“Sarasohn vs. The Workingmen’s Publishing Association”: Socialism, Capitalism, and American-Jewish entrepreneurs in the Yiddish Press in 1890’s New York

By Yael Levi, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On August 22nd, 1898, the Jewish-Russian journalist Phillip Kranz, pseudonym of Jacob Rombro, received a subpoena from the Supreme Court of New York City. Kranz and other writers and editors of the “Workingmen Publishing Association” learned that “the action is brought to recover damages for libel, for a willful, reckless and atrocious libel.” The plaintiff was Kasriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the most important Yiddish and Hebrew press publisher in New York at the time. Sarasohn was represented by his son Abraham, a young and successful lawyer.

The trial revealed some of the most fundamental tensions in the Yiddish press in 1890s New York: orthodox versus secular; capitalism versus socialism; a family business versus a workers‟ organization, popular journalism versus cultural elite journalism, etc. All of these tensions presented themselves openly.

Dos Abendblatt, 1898, NYPL-Dorot Jewish Division

The cause for Sarasohn‟s complaint was an article from the socialist Yiddish daily “Dos Abendblatt” (The Evening Paper; founded in New York on 1894). The socialist daily had been attacking Sarasohn for months, publishing one investigation after another about his misuse of charities, as well as misrepresenting himself as a friend of the workers‟ class supporter, a supporter of the Zionist cause, a charity organizer – thus gaining support, good reputation and capital – while using them eventually for his own profit. Sarasohn demanded 20,000 dollars for the damage to his reputation within the Yiddish speaking community in New York.

Sarasohn was born in 1835 in Paiser, Suwalki County in North-Eastern Europe. His brother in law, the typesetter and editor Mordechay Yahlomstein, escaped to America in 1861, and on 1865 he wrote back to Sarasohn, recommending him to immigrate to America and to found a printing business. Sarasohn settled in New-York in the early 1870s and opened a small printing house. The business grew successful, and the Sarasohn family would later become a prominent force in the Yiddish and Hebrew press in America.

The defendants in the trial, Phillip Krantz and Bernard Feigenbaum, were also Jews from an East-European origin. They came to America in the early 1890s with a solid socialist ideology. After arriving to New York they were involved in writing and editing the socialist weekly “Arbeter Tsaytung”, and later the socialist daily “Dos Abendblatt”, both of which funded by the Socialist Labor Party.

The articles against Sarasohn were originally published in Yiddish; the plaintiff provided a transcript and an English translation to the court. Soon enough the trial shifted from Sarasohn‟s misdeeds to the political affiliation of the defendants. In an article which was published in “Dos Abendblatt” during the trial under the title “Sarasohn informs the court on us as anarchists”, the paper claimed: “Sarasohn writes in his prosecution that we are heretic socialists, „anarchists‟, „demons‟, hoping thus to convince the American jury”. According to the journalist, Sarasohn aimed to put “socialism on trial.”

On his final address to the jury, Sarasohn‟s lawyer – his son Abraham – accused the defendants of being “socialists, anarchists, nihilists […] He told the jury that we are coming from a country (Russia) when every written line must be signed by a policeman, and because of that when we came to this free land – where there is freedom of the press, we misuse this freedom”. The verdict of the trial, given on March 1901, was in favor of Sarasohn; the jury accepted his claim and decided that the “Workingmen‟s Public Association” will pay him 3,500 dollars plus trial expenses.

The fact that Sarasohn was accusing the socialist journalists of being Russian is counterintuitive: after all, he came from a not so far region three decades earlier; he surely didn‟t think any of his newspapers were misusing the very same freedom of the press. However, by using this argument, Sarasohn was able to differentiate between himself, the “good” immigrant, and the socialists, the “bad” immigrants – a very useful differentiation in Fin-de-Siècle America.

This legal case can serve as a key for understanding the ideological and political trends of Jewish immigrants from Eastern-Europe in the first two decades of mass migration. It can also shed light on two major types of economic immigration and Americanization. These types represent different aspects of American capitalism in the 19th century: the worker(s) and the entrepreneur(s).

Sarasohn was different from his opponents in the type of the project each of them ran: “Dos Abendblatt” was an ideological and political project, rather than a profit-oriented business. Sarasohn on the other hand had a family business, not very different from other immigrant entrepreneurs in the late 19th century: it was a small scale project, ran and operated from his home at 175 East Broadway during the first years; his children were his typesetters and later became his business partners; and he didn‟t have any local background both financially and administratively. Put it this way – Sarasohn was an immigrant and an entrepreneur.

Sarasohn’s enterprise – a weekly and later a daily newspaper in Yiddish – was indeed an early form of American Jewish entrepreneurship. He had to count on family labor, communal support and home-based production. But Sarasohn‟s sweatshop was different: his product was a “Jewish” product. Unlike a pair of pants, a tie or a box of cigars – it couldn‟t have been produced and couldn‟t have been bought by non-Jews. Sarasohn needed typesetters who could read the Hebrew Alphabet, and he counted on Yiddish readers to buy his newspapers. The type of the project can also explain why Sarasohn was so worried about his reputation in the Yiddish speaking world: it was his clientele.

The 1890s New York Yiddish press represented vividly the Yiddish worlds of the city, and the main ideological debates were represented in its papers both as a subject and as an object. As the Sarasohn case shows us, understanding the role of the Yiddish press in the Jewish community of the East Side is crucial for portraying the historical and political context of the era.

Yael Levi was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in Jewish Studies in the spring of 2019. Below is the lecture she delivered at Fordham University in April 2018.

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s Day 2020

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day we wanted to highlight The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah from in our Judaica collection. The Freedom Seder was held at the Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, DC, in 1969 and was attended by hundreds of participants, Jews and Christians, black and white.

Passover of 1968 came on Aprl 12, just eight days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and three days after his funeral. Days after the “Holy Week Uprising” was quelled. That year, Arthur Waskow, one of Jewish peace activists at the time and a future founder of the Shalom Center, felt that the Passover holiday spoke to the struggles of the time. As he told NPR’s Code Switch, for that Passover, “I wove the story of the liberation of ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi.”

Saul Raskin, Haggadah shel Pesah (New York, 1941). Fordham University, + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2
Saul Raskin Haggadah for Passover (New York, 1941), Fordham O’Hare Special Collections: + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2

In 1969, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death fell on one of the days of Passover, and Arthur Waskow along with other activists organized the Freedom Seder. For that occasion, Waskow created a “new Haggadah,” one that combined traditional elements with those relevant to the times, using the Saul Raskin Haggadah, which he had been given in 1946 for his bar mitzvah, and adapting it by adding new voices, among them Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Emanuel Ringelblum, and of course Martin Luther King Jr.:

No, the moments of resistance have not been bloodless. The blood of tyrants and the blood of freemen has watered history. But we may not rest easy in that knowledge. The freedom we seek is a freedom from blood as well as a freedom from tyrants. It is incumbent upon us not only to remember in tears the blood of the tyrants and the blood of the prophets and martyrs, but to end the letting of blood. To end it, to end it! For as one of the greatest of our prophets, whose own death by violence at a time near the Passover were member in tears tonight—as the prophet Martin Luther King called us to know: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence. The nonviolent resister rises to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. Nonviolence can reach men where the law can not touch them. So—we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

The Freedom Seder Haggadah was first published in the Ramparts magazine, and, according Waskow, this was “the first Haggadah, certainly the first widely circulated, that celebrated the liberation of other peoples as well as the liberation of the Jewish people.”

The Shalom Center, founded by Rabbi Waskow, has posted a 10 minute video of the 1969 seder:

A New Exhibit at O’Hare Special Collections: Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate

by Magda Teter, The Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies

Technological advances can lead to positive social change. Technological innovations have helped create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. In medieval Europe, the introduction of paper lowered the costs of manuscript production and record keeping. The invention of movable type and the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century made books more easily accessible. The innovations in the production of paper in the nineteenth century, and in printing methods made newspapers, postcards, and color books possible. Photography, radio, and films facilitated new forms communication of news and entertainment. In our lives the Internet has provided new ways to communicate and learn. But along positive change, technological advances have often also been harnessed to less laudable goals, allowing for access to and dissemination of not only “useful” or “respectable” knowledge, but also of hateful stories, derogatory images and stereotypes.

In June 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide.” Twenty-first century media technology has been shown to facilitate dissemination of hate–bullying on social media; chat groups that allow for racist and antisemitic individuals to find like-minded communities; bots amplifying hateful messages. But while the media technology we live with is new, the phenomenon of harnessing new technology for hateful purposes is not. Anytime communications technology advanced, hatred spread as well. The exhibition explores how different technological breakthroughs facilitated the propagation of hate: in Europe—anti-Jewish and antisemitic images and tales, in America—antisemitism and racism.

Bible moralisée/Bible de Saint Louis (Facsimile edition, M. Moleiro, 2000-2004; original, 13th century, between 1226 and 1234, now at Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada, in Toledo)+ SPEC COLL LEACH 2000 2 V.1

Derogatory anti-Jewish iconography emerged at the end of the 12th century not to channel anti-Jewish sentiments but rather to amplify Christian piety. With time this anti-Jewish imagery gained more explicit hateful meaning. Still in the Middle Ages its reach was relatively limited— church art seen only locally, or precious manuscripts seen by few, such as here the splendidly illuminated Bible moralisée—the medieval picture bible—made for King Louis IX of France between 1226 and 1234, on display here. 

The breakthrough came with the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century, which resulted in the first mass produced commodity—the printed book. Along came also cheaper pamphlets and broadsides. While the printing press allowed for the diffusion of knowledge, laws, and devotional texts, the new technology was also employed to disseminate anti-Jewish images and texts. These previously localized, or obscure, images or tales now had a broader reach. Books, even those that only tangentially discussed Jews, helped spread ideas and images—often false and spurious—about Jews and Judaism to a much wider audience. On display is the lavishly illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, which included, among thousands of other stories, some eleven stories about post-biblical Jews, all of them spurious and derogatory. While there were books specifically focused on anti-Jewish content, sometimes books not meant to convey explicitly derogatory ideas captured the state of current knowledge, effectively replicating biased epistemological models, the works of Johannes Buxtorf or Bernard Picart in Fordham’s collection can serve as examples.

Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, originally published in Nuremberg in 1493 in both Latin and German, republished in German in a full size facsimile edition in 1933.
19th-century technology made publishing daily newspapers, postcards, posters, leaflets, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera, possible. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes.

But until the nineteenth century book production was still quite expensive: paper was made through a protracted process from rags, text had to be set from individual types, and any illustrations had to be either carved in wood to make woodcuts, or engraved on copper plates. But in the nineteenth century, wood pulp paper, lithography, rotary press, and offset printing made printing cheaper and more widely available. This facilitated the development of daily newspapers, with front-page color images, as well as postcards, posters, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes much more widely through news and entertainment.

Irene Harand, Azoy? Oder Azoy? Der Emes vegen anti-Semitism [This? Or That? The Truth concerning anti-Semitism.] (Vienna: Karl Popelka, 1933). First published in German as “So? oder so? Wahrheit über den Antisemitismus” (This? or that? The Truth about Antisemitism). The title of the publication “This? Or That?” is tied to the cover design, presenting a choice between “this,” represented as a swastika or “that,” represented by the scales of justice. It was also issued in Yiddish (on display) and in Polish. A recent acquisition.

But these hateful challenges did not go unanswered. Jews, as well as non-Jews, often became allies in the fight against hatred, turning to religious values for moral support, celebrating festivals together, and organizing for a better future.

The Common Road to Freedom Passover Haggadah (Prepared for the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985). First edition, prepared the Shabbat Hagadol Social Action Sabbath in 1985. In English with some Hebrew. It is an example of a joint response to racism and antisemitism. A recent acquisition.

The exhibition “Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate” is on view until May 31st, 2020 at the O’Hare Special Collections at the Walsh Family Library at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus.

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The exhibition was co-curated by Sally Brander FCRH ‘20, Clare McCabe FCRH ‘20, and Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies, with contributions from students in Professor Teter’s seminar on antisemitism (HIST 4308) from Fall 2018 and 2019, and assistance and support from Linda Loschiavo, the Director of the Walsh Family Library and Vivian (Wei) Shen of the O’Hare Special Collections.

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The exhibition would not have been possible without the generosity of Mr. Eugene Shvidler, whose gift to Fordham’s Jewish Studies program helped start Fordham’s Judaica collection.