Milton Goldsmith, Children’s Author and More

My father remembers Milton Goldsmith as an author of children’s books so I was not surprised to learn that Milton had in fact written a number of works for children after moving to New York City in about 1905.

In 1905, Milton, Sophie, and their two young daughters were living at 1125 Madison Avenue in New York City, but Milton was still working as a merchant, according to the 1905 New York State census.

Milton Goldsmith 1905 NYS census
New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Population Census Schedules, 1905; Election District: A.D. 29 E.D. 20; City: Manhattan; County: New York; Page: 30
Ancestry.com. New York, State Census, 1905

However, by 1906, Milton was listed in Who’s Who in America as an art publisher and author.1 The listing stated that he was the president of Goldsmith-Leving Company, a company engaged in the embossing of art, calendars, pictures, and the like.  It further described him as a contributor of many short stories to magazines and local and Jewish newspapers and of “several hundred poems” to magazines such as Puck, Judge, Life, and Cosmopolitan. In addition, Milton’s musical and dramatic works were mentioned in the listing and, of course, his books.

In 1908 Milton published his first children’s books. So far I have found three of them published in that year alone. The Adventure of Walter and The Rabbits,2 is a story about a boy named Walter who follows a rabbit into a hole in a tree and observes the rabbit family; he learns never to be cruel to animals based on his observations.  It is a sweet story and one with a lesson all children should learn.  Its innocence and simplicity seem quite refreshing in contrast with some of the cloying Berenstain Bear books I’ve lately had to read to my three year old grandson. I assume that Milton wrote this book with his two young daughters in mind.

I was unable to locate online versions of the other two children’s books published by Milton Goldsmith in 1908; I wish that I could spend the money to buy copies of all his works, but alas, that is not feasible. But I was able to find images of the covers of the books online.

One was entitled Dorothy’s Dolls:3

The third book published by Milton Goldsmith in 1908, also a children’s book, was The Magic Doll. 4

I imagine that Milton’s two young daughters Rosalind and Madeleine were the inspiration for all three books. From this point forward in his writing career, almost all his books were written for an audience of children.

By 1910, Milton seems to have left the art embossing business and gone into advertising, for that is the occupation listed for him on the 1910 census.  At that time he and Sophie were living at 783 Madison Avenue with Sophie’s mother and her two sisters as well as her sisters’ husbands. I was puzzled that neither of Milton and Sophie’s daughters was listed in the household; Rosalind would have been nine, Madeleine six. Where could they have been? Since I could not find them anywhere else on the 1910 census, I believe that this was just an enumeration mistake.

Milton Goldsmith 1910 US Census
Year: 1910; Census Place: Manhattan Ward 19, New York, New York; Roll: T624_1043; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 1161; FHL microfilm: 1375056
Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census

According to one source, Milton spent 1910 and 1911 in Berlin and Paris, translating German and French plays into English for the American stage.

By 1915, they were all listed together (though Rosalind was here listed as Ralph and as a son), living at 353 West 85th Street in New York, and Milton continued to work in advertising, now at his own agency.

Milton Goldsmith 1915 NYS census
New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Population Census Schedules, 1915; Election District: 25; Assembly District: 15; City: New York; County: New York; Page: 18
Ancestry.com. New York, State Census, 1915

Meanwhile, his writing career continued. As his daughters grew from young children to schoolgirls and teenagers, his works also targeted somewhat older audiences than the fairy tales he’d written in 1908. In 1916, he published Practical Things with Simple Tools: A Book for Young Mechanics.5

Interestingly, and a sign of its times, this book was specifically targeted for boys. Here is part of the introduction to the book:

The book consists of instructions and illustrations for how to make a long list of things intended for boys:

Milton Goldsmith also wrote two books under the pseudonym Astra Cielo during these years.  The first, published in 1917, Fortunes and Dreams, is a “practical manual of fortune telling, divination, and the interpretation of dreams, signs, and omens.”6 The second Astra Cielo book is similar. Published in 1918, Signs, Omens and Superstitions covers, as you’d expect, signs, omens and superstitions.7

It’s hard to imagine the same author who expressed quite modern views of religion and skepticism about superstition in A Victim of Conscience and Rabbi and Priest endorsing these practices, but perhaps that’s why he wrote under a pseudonym.  Although both books express doubts about believing in or relying on these practices, the books go into great detail about these subjects and thus create a sense that these are legitimate practices and beliefs.

After these works of “non-fiction,” Milton published a novel for older children, The Strange Adventures of Prince Charming: A Story for Young & Old. 8  This work is a full length novel and tells about the adventures of a young prince as he makes his journey in the “real world.” It has elements of satire and more advanced vocabulary than the earlier children’s books. (I confess I did not read the entire book; perhaps my older grandson would appreciate it, however.)

Milton ended the decade with another work of children’s non-fiction, I Wonder Why: The How, When and Wherefore of Many Things.9 I was very happy to see that he dedicated this book to his daughters, “Rosalind and Madeleine, whose many questions inspired the writing of this book.” At least this time he recognized that girls also have curiosity and a need to know about practical matters.

The book is written in narrative form based on a fictional family, the Palmers, with five children, three boys and (yay!) two girls. Their father is an engineer, and the book consists of chapters on different topics where the father (sigh) answers the children’s questions about a wide variety of scientific issues.  Here is just a portion of the table of contents:

In addition to publishing all these books, Milton, along with Bennett James, adapted his first novel Rabbi and Priest into a play, The Little Brother, which was performed in London and then on Broadway in 1918 with a cast that included Tyrone Power, Sr. Despite positive reviews for its treatment of interfaith conflict and prejudices, it closed after 120 performances in March, 1919.

Thus, by 1920, Milton had published a number of books and had had a play produced in London and on Broadway. However, his principal occupation, as listed on the 1920 census, was  still advertising.  10

What would the next decade and those to follow bring for my cousin Milton and his family?


  1. John William Leonard, ed., Who’s Who in America, Vols. 2-4 (A. N. Marquis & Co., 1906), pp. 694-695. 
  2. Milton Goldsmith, The Adventure of Walter and The Rabbits (The Ullman Mfg. Co., 1903). 
  3. Milton Goldsmith, Dorothy’s Dolls: A Nursery Tale (Cupples & Leon Company, 1908). 
  4. Milton Goldsmith, The Magic Doll: A Fairy Tale (The Goldsmith Publishing Company, 1908). I wonder if for some time Milton had his own publishing company or if this was a family member or just a coincidence. 
  5. Milton Goldsmith, Practical Things with Simple Tools: A Book for Young Mechanics (Sully and Kleinteich, 1916). 
  6. Astra Cielo (pseud. Milton Goldsmith), Fortunes and Dreams (George Sully & Company, 1917). 
  7. Astra Cielo (pseud. Milton Goldsmith), Signs, Omens and Superstitions (George Sully & Company, 1918). 
  8. Milton Goldsmith, The Strange Adventures of Prince Charming: A Story for Young & Old (McCloughlin Bros. Inc,, 1919). 
  9. Milton Goldsmith,  I Wonder Why: The How, When and Wherefore of Many Things (George Sully and Company, 1920). In 1938, Milton published an updated edition of this book entitled I Wonder How: The Why, When and Wherefore of Many Things (Platt & Munk Company, 1938). 
  10. Milton Goldsmith and family, 1920 US Census, Year: 1920; Census Place: Manhattan Assembly District 9, New York, New York; Roll: T625_1202; Page: 13B; Enumeration District: 704, Ancestry.com. 1920 United States Federal Census 

Milton Goldsmith: A Victim of Conscience

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 20, 1904, also in Philadelphia.2

By this time Milton had published his first novel, Rabbi and Priest (1891), as discussed here, as well as a second novel, A Victim of Conscience (1903).3

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.

19th century etching of a peddler by Granger found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-peddler-19th-century-granger.html

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.


  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. Milton Goldsmith, A Victim of Conscience (Henry T. Coates & Co., 1903). 
  4. Ibid., p.6. 
  5. Ibid., p. 7. 
  6. Ibid., pp. 84-85. 

Milton Goldsmith Predicts the Future

After the publication of his first book Rabbi and Priest in 1891, Milton Goldsmith contributed a number of essays and short stories to the Philadelphia newspapers. My favorite is “In the Next Century”1 dated August 28, 1892, when he predicted—with tongue in cheek—what life would be like in the year 2000:

Here are a few highlights from this clever and humorous look at the future—or in our case, the past:

It is safe to assume that the world is but in its infancy, and that coming generations will show a vast mental and physical improvement over the present inhabitants of the globe. Our varied knowledge, the wonderful progress on which we are so prone to pride ourselves, will probably appear as absurd to our progeny as the fragmentary information of our forefathers appears to us. Knowledge will be universal, and the inhabitants of our continent will, in the next century, be intellectual giants.

Imagine yourselves transported to the year 2000….What a change greets our wondering eyes. Ignorance appears to be unknown. The child of 5 knows more than the college graduate of the present era. Let us examine the system that has wrought this improvement.  The guide of that year first leads us into the School for Infants. It is here that the babies are taught under the supervision of the government. Competent teachers are appointed the very young idea to shoot. For example, as soon as a child is old enough to drink milk from a bottle, it is taught at the same time the fundamental laws of suction and the principle of the air-pump. Experiments with valves, Torricelli vacuums, etc., form part of the curriculum.

An illustration of Torricelli’s vacuum
By Kilom691 (The New Student’s Reference Work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How disappointed my cousin Milton would be. I am far past infancy yet I still didn’t know what a Torricelli vacuum was!

He continued with further examples of how babies and children would be instructed in gravity, zoology, geometry, trigonometry, and other mathematical and scientific concepts. Then he looked at medicine and health in the year 2000:

With a people of such mental caliber it is but natural that arts, science and inventions should prosper. The pleasure and comfort of man is greatly enhanced by the numerous devices invented for his welfare. Principal among these are the appliances for fostering the health of the community. Sickness is absolutely unknown. The medical fraternity, having discovered the germ of each disease, have at the same time provided an antidote for such germs. At the age of 2 months the child is vaccinated against tuberculosis. At the age of 3 months against cholera; at the age of four months against smallpox, and so on at regular intervals against all the diseases in the modern doctor books.

Here, Milton has done a better job of prognostication; we do have vaccines against smallpox and tuberculosis and many other diseases. But alas, we certainly have not eliminated all diseases.

Smallpox vaccine
By Photo Credit: James Gathany Content Providers(s): CDC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Milton went on to describe, with tongue in cheek, the extreme measures that would be taken to prevent the reintroduction of germs into society—“Before a mother kisses her child she cleans her teeth and lips with an antiseptic solution. All water is boiled, and all milk sterilized before it is taken.”

He then takes this notion and applies it to the way adults will behave in the year 2000.

When the boy or girl reaches the age when matrimony appears a consummation devoutly to be wished, there are no haphazard marriages as in former days.  The partner to be chosen is carefully examined by a psychologist, a pathologist and a phrenologist, and every peculiarity of mental or physical structure carefully noted.  Only such parties who are perfectly sound and whose peculiarities are fitted to one another, are allowed to mate. Such a thing as an unhappy marriage, or a divorce, are as a matter of course impossible. Sick or weakly offspring are unknown.

What would Milton think of couples meeting through online dating? Of our over 50% divorce rate? Of birth control and premarital sex?

He then discussed married life:

The intelligent groom knows that promiscuous kissing is injurious; that each kiss, acting upon the sensitive nerves of touch, are apt to create a depletion of nervo-vital force. He therefore limits his kisses to two a day. The lips are carefully disinfected before and after each osculations.  …. The groom retires promptly at 10 o’clock, as sufficient sleep is found to be more important than making love.

Imagine Milton watching some of the movies or television shows of our era. What would he think?

Finally, Milton reached his conclusions about life in the year 2000:

As a result of this wonderful system sickness is unknown in the community. People live to the normal age of 100 years and then die suddenly without a struggle. The remains are immediately cremated, the ashes disinfected and buried ten feet in the earth.

Taking it all in all one is almost glad that this happy time has not yet arrived, for though we may have more disease than the possible inhabitant of A.D. 2000, we have a great deal more fun.

Ah, Cousin Milton, how wrong you were! We are still having a lot of fun, probably more than your generation did, as we have fewer diseases, more leisure time, looser social mores, and all the amazing toys that modern science has given us.

I loved the satiric tone of his essay.  And I also loved the sense that while I am now looking backward to learn about the life that Milton led as a young man in the 19th century, in 1892 he was looking forward to the future to imagine what life would be like for his descendants in the 21st century.

By Tony Grist (Photographer’s own files) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Milton’s creative output in the 19th century was not limited to short stories and essays. In December 1893, Milton’s burlesque entitled “Jay Cesar, Esq.”—which he wrote and acted in—was performed by the Stag Opera Comique Company in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “it was a distinct success from every standpoint and from a social standpoint it was decidedly the leading event in Hebrew society this season so far.”  The performance consisted of two hours of “catchy airs, humorous songs, fantastic dances and whimsical dialogue.” 2

Milton was obviously a very talented young man.  The 20th century would find him leaving behind his life as a merchant and making a new career in a new city.  I wonder what he would have predicted for his own future when he wrote “In the Next Century” in 1892.

 

 

 


  1. Milton Goldsmith, “In the Next Century,” The Philadelphia Times, August 28, 1892, p. 19. 
  2. “Stags on Stage,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 29, 1893, p. 3. A full copy of the text of Jay Cesar can be found here. It is quite clever, and Milton is credited not only with the whole text, but also with some of the music. For other stories, essays, and other works by Milton Goldsmith during the 1890s, see, “Milton Goldsmith’s Lecture Before the Young Men’s Hebrew Association,” The Philadelphia Times, March 28, 1897, p, 9; Milton Goldsmith, “That Grateful Ghost,” The Philadelphia Times, March 5, 1893, p. 23; Milton Goldsmith, “Raps Told of Murder,” The Philadelphia Times, December 11, 1892, p. 23; Milton Goldsmith, “The Pride of the Circus,” The Philadelphia Times, August 14, 1892, p. 10; Milton Goldsmith, “The Three Responses,” The Philadelphia Times, March 27, 1892, p. 14. 

Milton Goldsmith: Rabbi and Priest

When I prepared this post, it didn’t occur to me that I would be publishing it on the day  that is both Good Friday and Erev Passover—the night of the first seder. But it couldn’t be a more appropriate day to post about a book that deals with the need for religious tolerance—written by my cousin Milton Goldsmith in 1891.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter to all!


Abraham Goldsmith’s oldest child was his son Milton, born to Abraham’s first wife Cecelia on May 22, 1861, in Philadelphia.1 I have been looking forward to researching and writing about Milton for a long time, ever since my father told me that he had once met one of his Goldsmith cousins and remembered that he had written children’s books. It took me a while to figure out which Goldsmith that was, but I believe that it must have been Milton.

From what I’ve written about Milton so far, you would not know about his literary interests and career.  From the late 1880s until at least 1900, public records listed his occupation as clothing merchant, and he worked in his father’s clothing store, A.Goldsmith & Sons, for many years.

But even during those years, Milton was engaged in other, more creative pursuits. According to one online biography, Milton graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia in 1877 and then studied literature, languages, and music at the University of Zurich for three years from 1877 until 1880 when he returned to Philadelphia.

His first full length novel was published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1891. It was an interesting choice of subject matter for the son of a very successful German-Jewish immigrant. Entitled Rabbi and Priest, it is the story of two Russian Jewish brothers who are separated during a pogrom; one eventually finds his way to Kiev where his uncle lives; he is educated in a yeshiva and grows up to be a rabbi.  The other is rescued by a Russian Countess and sent to a monastery where he grows up to be a priest.2

The book provides insight into the lives of poor Jews living in Russia in the 19th century and their attitudes, practices, and beliefs as well as the lives and views of the Christian populations. It also includes information about Russian history and the treatment of Jews there between 1850 and 1880, including details about pogroms and the attitudes of the czars and the Russian people. There are also insights into Milton Goldsmith’s own beliefs and attitudes, revealed by the character of Phillip Harris, a Russian Jew who immigrates to America and comes back to visit his former home in Kiev.

Milton Goldsmith explained in the preface to his book his reasons for writing this story:3

Towards the end of 1882, there arrived at the old Pennsylvania Railroad Depot in Philadelphia, several hundred Russian refugees, driven from their native land by the inhuman treatment of the Muscovite Government. Among them were many intelligent people, who had been prosperous in their native land, but who were now reduced to dire want. One couple, in particular, attracted the attention of the visitors, by their intellectual appearance and air of gentility, in marked contrast to the abject condition of many of their associates. Joseph Kierson was the name of the man, and the story of his sufferings aroused the sympathy of his hearers. The man and his wife were assisted by the Relief Committee, and in a short time were in a condition to provide for themselves.

The writer had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Kierson a few years later and elicited from him a complete recital of his trials and an account of the causes of the terrible persecution which compelled such large numbers of his countrymen to flee from their once happy homes.

His story forms the nucleus of the novel I now present to my readers. While adhering as closely as possible to actual names, dates and events, it does not pretend to be historically accurate. In following the fortunes of Mendel Winenki, from boyhood to old age, it endeavors to present a series of pictures portraying the character, life, and sufferings of the misunderstood and much-maligned Russian Jew.

In the description of Russia’s customs and characteristics, the barbarous cruelty of her criminal code and the nihilistic tendency of the times, the author has followed such eminent writers as Wallace, Foulke, Stepniak, Tolstoi and Herzberg-Fraenkel. The accounts of the riots of 1882 will be found to agree in historic details with the reports which were published at the time.

With this introduction, I respectfully submit the work to the consideration of an indulgent public.

MILTON GOLDSMITH

Philadelphia, April, 1891

Russian Jews in Philadelphia 1890

The themes that run through the book focus primarily on anti-Semitism and its roots, Jewish faith and identity, and the value of a more worldly and secular education. As to the first, Goldsmith wrote:4

The serf persecutes the Jew because he is himself persecuted by the nobility. There is no real animosity between the peasant and his Jewish neighbors. Our wretched state is the outgrowth of a petty tyranny, in which the serf desires to imitate his superiors. Let the people once enjoy freedom and they will cease to persecute the Hebrews, without whom they cannot exist.

I thought this was an insightful perspective for someone living in 1893—to understand that a group’s prejudice often has its roots in its own oppression and poverty and that freedom and prosperity for all is the best way to eliminate hate and discrimination.

But it is Goldsmith’s attitudes towards education and assimilation that I found most interesting, keeping in mind that he was a man who had spent three years in Switzerland, learning about literature, language, and music. First, he notes how Talmudic study sharpens the intellect of Jewish students:5

It was to this incessant study of the Scriptures that Israel owed its patience, its courage, its fortitude during centuries of persecution. It was this constant delving for truth which produced that bright, acute Jewish mind, which in days of fanaticism and intolerance, protected the despised people from stupefying mental decay.

But then he expresses concern for how Talmudic study fosters closed-mindedness and superstition, stating,”That this study often degenerated into a mere useless cramming of unintelligible ideas is easily understood, and its effects were in many cases the reverse of ennobling.”6

It is, however, when the character of Phillip Harris returns to Russia and speaks of life in America that Goldsmith’s personal views and experience are most clearly revealed.  In speaking with the people of his former community in Kiev, Philip asserts that Jews are on equal footing with Christians in America, and when questioned about the fact that he has shaved his beard and abandoned many traditional Jewish practices, he says:7

[I]t seems to me that a Jew can remain a Jew even if he neglect some of those ceremonials which have very little to do with Judaism pure and simple. Some are remnants of an oriental symbolism, others comparatively recent additions to the creed, which ought to give way before civilization. What possible harm can it do you or your religion if you shave your beard or abandon your jargon for the language of the people among whom you live? … Every effort to develop the Jewish mind is checked, not by the gentiles, but by the Jews themselves. … A knowledge of the history of the world, an insight into modern science, will teach us why and wherefore all our laws were given and how we can best obey, not the letter but the spirit of God’s commands.

Romanian Jewish journalist Sache Petreanu, an advocate of assimilation, cutting off the payot of an observant Jew (1899 caricature by Constantin Jiquidi)
Constantin_Jiquidi_-_Sache_Petreanu,_Foaia_Populară,_14_feb_1899

Phillip continued:8

You will all admit that you place more weight upon your ceremonials than upon your faith. You deem it more important to preserve a certain position of the feet, a proper intonation of the voice during prayers than to fully understand the prayer itself, and in spite of your pretended belief in the greatness and goodness of God, you belittle Him by the thought that an omission of a single ceremony, the eating of meat and milk together, the tearing of a tzitzith (fringe) will offend Him, or that a certain number of mitzvoth (good acts) will propitiate Him. Do you understand now what I mean when I say that superstition is not religion?

The character concludes by saying:.9

Worship God as your conscience dictates, continue in your ancient fashion if it makes you happy, but be tolerant towards him who, feeling himself mentally and spiritually above superstition, seeks to emancipate himself from its bonds and to follow the dictates of his own good common-sense

Goldsmith recognized that for those living in Russia where oppression and poverty made Jewish lives difficult, an adherence to these traditional practices was more understandable, for the rabbi responds to Phillip by saying, “Whether these observances are needed or are superfluous in a free country like America I shall not presume to say, but in Russia they are a moral and a physical necessity.”10

When poor Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia began to immigrate to the US in the 1880s and 1890s, they faced prejudice not only from the Christian majority here, but also from many Jews with German origins whose families had immigrated decades earlier and had assimilated into American life.11 I am proud of my cousin Milton Goldsmith for writing a book that tried to convey to Americans and perhaps in particular to American Jews the travails and obstacles faced by these new Russian Jewish immigrants. He does an excellent job of describing what their lives were like, why they were forced to emigrate, and why they were clinging to traditions and practices that American Jews might no longer feel necessary. And he also endorsed the need for and value of a liberal education and an open mind.

The book is not just a novel, but a lesson in tolerance, in the need for education, and in the power of faith when life seems too grim and hopeless to bear.

If you are interested in buying the book, it is available on Amazon as an e-book here.


  1. Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VB16-KTZ : 8 December 2014), Milton Growsmith, 22 May 1861; citing bk 2 p 168, Department of Records; FHL microfilm 1,289,306. 
  2. Milton Goldsmith, The Rabbi and The Priest: A Story (Jewish Publication Society, 1891) 
  3. Goldsmith, Milton, Rabbi and Priest: A Story (pp. 6-8, Kindle edition). 
  4.  Goldsmith, Milton. Rabbi and Priest A Story (p. 30). Kindle Edition. 
  5.  Goldsmith, Milton. Rabbi and Priest A Story (p. 84). Kindle Edition. 
  6. Goldsmith, Milton. Rabbi and Priest A Story (p. 84). Kindle Edition. 
  7.  Goldsmith, Milton. Rabbi and Priest A Story (pp. 99-100). Kindle Edition. 
  8.  Goldsmith, Milton. Rabbi and Priest A Story (p. 102). Kindle Edition. 
  9.  Goldsmith, Milton. Rabbi and Priest A Story (p. 103). Kindle Edition. 
  10.  Goldsmith, Milton. Rabbi and Priest A Story (p. 104). Kindle Edition. 
  11. Irving Aaron Mandel, “Attitude of the American Jewish Community toward East-European Immigration As Reflected in the Anglo-Jewish Press 1880-1890,” American Jewish Archives, 1950. 

Kin Types by Luanne Castle: A Review

Most of us who engage in family history research probably try in some way to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. We try to imagine—what were they really like? How did they cope with the failures and successes, the heartbreak and the joys that colored their lives? We want to get beyond the surface details of birth, marriage, and death, and understand who these people were.

Luanne Castle, the author of the wonderful genealogy blog The Family Kalamazoo, has done just that in her new remarkable collection of prose-poems, Kin Types (Finishing Line Press, 2017). In these clear and beautifully written poems, she has brought to life the people she has researched and studied for many years.  Collectively, her poems evoke the hard and often bitter lives of her ancestors while also piercing beneath the surfaces of those hard lives to uncover the love and the beauty that each one of these people experienced.

For example, in “An Account of a Poor Oil Stove Bought Off Dutch Pete,” a poem that describes in horrifying detail how a fire envelops a home and the woman living in it, Castle creates this image:

Under the smoke, she can make out the sliced strawberries centered on the oilcloth nailed to the tabletop

In these few simple words, Castle uses the image of strawberries sliced by a caring wife and mother to remind the reader that this is a loving family woman who is threatened by a deadly fire. It evokes birth and life amidst the threat of death and destruction.

And when Castle wonders about the history of an old house that is in serious disrepair in “The Fat Little House,” she creates a story about the man who built the house and his family. Her words convey the love between the husband and wife through the man’s response to his wife’s description of the house as “short and fat:”

He laughed, I like my houses like apples.

And swaddled inside the crisp

sugary walls she nurtured and nestled

babies, slippery as fruit flesh…

From these few words and the images created, you can imagine the sweetness between these two people. Once again, fruit becomes a metaphor for love, for life, for birth.

In other poems Castle describes the fears of a dying mother that her children will be separated and sent to orphanages where “Teachers like scavengers pick at the remains of my family,” the anxiety of a mother as her teenage daughter gives birth on the kitchen table, the joy and sadness of a mother seeing in the face of her young son the face of her now deceased brother, and the guilt and love shared by another family whose lives are torn apart because of a fire in the family home. These are just a few of the stories Castle tells in this book of poetry. Each poem made my heart ache for the lives of these people—people I never knew, people Castle herself never knew, but whom she has given new life through her words.

If you also have ever imagined what life was like for your ancestors, you will enjoy this wonderful collection. In fact, anyone—whether interested in family history or not—should read this book for the beauty of its language and for the light it sheds on our shared humanity.

You can find Kin Types here or here.

A Review of My Novel, Pacific Street

I am very honored and flattered that Luanne Castle, who writes the wonderful genealogy blog The Family Kalamazoo and is a published poet as well, has chosen to blog about my novel Pacific Street.  I hope you will read her review and consider purchasing a copy of the book.  Thank you, Luanne!

pacific_street_cover_for_kindle

 

Here is a small excerpt from the review:

The story of Cohen’s grandparents, Isadore and Gussie, is an inspiring coming-to-America tale with all the resonance of actual experience. Cohen has painstakingly documented the early part of her relatives’ lives through historical research using official documents and has incorporated information shared through family stories.

She has researched the settings and cultures described and added her own imagination to infuse the book with appropriate details and descriptions. This is no dry historical telling, but a well-structured adventure full of tragedies and triumphs like a novel, although more accurately, it is creative nonfiction in the historical subgenre. 

As Cohen alternates the narratives of Isadore and Gussie (until their stories merge together near the end), the reader becomes one with the characters. The loneliness of both characters is excruciating, especially since family is so important to both of them.

 

You can read the rest of Luanne’s review here.  Check out the rest of her blog while you are there; she is a wonderful storyteller and an expert genealogist.

Thank you, Luanne! Your words mean a lot!

The Fusgeyers, Part II: How They Did It

A Group of Fusgeyers from Iasi, c. 1900 http://epyc.yivo.org/content/photos/14_q_RM-RUMANI-4_lg.jpg

Yesterday’s post described some of the reasons that Jews like my grandfather and his relatives decided to leave Romania in the early years of the 20th century: rampant anti-Semitism, poverty, violence, false accusations, and laws depriving Jews of access to education and to most means of earning a living as well as denying them the legal rights of citizens.  Thousands of Jews left Romania between 1900 and 1910, many of them on foot, including my grandfather.  In both The Wayfarers by Stuart Tower and Finding Home by Jill Culiner, there are vivid descriptions of how these people managed to accomplish the task of walking about 1500 miles to cross the border from their homes in eastern Romania to Hungary or Galicia, where many then caught trains that would eventually bring them to the ports where they could sail to the United States.

Both Tower and Culiner relied heavily on the unpublished manuscript written by Jacob Finkelstein around 1942, describing his personal experience as a member of the first group of Fusgeyers.  Finkelstein’s memoir appears to be the most important primary source regarding the Fusgeyers, and Culiner begins most of her chapters with an excerpt from that manuscript.  The first group of Fusgeyers walked out of Romania in 1900, traveling by foot from Barlad to Predeal and crossing into Hungary.  As detailed in both Tower’s and Culiner’s books and as described by Finkelstein, that first group was an outgrowth of a club of young people in Barlad who put on theatrical works to raise money for charitable causes.  Members of the group decided that they could use their talents to raise money to pay for their travels out of Romania.  They raised some initial money through donations and from fees collected from those who wished to join them, and eventually there were seventy-five men and three women who joined the group and left Barlad in April, 1900.

The Gheorghe Rosca Codreanu Lyceum in Barlad (...

Barlad, Romania

Română: Timisul de Jos,Predeal,Brasov,Romania.

Română: Timisul de Jos,Predeal,Brasov,Romania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One person was selected to be the leader of the group, and others were appointed to various roles: treasurer, medical care, scouts, and security.  They had flyers printed to distribute in the towns they planned to visit, and the people of Barlad provided not only financial support, but food and supplies to the group.  The group then walked from town to town across Romania, often being treated very well; in some places people provided them with food, shelter, and generous donations.  The group would stage musical performances to raise money.  Many newspapers publicized the movement, bringing even more donations and larger audiences to greet and support the Fusgeyers.  Moreover, this first group inspired new groups to form and to leave their homes as well.  My grandfather, who loved music and was smart and funny, might very well have been one of the Fusgeyers who left Iasi in 1904.

Sometimes, however, the group met up with hostility.  In Ramnicu Sarat, the police confiscated the passports of that first Barlad group, telling them to keep themselves from being noticed.  The passports were, however, returned once they left the town.  The group was threatened with arrest if they entered the town of Mizil, so they stayed out, sleeping in tents in the rain instead, and they were told to avoid the next town as well, resulting in another night of sleeping in the rain.  There was even trouble within the group; money was wrongfully taken by one of the group representatives.  Overall, however, at least according to Finkelstein, his group’s experience was a huge success—enabling not only that group to escape, but also inspiring thousands of other Romanians to do the same.

I cannot capture or describe all the details of the experiences of the Fusgeyers.  All I have as primary material in Finkelstein’s memoir, but Stuart Tower’s book takes the skeleton of facts provided by Finkelstein and builds from those facts a novelized version of that experience that helps to bring to life the Fusgeyers’ trek through Romania.  He developed characters and storylines that add an extra layer of humanity to this basic story.

The Wayfarers (Paperback) ~ Stuart Tower (Author) Cover Art

 

When I was doing some additional research about the Fusgeyers yesterday, I happened upon a website that described plans to turn Tower’s novel into a documentary about the Fusgeyers.  I did not realize it at first, but the website was a page on Kickstarter, a crowd-sourced fundraising site that helps people raise funds for private projects—in the arts and otherwise.  The Kickstarter page for The Wayfarers movie had not yet attracted any donors.  I made a small donation and also left a comment for the contact person of the page, Ron Richard, explaining my interest and expressing my concern that there had not yet been any other donations for the project.

I have heard back now both from Ron Richard and from Stuart Tower, the author of The Wayfarers.  Tower sent me some wonderful photographs of Romania from a Fusgeyer tour he ran in 2005, and I am hoping to get permission to post some of those photos here.  If any of you would also like to help Ron Richard and Stuart Tower make this film about the Romanian Fusgeyers, please check out their Kickstarter site at  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1552736981/the-wayfarers-the-story-of-the-fusgeyers?ref=live  It may be the best opportunity many of us have to see Romania and to understand better the experiences of our ancestors.

Jill Culiner’s book takes a different approach to exploring the Fusgeyer experience.  After reading Finkelstein’s memoir, she decided to re-enact the walk of the Fusgeyers, also walking from Berlad to Predeal, but not with a large group, just with one companion.   Her experiences doing this provide a chilling post-script to the story of the Jews in Romania, one that I found moving and haunting even re-reading it.  I will post more about her book and her experiences tomorrow.

 

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The Fusgeyers: Why They Left Romania

Isadore Goldschlager

Isadore Goldschlager

“Grandpa walked out of Romania to escape from the Romanian army.”  That was the one story I knew about my grandfather’s life before he came to the US as a teenager.  I knew a few other snippets about him in general—that he loved music and animals, that he knew multiple languages, that he was a union activist and very left-wing in his political views, that he was a milkman, and that he was a terrible tease and had a great sense of humor.  But the story about him walking out of Romania was the one that always intrigued me the most.  I would ask my mother questions: Did he go alone?  Where did he walk to? How did he get to the United States? But she knew nothing more than that barebones story—that as a teenager, he decided to run away from the army and walked across the country to escape.

When I first started researching my grandfather’s family, I wanted to know more about this story.  Was it just a myth, or was there any factual basis to it?  I did some initial research and learned that there was in fact an entire movement of Jews who left Romania by foot beginning in the early 1900s, around the same time my grandfather left (1904).  These walkers were known as the Fusgeyers or “foot-goers.”  Unfortunately, I could not find many sources of information about this movement.  I found only two books devoted in depth to the topic.   One is a novel called The Wayfarers by Stuart F. Tower; although written as a novel, it was inspired by the author’s actual search to learn about the Fusgeyers.  It tells the story of an American man whose grandfather left Romania by foot.  The grandson, now an adult, takes his own teenage son and his elderly father to Romania to learn more about his grandfather’s escape from Romania.  The author describes long conversations that the lead character had with a rabbi living in Romania who was familiar with the Fusgeyer movement.  Although this book gave me a taste of what the movement was like, I wanted to read something more fact-based and scholarly to understand and know more about the Fusgeyers.[1]

I found that in the second book about the Fusgeyers: Finding Home: In the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers by Jill Culiner.  This book, a work of non-fiction, is fascinating and heart-breaking.   After reading Jacob Finkelstein’s “Memoir of a Fusgeyer from Romania to America,” an unpublished Yiddish manuscript written around 1942 and held by the New York-based YIVO Institute, Culiner, not herself a descendant of Romanian Jewss, decided to retrace the routes taken by the Fusgeyers as they walked out of Romania.  She actually walked these routes, visiting all the towns and cities along the way, asking current residents what they remembered of the Fusgeyers and of the Jewish communities that existed in those towns before the Holocaust.  What she learned about the past and present in Romania is what makes the book both fascinating and heart-breaking, and in a subsequent post, I will write more about that.  But first, I want to set the scene by describing what I learned from this book and elsewhere about why the Jews left Romania in the early 1900s.

As reported by Culiner and others[2], Jews had likely been living in the two principalities that became Romania, Walachia and Moldavia, since Roman times.   The Jewish population increased significantly in the second half of the 14th century when many Jews from Hungary and Poland immigrated there after being expelled from their home countries. (Wikipedia).  Ironically, Romania eventually became one of the most anti-Semitic of the European countries.  In 1640, the Church Codes of Walachia and Moldavia declared Jews heretics and banned all relationships between Christians and Jews. (Culiner, p. 15). During the 17th and 18th century, there were repeated “blood libel” accusations against Jews—being accused of killing Christian children for their blood— followed by violence and persecution.  (Culiner, p. 15; Wikipedia).

The widespread anti-Semitism really came to a head in the mid-nineteenth century during the movement for Romanian independence and the unification of Walachia and Moldavia into the independent nation of Romania. As the report on Romanian anti-Semitism on file with Yad Vashem reports, after the Crimean War and the defeat of Russia, which had previously controlled Walachia and Moldavia, the European powers (primarily France and Britain) put a great deal of pressure on the leaders of the independence movement in the region to grant Jews full legal status in the new country.  Although the leaders had originally argued for such rights during the uprisings against Russia, the external pressure created a great deal of resentment, and in the end the European powers backed off from insisting on full legal rights for the Jewish residents of the newly-united nation of Romania.  (Yad Vashem report).

The Yad Vashem report continues:  “A real explosion of openly expressed antisemitism occurred as the prospect of achieving national independence became more certain. During discussions of the new Constitution of 1866, Romanian leaders began to portray Jews as a principal obstacle to Romanian independence, prosperity, and culture.”  As finally drafted, Article 7 of the new Constitution for Romania provided that “[t]he status of Romanian citizen is acquired, maintained, and forfeited in accordance with rules established through civil legislation. Only foreign individuals who are of the Christian rite may acquire Romanian citizenship.”  Culiner described this development, saying that “anti-Semitism had now become part of the national identity.” (Culiner, p. 15)

Despite protests and outcry from western European countries, the new country persisted in its anti-Semitic views and practices.  Between 1866 and 1900, a number of laws were enacted restricting the business and other activities of Jewish residents in Romania.  Jews could not become officers in the military, customs officials, journalists, craftsmen or clerks.  Jews could not vote or obtain licenses to sell alcohol.  Jews could not own or cultivate land.  Jews could not own or manage pharmacies.  They could not work in psychiatric institutions or receive care as free patients in hospitals.  Jews could not sell tobacco or soda water or certain baked goods. Fewer than ten percent of Jewish children were allowed to attend public schools, and Jews were prohibited from opening their own schools.  Jews were not allowed to work as peddlers, which was sometimes interpreted to include owning shops.  Jewish homes were randomly destroyed as “unsanitary.”  (Culiner, pp. 16-17)

Culiner wrote:  “Eventually, 20,000 Jews found themselves on the streets of Romania and dying of starvation.  There were many suicides in Iasi, Bacu, and Roman….In 1899 and 1900, harvests were poor and a severe depression gripped the country.  Anti-Semitic decrees were applied with new severity and anti-Jewish speeches were delivered in parliament.  Riots took place in several towns, and…a pogrom broke out in Iasi.”  (Culiner, pp. 17, 19) (See also Wikipedia  and the Yad Vashem report on Anti-Semitism in Romania.)

That pogrom in Iasi was described in the American Jewish Yearbook of 1900: “For several hours there was fighting, merciless blows, pillaging and devastation, all under the paternal eyes of the police authorities and the army, which interfered only to hinder the Jews from defending themselves.”[3]

In 1900, my grandfather was twelve years old.  He lived in Iasi.  He experienced this horrible violence and hatred.  By that time his uncle Gustave and his aunt Zusi had already left for America.  Is it any surprise that this young teenager would have wanted to escape from his homeland and seek refuge someplace else?

Isadore age 27

Isadore age 27

As I will report in a later post, he and thousands of other Jews did leave, many on foot, walking out of Romania to find a better life.  My grandfather followed his uncle and his aunt, who had left in the late 1880s, but he left alone, without his parents or siblings.  His first cousin Srul Srulovici, who became Isador Adler, had left two years before him in 1902, also alone and without his parents and siblings.  My grandfather left in 1904, and by 1910 the rest of his family—his siblings, mother and father and the rest of his Srulovici cousins—had also arrived.  I don’t know the details of how any of them got out or whether they were also Fusgeyers, but they all  followed their two oldest sons and brothers, both to be called Isadore in the United States.

So  my grandfather left Romania on foot, but not only to escape the Romanian army.  He escaped a life of poverty, of hatred, of discrimination.  He was only sixteen, but he was brave enough, smart enough, and strong enough to get out of a place that held no future for him.  He led his family to freedom.  Whatever life brought them in America, and it wasn’t easy, it was better than what they had left behind.

 

[1] Apparently the novel is being turned into a documentary about the Fusgeyer movement.  See https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1552736981/the-wayfarers-the-story-of-the-fusgeyers

[2] Wikipedia has a long and detailed article on the history of the Jews in Romania at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Romania.  I also consulted other sources, such as a report on Romanian anti-Semitism filed on the Yad Vashem website at http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/events/pdf/report/english/1.1_roots_of_romanian_antisemitism.pdf

[3][3] “Romania since the Berlin Treaty,” The American Jewish Yearbook (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1900), p. 83, as quoted in Culiner, p, 19.

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A World Apart: Conclusion

I finished Joseph Margoshes’ A World Apart last night, and I did find the answer to why he left Galicia.  When the lease his father-in-law had for the Yozefov estate expired after ten years, he was unable to obtain an extension, as it was leased to a different Jewish man.  Margoshes took the assets he had and obtained a lease on a different estate for himself and his wife, but he ran into difficulties and ended up in substantial debt.  When that lease expired in 1898, his father-in-law paid off Margoshes’ debt, and Margoshes and his wife and children left to seek better opportunities in America.

His father-in-law also ran into some difficulties when the lease on his estate in Zgursk expired and he, too, was unable to obtain an extension.  Margoshes described a long-running feud between his father-in-law and the people of Rzhokov, a small and poor shtetl across the Vistula River from Kielkov where the Shtiglitz (Margoshes’ in-laws) had family.  According to Margoshes, in the 1860s there was a huge dispute when one of these relatives died, a very wealthy man named Reb Yisroel Kielkover.  Reb Yisroel had not only provided work for many of the poor Jewish residents of Rzhokov, he had also provided charitable support, including free food and liquor.  Despite his generosity, when he died, the people of Rzhokov led by a man named Yankle Leiman refused to allow Reb Yisroel to be buried in the cemetery (which was used by residents of Kielkov as well as Rzhokov) unless his estate provided substantial financial support to raise the standard of living for the poor Jewish residents of Rzhokov.

Margoshes’ father-in-law and others were outraged and came to Rzhokov to demand that they be allowed to bury Reb Yisroel.  A violent fight broke out between the two groups of Jews, ultimately settled when Reb Yisroel’s side agreed to provide about half the money demanded by the group led by Leiman.  Margoshes’ father-in-law then brought criminal proceedings against Leiman for blackmail, resulting in Leiman spending three months in jail.   The money was never paid to the residents of Rzhokov, and the charitable support ended as well.  Margoshes wrote that the people of the shtetl remained very poor and without adequate buildings for a shul or mikvah.  He blamed this result on their excessive greed.

The feud continued for many years,ultimately exploding when Margoshes’ father-in-law had to obtain a new lease when his lease on Zgursk expired.  The estate he wanted to lease was, perhaps not coincidentally, leased at that time to Yankel Leiman and was about to expire.  Shtiglitz essentially swooped in and struck a deal with the Polish landowner to get the next lease, depriving Leiman of the opportunity to extend.  When Shtiglitz arrived to take over the estate, he and his family found that Leiman and his people had, as an act of revenge, vandalized the manor house and other buildings, much as today people who lose their homes to foreclosure often vandalize their homes before moving out.  Nevertheless, Margoshes’ father-in-law stayed and was able to make a great deal of money for the years he leased this property.

The father-in-law, however, ultimately paid a price for his bad temper and greed.  When he became angry with a worker on the new estate for not working hard enough, Shtiglitz accidentally killed the man by kicking him in self-defense, according to Margoshes.  Shtiglitz went to trial and was sentenced to two years of hard labor for second degree murder.  He only served a year, and Margoshes dismissed the significance of this by commenting that it only cost him about 10,000 gulders.  There was no expression of remorse or sadness for the dead worker.

Margoshes there ends his memoirs without any comment or conclusions about these matters or about life in Galicia in general.  My own conclusions about the book, however, are mixed.  It was interesting to learn more about Jewish life in Galicia, but overall the book was not what I expected.  I was hoping for a depiction of what life was like not only for wealthy Jews, but also for those Jews who were not as fortunate.  Aside from the first section of the book, there is no discussion of how religion played a part in the lives of any of these people; instead, the focus is almost entirely on how wealthy Jews lived and made a living.  As I’ve written in prior posts, Margoshes comes across as a rich young man who had little empathy or interest in the lives of those who were less fortunate.   He seems deluded into thinking that life for the Jews was a paradise during these times, despite the poverty of many Jews, the underlying resentment of the peasants, and the obvious anti-Semitism of the wealthy Polish landowners.

Given his description of his childhood as a boy from a religious home whose favorite activities were reading and discussing books and given that he became a Yiddish writer and journalist in the United States, I would have expected more insight, more soul-searching from a seventy year old man writing his memoirs in 1936.

A World Apart, part 3: Marriage in Galicia

I am continuing to read Joseph Margoshes’ A World Apart in order to learn about life in Galicia in the late 19th century.  Last night I learned something about arranged marriages in Galicia.  When Margoshes was only fourteen years old, his mother began to look for a prospective bride for her son.  Since Margoshes’ father had died, Margoshes was a candidate for an early marriage in order to relieve his mother of the burden of supporting him and caring for him.  Margoshes also said that early marriage was a way “to avoid moral lassitude, or strange and sinful thoughts, God forbid.” (p. 58)

Margoshes then described how shadken, or matchmakers, would come to his school to observe and evaluate the young boys in his class as potential grooms. Margoshes was considered a very attractive candidate: he was tall, good-looking, well-educated and from a well-regarded family.  His mother was presented with many different potential matches. Margoshes reported that parents never spoke to their children about these potential matches; it was all out of their hands and determined by the parents.  His mother rejected a number of potential brides because they were “unrefined upstarts of a very low social status…[who] would bring shame to his father’s grave…” (p. 60)

Eventually his mother agreed to an appropriate match, the daughter of a very successful man, Mordecai Stiglitz, who lived in Zgursk, a village near Radomisha, a town not too far from Tarnow where Margoshes and mother and brother were then living.  As described by Margoshes, Stiglitz had a big estate that he had acquired through successful leasing arrangements with the descendant of a Polish count who had owned several thousand acres in the area.  Stiglitz’s estate was itself thousands of acres, and he had many head of cattle, 40 horses, 40 oxen,  70-80 milk cows, and about 30 peasants who lived and worked on the estate.  They grew grain and grass on the estate and needed workers to tend to the livestock and to cut and care for the grain and grass, which they baled and sold in the market.

The Stiglitz family met Margoshes’ mother’s standards, and Margoshes was subjected to an evaluation of his knowledge of Gemara, Talmud and Jewish law in general.  He passed the test and was approved as a groom for Stiglitz’s daughter (whose name is never mentioned by Margoshes in his telling of this story).  Margoshes was only sixteen years old at that point.

After a lavish wedding with three feasts, including one for the poor Jews and beggars who lived in the area, Margoshes moved to Zgursk to live with his new bride on her father’s estate.  As Margoshes wrote, “Initially I did not really know my bride; we had only seen each other and talked very little during the engagement ceremony, and then not even exchanged a letter.  However, as soon as we got to know each other better after the wedding, we became as intimiate and loving as if we had known one another for many years.  This heart felt love has continued to this day, thank God, for over fifty years and will remain until the end of our lives.” (p. 65)  Two teenagers whose marriage was arranged by their parents and who did not know each other at all somehow managed to fall in love and create a long and happy life together.

I have heard and read about arranged marriages before, not only in Jewish families, but in many other cultures as well.  We recently watched an excellent movie, “Fill the Void,” about contemporary Israel and arranged marriages among the Hasidim today.  I know that often these marriages did not end up so happily, but it does seem that more often they worked—that two people who did not know each other somehow fell in love or at least developed a strong enough bond to create a lasting relationship.  It is so foreign to my own experience—I cannot imagine letting my parents select a life partner for me or marrying someone I’d only met once.   Yet I also cannot pass judgment on the practice since it does seem that often parents do know what is best for their children.

I have to assume that Joseph’s marriage to Bessie was itself an arranged marriage.  Joseph was a widow (or so we assume; perhaps his first wife had left him) with at least two young sons, Abraham, who would have been about nine, and Max, who would have been about three.  Bessie was his cousin and at least ten years younger than Abraham and about 24 when she married him.  Based on the customs of the day and the circumstances, most likely a matchmaker put together these two cousins so that Bessie would have a husband and so Joseph would have a wife and a mother for his children.  Did they grow to love each other? Or was it purely a convenient arrangement? The inscription on Joseph’s footstone certainly suggests that he was a good husband and father, so I’d like to think that, like Margoshes and his bride, Joseph and Bessie developed a loving marriage.  But then I am a hopeless romantic!