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.


Review of Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist

January 16, 2017

A Collection of Light-Hearted Autobiographical Stories
By Martin Lockshin

The State of Israel appropriately takes pride in its many achievements. In technology, science, research as well as militarily, Israel’s success seems unprecedented, especially considering its small population. Advanced Jewish studies and many varied forms of Jewish culture thrive. Historians say that never before in history has such a high percentage of Jews had expert-level knowledge of Jewish texts.

On the social level, however, the picture in Israel is far from rosy. While Israel’s raison d’être is the ingathering of exiles to build a new society together, serious tensions abound between Jews who are Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, and haredi (ultra- or fervently Orthodox) and non-haredi. Women’s rights are more fraught than in most western democracies, because of the religious-secular divide and the lack of separation of religion and state. Israeli supporters and opponents of the settlements often do not even talk about their differences – it’s just too painful. Tensions between the 80 per cent of the population who are Jewish and the 20 per cent who are Muslim or Christian are part of everyday existence. Read the rest of this entry »


Review of Who Stole My Religion?

December 13, 2016

By Dov Peretz Elkins

WhoStoleMyReligion9789655242348 “Who Stole My Religion?” is a thought-provoking and timely call to apply Judaism’s powerful teachings to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. While appreciating the radical, transformative nature of Judaism, Richard Schwartz argues that it has been “stolen” by Jews who are in denial about climate change and other environmental threats and support politicians and policies that may be inconsistent with basic Jewish values. Tackling such diverse issues as climate change, world hunger, vegetarianism, poverty, terrorism, destruction of the environment, peace prospects in Israel, and American foreign policy, he offers practical suggestions for getting Judaism back on track as a faith based on justice, peace, and compassion. He urges the reader to reconsider current issues in line with Judaism’s highest values in an effort to meet the pressing challenges of today’s world.

Right now the new Trump administration is on the cusp of deciding whether climate change is real, and human-created, or not. The President-elect should read this book, and he will be convinced beyond doubt that there is so much more that we humans and governments must do to save our planet.

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Review of Who Stole My Religion?

December 8, 2016

WhoStoleMyReligion9789655242348‘Who Stole My Religion?’ Spells Out Cure for an Ailing Planet
by Craig Shapiro

Catastrophic climate change. Major food and water shortages. Species extinction.

Even though our planet is beset by “existential crises,” writes Dr. Richard H. Schwartz in Who Stole My Religion?, we can realign the balance. The subtitle of his new book explains how: Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.

“Many Jews have forgotten the Jewish mandate to strive to perfect the world,” Schwartz writes. “God requires that we pursue justice and peace, and that we exhibit compassion and loving kindness.”

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Review of The Shame Borne in Silence

December 1, 2016

shameBy Daniel Stuhlman

In 1997, shortly after the publication of the first edition of this book, Rabbi Twerski, speaking at an overflow Baltimore audience, said that “True Torah observance is not conducive to any kind of abuse, physical, emotional or otherwise….” This is still his message in this revised and updated second edition.

Community members have a hard time believing that a “pillar of the community” can be a saint in public and a monster at home. Abuse can be verbal, emotional, and/or physical. Too often an abused wife is naively told to stay in the marriage and preserve shalom bayis (domestic peace). Even if the accuser is lying, we have to take an accusation seriously and try to help those involved. Rabbi Twerski, who is both a Chasidic rabbi and a psychiatrist, has many years of experience treating alcohol and other types of substance abusers. He knows that those who are sick, need professional help. Denial does not make the problems disappear.

This book is well written, but it is not a happy book. The case studies presented are sad because too often the person seeking help was not helped in the early stages by the parents, rabbis, or community members. After reading this book, you should be able to better recognize the signs of abuse and help the abused parties get the kind of help to make her or him whole. This book should be read and discussed by every rabbi, parent, teacher, and anyone else who could see domestic abuse.

It is highly recommended for every kind of library – personal, synagogue, academic, and community.

This review originally appeared in AJL Reviews.


Review of From Mourning to Morning

November 28, 2016

 

From Mourning to MorningIn the pages of “From Mourning to Morning: A Comprehensive Guide to Mourning, Grieving, and Bereavement”, Rabbi Simeon Schreiber (Senior Staff Chaplain at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Florida), translates his many years of experience and considerable expertise into a greater understanding of the emotions surrounding death, grieving, mourning, and bereavement in Judaism. From “Mourning to Morning” deftly presents these principles in a comprehensive format. Focusing on the Shiva, the seven day period of mourning in Judaism, Rabbi Schreiber explains the foundation of visiting a house of mourners, and suggests proper etiquette in conducting a visit. With sensitivity and expertise, Rabbi Schreiber provides unique and practical advise on how to cope with death, mourning, and the related issues that we all will inevitably face. Impressively well written, organized and presented, “From Mourning to Morning” is unreservedly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Midwest Book Review.


Review of Who Stole My Religion? 

November 7, 2016

WhoStoleMyReligion9789655242348How Jewish Teaching Can Save The Planet

Review in the Jewish Georgian, “the largest Jewish newspaper in the South,” by Lewis Regenstein, president of The Interfaith Council for the Protection of Animals and Nature, and author of the book “Replenish the Earth: The Teachings of the World’s Religions on Protecting Animals and Nature.”

Dr. Richard Schwartz, an expert on Jewish teachings on the environment, vegetarianism, and animals, has given us a preview of his new book, due out by early July 2016, on the environmental crisis we are facing.

“Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet,” Richard says, ” is meant to be a wake-up call – the most urgent that I can make- – to alert Jews and others that we must do all we can in applying Jewish values to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.”

Its primary aim is to show that the world is heading toward a “perfect storm … of existential crises: sudden, catastrophic climate change; severe environmental degradation; devastating scarcities of food, water and energy; widening terrorism; and other critical threats to life as we know and value it,”

“Everything possible must be done,” Richard warns, “to avert such potential catastrophes, since they threaten humanity and all life on the planet.”

A main theme of this book, as Richard puts it, is that “in the face of today’s urgent problems, Jews must return to our universal Jewish values and to our missions: to be ‘a light unto the nations,’ a kingdom of priests and a holy people, descendants of prophets, champions of social justice, eternal protestants against a corrupt, unjust world, dissenters against destructive and unjust systems.”

“I hope that this book’s discussion of Jewish teachings on these critically important issues will help move our precious planet away from its present perilous path onto one that is more just, humane, peaceful, and sustainable.”


Review of Who Stole My Religion 

November 2, 2016

by Yossi Wolfson

Watching the enthusiastic response to Donald Trump’s talk at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference this past March, one might not believe that Judaism is a radical religion. After all, this was a man who had previously insulted Mexicans, Muslims, women, media members, and even Jews.  But Judaism has a long tradition of protesting against greed, injustice, and the misuse of power. From the prophets of Jerusalem in the First Temple era to East End sweatshop strikers, Jews have stood up for social justice.

In his updated, revised, and expanded second edition of Who Stole My Religion? Richard H. Schwartz reminds us of these values–so inherent to Jewish writings and history, and so absent from large parts of American and Israeli Jewish politics today. This absence is especially marked in Orthodox communities in which Schwartz, as an orthodox Jew, focuses. [Full disclosure: I have worked with Schwartz on vegetarian, animal rights, and related issues. He often speaks at the Jerusalem-based Israeli Jewish Vegetarian Society center, where I am a coordinator.]

Schwartz reminds us of the Torah laws that limit accumulation of wealth and redistribute it equitably. These include the ban on taking interest on loans, the cancellation of financial debts on the Sabbatical year, and the Jubilee law. Land was originally divided among the people of Israel based on the size of the tribe. To avoid distortion of this just allocation, a complete redistribution of land was to be done every 50 years, when all land would be returned to its original holders. Impractical as these laws may be today, the principles underlying them can still guide us. We are all acquainted with the statistics according to which the top 1% possesses more wealth than the poorest 90%. This, Schwartz reminds us, is not just outrageous; it is in contradiction with core Jewish values.

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Review of Who Stole My Religion?

October 31, 2016

WhoStoleMyReligion9789655242348by Barbara Gardner

Although this book has been written to ‘revitalize Judaism and apply Jewish values to help heal our imperiled planet,” the references used from the Old Testament, apply as much to Christians as they do to Jews. Therefore, I felt it useful to review this book for The Ark.

Schwartz takes a good look at the world today including it politics, economic systems and foreign policies, as well as the environment and our treatment of animals. Actually, only two out of sixteen chapters deal with animal rights, but Schwartz demonstrates that this is part of a larger, interconnected problem which has to be examined as a whole. He says that the book is meant to be a wakeup call as the world is heading towards a ‘perfect storm’ that includes climate change, environmental degradation, world hunger, water shortages, climate wars, Islamic terrorism and other threats. He argues that the only solution is to apply real Jewish values to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, according to Schwartz, most Jews just aren’t doing enough and are failing to see the dangers ahead.

Schwartz identifies a shifting to the political right amongst orthodox Jews, particularly in America, which he demonstrates is inconsistent with the teachings of the Torah and other Jewish texts. This is why he feels that his religion, Judaism, has been stolen. The book seeks to identify who has stolen Judaism and how, and aims to bring us back to the true, original religion which is one based on love and compassion, not rules and rituals, particularly ones which have been misinterpreted.

Simply focusing on the animal rights issues, Schwartz’s arguments for the compassionate treatment of animals, supported by many references from the Torah, leaves one wondering how any Jew (and indeed any Christian) can claim to be genuine to their faith and not be vegan, let alone support any other form of animal cruelty. In particular, he highlights the Torah’s mandate not to cause pain to living creatures – tsa’ar ba’alei chayim and demonstrates how so many Jews are breaking this mandate in the modern world.

Schwartz’s main criticism of such people is their apathy, their failure to challenge current practices, and their preference for ritual over meaning. It is hard to see that this book could be anything less than a wakeup call and, as such, I strongly recommend it.

THis review originall appeared in The Ark.


Review of Living in the Shadow of Death: A Rabbi Copes with Cancer 

October 26, 2016

 

by Jack Riemer

Public figures are not allowed a private life. And so, when an oncologist has cancer, or when a politician has pneumonia, or when a rabbi becomes seriously ill, his battle has to be shared with his or her community. And sometimes, a certain suspicion takes place. How can he be a cancer doctor when he cannot protect himself from this diease? How can she be a leader when she herself has taken ill? How can he teach us how to live the way God wants us to when he himself has become seriously sick?

Rabbi Stuart G. Weinblatt understood this truth when he found out that he had cancer just when he was about to leave on a synagogue tour to Israel. Instead of trying to hide his illness, he wrote an e mail to the entire congregation, telling them what he was going through and promising to keep them informed. He went through his first chemotherapy and then left for Israel to catch up with the synagogue tour. And when he came back, he began preparing for a High Holy Days that he knew would be different, both for him and for his people, than any that they had ever experienced before.

The service was pretty much the same as usual, except for the fact that this year he could not shake hands or hug everyone as he went around behind the Torah for fear of catching anything while his immune system was weak, and except for the fact that when he announced the Prayer for the Sick and invited all those who had someone whom they cared about who was ill to rise for the prayer, the entire congregation rose in support for him.

The service may have been pretty much the same, but the sermon that day was different, because Rabbi Weinblatt spoke about what he was learning from the illness that he was struggling with. What he said that day was not very different from what he had said many times before, and from what every other rabbi has  said on the High Holy Days, but this time his sermon had a note of urgency to it that made the obvious truths that he uttered feel powerfully true.

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