Isidor Straus (1845-1912), famous for building R.H. Macy’s into the largest department store in the world, was a close personal friend of, and trusted adviser to, President Grover Cleveland. He worked on Cleveland’s 1892 reelection campaign and, after turning down the position of postmaster general, served as a Democrat in Congress, representing New York’s Fifteenth District from 1895 to 1897. He chose not to run after just one term and also repeatedly refused the nomination for mayor of New York.
In the historic and rare August 8, 1904 correspondence to William S. Rodie, Esq., pictured on the jump page of this article, Straus writes of his pleasure at being among those selected to travel to Esopus, New York, to the Hudson River estate of Judge Alton B. Parker to officially notify Parker of his presidential nomination:
I am in receipt of your favor inviting me to accompany the Committee on Notification to Esopus on Wednesday next, and in reply beg to say that it will afford me so much pleasure to be one of the party present at the official notification to Judge Parker of his nomination.
Rodie served as the manager of Parker’s campaign after the conservative Democrat resigned as chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals to run for president. After Parker defeated liberal publisher William Randolph Hearst for the Democratic Party nomination, he was crushed by the incumbent Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, in the 1904 general election.
Notwithstanding Straus’s extensive business and political activities, he is first and foremost known for his romantic heroism in dying on the Titanic with his beloved wife, Ida (nee Rosalie Ida Blun), whom he met while working with her at the National Council of Jewish Women and wed at New York City’s Temple Emanuel in 1871.
After celebrating Passover in England before boarding the ship for its ill-fated voyage, Ida wrote to their children to remind them that “this is already the third day of Pesach” and “you should all be eating your Matzos.”
After the Titanic collided with the iceberg on April 14, 1912, Isidor was offered a seat in a lifeboat to accompany his wife, but he repeatedly refused seating while there were still women and children aboard the ship. He urged Ida to take the spot offered to her aboard Lifeboat 8 but she also declined, famously reciting the beautiful biblical verse from the Book of Ruth (1:16-17): “Where you go, I will go. Where you die, I will die.”
The couple was last seen embracing on deck, and eyewitness survivors described the scene as a remarkable exhibition of love. Isidor’s death brought an end to a life devoted to social service, education, the Jewish community, the business world, and the New York Democratic Party.
A generally unknown irony is that on the night of their deaths on the Titanic, the Strauses were not far from their eldest son, Jesse Isidor, the American ambassador to France who was traveling back to Paris aboard the Amerika. The Amerika had sent the Titanic an ice warning only a few hours before it sank, and Jesse had also sent a personal telegram to his parents about the iceberg sighting in nearby waters.
Isidor and Ida’s final hours have become an integral part of the Titanic legend. For example, one of the most haunting scenes in James Cameron’s Oscar-winning winning 1997 film depicts them lying together while the water rises around them (though the portrayal of the actual event of their decision on deck to die together was, unfortunately, left on the cutting room floor).
The day after the Titanic sank, The New York Times reported that “a score of the Titanic’s steerage were taken to the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Immigrant Aid Society, 229 East Broadway for the night.” According to HIAS records, the agency assisted 27 Titanic survivors.
There were a substantive number of Jews on the Titanic, to the point where kosher meals were available and the crew included Charles Kennell, known as the “Hebrew chef.” On the Shabbat subsequent to the disaster, synagogues across New York were packed, as worshippers memorialized the Jews who had lost their lives on the Titanic, most of whom were third-class passengers likely seeking a new life in the United States.
The memorial service for the Strauses drew over 40,000 attendees. Ida’s body was never found, but Isidor’s remains, identified on April 26, 1912, were interred in the Straus family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. On the side of his tomb is the beautiful verse from Song of Songs 8:7 (which, I must mention, my sister and I also engraved on our mother’s matzevah, in the original Hebrew): “Many waters cannot quench love; neither can floods drown it.”
World-renowned cantor Yossele Rosenblatt recorded a Kel Maleh Rachamim for RCA Victor to memorialize the Titanic victims, and he donated all his rights to a fund for the families of the victims. He also recorded Der Naser Kever (“The Watery Grave”), which was written by New York Yiddish lyricist Solomon Small.
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As a child, Isidor had moved from Germany to Talbot County, Georgia, which later became famous as the place where the immigrant Straus family started a successful dry goods business. His father, Lazarus (1809-1898), was a rural landowner and successful seed and grain dealer who had been active in the failed German Revolution of 1848. Fearing government reprisal, he emigrated from Bavaria to America in 1852, bringing his wife and four children (Isidor was the oldest) to America two years later.
The Strauses were the only Jewish family in Talbot; there were no synagogues, let alone any other Jewish institutions, and Isidor was not raised with anything resembling a traditional Jewish education. Though Lazarus was a Hebraist who ostensibly appreciated Jewish tradition, the family regularly ate bacon prepared in their own smokehouse.
Though a descendent of a long line of prominent Orthodox Jews – his paternal great-grandfather, Jacob Ben Lazar, had been chosen by Napoleon as a member of the Sanhedrin he sought to convene to advise him regarding the emancipation of the Jews under his rule – Isidor was never a practicing Jew or, for that matter, a member of any religious organization. As he later wrote to Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard (1909):
While I was born in the Jewish faith, I have never belonged to any synagogue or temple…. I have brought up a family of six children, all now having families of their own, none of whom have ever associated themselves with any religious organization.
The Straus family left Talbot after a county grand jury issued an 1863 proclamation blaming Jews for rising prices and characterizing them as disloyal to the Confederacy. This was a particularly ironic development, given that the teenaged Isidor, as a good Southern boy fervently dedicated to the Confederate cause, had tried to enlist in the Confederate army but, after being turned down because he was too young, worked for a company that engaged in running Union blockades.
Lazarus spoke out openly against anti-Semitism, and the experience may well have played a part in the development of young Isidor’s future Jewish philanthropy, including particularly his active involvement in the plight of Russian Jewry.
Isidor’s endeavors on behalf of the New York Jewish community included helping to found the American Jewish Committee; founding an endowment for the Jewish Theological Seminary; supporting the publication of the Jewish Encyclopedia; laying the cornerstone for Synagogue Ansche Chesed in New York City; serving as president of Montefiore Home, described by The New York Times as “the largest Jewish hospital in the world;” and organizing and serving as president of the Educational Alliance, with respect to which no less a personage than Mark Twain admiringly wrote in 1907: “For 14 years, Isidor Straus, the president of Educational Alliance, has devoted himself to educating these future citizens.”
At a time when many Jews changed their names and joined churches to deflect anti-Semitism and to facilitate assimilation into American society, Isidor did not deny his heritage; indeed, he embraced it. However, he remained first and foremost a committed secularist. He encouraged newly-arriving European Jews to fully assimilate into American society, and he condemned immigrants living in the Lower East Side Jewish ghetto for their continuing dedication to Jewish tradition and practice, which he viewed as inimical to civic participation and American patriotism.
He denounced Judah Magnes, a leading American Reform Rabbi, for advocating a return to more Orthodox Jewish practices, characterizing his views as “extreme” and “retrogressive.” At his direction, even the Educational Alliance, the cultural center he helped found to serve immigrant Jews, worked hard to steer the new Jewish immigrants away from their traditional cultural behaviors and sought to dissuade them from continuing their “superstitious religious beliefs.”
Not well known is that Isidor was also vehemently anti-Zionist. As he unambiguously wrote to his brother, Nathan, in 1907:
I look upon Zionism as a dangerous dogma for us in this country. If the new immigrants who arrive here by the hundreds and thousands during the course of a few years, and of whom the Educational Alliance is trying to make good American citizens, are met with the dogma that this country is only a tarrying ground for an ultimate home in Palestine, it places in the hands of the anti-Semites, as well as those who are opposed to immigration, a weapon…
I thoroughly agree with [Jacob] Schiff that Zionism is incompatible with patriotism…. If Zionism means a home for the Jews, I am radically opposed to it…. Zionism in any shape, manner, or form, as a propaganda in this country, I have no patience with, and I am utterly and irrevocably opposed to it.
Those words are particularly striking given his intimate relationship with two brothers who were actually fervent Zionists.
Oscar Straus was serving as American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire when Theodore Herzl visited Eretz Yisrael in1898, and throughout his life he manifested a strong sense of responsibility toward the Jewish community. On numerous occasions he interceded on behalf of the suffering Jews of Russia and Romania, and it was due to his efforts that President Benjamin Harrison, in his 1889 State of the Union speech, addressed the czar’s persecution of Jews.
Oscar contributed to various projects for the rehabilitation of Eretz Yisrael and he supported territorial proposals for the settlement of persecuted Jews there. He also helped found the YMHA (1874); the American Jewish Historical Society (1892), serving as its first president; and the American Jewish Committee (1906). But that is just a small part of the Straus family’s Zionist involvement.
In 1912, Isidor and Ida, and Isidor’s brother Nathan and his wife, Lina, were traveling in Europe, when Nathan had an idea: he suggested the two couples take a side trip to Eretz Yisrael. Nathan was overwhelmed by the experience of being in the Promised Land and working to help the needy Jewish communities there, but Isidor quickly decided he’d had enough: “How many camels, hovels, and yeshivas can you see? It’s time to go.” Nathan, however, was not ready to leave his beloved Holy Land, so Isidor and Ida returned alone to London, where Isidor booked passage for all four to sail back to America.
As departure time drew near, Isidor sent an emergency cable to his brother, advising that if he and Lina did not get to England they would, quite literally, miss the boat. Nathan delayed, however, because he felt he had so much more work to do on behalf of Jews in Eretz Yisrael. By the time he and Lina reached London on April 10, the ocean liner had already left Southampton with Isidor and Ida aboard.
That liner, of course, was the Titanic.
Nathan saw his close call as a heavenly message, and the knowledge that he’d escaped almost certain death because of his dedication to Eretz Yisrael would preoccupy him to the end of his days. He withdrew from most his business activities and dedicated the last 15 years of his life to the support of Eretz Yisrael.
Besides giving more than two-thirds of his vast fortune to Jewish institutions and individuals in Eretz Yisrael, Nathan established a domestic science school for girls (1912), a health bureau to fight malaria and trachoma, and free public kitchens. He also opened a Pasteur Institute, child-health welfare stations, and the monumental Nathan and Lina Straus Health Centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The modern city of Netanya is named for him, as is Jerusalem’s Rechov Straus, and President Taft hailed him as the greatest Jew of the previous quarter century.
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Finally, I cannot conclude this article without relating my favorite personal Titanic story. I was driving carpool one morning in 1997 and the group of teenaged girls I was chauffeuring to their yeshiva were discussing the aforementioned movie “Titanic,” which had just come out and which they had seen over the weekend.
As I listened to them dissect, and analyze, and probe, and debate – verily, unto death – every miniscule facet of the film, I finally spoke up, thereby violating the prime directive applicable to every parent driving carpool, to wit: “Thou shalt remain invisible at all times, and thou shalt in all circumstances remain resolutely mute so as not to embarrass your own progeny.”
I simply could not resist commenting: “Yes, and wasn’t it really sad when, at the end of the film, the Titanic sank and all those people were killed?”
After several moments of dumbfounded silence, one young lady in the back of the car asked, transparently awestruck: “You saw the movie?”