New York – in the 1870s

Back in 5647/1887, Rav Moshe Weinberger (5614/1854/-5700/1940) penned his impressions of the seven years he had just spent in New York, producing a 124 page Hebrew booklet containing perhaps the most vivid description of his era. In its pages, this talmid of Hungarian gedolim including Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld of Mattersdorf, describes the ups and downs of New York Jewish life at the beginning of the great migration to the United States. Generously, he devoted every penny of the booklet’s profi ts to the Machzike Talmud Torah Society that had recently bought a $16,000 building on 227 East Broadway to house its growing student body and was desperately trying to cover its debts.

By then, New York had a giant Jewish population of about 60,000, which would jump to about 1.5 million by World War I. The city teemed with kehillos. As Rav Moshe notes, “according to some people, the number of Orthodox congregations totals 130; others bring the figure up to 240. Both are correct: the number of organized and settled congregations do indeed amount to 130. Those who talk of a larger sum obviously include small minyanim held in private homes and batei medrash. Were they to search in lofts and courtyards they might well find many others.”

In a letter to a friend Rav Moshe describes two of these shuls, both sharing the same name, Beis Medrash Hagodol. One of these was a magnificent building, most of its members prosperous, powerful and prominent, and “even those there who study and know Torah are great merchants, men of substance and wealth.”

The second shul had about 150 mispallelim, most of them familiar with Torah and many excellent scholars setting aside set times for Torah study.   “To be sure, this is not a rare phenomenon in this city,” Rav Moshe adds, “Among our Russian and Polish brothers we see this in almost every large congregation.”

This is not surprising as Rav Moshe notes in his booklet that “those expertly learned in the Torah, the Talmud, and the wisdom of Chazal are, thank G-d, numerous in this city.” However, he complains that most men have to struggle hard to earn a living, and although batei medrash exist where men sit and learn for hours every day, many talmidei chachamim find it hard to snatch even a few minutes of learning after a back breaking day of work.

As more Jews poured into the US, seforim stores increased and even Gemoras and Poskim began to appear on their shelves.

In the midst of his dire warnings of the trials and tribulations of the New World, Rav Moshe admits that thousands of Jews are still loyal to Torah and mitzvos. Shabbos was observed by many, although many Jews ignored certain of its details. As he reports:

“Regarding Shabbos observance, the stopping of manual labor and other work in factories, stores and businesses, hundreds and even thousands of people are careful. In many New York streets and markets you won’t find even one open store. The Shabbos tranquility compares favorably to that found in most Jewish areas.”

Yomim Tovim and their special mitzvos were even more widely observed.

“Before the Yamim Noraim, the number of booksellers increases,” he reports. “They appear in every nook and cranny of the Jewish district. Many people throw down their tools and engage in the sale of machzorim and other things our brothers and sisters need during this season.

“In like fashion, the number of merchants selling esrogim and matzos has also increased greatly in recent years. In New York, any Jew can now observe these mitzvos in the strictest fashion without worrying about spending more than he can afford. In many shuls, especially the small ones, there are as many esrogim as worshippers. “With regard to the mitzvah of Sukkos, people are now more scrupulous than in previous years. When I arrived here, I found not more than one or two sukkos in the entire region where I reside. Now, just on the street where I have my business there are more than twenty.”

Rav Moshe adds that the same applies to matzos. For years, New York Jews had been baking matzos made of regular fl our bought in the market place. Now shmura matza was available for all who wanted it, and he hoped that this would develop into a trend.

Many New York Jews enjoyed a good drasha, and talent in this direction was not lacking. Unfortunately, as in Europe, there were too many darshonim to guarantee a livelihood for all – “Musar magidim, baalei agadah, and darshanim are found here by the hundreds, but only a very few of them succeed in acquiring positions. Necessity forces them to peddle their speeches from city to city and they are wanderers all their days.”

Melamdim had a similar problem: “Chadarim where melamdim give instruction in the alef beis, vowels and reading are found here in abundance, such abundance, in fact, that their fees have fallen tremendously. According to reports, many teachers have now issued a handbill in which they agree to teach any Jewish child… for only ten cents a week or forty cents a month.”

Advanced teachers faced an even greater hurdle.

“More advanced teachers with wisdom and learning are also found here in abundance and many of them are wonderfully skilled, highly trained pedagogues,” he writes. “But in the absence of schools and in the absence of any desire on the part of our many brethren to rear their sons on the knees of Torah, they have trouble finding steady work.”

New York had two talmudei Torah for the poor, one that was about to collapse; the second one, to which Rav Moshe donated the profits of his book, had hundreds of talmidim and qualified personnel – “The teachers, all men of wisdom and learning, perform their work with perfect integrity… this school can compete successfully with any school of its kind in our native lands.” In addition, there was the Hebrew Free School where about 2,500 poor students learnt Hebrew and Jewish fundamentals. Rav Moshe concludes his discussion about Torah institutions with good tidings:

“Just as we were concluding our words on teachers and schools we heard the pleasant news that in recent days a new school was established called Yeshivas Eitz Chayim for the study of Mishna and Gemara, that is, Gemara, Rashi and Tosfos. A yeshiva for Mishna and Gemara! How much good is hidden in those words! I can hardly believe my own ears. Am I awake? Here in New York? In America?”

Although this yeshiva on the Lower East Side started off with very limited secular studies, it eventually metamorphosed into Yeshiva University.

Dedicated shochtim did their best to get rid of charlatans and regulate the meat trade. As Rav Moshe reports: “We cannot hide the fact that there are in our community also outstanding shochtim who have certificates from leading Jews in Europe. These shochtim have already striven mightily to bring about improvements. Last year (5645/1885) they joined together in an organization named the Zivchei Temimim Society and several rabbonim agreed to give them hashgacha in the hope of straightening the crooked.”

Unfortunately, their project collapsed and many years would pass before reputable kashrus organizations took control.

A similar problem existed regarding marriage and divorce. Eventually, in response to public protest, Jewish assemblyman Jacob A. Cantor helped promulgate a New York bill that restricted performance of weddings to judges, various officials, or ministers of legally incorporated religious organizations.

One year before Rav Moshe wrote his book, the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol started a new fad. As Rav Moshe reports:

“In the spring of 5646/1886 a series of letters, advertisements and telegrams flew from place to place across the Jewish world creating a sensation among chazzanim everywhere. The enormous sums bandied about, $1,500, $2,000, $3,000 aroused excitement in every corner and reached many receptive ears. The finest, most wonderful chazzanim came over in large numbers, followed hard on their heels by a flood of unknown fledglings. They mistakenly assumed that in music as in so many things,

America would prove an upside-down world. The best would sink, the lowliest rise to the top. They soon discovered their error.”

The winning contender was Israel Michalovsky of Paris who started with the whopping salary of $4,000 a year. Taking inflation into account, this chazzan was receiving about $90,000 a year for his histrionic efforts. New York’s sudden veneration for top of the line chazzanim has never been fully explained.

The purpose of Rav Moshe’s book was not to praise New York but to expose glaring problems, which he describes in agonizing detail. In particular, he poses a burning question concerning the future of its Jews: “But will their children follow in their ways? Will they enjoy, as their fathers did, Hashem’s holy Torah and the wisdom of Chazal?”

His solution to this problem is threefold. 1. Unification, to make one large congregation out of every twenty small ones, and have no more than ten or twelve kehillos. 2. Association. The kehillos should unite into one central power. 3. Establish rabbis. “Each congregation should establish at its head a man of stature etc.” 4. Create a chief rabbinate or Beis Din Gadol.

Would New York Jews follow his advice? What did the future have in store? Only time could tell.

(Chief Source: Jews and Judaism in New York by Rav Moshe Weinberger, translated by Jonathan D. Sarna in People Walk on their Heads, Holmes and Meier Publishers, New York, 1982.)

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