Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Early Years of American Jewish History: Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Minute Books of Congregation Shearith Israel

Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Early Years of American Jewish History: Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Minute Books of Congregation Shearith Israel

Article excerpt

In 1892, in an event of great import, many of America's most prominent Jewish leaders and scholars, along with a few Christian historians, formed the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Their intent was to tell the story of American Jews with the same precision with which historians described American history. At the time the study of American Jewish history was rare and anecdotal; there were no figures that could be called "American Jewish historians." The society's objective was to provide both primary materials and firsthand interpretations of the American Jewish experience.1

The society was formed in the midst of the vast Eastern European immigration at the end of the nineteenth century but it was composed primarily of German Jews whose fathers or grandfathers had immigrated to the United States a half-century earlier. These German Jews were alarmed at the entry of hundreds of thousands of new Jewish immigrants, perceiving them as "noisy" and "unclean and unsophisticated." Both New York's [the] Jewish Messenger and Cincinnati's [the] American Israelite held this view. The Messenger cautioned against the admission of Russian Jewish peasantry into the United States and even advocated restricting their admission, though by the 1880s the newspaper accepted the "inevitable" and organized meetings to aid the immigrants. Even so, the Messenger continued to express concern about the radicalism of these newcomers and the nature of their synagogues. To demonstrate a different side to American Jewry, the Messenger's editor, Abram Samuel Isaacs, sought to publish biographies of distinguished American Jews. This ultimately led scholar Cyrus Adler and Reform Jewish leader Bernhard Felsenthal to urge that Jewish scholars "collect and sift all the materials concerning the history of the Jews and of Judaism in America" in a "scientific manner," and that the project be undertaken by men who "know what a scientific method is." An article in the North American Review, stating that the Jews were a "parasitic race" that had contributed little to America, particularly during the Civil War, gave further impetus to the movement. Thus, the communal leaders formed the American Jewish Historical Society in order to record and describe the contributions of Jews in the United States. As Harvard historian Charles Gross stated:

      If we can show dearly ... what the Jews of this country have
   done, what they have contributed as citizens of the Republic, we
   shall accomplish a great work. We shall add not merely to the
   history of the United States, we shall add greatly to the welfare
   of the Jews in America.

      The object of this Society should be to reveal the past of the
   Jews of this country, the past in all directions, but particular
   attention should be paid to what the Jews have accomplished as
   citizens of the United States.... They have been ready to offer up
   life and fortune ... [and they have been] patriots in time of war
   and philanthropists in time of peace. (2)

The society chose for its first president Oscar S. Straus, "a man sufficiently prominent and interested to head the new institution." Born in Germany and raised in Georgia, Straus moved to New York City after the Civil War where he received a law degree. His was a distinguished family: his brother was co-owner of Macy's Department Store and his grandson would become a founder of the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. From 1887 to 1889 and from 1898 to 1899, Strauss served as the United States' Minister to the Ottoman Empire. The highpoint of his career came when President Theodore Roosevelt selected him to be the U.S Secretary of Commerce and Labor, thus making him the first Jewish U. S. Cabinet member. Straus became president of the AJHS between his two assignments to the Ottoman Empire. (3)

One of the AJHS's vice presidents was Paul Leicester Ford, a descendant of John Quincy Adams and a prominent American biographer of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. …

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