Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Formation of the American Jewish Publication Society.

by Isaac Leeser

In lieu of an editorial article upon a particular subject of our own selection, we will refer this month to the commencement of what we think a good movement, and which, we hope, is destined to exist many years, and to produce an abundant harvest of useful results to the cause of our religion in this country. When one looks back no more than ten years even, and compares the number and the position of the Israelites then with what they are now, he must become impressed with the conviction, that something more is necessary now than was the case formerly; and, what is more, that we have the means of carrying out many enterprises at the present moment which, but a few years ago, were beyond our reach. The immigration into this country, from Germany especially, has regularly increased our population almost every month, and this result will, no doubt, be witnessed for years to come, partially owing to the oppressions of continental governments, with the exception of France, Belgium, and Holland, and partly to the attraction which the members of the families already in America offer to their relatives in Europe to come to join them in their new homes. It may be admitted, that by far the greater number of the newcomers have but very limited means, and, many of them, but limited educations, and add, therefore, on their first arrival, but little moral and physical strength to our communities; nevertheless they form a nucleus of future strength by their very presence; by industry and frugality by far the largest portion are soon put beyond actual want; they feel the importance of an honourable name and fair standing in the community, and soon they will seek for their children those advantages which they themselves had not the opportunity of enjoying. And should they not feel this impulse sufficiently strongly within themselves, should they be so lost to all ideas of refinement and religious duty as to desire for their offspring nothing nobler than the acquisition of wealth: it would evidently be the obligation of those who are more noble-hearted to awaken their fellow Israelites to a better sense of what they owe to themselves and their children. Nor is it to be doubted that the appeal would prove successful. A repulse may be experienced, say even repeated refusals should have to be submitted to; but if, with true courage, which knows not what defeat means, the friendly attacks are renewed, they will, to a surety, at length prevail, and the amelioration of our people by our own means, and in the spirit of our religion, will be effected; and we will be able to point to our success as a proof that, in the western world, also, Judaism has found a home, and numbers many friends and faithful adherents.

It has long since appeared to us that Jewish literature might find a secure abode in the United States, by enlisting all Israelites to take an active interest in its growth. The mere publication of books, by even the best writers, struck us as far from adequate to supply the want which had been long felt, in the absence of an English Jewish literature. Books published in the usual way would have no chance to reach all the scattered settlements of Jews, which are daily becoming more numerous and diffused. Booksellers could not be expected to take an active part in the disposal of works which might be injurious to their interest, if found by some zealots of other persuasions in their establishments; and, if exert this should not be so to any great extent, still we should experience a very great difficulty in inducing persons to purchase books necessarily at a high price, from the limited sale which one could expect for them under the most favourable circumstances. But if a great many persons were to unite themselves into a society, established for no other purpose than to print and circulate books, we imagined that, by this means, many works now almost out of print, and others not yet written, but which would be written could the authors find purchasers for them, would be given to the press and circulated in every town and village of the country. 

Our own experience had proved to us how hopelessly a writer on Jewish religion has to look at his manuscript, from the almost impossibility of finding readers for his labour, unless some fortunate position in life enables him to obtain for himself a hearing. It will be, perhaps, averred, that true merit will make itself appreciated under the most adverse circumstances; but people know not how long time it takes for the most meritorious to have their genius appreciated, and their services acknowledged. A book by a new author is not eagerly sought for; who is to publish it? what bookseller will venture to risk any considerable outlay for one not yet approved by the public? and surely but few writers have the means, and, if they have, would have the courage to venture upon the dangerous experiment of private publication, unless, indeed, they had some powerful friends to induce the public to receive their works with some degree of favour.

Perhaps it may be said by some, that our own course is a complete refutation of what we have just advanced; but they who think so can know but little of the great difficulties which we have had to encounter, and the very small pecuniary success which has attended us. In one thing we were fortunate; we are possessed of a considerable share of indifference to loss or gain, and our circumstances and position have, ever since we first ventured to bring out our first publication, been of that nature, that the chance of the accession of a little gain, or the experience of a little loss, could exert but small influence upon our mind; as, on the one hand, our desires do not require a great amount for their gratification, nor would, on the other, the small loss which our limited means would permit us to incur—and we never vet ventured beyond them—abstract any thing from the comforts in life to which we have been accustomed. Besides this, our position gave us a number of friends, whose partiality will always induce them to cast an eye at our productions, if even they do not obtain their entire approbation. But there are very few indeed who would either have the time and opportunity which we had, or who would undergo the labour if they had even more advantages than we have enjoyed. It is not so easy a task, this writing for the people, and the pleasures it confers are more than counterbalanced by the vexations to which it subjects the greatest favourite of the public.

To enable, therefore, inquirers in Jewish literature to communicate the results of their studies, in a manner satisfactory to themselves, it will be necessary to establish a public to which they can appeal at once for support. And how can this be better done than by having an association who are all alike interested in the success of the works? In other words, it struck us, that it would be best to establish a common fund, to be devoted solely to the production of books, so that every subscriber should be supplied according to the amount of his contribution, and that the remainder, after devoting a certain number of topics for distribution among the poor, should be sold for the benefit of the general fund, which, when sufficient, should be employed to compensate authors for any works of interest to Israelites, the copy­right of which they might sell, in part or entirely, to the society.

A threefold object would be thereby secured; first, the encouragement of reading among Israelites; secondly, the supplying of good books to those who cannot afford to buy them; and, thirdly, to incite Jewish talent to devote itself to the development of subjects connected with our religion and history. That this is perfectly feasible can be easily demonstrated. Suppose we had thirteen hundred subscribers to our Society, and we were to issue fifteen hundred copies each, of ten little books, per annum, like No. 1 of the Jewish Miscellany; the cost of the whole would be, to judge from that of the just mentioned, about nine hundred dollars, we should then have a surplus of four hundred dollars, besides two hundred copies for distribution among the poor. In the course of a few years we should thus accumulate a moderate fund, to make some compensation, at all events, to persons willing to write; and then, if their works were of real merit, they could make such arrangements for extra copies for themselves, to be issued with the consent of the Society, as to obtain fir them something more than the Society might give them in money. There is another advantage naturally arising from this method of publishing works. An author would in that case not have to struggle for a little notoriety—to watch with anxiety whether his work will be left upon the bookseller’s shelf; for he would at once be before a considerable portion of persons able to decide on his merits, and he would thus be appreciated, and perhaps enabled thereby of obtaining, for more extensive works, a favourable reception, without the intervention of the Society, if he, when his reputation is established, should prefer to dispense with the necessarily limited aid which his early patrons could afford to grant.

But it is almost impossible to foretell what such a Society might be able to accomplish; how it might aid to awaken many, now inattentive to religious duties, to a sense of their delinquency: how it might unite distant congregations, seeing that they were all interested in an enterprise which is theirs in common; how it might aid to dispel ignorance among ourselves, and enable the Israelite to put many a work in the hand of his Christian neighbour to dispossess him of any prejudice he may entertain against us, for want of proper information concerning us, our doctrines and our conduct.

Our attention has accordingly been long fixed to devise some feasible plan to carry out our views. We even sent out letters, several years ago, to some influential gentlemen in the South, to enlist their co-operation; but without success. Still we never gave up the idea, still looking for a better result at a later period; when accidentally the subject was renewed in our mind by a conversation at the house of a friend, during the course of last autumn, when two persons offered the sum of five dollars each, for as many copies of Caleb Asher, if they could be procured. We eagerly embraced the offer, and after consulting with Mr. Abraham Hart, the worthy President of our congregation, (we will not pay him any compliments, as most of our readers know of him, at all events), the work was put to press, and immediately set in extensive circulation, under the name of “The Jewish Miscellany, No. 1.” We at the same time issued a prospectus, bearing our names, to invite the aid of Israelites in the United States, to form an American Jewish Publication Society, and the call was in various ways responded to by sundry donations and contributions being sent to us, which, with the sale of the above work, brought the sum of $162.75, which, after paying for No. 1, left in our hands $72.08 for other works. In addition to these contributions, an auxiliary Society was formed in Richmond, as we announced in No. l of the present volume of our magazine. But various causes prevented Mr. Hart and ourself from organizing the parent Society is form during the summer. We had determined, however, to call upon the Israelites of this city, immediately after the holidays, to assemble in general meeting for the above purpose.

The meeting accordingly took place on the 9th of November, corresponding with the 9th of Heshvan, at the meeting room of our congregation, where we were gratified by the assembly of a large number of our friends, and we believe that it was the largest society meeting which had taken place for many years.

Mr. Hart was called to the chair, and opened the meeting with a short address, in which he stated in substance, that we had always been very ready to supply the poor with food for the body, with clothing, with fuel, and medical attendance in sickness; but no effort had yet been made in America, to supply poor and rich with food for the soul; an object which ought to be dear to every Israelite. He exhibited the specimens of the work already done, No. 1 containing Caleb Asher, are No. 2, containing the Hebrew Tales, by the late Dr. Hurwitz of London; and said, the first productions are what might be called light reading; but they were pioneers on the way, to induce our younger members to read, and when they had once imbibed a taste for letters, they would crave and demand graver matter, more solid food of the mind; and it would be precisely such an institution as was proposed to be formed, which could supply the want thus created.—When Mr. Hart had concluded, we followed him to show the necessity there existed to fortify the mind of old and young with sound knowledge on a matter so necessary to them as their eternal welfare. Constant efforts were making to warp the intellect of our people, by scattering among them erroneous views, views hostile to our faith, subversive of our existence as Israelites. And how is the young member of Jacob’s house to meet and combat these errors, without the means which would enable him to refute the specious arguments so constantly resorted to? Living instruction cannot always be obtained; but sound doctrines scattered abroad through books, might be made every where accessible; we therefore hoped that the society would be established on a permanent footing, and be the means of instructing every Israelite in the land in the nature of his religion, and the scope of his duties. We instanced among outer things, the great efforts which the apostate-makers were using to distribute their works, frequently in the guise of the Pentateuch and Bible, among all classes of our people; and we urged upon the meeting to distribute themselves such reading among all, that error of every class, might find no chance of being brought into our houses. Some farther conversation ensued, when it was proposed to appoint a committee of three to nominate officers for the Society. Whilst the committee was absent, the far greater portion of the persons present, if not all, signed their names to the prospectus, and several added donations besides, which will all be acknowledged, probably in the next number of the Miscellany. The committee upon re-entering, announced the following nominations: Abraham Hart, President, Henry Cohen and David Samuels, Vice-Presidents, Joseph L. Moss, Treasurer, Alfred T. Jones, Recording Secretary, and Isaac Lesser, Corresponding Secretary,* Hyman Gratz, Lazarus Arnold, Louis Bomeisler, Leon Hyneman, Elias P. Levy, and Solomon Solis, Managers, and John Moss, Mayer, Arnold, and Gratz Etting, Trustees.—A committee was then appointed to draft a Constitution and By-Laws, for the government of the Society, to report to an adjourned meeting on the 30th of November, and another of nine, to collect subscriptions and donations. After which the meeting adjourned till the above day.

* The Corresponding Secretary was ordered to write to all the congregations in America; he will attend to this duty as soon after the formal adoption of the Constitution as possible.

Our distant friends will thus see that the Israelites of Philadelphia have now fairly begun the good work. Of its usefulness there can be no doubt; and we trust that, as there is nothing sectional in it, all will unite with us to farther this enterprise, in which all have an equal interest. Especially do we hope that the large congregations in New York, Charleston, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and St. Louis, will do their best to show themselves animated by the proper spirit; and sure we are, that they will have always good reason to bless the day that they did this service to the cause of their religion.