Friday night in the Hill District. Shaare Torah is packed — Kol Nidre packed — and the chazzanim are going all out. The next morning, the crowds head for Schacharis at the Washington Street shul, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, where the sanctuary is draped in blue and white bunting. From the bima, the gabbaim make mi shebrachs for Theodor Herzl and urge the gathered congregants to pledge their charity to the Jewish National Fund.
It’s early June 1903, a week after Shavuos, when Shabbos afternoon stretches its legs for hours. The crowd passes through raindrops to Beth Jacob for Mincha and for Yiddish lectures one after the other. Locals vibrate with excitement, while over there, a conspiring delegation from Cuyahoga County wear badges reading, “Cleveland next.”
Sunday morning. Every storefront in the Hill is papered blue and white and hung with Stars of David and framed portraits of Herzl. These decorations spill over the sidewalks, all the way down to Forbes Avenue, through the doors of Turner Hall, along its walls, to its stage, where an American flag and a proto-Israeli flag hang from the rafters, beneath a banner reading, “Welcome Zionists.” Here’s a photograph from the floor: dozens of men in suits and ties (and one in a top-hat) each with a blue and white ribbon pinned to his lapel, turning to face the cameraman at the back of the room. These are the delegates to the Sixth Annual Convention of the Federation of American Zionists.
That evening, after the convention opens, 3000 fill the Bijou Theatre for a mass meeting. Hundreds more buzz around the doors, angling to get inside. It is meant to be a general pep rally, but a fresh wound pulses in the soul of the Jewish people, and it takes over the night. The rally becomes a protest against the recent pogrom in Kishineff.
Judge Josiah Cohen chairs the meeting. He is a lay leader at Rodef Shalom Congregation and a lover of Israel but skeptical of modern Zionism. “If it is the old Zionism which means the coming of a Messiah and the establishment of the kingdom of Jerusalem, I am not sure I concur. My Zionism is here under the stars and stripes,” he says. “But if Zionism means the unification of the Jewish forces everywhere then I am a Zionist. From this meeting tonight, I hope there will go forth a sentiment that will reach the shores of Europe and tell the oppressors there that if there is no physical force in the world to restrain them there is at least a moral force with which they will have to reckon.”
Dr. Richard Gottheil follows. He is president of the Federation of American Zionists and also a Reform leader. He harbors no ambivalence about Zionism. “It is all very well for Jews in a land of liberty where the blood of their dear ones does not periodically flow to speak about the flag and to say that their Jerusalem is here, but it is on behalf of your poor brethren in Europe who have no starry flag above them, but who are fighting for their liberties that we appeal.” A little later in his speech, he adds, “This meeting tonight is not merely a meeting of protest. Our Christian fellow citizens will protest for us and their protest will do good where ours would be unheeded. We Jews must protest with our hands and pockets. It is not moral help which we must give the sufferers of Kishineff and those who are in danger of like martyrdom, but actual help.”
The call for Christian support is hardly hypothetical. The meeting includes several Christian leaders who rouse the audience with words of solidarity. Similar voices have been heard from Christian quarters all over the country. A few years later, the Jewish Publication Society compiles them into a book, “The Voice of America on Kishineff.”
Cantor Julius Bloom — a beloved voice of the Hill, “a loyal American, a sterling Jew, an ardent Zionist,” as one eulogist later wrote — ends the meeting by leading the audience in the Jewish National Anthem. Not “Hatikvah.” This is an early alternative by Rev. Dr. Pereira Mendes, soon forgotten. It is “The Zion-Hymn,” and it is sung to the melody of “My Country ’Tis Of Thee.” From souvenir lyric sheets, the multitude sings, “God, we implore of Thee/End Zion’s misery/Send her Thy aid!/Send Thou her sons to heal/Wounds which the years reveal/Woes which at last in weal/For aye shall fade.”
Recalling the whistle-pitch of emotion in the theater that night — the hope and the heartbreak — a writer from The Maccabean later reported, “It is nothing to be wondered at that a non-Zionist, addressing the writer as he left the hall: ‘Can you tell me why I am feeling what I feel?’ I asked him what he felt. ‘I feel as though I had not existed for fifteen years. I am a little boy leading the old Jewish life. It seems Yom Kippur to me.’” PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.