1917 Jewish Exponent Shares Both Similarities and Differences with Today

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The Exponent cover 100 years ago contained a lengthy essay by a rabbi and also a poem.

So, what were you doing 100 years ago today?

Of course, there probably aren’t many around to answer that question, and those who could were too young to even remember.

But for those who were reading the Exponent that Friday — all 14 pages of it, though those pages were a massive 19 inches long and 12 inches wide, nearly double the current 12.5-by-10.5-inch editions — there was plenty going on.

Even though the print is so small you may have needed a magnifying glass to read it, it’s somehow comforting — or perhaps distressing — to know how little some things have changed over the course of a century.

No, we no longer refer to women by their husband’s name, as in Mrs. Harry Goldstein, as if Mildred Goldstein didn’t really exist. And we no longer call Jewish clergy representatives “Reverend.”

But then, as now, we promote fundraising events at local synagogues. We celebrate simchas — be they “betrothals,” as they were then called, weddings, births and Bar Mitzvahs.

We still talk about cultural events such as concerts, theatrical performances and art showings. And we still run advertisements, although suits for $25 or French pumps for $5.90 are no longer available.

Advertisements of the day demonstrate how our written language has changed significantly over time.

The biggest difference between April 20, 1917 and today, though, is significant.

Back then, we were in the midst of World War I. The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was the catalyst for war to erupt in Europe.

But it had been less than three weeks since President Woodrow Wilson’s April 2 Declaration of War against Germany. While Jews from Great Britain, France and other European nations had been serving since the start of the war, American troops were just arriving.

The Exponent’s focus was on those who’d been in the battle from the start. Equally as big a story was the Russian Revolution, which also had only just begun.

Exactly how large of an impact Jews, who had been persecuted throughout not only Russia but much of Eastern Europe, played during the overthrow of Czar Nicholas, was uncertain.

But consider this Page 7 response in a story about Jews in the Russian Revolution under the heading “Jews and the European War” to an allegation in the London Times that Jewish students at Dorpat University, in what is now Estonia, were at the forefront.

“The charges brought by the correspondent of the London Times soon after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution against some ‘hot-tempered’ Jewish students who tried to organize a counter revolution have now been completely denied,” it read. “A Russian journal sent a special correspondent to Dorpat to investigate the matter and it was found to be entirely a creation of the imagination of the Times correspondent.”

In other words, “fake news” 100 years ago.

There’s also a story in the April 20 edition raising concerns of an anti-Semitic reaction in Warsaw, urging Polish Jews to unite. There’s mention of a Jewish school in Jaffa destroyed by bombardment of that British port.

Speaking of the British, who had just invaded what was then Palestine and were within 25 miles of Jerusalem, there was speculation what would happen once they took command of the area.

“What should we do with Palestine thus liberated from the century-old Turkish grip,” asked British commander Sir Archibald Murray in an article titled “When the British Army Takes Palestine.” “There should be little doubt that we should revive the Jewish Palestine of old, and allow the Jews to realize their dreams of Zion in their homeland.

“All the Jews will not return to Palestine, but many will do so. The Jews at least would have a homeland and a nationality of their own. The national dream which has sustained them for a score of centuries and more will have been fulfilled.”

But not all Brits in the military were as open-minded as Murray. In a story called “Passover Leave for British Soldiers,” it’s noted that after initially denying soldiers Passover leave, they reconsidered after meeting with a committee of rabbis and other officials.

While the war in Europe, which would go on for another 18 months once the U.S. got involved, dragged on, support for American involvement was growing within the Jewish community.

A fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel in New York on behalf of relief efforts for Jewish war victims raised $2.3 million, with Julius Rosenwald, head of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago (a 2016 inductee in the National Museum of American Jewish History Hall of Fame) pledging to match a tenth of the final total up to $1 million.

However, then, as now, the Exponent was reaching out to a local audience — one searching for enlightenment in a trying time.

That may explain why the front page consisted entirely of “Under the Rabbi’s Spell,” a lengthy essay by Rabbi A.S. Isaacs filled with religious parables but few references to the current time. These essays were reprinted from a literary magazine known as The Bookman, along with Robert Underwood Johnson’s poem, “The Leader,” which appears in the middle of the page.

Not to be found on the cover (nor any other page) are pictures.

The lone exception to that are illustrations on some of the ads, such as “Dance with the Crowd. Don’t be a Wallflower with Brasler’s Private Dancing Academies,” which features a couple dancing. And there’s a shot of Marie Rappold and Albert Spalding performing on the New Edison Phonograph for Snellenberg’s between 11th and 12th on Market Street.

Page 5’s “Womankind” column details activities such as giving seder baskets to the needy or explaining how the best fields for women are in science, specifically in industrial, agricultural and biological chemistry.

Yet the mere suggestion that a woman might exert some influence on what takes place in the synagogue generated a “Here and There” editorial on Page 4.

“Dr. Emil Hirsch does not attempt to deny that women have a right to have their say, but he argues very cogently that the asserting of it should not be permitted to weaken the virile foundation on which the synagogue has been built up in the course of the centuries. Dr. Hirsch makes out a clear case for the control of synagogue policy by those who in the last analysis are bound to shoulder the major part of the responsibilities.”

Yes, much has changed over the course of a century — and not only the opportunity to get a spring suit or topcoat for $15 at the long-defunct Lit Brothers or a $10 sterling silver bread tray at S. Kind and Sons, 1110 Chestnut St.

Technology, which rules our world perhaps more than anything when you factor in the internet, cellphones and the ability to choose from hundreds of channels on your remote-controlled color TV, was only beginning to make a dent in 1917.

For entertainment purposes, there seemed to have been a number of options. The Adelphi, Forrest, Lyric, Grand, Knickerbocker and Walnut theaters put on performances ranging from comedy to drama to musicals. Only a few — the Victoria, Stanley and Palace — were showing something called “motion pictures.”

So it seems life was so much simpler in many ways back then when you put down your 7 cents to pick up the Jewish Exponent.

Was it any better? That’s a question we can debate for another 100 years.

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