The year 5771/2011 will mark one century since the publication of Maurice Fishberg’s epic work, The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment, a gargantuan effort to encapsulate the entire anthropological, demographic, pathological, and sociological investigation of the Jews, whose 578 copiously illustrated pages provide an unparalleled window through time.
THE JEWISH PROBLEM
Fishberg’s goal was not merely to provide a book of statistics, but to address a nightmare that had tormented the nations for decades, namely, the “Jewish Problem.” This imaginary problem was whether Jews freed from the ghetto would integrate seamlessly with the outside world.
Fishberg’s book is a scary read since his approach is to prove that there is no Jewish problem at all. Instead, endless facts and statistics warn that the glue that holds the Jewish people together, their age-old faith, seems to be coming apart at the seams. Without Torah, the Jews will cease to exist as a nation.
Unconsciously, he is echoing the message Rav Saadya Gaon asserted a thousand years earlier, “We are only a nation by virtue of the Torah.”
According to Fishberg’s calculations, there were about the same number of Jews in the world then as there are today: twelve million then versus today’s figure of just over thirteen million, about two million of them living in the Americas. This was double the estimated number of sixty years earlier. Yet, despite this rapid jump, Fishberg was pessimistic about the continued thriving of the Jewish people for two main reasons – political emancipation and material prosperity, which threaten to lull Jews into forgetting their identity.
As he puts it, non-Jewish persecution is more effective than a thousand rabbis at reminding Jews who they are. After all, is there anything other than Torah that sets Jews apart? Fishberg devotes a lot of attention to debunking the common myth that Jews possess unique physical characteristics.
Regarding the idea that they are unusually short, he proves, through rows of numbers, that this is due to their poverty and malnutrition in Eastern Europe. So much so that while almost 25 percent of Eastern European Jews were of short stature, only 8.87 percent of US Jews were defi cient in body height.
Although he agrees that Jews usually have dark hair and eyes, this was by no means universal, particularly in England where every fourth Jew is born blond. What about cartoonists’ propensity to consistently draw Jewish faces with nasal appendages that look like parrot beaks? Fishberg destroys the allegation: “The present author has investigated the subject among the Jews in New York City and also in various countries of East and West of Europe, in North Africa, and among Jewish immigrants from various countries of Asia. The results of these investigations do not bear out the popular opinion that the hook nose is to be considered the ‘Jewish nose,’ because only a small minority of Jews have the privilege of possessing this kind of nose.”
He cites an investigation of 2,836 adult male Jews in New York City who yielded the following results: 57.26 percent had straight noses, 22.07 percent had snub noses, 6.42 percent had fl at noses, and only 14.25 percent possessed hooked noses. Among women the percentage of hooked noses was even less. This leads him to conclude that, “Considering, on the one hand, that only one Jew in six has an aquiline or hook nose, and on the other, that so many races in various parts of the world have just as many and often more persons with this kind of nose, there is hardly any justification for speaking of a ‘Jewish’ or ‘Semitic’ nose.”
He concludes that there is no Jewish archetype. True, a Moroccan Jew may seem identifiably Jewish in Morocco, but take him to the USA and people will identify him as an Italian or Spaniard. To back up his point, Fishberg describes a Moroccan Jew in the East Side of New York who “has been selling Yiddish newspapers, and has a hard struggle with his co-religionists, who claim that an Italian ought not to compete with them in this line.”
Fishberg’s book includes a lengthy pathological section, where he proves that in matters of disease, too, Jews are not much different than their gentile counterparts. This section of the book includes one of the earliest descriptions of Tay-Sachs disease, a scourge which the Dor Yesharim Organization is attempting to eradicate from the Jewish community. In Fishberg’s time, the causation of this genetic disorder was a mystery.
RICH AND POOR
Fishberg cannot deny that “in spite of disabilities to which they have been subjected, Jews are always successful in every walk of life, and, as a class, economically prosperous. ‘As rich as a Jew,’ is a common saying.” However, this depends on where they live. “[Wherever] they enjoy political equality with the rest of the population they are on the whole prosperous; the bulk of them is well-to-do, and the number of poor and dependent is below that observed among the people around them. On the other hand, in the Orient and in Eastern Europe, where they are subject to political and economic disabilities, they are generally poor.” About a fifth to a quarter of Russian Jews applied for ma’os chitin during 5658/1898, and about a fifth were assisted with fuel to keep their homes warm that winter. Jewish Poverty in Odessa, by J. Brodowski, records that about 48,500 Jews of the city, almost a third of the Jewish population received assistance from the charity society, and it was estimated that another 30,000 managed to nourish themselves without charity although with great difficulty, so that fifty percent of the city’s Jews lived in terrible poverty and privation. Sixty three percent of their dead were buried free of charge, and another 20 percent at reduced rates.
“I have seen as many as three families living in one room in Warsaw and Wilna,” (sic) Fishberg writes. “As to how some manage to make a living the following case will show. When walking in the main street of a small town of the province of Kovno in the summer of 1905, I noticed that several Jewesses were selling herring which were sliced into small pieces. Inquiring of one of these ‘merchants’ about her business, I elicited the following information. She is a widow, with five children to support. She buys every morning four or six herrings, and cuts each one into six or eight pieces, each of which she sells at a kopeck, or about a farthing. If she succeeds in selling a half-dozen herrings in this manner, she can manage to exist with her family.”
Fishberg is confident that once the Jews of Eastern Europe and Arab lands receive equal rights, they will be no less prosperous than their brothers in the West. However, they too would be faced with the dangers of emancipation and wealth.
Fishberg warns of another problem plaguing the modern Jew. Due to intermarriage and tiny families, the Jewish people in the West may be in danger of extinction.
“As a rule,” he writes, “in Western Europe, where the rates among the general population are either low, or have been falling during recent years, the birth-rates of the Jews are also low, in fact lower than their neighbors.” According to his figures, the average Jewish family was often half the size of a non-Jewish counterpart. In Prague, during 5661/1901, the Jewish rate was 15.85 per thousand, while the non-Jewish rate was 31.31 per thousand. Family sizes in Eastern Europe were also decreasing, but at a less alarming rate.
“The outlook for the Jews in Western Europe and America is gloomy,” he concludes. “It is a question how long they can hold their own as a religious minority with a low birth-rate which keeps on sinking.”
He mentions the Zionist plan of creating a secular Jewish state in Palestine. But without religion, he argues, how will Jews living there be considered a nation? Jews have no common language, no secular literature, no specifically Jewish art, and no Jewish music. What will make them a Jewish nation?
“It is thus evident,” he concludes, “that Zionism… fails at the outset because it is founded on false premises.”
He also lists a number of technical reasons why the plan must fail. Presently, he argues, Palestine and Syria house only about 100,000 Jewish inhabitants, 1/150 of Jews in the world. Contemporary scholarship contends that, “The ancient country of Canaan and the neighboring regions are certainly not able to accommodate more than a few hundred thousand.” Fishberg adds, “Irrigation, to be sure, might be effective in improving the soil, but it is problematical whether it would pay to bring thousands of people, as well as [substantial funding] for this purpose.”
He cites a pessimistic assessment, “After twelve years of Zionism the Jew is still forbidden to enter Palestine (his stay is limited to six months)… Of a population of 600,000 only 86,000 are Jews… The Jews hold only 2 [percent] of the land in Palestine.”
Furthermore, argues Fishberg, “The bulk of the modern Jews are entirely opposed to repatriation. The strictly orthodox class in Eastern Europe is against it because they do not believe in ‘forcing the hand of Providence’; they believe that Messiah will come sooner or later to redeem the scattered children of Israel without any assistance of mortal man… In England the Chief Rabbi warned several Rabbis against preaching Zionism in their synagogues, and the Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in London was admonished from touching upon this subject from his pulpit.”
Fishberg ends his work on a pessimistic note, perceiving, in his blindness, only two tendencies among modern Jews, “One class…aiming at the segregation of their co-religionists in Palestine… [The second class:] Against this tendency are to be seen arrayed all the assimilated Jews, those who have adopted the culture, habits, and customs of the non-Jewish neighbors, and who consider themselves citizens of the countries in which they live… [It] is not difficult to see which tendency will prevail among the Jews in the near future.”
Fishberg was obstinately too narrow minded to see the third option, which actually prevailed. The Jewish people will remain a nation by virtue of the Torah. Not only will a huge segment of Jewry refuse to assimilate into the melting pot but many of the assimilated will ultimately return to their roots.