Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
Jewish Reserve
By Gustav Gottheil (1827–1903)
 
[Born in Pinne, Prussia, 1827. Died in New York, N. Y., 1903. From an Article in the North American Review. 1878.—Revised by the Author. 1888.]

THE SOCIAL coherence of the Jews, which survives in spite of the acquired civil equality, still puzzles the Gentile observer. To the theological mind it argues a divine purpose with the chosen, but temporarily rejected, race, and to the philosopher the astounding pertinacity of traits of character; to those hostile to the Jews it is a proof of a secret conspiracy against the welfare of the Christian nations; and the most general impression is that pride of race lies at the bottom of the strange fact. Even Mr. James Freeman Clarke has no other explanation to offer. He says: “Hereditary and ancestral pride separated them (the Jews), and still separates them, from the rest of mankind.”
  1
  How singular, indeed, that when the Jew attempts to quit his reserve and mix freely with his neighbors, he is repelled and unceremoniously shown back to his own tribe; and, when he keeps there, he is accused of hereditary and ancestral pride! We need not search for an explanation to great depths; the reasons lie much nearer the surface; so near, indeed, that even “he who runs” may see them.  2
  Be it remembered that most of the heads of families are of foreign birth, and were of mature age when they pitched their tents on this free soil. They had contracted their social habits, which to abandon they saw no reason whatever. They readily fell in line for the discharge of their civic duties; but their private life, their domestic customs, which were of the German-Jewish type, they could not all at once change without causing a rent in their most intimate relations. These are far too precious for such experiments. People whose strongest affections centre in their homes are naturally tenacious of their manners and usages; and none should understand this better than those of the Anglo-Saxon stock, who themselves carry their household gods with them wherever they go. Besides, recreation after the exacting labors of the day a man can find nowhere except in places where he may move in perfect ease and freedom; and these, again, the society of his equals in temperament, language, and taste, alone will afford him. The Jews do not differ in this respect from other foreigners, all of whom show a decided preference for their own circles.  3
  In the civilized countries of the old world the seclusion of the Jews has almost entirely disappeared, and it would cease here much sooner but for the ecclesiasticism which enters so largely into the formation of American society. Christianity, although not legally dominant, is yet practically so. Where the spirit has departed, the phraseology still remains. Everywhere the tenets of that faith are assumed as beyond question, and make conversation often embarrassing to the dissenting Israelite. No matter how much or how little the Gentile believes of the dogmas, the assumption of their truth does not inconvenience him; no need for him to guard against the charge of supineness and insincerity, to which, however, the Hebrew lays himself open if he fail to record his dissent. Nor is it the dogma alone which enjoys that preëminence. The laws of morality, the motives of kindness, the graces of conduct, are also marked with the device of the Church. I am not speaking now in the way of censure; I simply state facts which are patent to all. But let the candid reader realize for a moment the feelings with which an Israelite must hear every virtue under heaven—manliness, candor, honor, humility, love, forbearance, even charity and the sanctities of home, nay, courtesy itself—a matter in which the coarse Norseman was the disciple of the polished and courtly Oriental—stamped with a name that degrades him and makes him appear a graceless intruder into the circle of the elect—and the problem of Hebrew retirement will lose much of its mystery. It will then appear why the Hebrew philanthropist does not yet take that personal share in the benevolent labors of his fellow-citizens which he is most willing and unquestionably able to bear. Where his money is welcome his faith is proscribed. Dear and near to his heart as many of the beneficent efforts for the amelioration of the conditions of the poor are, he can do no more than aid them with his purse, for he knows that his just sensibilities will not be consulted. We readily admit that often no insult is intended, but that does not take the sting from the reproach, pronounced or implied. If long habit is pleaded as an extenuation, our answer is: The time has surely come to conquer it. Some think that it is for the Jew himself to remove the obstacle in his way, abandoning reserve. This may be so, but such missions do not ordinarily inspire men with the courage to face prejudice. We do not for a moment pretend that the Jews are blameless in that respect, and never indulge in religious arrogance. We have no excuse for them, beyond this, that the fault is a little less reprehensible in those who have suffered so much for their faith’s sake. It certainly is for the dominant religion, rather than for that of a small minority, to lead the way in this timely reform.  4
  If social alienation is undesirable on general grounds, it is especially so for this reason, that it prevents both Jews and Christians from correcting their views of their respective religions, a thing as yet much needed on either side. Nothing brings man nearer to man than the sacred community of good work; nothing strengthens faith in the Father more surely than the growing sense of the brotherhood of His children. Probably unbelief itself will not object to be conquered by the logic of such facts. If churches and synagogues must needs preach the same truth under different aspects, and worship God in diverse tongues, may they not learn to praise Him also in the universal language of good deeds on the broad fields of our common humanity? Meanwhile, we shall do what in us lies to make ourselves known, not only outwardly, but inwardly too; we shall let the reader into all the mysteries of our faith, as far as we ourselves know them. For, after all, the chief interest which the Hebrew race offers to the eye of the student is its religion. As the propounders, witnesses, and soldiers of a new faith, the Jews appeared in history and have steadfastly pursued their course, from the call of their first father, “the friend of God,” in the plains of ancient Chaldea, to this day, when their presence is felt in so many lands. Through light and darkness, through victory and defeat, through glory and shame, their faces remained firmly set toward a goal which the ancient seers planted on the heights of a redeemed and perfected humanity. Their contributions to the intellectual and industrial achievements of the past were of no mean importance, but they all had their root in the religious genius which they developed, and it is their religious mission from which they derive to this day both the right and the duty to remain outside of the dominant religions.  5
 
 
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