry »