Lectures About Jews a Hundred Years Ago

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Thursday, January 22, 1914:  Ruth and I went to town this evening to hear a talk given by a Jew in the Reformed Church.

St. Johns' United Church of Christ (It was St. John's Reformed Church in Grandma's day.)
St. Johns’ United Church of Christ, McEwensville (It was St. John’s Reformed Church in Grandma’s day.)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

The previous summer, on June 1, 1913, Grandma wrote a diary entry that was very similar to this one:

Went to Sunday school this afternoon. Took my time a getting home. I heard some of the best speaking I have ever listened to this evening. A converted Jew talked about some of the customs of the Jewish people in the Reformed Church at McEwensville.

I can’t figure out why a church would have two presentations less than eight months apart about Judaism, and why Grandma would be interested enough in the topic to attend both presentations even though she was a Baptist.

These diary entries make me want to learn more about Jewish culture in the US a hundred years ago, and how Jews were perceived by Christians in the early 20th century. Of course, these diary entries were written years before World War II and the holocaust. . . .

25 thoughts on “Lectures About Jews a Hundred Years Ago

  1. Well, I have lived a very sheltered life (as a Baptist) in a small town, so Judaism is a subject about which I know very little. Interesting that Grandma attended both lectures.

  2. Perhaps she had just happened to read or learned something that made her interested in that ancient religion. I tried to ask around a little, on the same subject, in my native country …

  3. Based on research into my own Orthodox Jewish ancestors, the early 20th century views held by upper class and middle class New Yorkers were very discriminatory.

    Jewish immigrants lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many, like my paternal Great Grandfather, were wagon drivers or peddlars selling rags or merchandise from hand driven carts. There are comic films in the archives at different libraries (I think one is at the Smithsonian or the National Archives) where a slapstick, silent short shows interaction between a police officer and a clumsy Jewish peddler. It was painful to watch.

    I think in some ways Mexicans and Latinos are looked down upon in the same way by some people.

    The Jewish communities also had a negative view of the goy (non Jewish) peoples they interacted with.

    When my paternal Grandmother left the Orthodox community to marry my Grandfather, (born to a Sicilian-Catholic immigrant family) she committed what is called a Shanda, an act of disgrace in public view that is an insult to her family and the community. It affected how other relatives of her family interacted with her parents afterwards.

    I think that the religious customs are always a fascinating subject for study, but the social customs and attitudes are sometimes accompanied by surprises and the need for much reflection.

    1. Your thoughtful comments makes me reflect on the challenges that different religious groups face. Your grandmother must have been a strong and determined woman. It had to have been very difficult to leave her community to marry your grandfather.

      1. Yes, what you say Is true. I think she missed a part of her people since it’s impossible to completely forget the community one grows up in. The history of the Jewish people in America is of great interest to me because there is always a tension I sense between being a member of the Jewish community with it’s rich traditions while living in a culture that encourages individuality and change.

  4. (Good to be back!) One reason Christians are fascinated by Judaism is that it is the religion our own faith springs from. The Old Testament is shared by Jews and Christians as prophetic scripture. Christians interpret so many of the prophecies as being fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and are always curious to know how a Jewish person interprets these same scriptures. Jewish converts to Christianity bring an insight to the older ways of reading prophecy that gentile Christians hunger for. It also validates our Christian view of the Bible, when a Jewish person comes to see the prophecies as relating to Jesus.

    1. Susan, you encapsulate so many thoughts that came to me after I posted about my own research into Jewish immigrants in New York. I think Sheryl’s Grandmother found the discussion at the Church fascinating for the same reasons you give. I just want to add that I live in the Orthodox/Hassidic community of Boro Park, Brooklyn, NY. As I observe the enactment of the yearly holidays of Succoth, Passover, Yom Kippur and sense the feelings of my neighbors as they observe the Mosaic Laws it hits me all at once sometimes–this feeling that this is exactly or close to the atmosphere the Holy Family lived in. When I look through the windows of the beautiful homes around me on Friday nights as the women light the Shabbos candles and the Fathers sing out a prayer, I wonder if Joseph and Mary celebrated in a similar way and I wonder what Christ did during the observances when he was a child.

  5. The Jewish culture (not the faith) is fascinating and rich in tradition and history. That alone would make it interesting to one who had not learned much about it before.

  6. In the 70s I did research on local Jewish history in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for a grad level history course. I think at the beginning of the century German Jews were assimilating rapidly in small cities like Kalamazoo. They owned small businesses and were part of the community. They were perceived differently from the poor eastern European Jewish immigrants in the big cities.

  7. As someone who was born and grew up in Jerusalem myself, I can tell you that many observant Christians I meet are always fascinated to hear about the area, the history and the religious traditions. I can only guess that it was even more fascinating to hear it all from a convert, rather than from an agnostic like me…
    On my part, I usually find it fascinating that in most cases they are not aware of the fact the Jesus was Jewish himself and that Christianity only started about 300 years after his death.
    So there’s always a lot to learn from each other! 🙂

  8. That would be an interesting read if you decide to write about the Jewish people – hope you do it. Although I agree with the one post regarding Jesus as Jewish, He most certainly was as well all know He was born from line of David – but Christianity started earlier with the disciples (but after the death of Jesus)and they were called Christians as an insult – Jesus called them and anyone who followed Him – Disciples and I am glad to see many Christians today are once again viewing themselves as Disciples…see it is already an interesting subject and yes, there is a lot to learn from each other. I wonder if Helena was told these things or if it was more to the traditions of the Old testament which would be fascinating.

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