To the Other Shore: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America

To the Other Shore: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America

by Steven Cassedy


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To the Other Shore tells the story of a small but influential group of Jewish intellectuals who immigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire between 1881 and the early 1920s--the era of "mass immigration." This pioneer group of Jewish intellectuals, many of whom were raised in Orthodox homes, abandoned their Jewish identity, absorbed the radical political theories circulating in nineteenth-century Russia, and brought those theories with them to America. When they became leaders in the labor movement in the United States and wrote for the Yiddish, Russian, and English-language radical press, they generally retained the secularized Russian cultural identity they had adopted in their homeland, together with their commitment to socialist theories.

This group includes Abraham Cahan, longtime editor of The Jewish Daily Forward and one of the most influential Jews in America during the first half of this century; Morris Hillquit, a founding figure of the American socialist movement; Michael Zametkin and his wife, Adella Kean, both journalists and labor activists in the early decades of this century; and Chaim Zhitlovsky, one of the most important Yiddish writers in modern times. These immigrants were part of the generation of Jewish intellectuals that preceded the better-known New York Intellectuals of the late 1920s and 1930s--the group chronicled in Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers.

In To the Other Shore, Steven Cassedy offers a broad, clear-eyed portrait of the early Jewish emigré intellectuals in America and the Russian cultural and political doctrines that inspired them.

Originally published in 1997.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691601458
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #361
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

To the Other Shore

The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America

By Steven Cassedy


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-02975-7


"We Were Not Jews"


One OF the great warhorses of the American Yiddish stage was Jacob Gordin's Mirele Efros, written in 1898. In the middle of the 1938 screen version there is a very funny scene. The play is set in the old country. Mirele is a well-to-do widow who has watched her in-laws, led by her son's calculating and strong-willed new bride, take over the family business she had carefully built up from the shambles in which her husband had left it at the time of his death. The mekhutn (daughter-in-law's father), a stock buffoon character, has lost an entire crop of flax, because he insisted on going to the rabbi for advice on the weather. The rabbi had said there would be no rain, there was rain, the flax has rotted, and now the upstart businessman has to tell a gathering of blank-faced Russian peasants that he has no goods to sell them. The mekhutn has been the very essence of farcical, old-world, male yidishkayt, from his grossly exaggerated gestures, to his constant, annoying references to the Sages of Israel, to his lightning-fast and completely perfunctory recitation cf his morning prayers, to his impotent, whining deference before his wife.

Suddenly, the Yiddish-speaking audience notices that a foreign language is being spoken, as the mekhutn (in an absurdly fractured and incorrect Russian) attempts to explain to his disappointed clients why he has nothing to sell. The peasants don't understand. The mekhutn repeats his speech word for word, but shouts it this time. They still don't understand. Finally, in a fit of exasperation he launches into his speech a third time at the top of his lungs, breaks off, and gives up in disgust. The peasants stare vacantly.

This failure of communication is perhaps only partly a linguistic matter: it may be that the peasants understand the mekhutn's words but that his explanation doesn't make sense to them. Still, his discomfiture would have been easily comprehensible to immigrant audiences that went to see Gordin's plays in the early twentieth century. Among the millions of Jews who were Russian subjects even at the end of the nineteenth century, only a small minority were sufficiently assimilated to be able to converse with any degree of eloquence in Russian.

The Jewish intelligentsia set itself apart from the masses, and one of its primary marks of distinction—one of its primary instruments of power, too—was its ability (in the best of cases) to speak a fluent, correct, and educated Russian. Most of the Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States and assumed positions of leadership in the cultural, political, and social life of the growing community of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire were born between the mid-1850s and the early 1870s and thus came of age between the mid-1870s and the late 1880s. Almost all had undergone a process of "Russification" or came from families that had undergone such a process in the previous generation. This process had taken them—or their families before them—from the closed world of the Jewish ghetto to the urban world of the Russian intelligentsia. For those who came from traditional Jewish families, Russification came at great personal cost, since a break with the powerful strictures of traditional Jewish life was a daring and painful step to take.

But the process often brought great prestige, too. To be a Russian intellectual was to be a member of an elite group representing a few hundredths of a percent of the population. It meant access to Western ideas and to public discourse of all sorts. In a country that was almost entirely illiterate it meant reading and writing; it meant access to books and to the press. It also meant access to the underground world of left-wing political conspiracy, where Jewish and non-Jewish activists routinely laid plots against the life of the tsar and other public officials in the brutal Russian autocracy.


It is difficult for us to imagine a life as restricted, as closely regulated, as cut off from the surrounding society as was that of the Russian Jews and their ancestors before the middle of the nineteenth century. Before the end of the eighteenth century there were virtually no Jews living in the Russian Empire. In neighboring Poland, however, there were many, and when Russia, Austria, and Prussia divided up that country in the three Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795), the areas that went to Russia happened to be the ones with the largest numbers of Jewish communities. Poland effectively disappeared from the map, and the newly expanded Russian Empire suddenly found itself with close to a million Jewish subjects.

But it would be only technically accurate to refer to the Jews residing in Poland before the Partitions as "Polish Jews," since they were hardly more "Polish" than traditional Jews in the Russian Empire were "Russian." These were Ashkenazic Jews, the descendants of those who had settled in the Rhineland centuries earlier and borrowed a local German dialect that would develop into Yiddish. Poland was a land that provided a haven for the Jews when the Crusades and other persecutions drove them eastward from their earlier homes, from the end of the eleventh century to the end of the sixteenth century.

Because Poland provided a relatively hospitable climate for the Jews and because a component of this climate was the considerable degree of autonomy the Jews were granted, the entire social, cultural, and religious character of Polish Jewry developed with minimal disturbance from the authorities or from the surrounding Gentile population. The government allowed the Jewish community to exercise authority over its own affairs, and so long as it properly oversaw the collection of taxes and met other basic obligations, the government had little desire to meddle.

The aspect of autonomy that was undoubtedly most decisive in determining the character of Jewish life was the control Jews were given over the education of their children. In addition to bearing the full responsibility of financing Jewish education, the community had a free hand in deciding what sort of schools there would be, what would be taught in them, and who would be required to attend them. The educational system in which the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of many American Jews grew up, based on the long and intensive study of Torah and Talmud from an early age, had been in force for centuries in Poland before the Partitions. Since such education was compulsory for all males in the Jewish community, complete illiteracy among men was almost unknown in this era, and one could safely assume that any adult male was conversant with the prayers and at least some of the central texts of Judaism, all, of course, in the original Hebrew or Aramaic. Subjects like science, medicine, and, philosophy in their modern form, however, were practically unknown to most Jews.

The Jews who abruptly became Russian subjects at the end of the eighteenth century continued to live separately from their host population, but now it was government policy that kept them apart. No sooner had the initial two hundred thousand come under Russian sway in the First Partition of Poland in 1772, than Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia (ruled 1762–96), issued a proclamation barring Jews from settling outside the territories they inhabited at the time of the Partition. By the Third Partition, the area where Jews were permitted to dwell was carefully delineated. It was an area roughly corresponding to present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and part of eastern Poland. It came to be called cherta osedlosti in Russian, the "Pale of Settlement."

Life for the Jews of Poland and Russia was basically the life of the shtetl, or small town, where the great majority of Russian and East European Jews lived throughout the century. There are many descriptions of the shtetl, some fanciful and idealizing, some harsh and denigrating. The picture that emerges from almost all of them is of a tightly regulated life with rules that insure the almost complete separation of the inhabitants from outsiders.

One of the most obvious marks of Jewish separateness was linguistic. The Jews had retained their German dialect even when they settled in countries that were not German-speaking. But as all modern-day descendants of Yiddish-speaking Jews know, there was more to the language of the Jews than just this. Irving Howe, in World of Our Fathers, describes the linguistic peculiarities of shtetl life, where Hebrew is the language of prayer, known almost only to men, and where Yiddish, with its heavy sprinkling of Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases, is the language of everyday conversation, including intimate "conversation" with God. Leo Deutsch (1855–1941), who became one of the most active leaders in the Russian Jewish revolutionary movement, recalls an almost absolute prohibition in the shtetl on using the language of the Gentiles. Deutsch speaks (in Russian) of a time when Jews considered it a sin to study Russian. Only in case of necessity was the use of this language permitted, and then, of course, "only in dealings with Christians (goyim)." Deutsch here is distinctly unsympathetic to the Jews, but his description of shtetl life is among the most eloquent: "Crowded together by the thousands in wretched townlets and hamlets in which there was neither sufficient work nor sufficient trade for craftsmen, the Jewish masses were condemned to drag out a difficult, half-starving existence, to remain mired in ignorance and prejudice, fanatically clinging to their ancient religion and their old customs and views as well."

Despite what Deutsch says, one feature of Jewish life may have eased the transition, for a small minority, from the shtetl to the urban centers in the nineteenth century. It is the very devotion to study and learning that Deutsch holds partly responsible for miring the Jews in ignorance and prejudice. Memoirs of Jewish life in the Pale are full of stories about families that would sell their most cherished possessions or go without food in order to pay for their son's kheyder (beginning religious school). The traditional Jewish education was extraordinarily rigorous, starting from a very early age and often involving young boys in study for most of their waking hours. Jewish boys who were sufficiently successful at their studies to attend a yeshiva (higher academy of Talmudic learning) had many years of experience both in the memorization of enormous stretches of text and in the dialectical form of argumentation that was the characteristic method of Talmudic study. Owing to the academic prowess they showed as a result of this training, once Jews were permitted to enroll in Russian universities—and before their admission was officially restricted later in the nineteenth century—the number of spaces they came to occupy was well beyond the proportion they represented in the general population.


The Jews who emigrated to the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century were not the first to be exposed to ideas from outside the sphere of traditional Jewish life. As early as the beginning of the nineteenth century a handful of Russian Jews had made a move toward assimilation into Western culture. These were followers of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, that had begun in Germany with Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), in Germany's own era of enlightenment. Some Russian Jews had even traveled to Germany to study German philosophy at a time when such travel and such study were almost unheard of. The Haskalah had left a legacy of assimilationism among Mendelssohn's admirers in both Germany and Russia. In Russia, the move by Jews to Western, enlightened ways was even encouraged at various moments by the government, which in the early nineteenth century viewed the assimilationist and modernizing tendencies of the Mendelssohnian Haskalah as a possible antidote to Jewish separatism.

But not all Russian maskilim, as followers of the Haskalah were called, felt that cultural assimilation and the acceptance of Western ideas necessarily meant a wholesale rejection of Jewish religious practice, as did so many of the future emigrants to the United States. In its early years, the Russian Haskalah tended toward a reconciliation between Jewish tradition and modern culture. Mendelssohn had translated the Pentateuch into German (printed in Hebrew characters) as a way of modernizing and Germanizing traditional Jewish experience, and many of the Russian maskilim, in the same spirit, sought to integrate ancient Jewish tradition into modern life, for example, in their efforts to promote Hebrew as a modern, literary language. In the early stages of cultural assimilation, then, the idea was to retain Jewishness and modernize it, rather than to reject it in favor of a modern life that was held to be hopelessly out of kilter with it. That rejection occurred in the generation that took part in the mass emigration to the United States, and it occurred in significant measure because of contact with the progressive ideas of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

The Russians coined the term intelligentsia in the 1860s, though by that time the group to which the term referred had been around for several generations. The word might be construed as simply denoting all intellectuals. But because intellectual life in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century had its own peculiar character, and since a focus on contemporary national and political issues formed an essential part of that character, intelligentsia came to designate a group of intellectuals who were generally of the left-wing political opposition, but whose common feature was their concern with contemporary national and political issues and their involvement with a variety of types of written discourse as forums for those issues. These included literature and literary criticism. To be an intelligent, or member of the intelligentsia, was to have the requisite educational and cultural background to take part in this life, which was centered almost exclusively in the cities.

For anyone, Jew or Gentile, who wished to become part of this exclusive club, there was only one avenue, and that was a solid secular education. Often this meant a university education, but the essential thing for Jews was that the education had to be in Russian. In the first half of the nineteenth century there were thus several conditions preventing the vast majority of Jews from entering the Russian intelligentsia: Jews were largely unassimilated into Russian life, they did not attend Russian schools and universities, and they were forbidden to reside outside the Pale of Settlement. By the middle of the century, however, these conditions had been removed for some, and it became possible for a small number of Jews to join the tiny, elite social group that included in its ranks Russia's celebrated authors, literary critics, and political activists (though celebrity was by no means a necessary condition of membership in the intelligentsia).

Educational policy in the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on the lives of a small but important group of Jews. Legally, it had been possible for Jews to attend schools and universities since 1804, but few had availed themselves of the opportunity that early. The entry of Jews into Russian higher education came largely as the result of two measures. The first was a law in 1844 that provided special schools for Jews and ordered the establishment of two state institutes to train rabbis and teachers. In reality, this law was part of an effort to deal with the "Jewish question" by first consolidating government control over Jewish education and the rabbinate. As a secret supplement to the law plainly showed, the government's true intent was to use the "Crown schools" to bring about the conversion of Russian Jews to Christianity. The secret supplement became known, and most Jews showed little enthusiasm for enrolling in the new schools. But a few thousand did attend, and the result was a first, small generation of Jews who received a secular education similar to the one their Christian countrymen were receiving. The second measure had greater consequences. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II issued a decree proclaiming that Jews holding a degree from a university would be permitted to settle anywhere in the Russian Empire. Because of the residency provision, this law had a double impact on Jewish entry into the urban intelligentsia. Permission to reside outside the Pale was an incentive to study at the university, and studying at the university was an important form of preparation for the life of an intellectual.


Excerpted from To the Other Shore by Steven Cassedy. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Chapter 1. "We Were Not Jews": Being Russian
Chapter 2. "In Chernyshevsky's Kheyder": Being Nihilists
Chapter 3. "Critically Thinking
Individuals": Going to the People
Chapter 4. "A Crisis of Identity": The Pogroms and After
Chapter 5. Coming to Shore
Chapter 6. "We Are Russian Workers and
Besides in America": Writing in Russian
Chapter 7. "We Are Jews"—At Least, You Are:
Writing in Yiddish
Chapter 8. "We Are Americans": Writing in English
Chapter 9. American Realism: Life, Thought, and Art

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"To the Other Shore documents how some Jewish intellectuals, while still in Russia, came to be indoctrinated in Russian revolutionary beliefs—above all Nihilism and Populism—and how they propagated these beliefs in their adopted country. By doing so, it fills a conspicuous gap in the historiography of Jewish immigration in America. This is a fresh, readable, intelligent book that should appeal to a broad audience."—Paul Avrich, author of Anarchist Voices

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