Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Defending pre-war America


The descendants of those Jews who arrived after the second World War are fond of insisting that pre-war America was a spiritual wasteland, a place where traditional Judaism went to die, but hold on....
  • Most of the major American yeshivot opened before the war Torah v'Dass, Chofetz Chaim, Chaim Berlin, NIRC, and RIETS are all pre-war. Several Orthodox High schools date to that era, as well, such as Hili, now HAFTR, Shulamith, Ramaz, MTA, Yeshiva of Flatbush, and Maimonides. Who was funding and attending these institutions if pre-war American Orthodoxy was so insignificant?

  • Yeshiva University came into existence before the war, along with major Orthodox institutions like the Rabbinical Council of America and the OU. There was even an American Agudas Yisroel before the war.

  • Heinz products displayed an OU as early as 1923 What created the demand for a national kosher certification if things were as bad as the post-war arrivals claim?

  • Before the war the Conservative Movement was, mostly, halachic. The fact that it grew exponentially in the 20s and 30s demonstrates a desire on the part of new arrivals and their children to remain part of a halchik community. When the newly upsacle child of an Eastern European Jew joined a Conservative shul it wasn't an act of rebellion, but an expression of devotion. In those days, the differences between CJ and OJ shuls were differences of class and style. The OJ shuls had less decorum and the members were working class; at the the CJ shul services were more orderly and formal, with mostly middle-class congregants. Contrast a very hasidic shtieble, with a place like Aish Kodesh, and you'll begin to understand how OJ and CJ shuls were unalike in the pre-war days. (The battles over mechitzot and microphones belonged to the 50s and 60s, not the pre-war years.)

  • Historians say many different forces led to the development of our 5day workweek; one of them, all agree, was the massive influx of Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They demanded Saturday off and by the 20s and 30s many places of business were obliging.
Given all this, its fair to ask: What is the origin of the pernicious slander that pre-war America was mortally hostile to Judaism and the observance of halacha? Where did it come from? How can it be sustained in the face of so much evidence to the contrary?

I have a few ideas...

(for those too lazy to click) I think the slander of pre-war American Judaism originated with survivors who wanted to find some cosmic meaning or value in their war-time experiences. After going through hell, they must have asked themselves what for? "Ah, for the sake of our children, and grandchildren," goes the common reply, echoed by Bray in his horrible Holocaust posts. "Had we left for America before Hitler, we wouldn't have suffered, but our children wouldn't be frum. For this, everything we endured was worth it." The truth, alas, is that they could have had it all. They could have come to America, skipped the suffering, and raised frum families. This inconvenient fact is painful to face, so it is ignored. Moreover, the worse pre-war America is imagined to have been, the more noble their suffering seems. This is why the flaws and shortcomings of that era are magnified. Its why the lie about new arrivals dumping their tfillin in NY harbor was invented. All pf this is done in the service of a (perfectly understandable)justification.

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