BENJAMIN, I.J.




Author Tags: 1850-1900, Early B.C., Jewish

According to Cyril Leonoff, one of five authors for Pioneer Jews of British Columbia (Western States Jewish History, 2005), the first Jews in British Columbia were adventurers of Polish, Prussian and Germanic origin who arrived in Victoria with gold fever in 1858. By the time Moldavian-born Israel Joseph Benjamin passed through Victoria in February of 1861, Victoria boasted 2,500 white inhabitants, 5,000 Indians and one synagogue. Nonetheless, Benjamin observed, "The beginnings of the city of Victoria are really due to the Jews. For, no matter how many persons streamed to the island at the outbreak of the gold-fever, they scattered again, for the most part, to all corners of the world when their disillusion followed only too quickly. The Jews, however, held their ground, set up tents for residence and booths for shops; for they soon realized that this place had a great commercial future. This was to be deducted, easily enough, from the situation of the island, which lies between the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, California and China."

BOOKS:

Benjamin, I.J. Three Years in American 1859-1862 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society; New York: Arno Press, 1956). Two volumes. Translated from he German by Charles Reznikoff.

[BCBW 2005] "Jewish" "1850-1900" "Early B.C."

Benjamin II in America
Excerpt


from The Orthodox Union Story by Saul Bernstein, Chapter 2 (website)
Among the visitors who came to observe the American scene was "Benjamin II," the cognomen of the extraordinary traveler I.J. Benjamin. Inspired by the examples of the famed world travelers of centuries before, Benjamin of Tudela and Petachia of Ratisbon, this latter-day Benjamin wandered from his native Moldavia to remote lands to see and meet his fellow Jews. After journeying through Asia and Africa from 1846 to 1855, Benjamin's world-roaming itinerary brought him to America, where he spent the years 1859 to 1862 in coast-to-coast travels.

Benjamin's encounter with New-World life prompted severe judgment on what he saw as the materialistic conditioning of American society in general. He saw-to a degree perhaps sharpened by his visits to California settlements born of Gold -Rush impetus and its continued urgings-the drive for wealth and 'gold' as permeating the ranks of Americans of all backgrounds. Insofar as this attitude was shared by Jews, he maintained, its effects on Jewish life were pernicious:

"The principle cause for the decline of Judaism [in the U.S. as then found] is due to two sources: One is materialism. The grubbing and hunting for money and gold, which is hardly interrupted by night, almost buries the soul; it permits no higher thoughts to spring up and kills ... all nobler and sacred feelings.... The second source ... is the mentality of many spiritual leaders and teachers, who have knowledge neither of the Talmud nor of the literature of Judaism."

Like others before him and many since, Benjamin voiced his deep concern at the educational gap. He was particularly pained at the failure to provide girls with meaningful Jewish education:

"The Jewish boys attend some Hebrew school or other, or are instructed privately, but in this respect, what does the situation look like for the daughters of [the House of] Israel? How sad is the provision for the religious education of these Jewish mothers and housewives of the future! How little do they learn of their duties to God and man! ... All who are members of the religious community are to blame, as a body. They should have established Jewish schools for girls as well as for boys."

LOYALTIES NEAR AND FAR

At each place he visited, Benjamin II took careful note of the synagogues and their origins, rituals, and accomplishments. He took satisfaction in noting the Orthodoxy of various synagogues. Among these were some that were later proved, by their abandonment of their original commitment, to have been less well safeguarded in their religious integrity than Benjamin had supposed. Here are some examples from among his citations:

"The place now occupied by Chicago was still in the possession of Indians as recently as thirty years ago. . . . There are three congregations in Chicago, [including] Anshe Ma'ariv ('Men of the West") founded in 1847 (5607); in 1851 (5611) the congregation built a very beautiful synagogue. . . . This congregation consists mostly of Germans, its ritual likewise and consequently stiff truly orthodox. . . . B'nai Sholom, founded somewhat later than the former, has no teacher; it follows the Polish rite.

"There are two congregations in St. Louis (Missouri). One is Achduth Israel; it has eighty members and its rite is Polish. It was organized in 1842 (5602). Two years ago, the congregation erected a very beautiful synagogue on Sixth Street; it cost about $130,000 to build. The money was borrowed and interest had to be paid for it. It had been announced twice that the synagogue would be sold to the highest bidder, for the congregation could not or would not pay the interest. . . . I visited the synagogue on a Shabbos but must report to my regret that the minyan necessary for public services were hardly present."

In his roamings in the far West, Benjamin viewed congregations such as the following:

Congregation Shearith Israel was organized in San Francisco in 1849. It held services in various places which, from time to time, were destroyed by fire. Finally, the congregation in 1850 bought a place on Stockton Street. . . The congregation has about 110 members. They all come from northern Europe or England. The service follows the correct Polish Minhag and is strictly orthodox. From the very beginning the congregation was founded on these principles and they are embodied in its constitution so that they remain in force to this day and, according to all appearances, it is very unlikely that innovations will be made.

While Benjamin 11 found much in the life of America's Jews to deplore, he also found occasion for praise, particularly in the area of charitable giving. He summarizes:

"Perhaps in a short time Judaism in America will recover; for the many charitable institutions there, without equal in any other land, show that the Jewish spirit still lives, and we may hope that the other two pillars of Judaism, Torah and Avodah, Torah learning and religious service, which along with charity, Chesed, have been declared by our Sages to be the foundation of our religion, will soon rise up again in full splendor."