High Holiday services for Jewish soldiers in WWI

This blog often features personal narratives written by Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today’s historical “guest blogger” is Rabbi Lee J. Levinger (1890–1966).

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in years was A Jewish Chaplain in France, a 1921 memoir by a young Reform rabbi from Chicago who, in World War I, was one of the few Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military. Today, we’ll read his account of High Holiday services for Jewish soldiers, but the whole book is worth your time. This excerpt doesn’t fully convey the very personal, point-of-view style in which he shares his wartime experiences.

Here Rabbi Levinger writes of his work in Nevers, France, in the cool, gray autumn of 1918, the last year of the “War to End All Wars”:


Rabbi Levinger as a Jewish welfare worker in postwar France - March 1919

Rabbi Levinger in France just after the war.

…Many Americans were stationed in or near the city—railroad engineers, training camps of combat units newly arrived in France, construction engineers, quartermaster units, and two great hospital centers. Every company I visited, every ward in the hospitals, had at least a few Jewish boys, and all of them were equally glad to see me and to attend my services. In fact, my first clear impression in France was that here lay a tremendous field for work, crying out for Jewish chaplains and other religious workers, and that we had such a pitiful force to answer the demand. At that time there were over fifty thousand Jewish soldiers in the A. E. F. [American Expeditionary Forces] at a very conservative estimate, with exactly six chaplains and four representatives of the Jewish Welfare Board to minister to them. When I took up my work at Nevers, I was simply staggered by the demands made on me and my inability to fulfill more than a fraction of them.

At first came the sudden rush of men into the city for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The hotels filled up almost at once; then came others who could not find accommodations, and still others Continue reading

Jewish women beyond the balcony, Pt. 2: A forerunner to the modern Bat Mitzvah

Bar mitzvah ceremonies for boys have existed for hundreds of years. There were sporadic attempts to create comparable rituals for girls, but none had a lasting impact until the 1800s.

The main precursor to modern bat mitzvahs was the nineteenth-century annual Religious Initiations for girls, mainly in certain German and Italian synagogues, but also less commonly in other countries such as Poland. Today, the Between Wanderings blog explores these “proto-Bat Mitzvahs” through letters published in Italian Jewish magazines around 1900. They tell us much about attitudes towards women and gender, even in the relatively progressive temples that embraced these ceremonies.

Let’s start with the words of Emma Boghen Conigliani, a noted educator and literary scholar who belonged to the Jewish Temple of Modena, Italy. This letter appeared in the 1899 volume of Il vessillo israelitico, starting on page 185:


Synagogue in Modena, Italy

The Tempio Israelitico di Modena (Jewish Temple of Modena), built in 1873. [2008 photo by Dread83, distrib. under GNU Free Doc. License.]

For several years, a beautiful new female celebration has been brightening Jewish temples: the religious initiation of girls. This ceremony, held in Verona on the first day of Passover starting in 1844, was introduced in Modena a few years ago by our revered and devoted Rabbi, Mr. Giuseppe Cammeo. He is deservedly well regarded by our whole Congregation, which he has served excellently, instilling all the moral and religious values that are the hallmark of every good citizen.

Synagogues in Ferrara, Venice, Milan, Rome and Trieste followed this laudable example, and it would Continue reading

Jewish women beyond the balcony, Pt. 1: Romania

In a Jewish magazine from the 1890s, I recently spotted a letter to the editor from a Sephardic Jew in Romania. It was like many other letters in old periodicals, except that in the middle, he slipped in this gem of a story about an Ashkenazic shul in Bucharest:


…During the High Holidays, I attended a Selichot service at an Ashkenazic synagogue at 2 o’clock in the morning, attracted there by a strange event that, at least to me, was completely new. This is because the chanting of Selichot was performed by a woman, with a self-assurance and a voice that would put the most talented Hazzan [cantor] to shame. Strangely, not only was the Hazzan a woman, but so was the person serving as Shamash, and so was the whole congregation. This happened daily at 2 a.m., and we men had to remain segregated. Honestly, it was curiously interesting to note the devotion and silence with which the congregants listened to their officiant praying. The Kaddish, however, was not included…

—Haim Cohen, Bucharest, Oct. 23, 1891
Il corriere israelitico, vol. 30, no. 6, p. 132
Translation © 2016 Steven Capsuto


These few sentences tell us so much about what was happening then. On the one hand, some congregations were already seeking ways for women to participate more fully in prayer services (sometimes in segregated services, sometimes not). On the other hand, such services were so rare that even Mr. Cohen, who was very active in Jewish life in a major city, had never heard of such a thing.

This got me thinking about the changing role of women in 19th-century Judaism. And that reminded me of letters in other 19th-century Jewish magazines, which talked about an early form of Italian bat mitzvah, similar to a kind that was already gaining traction in some German synagogues.

So for this week’s main post (which will be online this Wednesday), I’ve translated some letters that appeared in Jewish magazines at the time, describing girls’ religious initiation ceremonies in Italy in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. These group ceremonies, held annually, combined elements of Jewish bar mitzvahs with some of the visual aspects of their Catholic neighbors’ First Holy Communion ceremonies.

Stop by the blog this Wednesday.

Exterior of the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest in 1904

We don’t know what Ashkenazic shul Haim Cohen visited that night, but we do know which Sephardic synagogue he belonged to: the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest (Kahal Kadosh Gadol), seen here in 1904. Built in the 1810s, it was in use until its destruction in a 1941 pogrom.

Book announcement — “Jewish Immigrants in Early 1900s America: A Visitor’s Account,” with 50 vintage pictures

Book cover: "Jewish Immigrants in Early 1900s America"

Fifty vintage photos and illustrations enhance this booklet by political writer Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu. Originally published in French in 1905, it’s the text of a talk he gave shortly after his two-month visit to America.

Leroy-Beaulieu toured Jewish communities in the northeastern U.S. in the spring of 1904 to see how the throngs of recent Jewish refugees were doing in the New World. He was so impressed with what he saw that, when he got home to France, he gave this detailed and celebratory talk to the Jewish Studies Association in Paris, kvelling about how Jewish refugees were thriving in “that land of wonders and liberty,” the United States.

This new translation features Continue reading

Jewish Schools in Palestine and Syria, 1870s-1900s: The Alliance Israélite Universelle

This fascinating 1903 article from the French magazine Le Monde Illustré has good and bad points.

Its positive side: An eloquent journalist gives us a rare, vivid look inside the modernization of Jewish education in the Middle East more than a century ago. Its negative side: His biases. The author was a staunch colonialist whose writings bashed non-European cultures, exalted all things French, and reserved special scorn for Orthodox Jews and religion in general. Despite these shortcomings, the article contains great information and illustrations. It is therefore worth trudging through the rough bits, which are mostly near the beginning.

I first translated this for an English edition of Ángel Pulido’s book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language. That book abridges the article and omits most of the pictures, so I’m posting the full piece here with all the original images. Since it’s from 1903, expect a certain amount of now-dated terminology (“Oriental,” “Moslem,” sexist language, etc.).


THE FRENCH LANGUAGE IN THE EAST
The Educational Work of the Alliance Israélite
by Quercus


(Le monde illustré, April 11, 1903.

English translation ©2016 by Steven Capsuto.)


It looks best from a distance, in the great silence and vast peace of the desert: the silky Sea of Gennesaret, nestled mysteriously in a hollow among the iridescent mountains, dominated by the snowy cap of Mt. Hermon. The still surface of the water is an intense azure that holds your eye, and the pale-blue sky itself looks so deep that it could be another Continue reading

Book announcement — “Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language,” about Sephardim and Ladino in the early 20th century


The Between Wanderings book series publishes new translations of vintage books celebrating Jewish life from the 1850s to 1920s—a time of intense migration, changes and challenges for Jews. Some of the books feature first-person accounts of the era’s Jewish communities, customs, folklore, synagogues, schools, foods and culture.
 


I’m pleased to announce a new annotated English translation of Ángel Pulido’s Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language. Scholars of Sephardic history and culture have been quoting this seminal book for 112 years, and it has never been available in English before. Continue reading

Tradition and assimilation in a Jewish immigrant family in Boston (1890s)

Mary Antin in 1915

Mary Antin in 1915

This blog will often feature personal narratives written by Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They’re like guest bloggers from our past, telling us their stories.

Today’s “guest” is immigration rights activist Mary Antin (1881-1949), who emigrated from Russia to Boston with her family in the 1890s. In her teens, she wrote a short book about her journey: From Plotzk to Boston (Boston: W.B. Clarke & Co., 1899), which she originally drafted in Yiddish. In the preface, she tells us:


In the year 1891, a mighty wave of the emigration movement swept over all parts of Russia, carrying with it a vast number of the Jewish population to the distant shores of the New World—from tyranny to democracy, from darkness to light, from bondage and persecution to freedom, justice and equality. But the great mass knew nothing of these things; they were going to the foreign world in hopes only of Continue reading

Jewish life in the 1850s–1920s, in the words of people who were there.

Welcome to Between Wanderings, a new blog celebrating Jewish life and culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—a time of great migration and change—told in the words of people who lived then.

The Between Wanderings Project has two parts:

The blog brings you excerpts of memoirs, diaries, letters, articles, fiction and other texts written by Jews in many countries (and occasionally by Gentiles who took an interest in the Jewish world), and links to historical resources. Many of the entries will be translations from other languages. Here are the sorts of posts you can expect:

  • An immigrant family caught between tradition and assimilation in 1890s Boston
  • A profile of Jewish schools in the Middle East in the early 1900s, with lots of photos
  • Links to vintage Yiddish music recordings from the 1900s to 1920s
  • Moving accounts of holiday celebrations among Jewish soldiers in World War I
  • Classic, lovely short stories by authors such as Sholem Aleichem
  • Descriptions of “proto-bat mitzvahs” in 19th-century Italy
  • A collection of evocative, colorful Sephardic proverbs
  • A look at New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the last century
  • …and many other treats!

The Between Wanderings book series consists of classic Jewish-themed books of the 1850s–1920s, newly translated into English, available as e-books and/or paperbacks. Currently available for purchase:

Two more book translations are already underway.