A Jew Sees His People As Others See Them

This week we present another Jew’s comment on his race and for the good of the race. Bert Levy has said these things before Jewish Women’s Councils, and B’nai B’rith lodges, and they will assist readers of this series to an understanding of some of the truer, though minority, influences which are at work in American Jewry. He sincerely exposes every obvious defect, and it is to be hoped that one day, with as sincere a pen, he will go deeper. Mr. Levy’s chosen title is:


From a far-off land I came, a sad-eyed, pale-faced, poetic young Jew, with an unspeakable love of my people burning in my heart. Of Polish-Russian parentage, there was implanted in my nature an indefinable sorrow (born perhaps of my father’s and mother’s persecution), which left me high-strung and sensitive to the anti-Semitic taunts of my schoolmates.

Given to idle dreaming by some old abandoned shaft or roaming the deserted alluvial diggings of the little mining town of my youth, I would conjure up visions of that new world I had so often read about—that great country where there was no prejudice against my race—the New Jerusalem.

Shyly hugging to my breast some borrowed American book or magazine I would seek the shadows of the huge decaying poppet legs and dream over the pages containing many Jewish faces, and I read with pride and gratitude of the high places occupied by my people in music, art, literature and the drama. Filled with Jewish names and good Jewish deeds was the story of this new Zion, and a longing to be among the great ones of my people took possession of me. Between my dear father and myself there was a bond of love too sacred for words, and when I looked upon his dear face for the last time in this world and bade him a sorrowful goodby before my departure for the New Jerusalem, he held me close to his breast and whispered:

“Don’t forget that you are a Jew, and if you need sympathy, love or help, go to your own race and show your Arba Kanfoth.” (According to Deuteronomy XXII, 12, the Jews are commanded to wear fringe upon four corners of their vestures and this command is observed to the present day by wearing a special garment with these fringes, generally hidden by the ordinary clothes.)

I carried my father’s words across the ocean in my heart and the memory of his tear-dimmed eyes and the pressure of his big loving arms has never left me; in fact, it is so strong at times that I find it hard to believe that he is not by my side telling me, in spite of many disappointments, that after all the Jews are still my brethren and sisters.

Words fail to describe my feelings as the beauties of the New World unfolded to me. In wonderful contrast to the melancholy aspect of my own country was the joyous color of Samoa, with its hallowed memories of Robert Louis Stevenson, lifted like some fairy veil out of the midst of the Pacific to give me a glimpse, as it were, of my dream of America—the New Jerusalem.

Oh, the wonderful days and wonderful nights out on that vast blue expanse, where God and His stars seemed so near that one formed a good resolution with every throb of the great engine far down below. On one of those nights I sat listening to some one playing in the music salon and I was inwardly thanking the Creator that there was a Puccini in the world and that he had given us “La Boheme.” There we were, thousands of miles from anywhere, languidly rolling under a perfect moonlit sky, listening to the plaintive airs that Puccini had coined for Mimi. There was hardly a sound but the gentle lapping of the waves breaking against the vessel’s side till a slight commotion on deck up ahead caused some of the listeners to investigate. One of the passengers, an ex-Harvard man, returned with the remark:

“Oh it’s only some damned Jew. He’s fallen and hurt himself pretty badly.”

Like a smudge on some beautiful picture was this anti-Semitic sentiment on such a night, and considering its source I felt deeply grieved. As I was the only other Jew in the first cabin I made my way to the stateroom where they had carried the victim of the accident and found him to be a tender-hearted old man who I subsequently learned had spent a long life in acts of charity toward his fellow men and women, regardless of creed. He was returning to end his days in Jerusalem (his Jerusalem, not the one of my dreams), where he could touch again the beloved stones of the wailing wall.

Something in the old man’s face, that “something” which was in the face of my father, my brother, that “something” which is in the face of every Jew, drew me to him, as it has drawn me to all Jews always, and I spent many intellectual hours by his bedside, picking up grains of wisdom which he had translated from the Talmud. I wished that the ex-Harvard man could have known that the old man’s wrinkles were but the pathetic records of the massacres of his kith and kin which he had witnessed in his homeland and that he daily prayed for death to efface the awful memories.

Later on the ex-Harvard man asked me to join in a deck game. I reminded him that I also was a “damned Jew.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know what you refer to—that was an unfortunate slip I made the other night—merely a figure of speech, I assure you.”

I found him a charming companion and soon in a cozy corner of the smoking room we became fast friends and I tried to win him over to think better of our people.

“I would like to hear your opinion of your fellow Jew after you have spent, say, twelve months in America,” he said.

Since then I have walked the length and breadth of the great cities of America, and my very soul cried out to my fellow Jew: “Suppress Thyself!” The day I arrived in New York I learned that my dearest friend, my father, had passed away, and naturally my first thought was to say the kaddish, a prayer of the Jewish liturgy recited by orphans for the welfare of the souls of their deceased parents, somewhat after the fashion of the Catholic mass. Every male of Jewish blood at some time of his life recites this beautiful prayer. It does not matter how far one strays from the fold or how much one has denied the faith, there comes a time when the Jew in him asserts itself and he says the kaddish.

Public prayer among Jews can be recited only in the presence of ten males above the age of religious maturity, and this assembly is called minyan. Surely in this great city I would easily find a minyan, I thought; so I followed the line of least resistance, like any stranger in a strange land, and sought out the Jewish names best known to the public. I called at a business house uptown with the name of a great Hebrew over the door. He was the great man of whom I read with such pride in the little mining town at the other end of the world. Yes! The same Jewish face depicted in the huge photograph in the lobby I had seen in the magazine I had hugged so lovingly at home.

I made my way, full of hope, to his office and was asked by a doorkeeper my mission. I explained—the doorkeeper was a Hebrew—that I desired to say kaddish for my father and that I wanted to form a minyan. With a sly wink he passed me on to several Hebrew clerks and office boys, each of whom smiled, sneered, and made his little joke about “greenhorns.” Then I was ushered with many grimaces into the presence of the big man.

Just a minute’s conversation convinced me that he was a Jew in appearance only, and that he had never known anything of the traditions, the romance, the art or the literature of our race. He didn’t exactly know what minyan was, or pretended he didn’t, but recommended me to “one of our people,” as he put it, who ran a very popular chophouse close by. I began to realize that I was a stranger among my own people and that night I walked the streets of great New York with an aching heart. Everywhere in the hurrying crowds I saw the faces of my brethren and sisters, thousands, hundreds of thousands of them, hurrying, pushing, shoving brethren they were, with all the tenderness, the friendship and the Semitic look gone from their eyes.

“Oh God!” I thought, “are these the children of Israel? Is this the persecuted race—that people who had been scattered to the four corners of the earth?”

Hungry and weary, I made my way as if in a dream to the café of a great hotel. Everything in the huge room was glaringly false—marble pillars, oak beams, flowers, were all imitation: a big orchestra sat in a balcony with an artificial moon and a painted sky as a background; everywhere were lights, lights and more lights.

From table to table I went but I was roughly reminded that “this” was reserved and “that” was reserved. Presently glaringly gowned, bediamonded Jewish women, accompanied by equally vulgar Jewish men, filed in and occupied every seat, and between mouthfuls of food and drink their bodies would sway to the voices of other Jews who sang only of “Mississippi” and “Georgia.” How these people did laugh when they caught sight of my foreign clothes and my pale, poetic face, and how they would have screamed with laughter had I shown them my Arba Kanfoth, that beautiful little token which my poor father fondly imagined would have made me understood in the New World.

Out in the night I went and found myself struggling in a torrent of humanity. Every time I received an extra bump or hard push I looked only to see that my antagonist was a Hebrew. On the street, in the cars, in the subway, or at the soda fountain, wherever I saw my fellow Jews blatantly shouting and rudely pushing, I, in spite of my indignation, felt the love of my race uppermost in my heart, and I wanted to cry out:

“Oh, Jew; dear brothers and sisters, suppress yourselves for the good of the race! Stand back! For the good of the race!”

Never in the world have our people known such a free country as this, and it is a privilege to be here, but at times a great fear comes over me that we are abusing that privilege. Amid the din of Jewish music and laughter, the newsboys are shouting the names of Jewish murderers (the Rosenthal case), the gunmen of the city. The bribe givers and the bribe takers depicted in the news sheets have Jewish countenances. The gambling house keepers—yes! yes! I know that there are Christians who are murderers, gamblers and informers, but the Jew is a marked man. He is distinct, apart, so distinct that in a crowd he is the first noticed.

It is for this reason that I would have my brethren and sisters suppress themselves, stand back! I would have real Jews take the worst of a bargain once in a while for the sake of the race. I would have them once in a while give up their seats in public conveyances, behave modestly in cafés, dress quietly, and give up the use of assumed Christian names.

There is nothing so pathetic as the man who, with Hebrew face, assumes a Christian name. I never go to a public place without wishing that my fellow Jew would talk less and appear less ostentatious. When one Hebrew comes in late to a show, marches down the aisle and on the front row deliberately obstructs the view of people in the audience as he stands slowly removing and folding his coat and gloves, he seems to cause more annoyance than if half a dozen Gentiles did the same thing. When a Jew stands aside and waits patiently at a ticket window, gives his seat to a lady on a street car or behaves in a refined manner in any walk of life, he immediately makes friends for our people.

Most of our people, I have found, have aggressive personalities: it is the aggressiveness which has enabled many immigrants to pass through Ellis Island to ownership of fine apartment houses all within a couple of years—but sometimes this aggressiveness becomes absolutely cruel, crushing from the very soul all the tender elements which go to make up a happy life.

Recently I thought with much bitterness of my father’s last words to me: “If you need sympathy, love or help, go to your own race.” Ill-health overcame me and I became involved in debt for a trifling amount. Each stage of my embarrassment and consequent suffering was contributed to by a brother Jew. First, the shyster lawyer, without principle or mercy, then his brutal clerks, sly and grafting. Next, a collector, absolutely callous, then the process server, and, at last, the “bouncer,” sans heart, sans soul, sans everything.

If all these agents of misfortune were Gentiles I could have borne it, but the greatest heartbreak of all was the fact that one and all of them were brother Jews. Why must a Jew always be in at the death, as it were?

There came a time soon after this when I walked the streets almost penniless. Seeking work, I applied at the store of a wealthy Hebrew. I explained to the well-groomed proprietor that I was an orthodox member of his race and appealed on that ground for a chance. He pooh-poohed the idea.

“My dear fellow,” said he, “these are the enlightened days, when Judaism is not taken seriously, in fact, it doesn’t pay. I am a Christian Cultist, I meet nice people and it helps my business.”

Here was a poor fool with his head like the ostrich’s—in the sand. I explained to him that being a Jew was not a question of religion but a question of blood. I told him that if a Jewish leopard ceased visiting the synagogue to go to a Christian Cultist chapel it did not necessarily get rid of its spots. I left him scratching his head, and I also lost the chance of a job in his store.

In and out of offices presided over by men with Jewish faces I trudged all day. Most of these men, I subsequently learned, belonged to New Thought, Christian Cultist and other up-to-date churches and societies—it was good for their business. They called themselves Christians, but nature’s marks cannot be changed like one’s clothes.

In the great theatrical districts I found thousands of my fellow Jews who had grown rich overnight by coining perhaps a popular song that had pleased the cabaret-mad crowd or by ridiculous impersonations of their race upon the music hall stages. A good many of these were young men, sons of fathers and mothers who had been driven from their own country with fire and sword.

The mothers and fathers stay at home blessing God every hour of the day and night for guiding them to such a country as this, while the sons and daughters are out at the theaters, in the halls and cabarets singing songs of Dixie. Passing by in this great throng are prominent actors, critics and playwrights, many under assumed names, simply because their own names are Jewish.

Flashing across the horizon as I write is a notorious Jewish doctor with a consumption cure. He could have been famous and honored had he but suppressed himself, instead of which he, with his commercial instinct and his press agent methods, made more enemies for the race. Many Gentiles, I will admit, have had consumption cures, but it remained for one of our people to float companies and open institutions before the “cure” was even reported upon by the government.

Tramping the city tired and weary of looking for friendly Jewish faces I found myself near the City Hall. I approached a milk station and bought a cent’s worth of the most delicious milk I have ever tasted. A rough-looking fellow next to me said, as he smacked his lips:

“Pretty good stuff, that,” and perhaps noting that I was a stranger, he added: “The guy who is doing this milk thing is saving the babies all right—he’s some rich Jew—God bless him—I’ve got three babies of my own.”

Hungering to hear a Jew praised I talked with this man for an hour, listening with keen enjoyment to the story of one of my race who had caused his millions to do good for the people irrespective of creed, and had kept himself suppressed. I learned of this Jew’s efforts for the dying babies at home and for his starving co-religionists in Palestine and felt proud. Proud and happy for the first time, I sat in the little park watching the passing procession till I dozed off into a sound sleep. My happiness continued in my sleep, for I had a most beautiful dream.

Before me in my dream passed a grand parade; it was a series of “For the good of the race” tableaux. All the prominent professional Jews headed the procession with their real names and the name of their race emblazoned upon silk banners in letters of gold. Then came all the Hebrew gambling house keepers bearing aloft broken roulette wheels and other emblems of a discarded and disgraced “business.”

Next in order was a large army of Hebrews who were professional bondsmen for arrested street walkers headed by two crooked ward politicians carrying a streamer with the words: “Henceforth we will go to work.” These men looked a little sad as they marched along thinking of the easy money they were leaving behind, but the cheers of the multitude exulting over their great sacrifice somewhat atoned for their agony of mind. Next followed the amalgamated Jewish usurers, real estate and company promoters’ union. This part of the parade took four hours and a half to pass a given point.

All the marchers had discarded their expensive clothing and their diamonds and were modestly attired. They had also discarded their automobiles—many of the prominent men in this section carried flags and banners upon which were inscribed the legends: “We will not lie about values.” “We will not charge exorbitant interest” and “We will not water our stock.” These inscriptions were received with incredulous looks of astonishment, and many of the crowd called out: “We’re from Missouri,” whatever that meant.

Then came a beautiful torchlight brigade called “The Hebrew Firebugs’ Union.” Nearly all these men had their hair close-cropped and wore prison clothes, a fact which filled the crowd with relief. Next came that part of the procession which showed the greatest following among its marchers. It was the large army of Hebrew “aggressives.” Hundreds and thousands of them passed by with reformed looks upon their faces. Oh, I felt so happy as I read the buttons they wore and saw the flags they carried. Most of the streamers read: “We will suppress ourselves.” “We will stand back and keep quiet.” “We will be unostentatious.” There they were, hundreds of well-known faces and types—end-seat hogs, front-seat hogs, loud talkers, inconsiderates, bargainers and the terrible army of people that go to make up the crowd which is directly responsible for the anti-Semitic feeling. The line of them was miles long.

I was awakened from my happy dream by a rude thump from a Jewish policeman who hurried me to a police station, where I was surrounded by shyster lawyers, my brethren, who wanted money with which they could square other brethren. I could not gain the services of a Hebrew bondsman because I had no pull. A Hebrew magistrate called me a “bum” and a loafer for going to sleep in a public park.

“Keep awake in the future,” he said as I was roughly bundled out of the court.

Keep awake! This is the worst advice he could have given me, for I was so happy asleep and dreaming that my brethren and sisters had reformed and had become real Jews for the sake of the race.

I now look upon my police court humiliation as the best thing that could have happened to me, for a kindly old Jewish scholar, who acted as court interpreter, was attracted by my appearance. His long contact with human misery and his great experience with foreigners stranded in a strange country enabled him to understand me.

That night he took me to his poverty-stricken little room behind a delicatessen shop in the Ghetto. After supper he went to the street door and called the neighbors from their stoops. He called them by their first names and I said kaddish for my father as they stood around among the pickle barrels.

Since then I have lived among Jews, real Jews. I have learned that beneath the ragged coat of a push-cart vender there may beat a heart of gold, and that a poor seller of collar buttons or suspenders may be a student of the Talmud with a mind that is a gift of the gods.

Leaving the seething, modern, fashionable life of upper Broadway to enter the religious atmosphere of the numerous schools of Jewish literature on the East Side entails a violent contrast in conditions.

To see the deeply furrowed, time-scarred faces of the grand old men pouring over their beloved Talmud is to get a glimpse of another world—a world of resignation, peace and love.

Within earshot of the thundering traffic of Broadway I stood gazing at the bowed figures engaged in study and prayer. As I gazed the sordid walls of the poverty-stricken room faded from my sight, and in their stead I saw (in my mind’s eye) the wailing wall of Jerusalem or some ruin of the Holy City—a more fitting background to the rabbinical figures so strangely out of place in hustling America.

The great passion for the dead and gone past reflected in the Rembrandtesque faces of the aged students lends to their lives a religious grandeur which the uptown tourist (hastily passing on a rubber-neck wagon) would never suspect. Behind many a shabby-looking little store, or maybe, above some corner saloon, are the societies for the study of Hebrew literature, where congregate the types of Jewish scholars and philosophers that make the heart of the writer and artist glad.

Gray-haired, bewhiskered, sad old men, many of whom have tasted only the bitterness of life—yet such is their faith in the Almighty that they cling to the praying shawl and Bible to blot out the memory of a Kishineff—their lives of study and prayer amid abject poverty giving the lie to the fallacy that the Jew lives but for money.

I have often wandered among these scholars picking up the crumbs of wisdom which fall from the lips of the old men, grateful that my Jewish face and blood gave me the privilege to sit and sketch among them. Somehow or other my ramblings on the East Side are like the calm after the storm of the uptown struggle.

Many times I have felt the heart tug—the longing to be among my people—the real Jews—and, leaving theatrical uptown, the land of make-believe and unrest, I have sought the little schools of study where the wonderful real old men who live by optimism and nourish their souls by faith teach me the lesson of patience and the love of humanity.

There is something restful and inspiring when an old man—long past the biblical three score and ten—places his hand on your shoulder and murmurs in Yiddish, “It is God’s will.” I have envied the profound peace of many of these aged students living in the past and undisturbed by thoughts of the future. Their Jewish view of life is as beautiful as it is simple. It disregards neither earth nor heaven. I looks to earth and observes the evil prevailing among men; it thinks of heaven and ponders on the bliss of “the future state,” and it urges man to strive to bring heaven on earth, to establish by justice and equity those blessed conditions on earth which so many associate with heaven.

Their Jewish view of death is equally beautiful. For those who die they feel no sorrow. Having once torn aside the veil which parts the known and the unknown, having once entered into the shadow, or rather the sunshine, of the beyond, they are better off in the other life. Whether death means eternal sleep or eternal life, those who have left our side, having passed into the arms of pitiless death, repose in a condition which should give survivors no cause for anxiety on account of their beloved dead.

In the pathetic chapter of “The Old Curiosity Shop,” in which Dickens tells of the death of Little Nell, he makes the Schoolmaster utter these words of wisdom, on which all who mourn for their dead may well ponder. “If,” said he, “one deliberate wish expressed in solemn terms above the bed could call her back to life, which of us would utter it?”

Dickens took this view of death from the Talmud.

The interpretation of a difficult passage from the Talmud, or the coining of an epigram, is as food and wine to the wise old students, and there is not an ill in their lives that cannot be soothed or a blessing that cannot be acknowledged in a quotation from their beloved book. To watch them at their study and devotions undisturbed by the turmoil about them is to marvel at the faith which has enabled some of them to live more than one hundred years with no other interest in life than their God and their books.

From the dingy windows of the schools the mass of sordid buildings looks to their eyes like the hills of Palestine, and the shriek of the passing elevated trains and the clanging of the car bells and the din of passing traffic disturb them not, for they live in the past.

The alleged Jew of the fashionable uptown lobster palaces—the blatant, pushing type, who is the direct cause of much anti-Semitic feeling—knows and cares nothing for the submerged student of his race. The latter is equally oblivious of the alleged Jew who is contemptuously referred to as a meshumad (apostate). But while the former stands out in the world of money and worldly success as a target for much abuse and hatred, the latter lives with books, unknown and unheeded, drawing from the Talmud a joy that riches cannot buy and solacing himself with the love of humanity.

In strong contrast to their fathers and grandfathers are the children of these old men. Modern America, with its opportunities for all, has torn them from the religious atmosphere and sent them uptown to become the lawyers, the artists and the actors.

The Jewish comedian of the vaudeville theater who nightly sets the audience shrieking at his Yiddish idioms is in nine cases out of ten the son of a scholar, and though the glamour of Broadway success claims him and he no longer lives home, in his heart of hearts he is a Jew and never forgets the old people. He will tell many stories of his parents to his Gentile friends, imitating and exaggerating their many characteristics, but he is mighty sore when he hears a Gentile do the same thing. But, after all, the comic Jew of the modern stage is but an imaginary sketch.

There is absolutely nothing humorous in these old men of Judea. Even in the sordid surroundings where you find them engaged in prayer or study, their attitude is one of quiet dignity—a dignity enhanced by their extreme old age.

In a little dark den behind a poultry store I was sketching some of the old men at study. One old fellow one hundred and four years old was explaining to a young fellow of sixty a passage in the Talmud about which the latter was in doubt. Both men were without coats. The younger man had left his push-cart at the door, entirely forgetting the perishable goods thereon and quite oblivious to the fact that hundreds of dirty children were surrounding his cart and fooling with his wares.

Other old men were in the school, and the background to their somber faces was the shop with its ghastly poultry suspended by the necks. One of the old Talmudic students would now and again leave his ponderous Bible to serve in the shop, returning after wrapping a fowl in a newspaper, to the verse he had been propounding. There was absolutely nothing humorous in all this, but I would love to have had some of my non-Jewish friends see how little thought of money and business the real Jew has.

Sometimes when I have felt full of shame at the behavior in public places of men and women with Jewish faces but with no Judaism in their hearts, I have wished that the simple, studious lives of the old men of the East Side could be the standard by which our race is judged, and that the Talmudic saying so aptly put into verse by Rabbi Myers was better known:

“Which is the path, both right and wise,
  That for himself a man should find?
That which himself much dignifies,
  And brings him honor from mankind.”

[THE DEARBORN INDEPENDENT, issue of 7 May 1921]