In my last post we saw what my cousin Milton Goldsmith predicted for the 21st century; in this post, we will start to look at his life in the 20th century.
In 1900, Milton was recently married to Sophie Hyman of New York City, and the newlywed couple were living in Philadelphia where Milton continued to make a living as a clothing merchant. Their first child, Rosalind, was born on February 1, 1901, in Philadelphia,1 and a second daughter, Madeleine, followed on May 29, 1904, also in Philadelphia.2
A Victim of Conscience takes place in the 1850s in a city that is unnamed but (based on the street names) is most likely Philadelphia. The main character is a recent German Jewish immigrant named Isaac Schwartz. He has been in America for four years at the beginning of the novel and is living in dire poverty, desperate for a way to earn enough money to support his family. He finally decides to go to California to join the gold rush. There he encounters anti-Semitism and abuse and ultimately commits the crime that makes him a “victim of conscience.”
The principal theme of the book is atonement. Isaac seeks advice from a rabbi about how to atone for his crime and is discouraged by some of the rigidity of Jewish law. He then considers converting to Catholicism and studies with a priest, but ultimately decides that he can’t accept the notion that mere faith in Christ as his savior will provide salvation. In the end he learns that Judaism can provide a path to forgiveness and expiation for his sins.
The book’s focus is thus on Isaac’s struggle with his conscience and how religion affects that struggle. But the book is of more interest to me in the way that it reflects the way my cousin Milton understood his own family’s story—their life in Germany, their reasons for leaving Germany, and the life they found when they first settled in the US fifty years before he wrote this book. A few excerpts will illustrate what I mean.
Although I have no reason to assume that Milton was being at all autobiographical in describing the lives of some of his characters, I did wonder whether this description of Isaac’s life in Germany was based on his father Abraham’s life in Oberlistingen before emigrating:4
Isaac’s father, old Meyer Schwartz, was a power in his native village of D. He was in fair circumstances, and educated as far as education went in those days; for the Jews, rich and poor alike, were denied the privileges of the village schools, and were limited in their instruction to the teachings of their “Cheders ” and the scraps of information which they could impart one to the other. Old Schwartz was a profound Talmud scholar, and was deemed as wise as he was devout, which was no equivocal compliment, for he was pious indeed. … It was [his] ambition to make a Rabbi of [Isaac], but in spite of his earnest and painstaking instruction, Isaac never got beyond the general outlines of the law and the Talmud. Buying and selling afforded him more pleasure than poring over parchments, and, after a vain effort to keep him to his studies, old Schwartz reluctantly allowed him to follow his own inclinations.
Milton also provided some background for the reasons so many German Jews emigrated:5
In those days the Jews in Germany had few rights and many grievances. Harsh measures were devised, stringent laws enacted to drive them out of the country, or at least to restrict their increase. The possession and cultivation of land, the study of a profession, the following of the fine arts, were all interdicted. Buying and selling, borrowing and lending, were the only channels in which the Israelites were allowed to exercise their ingenuity, and grievous was their condition in consequence. Worse still, a Jew was not allowed to marry until some co-religionist in the community had died or had moved away.
His main character Isaac decides to emigrate because he wants to marry the woman he loves, Lena, and cannot stay in his home community and do so.
Milton also described the hard lives of the Jews who made a living as peddlers after coming to the US, as his father Abraham probably did:6
A number of peddlers were among the visitors, stalwart young fellows but lately arrived from Germany, who, with a heavy pack on their shoulders, or, if their means allowed, with horse and wagon, wandered through the State, hawking a varied assortment of merchandise, and seeking to master the American tongue while they accumulated American dollars. It was a hard experience, but a salutary one. For the pious Jews, peddling meant untold privations, a total abstinence of all food except eggs and such “Kosher” dried meats as they could carry with them. It meant a weary trudging through unfamiliar villages, over stony roads, amid hostile surroundings, from Sunday morning until Friday evening, and a short rest on the Sabbath in some synagogue town.
It was a career which might well have daunted the most enterprising youth, and yet thousands of “greenhorns ” adopted it, thrived at it, became wealthy through it. It was not considered degrading in those pioneer days, but eminently proper for a new arrival.
The book also sheds light on the lives of German Jewish families in Philadelphia during that time period—the level of observance of Jewish law, the economic and social conditions, and the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. The book is likely more valuable today for what it reveals about its times than for its literary merit, but for me, it was a worthwhile read.
Thus, by 1903, Milton had published two novels and written many essays, short stories, and even a musical. He and his family must have decided that it was time to leave Philadelphia and move to New York City where he might have more opportunities to pursue his literary career.
You can download a free copy of A Victim of Conscience here.
- Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VBYW-R9L : 9 March 2018), Rosalind Goldsmith, 01 Feb 1901; citing bk 1901 p 107, Department of Records; FHL microfilm 1,289,340. ↩
- Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VBBL-N5K : 8 December 2014), Madeline Goldsmith, 29 May 1904; citing cn 22583, Department of Records; FHL microfilm 2,110,933. ↩
- Milton Goldsmith, A Victim of Conscience (Henry T. Coates & Co., 1903). ↩
- Ibid., p.6. ↩
- Ibid., p. 7. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 84-85. ↩