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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Jewish Education In America Circa 1870


 

Education, to Israelites, in the Hebrew language, now is purely secondary and only taught for the purpose of enabling them to participate in the various religious ceremonies which are given in Hebrew.  Modern American reforms, introduced in synagogue worship, do away with the exclusiveness of the Hebrew and sermons or lectures are now commonly preached in the English and German languages. Some reformers insist that all the services should be conducted in English, or German, so that all the congregation should understand; for it is true that the percentage of Hebrews attending synagogue, and employing the Hebraic understandingly, is very small. In other words, it is evident that the Hebrew language is fast losing its importance among the Jews, it being no longer necessary to employ it hermetically, although the orthodox Israelites cling with great pertinacity to the old habits and customs, and refuse to be separated from the ancient landmarks. It is but a question of time, however, with orthodox Judaism – it must give way to the reformatory spirit of the age.

The Talmud is no longer taught in Jewish schools as an exclusive study. It is referred to and interwoven with other school exercises, but is not a specialty. The Israelites do not, as heretofore, compel their children to an exclusive study of Hebrew, and of Hebrew law, at the age of five and six years; but they impart to them a general knowledge of Hebrew, so that they may read it fluently, even if they understand it but imperfectly, to the end that when they become Bar-mitzvah, or thirteen years of age (the Oriental age of manhood,  when parental authority is considered to cease), they may read their portion of the Torah, or the law of Moses, in the synagogue, as the first witness and exhibit of their entry into the mystic rite of manhood.

Of course history has proven all too well that such a scant Jewish education in no way equips Jewish youth  to deal with an open American society that has tempted and still tempts them to blend in, assimilate, and hence relinquish their Jewish heritage.  Given this, is it at all surprising that in the nineteenth century America became known as “di treifene medina”?



[i] See “A Haven for Jews in New York (Part I),” The Jewish Press, February 3, 2006 (and “A Haven For Jews in New York (Part II): The Founding Of Ararat,” The Jewish Press, March 3, 2006 (for a sketch of Mordechai Manuel Noah’s life.

 

[ii]  Judge Jacob J. Noah, New York Times obituary, October 15, 1897.

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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