The Talmud Torah was, in contrast to the cheder, a communal school under the direction of a board of directors. One of the best known of these was the Machzike Talmud Torah, which was reorganized in 1883. For a long time it was the pride of the Eastern European Jews who resided on the Lower East Side.
The instruction during this period [1883-1902] was carried on daily from 4 to 8 o’clock every afternoon of the week except Fridays, also from 2 to 5 on Saturdays, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Besides the afternoon classes, there were “day” classes, from 9 to 12 every morning, for young children below public school age. These classes were for the purpose of teaching young children the elements of Hebrew reading and some of the prayers.
The curriculum of the Talmud Torah during this period was as follows: (a) reading of Hebrew, beginning from A B C up to fluent reading, in accordance with the rules of Hebrew grammar; (b) holy Scriptures and grammar; (c) benedictions and prayers, and translation of same; (f) meaning of holidays; (g) reading of the portion of the week (in the Bible) and the Haftorah (prophetic portion), according to the accentual marks and notes, also the benedictions pertaining thereto; (h) Shulchan Aruch and Orach Chayim; (i) decrees of the Jewish faith, and Jewish history.
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But the Talmud Torah was not sufficient for the demands of some of the Eastern European Jews, because it failed to make proper provision for the study of the Talmud. Talmud had formed a very important element in their Jewish curriculum, in many cases the only element. It stressed the development of the “intellect,” and this intellectual ideal the Jews from Eastern Europe retained here also. Because the shorter time at the disposal of the Talmud Torah made it very difficult to meet this demand for instruction in Talmud, except to a limited extent, the most orthodox of the Eastern European Jews began to turn their attention to the third of their educational institutions, the Yeshibah.
The result was that in 1886 Yeshiva Etz Chaim was incorporated as The Etz Chaim Talmudical Academy. The school was an intermediate Talmud Cheder, rather than an elementary school, and was modeled after it European counterparts.
The aim of the institution was “to give instruction to poor Hebrew children in the Hebrew language and the Jewish religion – Talmud, Bible and Shulchan Aruch, during the whole day from 9:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon; also from 4:00 in the afternoon two hours shall be devoted to teaching the native language, English, and one hour to teaching Hebrew, Loschon Hakodesh, (holy language), and to read and write Jargon (Yiddish).”
From the amount of time allocated to secular subjects, it is clear that the directors of the yeshiva considered these far less important than the students’ limudei kodesh studies. Abraham Cahan, who would eventually become the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and a prominent figure in the Socialist movement in America, became one of the first teachers in the English department in 1887.
Cahan records that the curriculum was loosely drawn to provide for the study of grammar, arithmetic, reading, and spelling – all within the “English Department.” But because the directors of the school had no clear idea of what should be taught, the English Department functioned haphazardly, more out of a perfunctory acknowledgement for these subjects than a sincere desire to “provide the children with a modern education.”The English Department was divided into two classes. The first was taught by a boy about fourteen, who had just graduated from public school and the second was taught by Cahan, who was a little less than twenty-eight years old. The students ranged from the ages of nine or ten to fifteen and many were exposed to the formal study of secular subjects for the first time. One of the native students received his first lessons in the English language when he entered the Yeshiva after passing his thirteenth birthday.
The young immigrants presented an immense challenge to their devoted teachers. The students drank up the instruction with a thirst centuries old. Cahan frequently remained long after the prescribed teaching hours to tutor his pupils, who were uniformly poor in reading and mathematics and who regarded grammar as an exquisite form of torture. On these occasions, the directors would ask Cahan why he “worked so hard,” saying that the students “already knew enough English.”
Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.