Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
Two Ambitious Goals
American Jewish Publishing in the United States

Jonathan D. Sarna

.  .  .


A Great Day in Philadelphia Judaism

According to New York’s leading Jewish newspaper, Sunday, 3 June 1888, was “a great day in Philadelphia Judaism.” About 100 rabbinic and lay leaders from around the country—“the leading intellectual minds among the Hebrews”— gathered to create what became the Jewish Publication Society of America. A thirteen-page circular, published a few months later, appealed for “generous sympathy, active encouragement and liberal support” of the new organization. “We have given to the world the book, most wonderful in the effect it has produced on great masses in all climes and times,” the circular declared. It expressed the hope that “Israel in America” would “proudly claim its literary period, as did our ancestors aforetime in Spain, in Poland and in modern Germany.”1

The reference to earlier centers of Jewish culture hints at the new publication society’s grand objective: creating a new Jewish cultural center in America to succeed that in Germany, which, it was alleged, had stagnated amid “a revival of mediaeval prejudices.” Nineteenth-century students of Jewish history, following Nahman Krochmal, believed that centers of Jewry experienced a natural cycle of growth and decline. The decay of one center stimulated the rise of another elsewhere. Themselves the children of German immigrants, these scholars believed that the late nineteenth-century rise of German anti-Semitism signaled the end of cultural progress in their former homeland. “It befits us as free citizens of the noblest of countries,” they announced, “to take it up in their stead.” The Jewish Publication Society was to be a key agent in this cultural revolution. Blending American patriotism with concern for the welfare of fellow Jews, the society’s founders looked to publish books that would prepare American Jewry to assume the burden of Jewish cultural leadership and announce to the world that the American Jewish community had arrived.2

An additional objective also underlay the creation of the Jewish Publication Society: the aim of integrating a fractious American Jewry into a nationwide

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