Since the founding of Rutgers University 250 years ago, American-Jewish life has evolved — along with the university and society in general — to be more inclusive of women, to establish channels to help community members in need, and to claim a place at the forefront of modern social movements.
To celebrate the university’s anniversary, on Sept. 25 a panel of experts tied Jewish life in America to key dates in the university’s history. The program, held at Douglass College Center in New Brunswick, was the annual Toby and Herbert Stolzer Endowed Program of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
The panelists were American studies expert Laura Arnold Leibman, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who explored the place of American-Jewish women in 1766; Annie Polland, senior vice president of education and programming at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, who addressed the lives of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1866; and Tony Michels, the George L. Mosse Professor of American Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who described how Jews became leaders of the cultural avant-garde in 1996.
Jewish studies department chair and moderator Jeffrey Shandler noted that today the Rutgers campus is one of the most ethnically diverse and has the largest number of Jewish students of any college in the nation. Yet, he said, when Rutgers was founded in 1766, as Queens College, to prepare young men for the ministry in the Dutch Reformed Church, “as you can imagine there were not a lot of Jewish students here.” The graduation of the first Jewish student, Judah Samuel, did not occur until 1816, and Jews weren’t a significant presence at Rutgers until the 20th century, Shandler told the crowd of about 200.
In her presentation, Leibman said that without a voice in the male-dominated society and religious life, little is known about the vast majority of women from the era she was covering. Four forces — poverty, education, laws, and mental illness — affected the lives of Jewish women, who, like most other females, received little schooling until public education became common in the 19th century.
Leibman shared a letter written to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York by Hannah Lousada, a sick and destitute widow living in New Brunswick, in which she “begged” for aid to buy firewood, food, and clothing for her children. The letter, said Leibman, showed “a random moment in the life of a woman who would have been forgotten had the letter not survived,” but provided a rare glimpse into the fate of a Jewish woman in colonial times.
Although poverty was rampant among early American Jews, Leibman said, Lousada had been well off while her husband was alive. Her world fell apart, however, after his death. Under the law, if a man died without a will, as was common, his estate went to his oldest son. However, Lousada’s oldest son, Jacob, was insane — so the money was given to the town selectmen to be used for Jacob’s care — until it ran out, and Lousada
“Insanity rates were high among early American Jews,” said Leibman, a statistic that can be attributed to the high rate of intermarriage among family members of the small Sephardi community. “There were so many marriages between uncles and nieces, Rhode Island had to pass an exemption to its incest laws for Jews,” said Leibman.
Polland said the economic downturns of 1857 and 1873 prompted Jews to create a system to care for the sick, poor, widowed, and orphaned. This system gave women a growing voice in taking care of their needs.
“Upper-class women came down to the tenements and forged their Jewish identity by working with the newcomers” whose needs were great, she said.
Various benevolent organizations were springing up, but were reluctant to give up their autonomy by forming one larger organization until the panic of 1873 left 25 percent of New York unemployed and most other workers with reduced wages, driving home the need for a more far-reaching charity disbursement system.
Polland held up as an illustration the lives of Julius and Nathalie Gumpertz, a Prussian immigrant couple who lived in the 97 Orchard St. building now occupied by the museum, to underscore the creation of United Hebrew Charites.
A close look at the UHC ledger, said Polland — with its notations next to each name deeming those appealing for assistance “worthy, “unworthy,” or “professional beggar” — revealed that men deserting their families was not uncommon. Shoemaker Julius Gumpertz, Polland cited as an example, had a tough time making ends meet, and one day simply didn’t come home to his wife and four children. A search party was organized by the saloon owner downstairs, but no trace of him was found.
One of the goals of UHC was to provide tools to enable those living in poverty in overcrowded slums to make a living, like sewing machines, said Polland. While she was unsure whether Nathalie Gumpertz got such a machine, in 1876 she was listed as a dressmaker.
Michels focused on the life and music of Lou Reed, founder and lead singer/songwriter of the rock group the Velvet Underground. The band’s first album in 1966 was widely panned but today is on many critics’ lists of greatest albums of all time.
At a time when the charts listed chiefly more conventional rock ’n’ roll music, Reed’s grinding guitar and songs about shooting up heroin and sexual perversion stood in stark contrast and left an indelible mark on future rock music, said Michels.
Michels said a number of Jewish influences affected Reed: being raised in suburban Long Island by liberal Jewish parents; his closeness with his older cousin, “Red Shirley” Novick, a communist and union organizer; and poet Delmore Schwartz, who taught at Syracuse when Reed was a student there and became his mentor. Reed’s first job was as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, which was owned by Jews.
“Lou Reed was not religious but he had a strong sense of Jewish identity,” said Michels, and in many ways reflected the community’s history in America and its influence on today’s culture.