The gilded ghetto – 6/10/24

Today's selection-- from Money Kings by Daniel Schulman. The ever-evolving Jewish community of the 1800s.

“Jacob Schiff was on the path to becoming one of the greatest financiers of his generation, but another mogul still towered above him. Joseph Seligman had realized his vision of becoming something like an American Rothschild, a banker whose firm was ubiquitous in major government and industrial transactions and who moved with ease in the elite financial and political circles where few Jews traveled. In New York, he and his brother Jesse numbered among the only Jewish members of the Union League Club, a stuffy clique of businessmen, politicians, and intellectuals formed during the Civil War to promote the northern cause, and Joseph served on various municipal boards and honorary committees. Including the city’s school commission, where he occupied the so-called ‘Jewish seat.’ But unlike Baron Lionel de Rothschild, the head of London’s N.M. Rothschild & Sons who became the first Jew to serve in Parliament, Joseph stopped short of seeking elected office, despite the efforts of New York Republicans who twice tried to draft him to run for mayor. (Jesse was too floated as a mayoral candidate.)

“Perhaps because the nation of his birth conveyed in countless ways that he was inferior and unwanted – that he was not a citizen but an interloper – Joseph strove consciously to blend into the fabric of the country that had welcomed him, and he raised his children to be thoroughly American. William, with his usual flair for making irritating propositions, once approached Joseph with the idea of changing their Jewish surname, pulling a Belmont as it were to distance the family from the religious stigmas holding them back from unreserved acceptance in the gentile world. ‘An excellent idea,’ Joseph deadpanned, ‘but we might as well keep our initial letter, and for you I suggest the name “Schlemiel.”’ Even though he shut William down with a thunderclap of sarcasm, Joseph seemed keenly aware of the social handicaps of their religion. When he wanted to honor Abraham Lincoln by naming his fifth-born son after the president, he opted to give the boy the similar though less Hebraic-sounding name of Alfred Lincoln.

“There were limits to how far Joseph was willing to assimilate, and he drew a line at renouncing or concealing his Jewishness. And he embraced his role as one of the nation’s most prominent Jews (some called him the ‘King of the Jews’) eve though he was by no means devout. His interest in religion was largely intellectual. A well-read man who perused the pages of the Greek classics before bed – Horatio Alger, the family tutor, recalled Seligman closing each day ‘ engrossed by business cares in the delightful companionship of the master spirits in the domain of literature and science’-- Joseph enjoyed religious and philosophical debate. On Sundays, when he and Babette entertained at their home on West 34th Street, Joseph liked inviting guests with divergent views to enliven the dinner table conversation. He counted as friends Henry Ward Beecher, the prominent congregationalist minister (and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), as well as Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a lawyer and popular orator known for his agnostic views. More than once, he hosted both men, strategically planting a provocative topic and sitting back from his place at the head of the table to take in the spirited rhetorical volley that ensued between his guests. 

“Joseph’s beliefs were closer to Ingersoll’s than to Beecher’s, his Judaism more cultural than spiritual, but he remained fiercely loyal to his people, using his political and social influence to garner support for Jewish causes and charities. For years he served as a trustee of Mount Sinai Hospital, originally called the Jew’s Hospital when it was founded in 1852 to treat New York’s Jewish population, who in some cases faced discrimination at the city’s Christian-run wards. And he headed the German Hebrew Benevolent Society, as much a social outfit as a charitable one, which held banquets and galas to raise funds to distribute to various Jewish organizations. Among its charitable activities, the group provided coal to impoverished immigrant families and occasionally furnished them with the means to continue their migration to the lightly popu;ated West and out of overcrowded New York, where the more established and assimilated Jews feared their newly arrived coreligionists – uneducated and penniless and packing into dilapidated Lower East Side tenements – might arise antisemitic sentiments.

“Seligman’s group had splintered off from an older charity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The split reflected larger divisions between the Germans and the rest of New York’s Jewish community, especially the Sephardim (Jews tracing their ancestry to the Iberian Peninsula) who dominated the charity’s leadership. The right was based in part on religion and in part on class. The Germans had brought with them to America Reform Judaism, a controversial religious movement that had gotten its start in the temples of Berlin and Frankfurt. European Jews increasingly lived outside the ghettos into which they had been shunted for generations, residing more and more among Christians and in some cases losing touch with their faith or converting to Christianity. The Reform movement held that, if Judaism was to survive, the traditional observances needed to adapt to modern times. ‘Whatever makes us ridiculous before the world as it now may safely be and should be abolished,’ noted one prominent Reform rabbi. Reform Jews didn’t cover their heads with yarmulkes. They didn’t keep to the dietary laws. They held their services in German, not in Hebrew. In some cases, they didn’t circumcise their sons. These practices were blasphemous to Orthodox Jews – men like Jacob Schiff’s father – who believed that reformers were watering down their religion beyond recognition. New York’s Sephardic Jews, whose roots in the city extended back to when the island of Manhattan was still a Dutch colony, were bothered by the German’s liberal religious practices. And they were equally put off by the ostentation of the German nouveaux riches. To them, Joseph Seligman would always be a mere pack peddler.

“When the Germans broke off to form their own benevolent society – announcing that this organization would serve only German Jews, not the community as a whole – they all but confirmed the Sephardim’s low opinion of them. The rivalry reached outlandish proportions: in the 1850s, at a joint anniversary dinner attended by members of both groups, Orthodox Jews demanded that the Germans don yarmu;les during the closing benediction. Whe they refused, the Sephardim hurled handkerchiefs and napkins in an effort to forcibly cover the heads of the blasphemers. The evening ended ignominiously. During remarks by Samual Adler, the rabbi of the Reform congregation Temple Emanu-El who got up to address the religious controversy that had erupted, an Orthodox Jew stood up and whistled in protest. A mob of Germans descended, surrounding the man and delivering a fierce beating.

“Outside events gradually pushed these warring factions together. One factor was the financial crisis of 1857 and the ensuing depression: as donations dried up, it made even less sense to have two organizations with similar aims competing for resources. Another was an international controversy that united the world’s Jews, even the bickering benevolent societies, in outrage. In 1858 papal authorities seized a six-year-old Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara from his home in Bologna. As an infant, Mortara had fallen gravely ill, and a servant had secretly baptized him, believing the child was close to death. Years later, based on the servant’s testimony, Bologna’s inquisitor ordered Mortara removed from his home and placed under the protection of the church, where he was raised as a Catholic. Despite international protest and condemnation – not to mention pleas from Mortara’s family to return their son – the pope did not relent.

European Jewish immigrants arriving in New York in 1887

“For Jews, the issue of conversion was a sensitive one, evoking both a painful past and an uncertain future. Jews were no longer forcibly converted at swordpoint or by royal decree, as they had been centuries earlier, but during the nineteenth century organized and proselytizing targeting members of their faith was widespread and aggressive, both in the United States and in Europe. For Jewish leaders, it wasn’t hard to envision a point at which their ancient traditions were slowly extinguished by attrition. 

“The benevolent societies coalesced around the creation of an orphanage for Jewish children, who were all but certain to be raised outside their faith if placed in Christian-run asylums. New York’s Jews had been incredibly prolific in creating a philanthropic network to aid the neediest among them – between 1848 and 1860, they established no fewer than ninety Hewish aid organizations – but this was one institution the community lacked.

“In 1860 the groups merged, forming the Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum Society, which opened its first orphanage at 1 Lamartine Place (what is now West 29th Street). Joseph served as the organization’s first president, though it was his brother Jesse who later spent nearly twenty years at the helm of the group. Jesse ‘felt himself greater and happier in this orphan home than in his bank,’ his friend Carl Schurz, the German-revolutionary-turned-American-statesman, once remarked. And it was Jesse who suggested one of the group’s most successful outreach and fundraising endeavors, the publication of a children’s magazine, Young Israel. The illustrated monthly, printed in the orphan asulum’s basement on equipment Jesse had donated, was an instant hit when it launched in 1871; it helped that Jesse recruited Horatio Alger as a regular contributor.

“Also active in the asylum’s leadership were various members of Seligmans’ social set. Marcus Goldma’s eldest son, Julius, a Columbia-trained lawyer, was a trustee. Emmanuel Lehman served for seven years as its president, and he created a trust fund that handed out college scholarships to deserving orphans. Solomon Loeb was a generous financial backer. In the 1870s, when the asylum faced allegations that the religious schooling of its 173 residents was so paltry that ‘not one was able to recite correctly the ten commandments in English much less in Hebrew,’ Loeb was a member of the committee that probed the charges. (In what may have been a whitewash, the businessman and his colleagues concluded the accusations were unfounded.) 

“The needs of New York’s growing Jewish population were great and growing by the day, and the newspapers carried regular reminders of the depredations motivating immigrants to seek refuge in America. In the late 1860s and early 70’s, many of these harrowing stories – of synagogues desecrated, villages plundered, mobs out for blood – originated in the principalities of Romania, the scene of intense political debate over whether Jews should be granted citizenship. As one representative headline, in the New York Herald, reported. ‘Persecution of the Roumania Jews: Hundreds Wounded. Old Men and Helpless Children Beaten. Stores and Dwellings Broken Open and Robbed. Wanton Destruction of Property. The Police Encourage the Mob.’ Another article told of a Romanian parlimentarian advocating that Jews be barred from owning property, while a colleague argued that perhaps they should simply be drowned in the Danube. 

“In 1870, after news of horrific anti-Jewish massacres reached the United States, the Seligmans and other prominent Jews pressed Ulysses Grant to send Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, a Jewish lawyer living in San Francisco, to Bucharest to serve as U.S. consul. The post was unpaid; to raise funds to subsidize Peixotto’s mission, Joseph and Jesse formed the American Roumanian Society, with Joseph serving as president. This money would allow the newly minted diplomat to ‘make the trial for a couple of years with those benighted and semi-civilized heathens, our co-religionists in Romania,’ Jesse explained. Peixotto’s appointment sent a strong message, and in case the symbolism of dispatching a Jew to Romania as the U.S. government’s official representative wasn’t clear enough, Grant provided his new consul with a letter spelling out his administration’s position on the so-called ‘Jewish question.’ It read, ‘The United States, knowing no distinction of her own citizens on account of religion or nativity, naturally believes in a civilization the world over, which will secure the same universal rights.’”



Daniel Schulman


The Money Kings


Alfred A. Knopf


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