“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.

“But We Survived”: The Unsettled Memory of Polish-Jewish Survivors in the Soviet Union by Lidia Zessin-Jurek

Many unhappy returns

The majority of Polish Jews who survived World War II did so in the Soviet Union, some in the gulags of Siberia, experiencing forced labor, hunger, and illnesses. When they returned to Poland at the end of the war, they often encountered hostile Christian Poles. The hostility of their former neighbors brought about  feelings of betrayal and loss, which are ubiquitously described in the accounts of returning Jewish refugees. Very few of the survivors stayed where they had previously lived. Confronted with postwar antisemitism, most of them chose to leave not only Poland, but Europe altogether, the continent that inflicted upon them wounds that could never heal.

These survivors have been easy to find. Among them are acclaimed authors, directors, economists, philosophers, linguists, scholars, estate managers, doormen, family members, and neighbors. However, few were interested in hearing about their past. Now the moment has come to hear their stories.

Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind (London ; Portland, OR : Vallentine Mitchell, 2003). Call number: DS135.P63 B5863 2003

Dancing on the Titanic

Rita Blattberg Blumstein compares the last weeks her family spent in Krakow before it all started – the war, the Holocaust, the Gulag – to dancing on the Titanic. Her beautiful, cozy life, sheltered by her parents’ love, was interrupted abruptly and irreparably. Yet, until her father died, Rita Blattberg Blumstein said in 2002, “I never thought of myself as a Holocaust victim.”

Jack Pomerantz, Run East (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) DS135.P63 P664 1997

Jack Pomerantz had never been outside his little town of Radzyń when his odyssey began: “I didn’t know how to go east. I followed people. And I walked. I kept walking many days. In a kind of stupor.” His long trip led him to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Siberia, Kazakhstan, and then back to Poland.

Joachim Schoenfeld from Lwów (Lviv) recalled how in the wake of WWII for the first time in the long history of Jewish persecution, refugees had found all the gates to the lands of the ‘free world’ closed: “The 3.5 million Polish Jews found themselves trapped. Not knowing where to go, they moved about aimlessly on the roads and highways like ants to avoid being trampled by a giant’s foot.”[i]

Life-saving deportation to Siberia

Hundreds of thousands of such lives were thus interrupted and thousands of people set on a move. Their eastward exodus began after the German attack on Poland. From the east of Poland, simultaneously occupied by the Soviet Union, the Jewish refugees were sent further to the Soviet interior and forced to hard labor, exposed to hunger and bitter cold.  Returning to Poland at the end of WWII they learned about the tragic fate of relatives they left behind under the German occupation. Torn between feelings of shock, grief, guilt, and relief, they considered their experience of minor importance and kept silent. Only recently have some of the Poland-born Jewish exiles to the USSR begun to convey the stories of their survival.

https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:3293915 Soviet Gulags, 1947 from https://persuasivemaps.library.cornell.edu/

Survivors

They were now both Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Stalinist terror. They were often the only members of their families to remain alive and by far the most numerous group of the few Polish Jews who survived the war. This difficult Soviet chapter of the Holocaust survival, largely overlooked, has recently been the core of research projects conducted by international scholars.[ii]  In the course of their work, they may achieve more inclusive re-definition of Jewish survival, normally associated with the horror of having gone through the death camps or with a difficult hideout among Christians.


Lidia Zessin Jures was a 2018 Research Fellow in Jewish Studies at Fordham University and the New York Public Library. She is currently in the Department of Modern Social and Cultural History at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Science in Prague

[i] Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind, London: Valentine Mitchell 2003; Jack Pomerantz, Run East: Flight from the Holocaust, Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press 1997; Joachim Schoenfeld, Holocaust memoirs: Jews in the Lwów Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration Camp, and as deportees in Siberia, Hoboken, N.J : Ktav Pub. House 1985.

[ii] See the work by, inter alia, Atina Grossmann, Laura Jockusch/ Tamar Lewinsky, Katharina Friedla, John Goldlust, Markus Nesselrodt.

Researching Isaac Myer and His Work on the Kabbalah at the NYPL

by Boaz Huss (Ben Gurion University, Israel and a past Fordham-NYPL Fellow in Jewish Studies)

Dr. Boaz Huss from Ben Gurion University at the NYPL reading Isaac Myer’s papers.

In 1888, Isaac Myer published, in Philadelphia, a book entitled Qabbalah – The Philosophical Writings of Solomon Ben Yehuda Ibn Gabirol. It was the first comprehensive book on Kabbalah printed in the United States, and the most learned and up to date book on Kabbalah in English at the time.                                      

Isaac Myer was born in Philadelphia in 1836.   His ancestors, who immigrated to America in the 17th century from England and from Holland, were Puritans and Dutch reform.  His father, Isaac Myer senior, was a wealthy businessperson. Isaac Jr. graduated from the law department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1857. He practiced law in Philadelphia and New-York and was United States Commissioner of western Pennsylvania. He was a private scholar, a Freemason, and a member of several scholarly and antiquarian associations.

Myer published several books, which can give us an impression of the wide range of his interests. They include Presidential Power over Personal Liberty (1862); The Waterloo Medal (1885); The Qabalah (1888); Scarabs (1894); and his last book The Oldest Books in the World (1900).   He also published several articles, which include articles on Hermes Trismegistus and on Hindu Symbolism published in The Path, an article on “On Dreams by Synesius,” published in The Platonist, and an article entitled “Qabbalah, Quotations from the Zohar and other writings, treating of the Qabbalistic or Divine Philosophy,” published in The Oriental Review.

Myer’s was especially interested in Kabbalah. He presented his unique ideas about Kabbalah in his major book, Qabbalah, as well as in some of his other writings.  His views on the history and significance of Kabbalah are based on comparative and philological-historical research. However, his interest in Kabbalah and comparative religion was not purely historical. It had a theological, spiritual aim. Myer believed that the study of Kabbalah and its ancient origins will revive Christian mysticism, and will enable the formation of a new theology, that will reunite all divided religions.

Myer died in 1902 and was buried in the family lot at Laurel Hill, Philadelphia.  Myer bequeathed his rich library, and many of his own manuscripts, to the Lenox library, which became part of the New York Public Library.

Isaac Myers` papers are found today at the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the NYPL. They contain 11 boxes of Myer’s manuscripts. On November 2017, I spent a few weeks studying this vast collection, with the support of the NYPL and Fordham University grant. I have recently presented the results of my research, at the opening of the conference “Kabbalah in America,” held at Rice University.

Myer’s Collection consists of manuscripts of his published and unpublished works, as well as many translations, transcriptions, commentaries, bibliographies, and indexes related to his research of Kabbalah and other ancient religions, as well as to federalism and constitutional history. Myers’ papers also include several letters, that provide valuable information about Myers’ affiliation and networks.

Myer translated to English dozens of books and articles, mostly on Kabbalah, from Latin, French, German, Hebrew, and Aramaic. They include western esoteric and occult works, such as Franz Molitor’s Philosophy of History and works of Eliphas Levi; 19th-century German Jewish scholarship of Kabbalah, including translations from Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews and Adolph Jellinek’s Selection of Jewish Mysticism and books on Kabbalah in Hebrew, such as Moshe Kunitz`, Ben-Yochai and Abraham Baer Gotlober’s, History of Kabbalah and Hasidut. Myer also translated primary Kabbalistic texts, from Hebrew and Aramaic, such as Ibn Gabai’s Derekh Emuna, and many passages from the Zohar. The archive reveals the Myer was the most knowledgeable person about Kabbalah in the United States in his period. 

Apart from the manuscripts of his published work, Myer’s collection includes also drafts of several unpublished articles, as well as a draft of a book about Johannes Kelpius (1667-1708), the 17th-century German pietist who immigrated with his followers to Pennsylvania in anticipation of the end of the world.  The collection also includes Myer’s eulogy to his friend and patron, Eli K. Price (1797-1884), a lawyer and independent scholar, who the president of the Philadelphia Numismatic and antiquarian society.

Most interesting are the letters found in Myer’s archive, that shed some light on Myer’s networks and the context of his unique interest and perception on Kabbalah. These include correspondence with Thomas Moore Johnson (1851-1919), from Osceola, Missouri, the editor of the journal The Platonist, who was (similar to Myer), an eminent attorney, independent scholar, and an occultist.  Another interesting letter found in the archives is a letter from Merwin-Marie Snell (1863-1921) dated May 30, 1894.  Snell, one of the first scholars of comparative religion, came from a prominent New England protestant family but converted to Catholicism. He published several books, and he is known as one of the organizers of the famous World Parliament of Religions in 1893. He was interested in esotericism and was the founder of one of the most learned, and mysterious occult movement, The Universal Brotherhood.

Myer correspondent also with several Jewish scholars and Rabbis, who helped him in his research of Kabbalah. The archives include a letter which was sent to Myer by Sabato Morais (1823-1897). Morias, originally from Livorno, Italy, was for many years the head of the Orthodox Synagogue Mikveh Yisrael in Philadelphia. He was one of the most important American Jewish scholars and leaders of the late 19th century and was involved in International, American and Jewish public and political issues. In 1886, he founded, as was the first president of the original Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Another Jewish scholar who corresponded with Myer was Henri (Zvi Hirsch) Gersoni (1844-1897). Gersoni who was born in Vilnius, was a Journalist, author, and rabbi, and published extensively on various topics in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. In Myer’s archive, I found a package that contained Gersoni’s translations of Hebrew and Aramaic texts from Adolphe Jellinek’s Beitrage zur Kabbalah. It also included correspondence between Myer and Gersoni, from 1885, regarding translations of different Kabbalistic texts. Another person Myer corresponded with was Chajim David Lippe, a Jewish publisher, and bibliographer from Wien. The study of Myer’s papers at the NYPL sheds light on Myers’ wide scholarly interests and on his unique knowledge and perception of Kabbalah.  The archive reveals Myers’s scholarly and esoteric affiliations and networks, which were quite wide and interesting. The occult and scholarly networks, to which Myer belonged, helped to shape other modern forms and perceptions of Kabbalah, which developed and became popular in America in a later period. Although Myer`s erudition and interests in Kabbalah were unique in his time, many of the characteristics of his modern American Kabbalah will also characterize later forms of Kabbalah in America.