Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The SS President Arthur: the Zionist Mayflower Part IV: Men riot, women faint

Nathan Straus, Louis Brandeis, and Rabbi Stephen Wise on board the SS. President Arthur probably for a pre-launch cruise.
On the eve of the departure of the S.S. President Arthur from Manhattan, the New York Times reported that “New York City will bid godspeed tonight through its official broadcasting station, WNYC, to the American-Palestine steamer, President Arthur. . . . The city’s good wishes to the ship will be conveyed through William Wirt Mills, Commissioner of Plant and Structures, at 7:45 o’clock this evening.”[i] The article downsized previous reports of how many passengers would be aboard the ship:  rather than the anticipated 600-plus, the ship, “equipped with a new high-power radio … will carry 500 passengers on her maiden trip.”[ii]

The next morning, the Times carried the full text of Commissioner Mills’s message as well as a partial list of passengers.  He said, in part:

An event of religious and commercial significance will occur tomorrow. . . . the linking of America and the Holy Land. . . .

To Jew and to Gentile Palestine is the Holy Land. To Protestant as well as to Roman Catholic the land is hallowed. There is, therefore, something that appeals to practically all the people of America in this reaching out from America to the furthest end of the Mediterranean Sea and in making Jerusalem’s seaport the destination of the steamship that bears the name of an American President and that flies the Stars and Stripes and the flag of the Zionists. . . . [iii]

On March 12, 1925, the S.S. President Arthur left the pier at the foot of West Houston Street. The Times said five thousand onlookers – the Chicago Daily Tribune reported fifteen thousand – cheered with “patriotic frenzy.” The Trib’s article, otherwise almost a verbatim copy of the one in the Times added, “Only a few of them had friends among the 400 [sic] passengers.”[iv]

Herman Hirsch, a passenger from Chicago, recorded in his diary, “At 7:30 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, March 12th, I was the first passenger aboard the ship and was promptly assigned to my cabin. . . . [the ship] moved into the great ocean, with two hundred thirty-nine  [emphasis added] passengers.”[v]

(Herman Hirsch’s diary is the source and starting point of my interest in the SS President Arthur.  Hirsch chronicled his trip, beginning with a banquet in his honor given by his congregation and sisterhood on March 8, through his return to New York (not on the SS President Arthur) on May 19th.  His grandson, Arthur Hirsch, posted his diary on the internet some seven decades later, and that is how I learned the fate of my great-grandfather, Jacob Drapekin, who died on the ship.  I’ve chronicled my search in an earlier blog.  Hirsch’s diary also is a lively and interesting description of the opening ceremonies of Hebrew University and his adventures as a tourist in 1925 Palestine.)

A two-hour ceremony had started at 9 a.m. on March 12 with “the playing of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and the singing of ‘Hatikvah.’ The latter was impressive,” the Times notes, “for the vast audience joined in and drowned out other noises on the pier. So, too, was the singing of the Rev. Josef Rosenblatt, the cantor, whose voice brought quiet.”[vi]

Speakers included New York Mayor John Francis Hylan, defeated later that year in his bid for re-election by “Jimmy” Walker; Rabbi Moses S. Margolies, honorary president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada; the Reverend Dr. David de Sola Pool, rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, in New York; and David Yellin, an educator and deputy mayor of Jerusalem.[vii]   

According to the Times, Yellin spoke in Yiddish.  Chicago’s Sentinel, however, reported that he spoke in Hebrew – much more likely, given his personal and professional commitment to promoting modern Hebrew – and that it was “the first Hebrew speech ever transmitted over the radio.”[viii] While Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise was not present, the Atlanta Constitution reported that “in a special service, [he] prayed that success attend the voyage.”[ix]

Other honored guests included the Rev. Dr. Joseph Silverman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El of the City of New York.[x] Nathan Straus sent a telegram that was read to the crowd; the ship carried “automobiles and agricultural implements” he had donated “for the use of colonists of Palestine.”[xi]

When Judge Strahl announced, “This event marks the advent for the first time in more than 2,000 years of the flag of Judea on the high seas,” an “outburst of applause” swept through the crowd, causing some to cheer and many to cry.[xii] “Several women fainted,” reported the Tribune.[xiii] Strahl’s claim was somewhat overblown. A 35-meter boat named Hechalutz had carried cargo and passengers among Mediterranean ports as early as 1919 under the “Hebrew flag.”[xiv]

By all accounts, a near-riot ensued when it was time for the ship to leave. Herman Hirsch recorded, “By noon the pier and the ship was so overcrowded with people that the police and officers had difficulty in clearing them.”[xv] The Atlanta Constitution reported, “It was necessary to call 100 police reserves to handle the crowd. No injuries were reported in the jam, although some of the spectators’ clothing was torn.”[xvi] The ship’s siren sounded several times, but according to Time Magazine, only when “an official of the Line pleaded that, if the boat did not catch the tide, the company would lose $15,000”[xvii] did the visitors go ashore. The Times reported, “It was estimated that 2,500 automobiles were parked in the vicinity of the pier.”[xviii]

[i]  “City’s Godspeed to Ship,” New York Times, March 11, 1925, 6.
[ii]  Ibid.
[iii]  “City Bids Godspeed to Holy Land Ship,” New York Times, March 12, 1925, Amusements Hotels and Restaurants section, 22. The article names 322 passengers. I have identified others from various sources. A manifest of arriving passengers from the Central Zionist Archives of the World Zionist Organization includes the names of 184 passengers. The list is erroneously dated “31.3.24”; the error is corrected on the cover sheet and in the correspondence from the archivist dated May 14, 2009 (File S104/560 reclassified as ISA 1/15489/2). I am grateful to my husband, Rabbi Fred N. Reiner, for his painstaking translation of these almost-illegible records.
[iv]  “Zion Flag Aloft as 400 Sail to Promised Land,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 13, 1925, 20.
[v]  Herman Hirsch, “My Trip to Palestine.” June 1925. Accessed October 2005.
[vi]  “Palestine Liner Gets Big Send-off,” New York Times, March 13, 1925, 8.
[vii]   “Jewish Institute Changes,” New York Times, March 31, 1924, 3.
[viii]  “President Arthur, First Jewish Steamer, Sails for Palestine,” Sentinel, March 20, 1925, 4.
[ix]  “Zionists Sail for Dedication of University,” Atlanta Constitution, March 13, 1925, 20.
[x]  “Palestine Liner Gets Big Send-off.” Rabbi Silverman had earned his special introduction on November 13, 1921, when he “surprised almost 3,200 guests at a dinner at the Hotel Astor . . . by declaring himself in favor of the upbuilding of Palestine and the establishment there of a republic patterned after the democracy of the United States. Rabbi Silverman has always been known as a non-Zionist, and while his beliefs do not quite coincide with those of the ardent Zionist, they were accepted by the large attendance as a practical endorsement of the Zionist movement.”  “Silverman Urges Palestine Republic,” New York Times, November 14, 1921, 15.
[xi]  “Holy Land Greets New York Steamer,” New York Times April 2, 1925, 8.
[xii]  “Palestine Liner Gets Big Send-off.”
[xiii]  “Zion Flag Aloft as 400 Sail to Promised Land.”
[xiv]  “First Ships Sailing under the Hebrew Flag,” People Israel – Your Guide to Israeli Society. Accessed April 1, 2010.
[xv]  Hirsch, op.cit.
[xvi]  “Zionists Sail for Dedication of University.”
[xvii]  “Manhattan to Haifa,” Time Magazine, March 23, 1925,,9171,881445,00.html.
[xviii]  “Palestine Liner Gets Big Send-off.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The SS President Arthur: the Zionist Mayflower Part III: A Lesson in Marketing Upscale Travel

The American Palestine Line surely had an effective publicist, most likely Judge Jacob Strahl himself. In November 1924, the Times noted that purchasers had paid $60,000 in cash for the steamship “for use in making pilgrimages to the Holy Land.”[i] A Pentecostal newspaper filled in some important details on its “Jewish Notes” page:  “A strictly Kosher menu will be served on the President Arthur, but persons desiring to vary their diet with pork can arrange to dine with the officers mess.”[ii]

Though Strahl and his partners were based in New York, word of the trip was spreading across the U.S. and Palestine. In February 1925, Chicago’s Daily Jewish Courier carried five articles about the President Arthur. The first pointed out that both the captain and first mate of the ship were non-Jews, a “lesson in liberality” that the Ku Klux Klan should absorb.[iii] The next article speculated that Bishop Manning of New York, who had made an “inquiry” about the ship, “May Eat Kosher” if he actually embarked along with “many other less known . . . priests” from whom the American Palestine Line had received inquiries.[iv] 

A few days later, “New York, Palestine at last to get a square deal in shipping” described how American Palestine had successfully – and self-sacrificially – argued against high cargo rates on goods bound for Palestine.[v] A week later, two articles appeared on page 1:  “Freight service to Palestine cut to one third price” and “Rabbis to have ‘minyan’ on Jewish steamer.”[vi]  And two weeks later the Courier noted, “Both on the ship and on the shore the spirits shall be exalted.”[vii]

Also in early February, the one-month-old Palestine Bulletin, forerunner of the Jerusalem Post, carried a large display advertisement, in English: “First direct and quick connection . . . Goods dispatched by this steamer will reach New-York in fifteen days.  For perishable goods there is no better opportunity. . . . Best comfort for passengers.”[viii]

Chicago’s Jewish periodical, the Sentinel, carried a photo of the President Arthur in early January 1925.[ix] In early February, the Sentinel reported that the ship’s owners had announced that the ship would carry “without charge” up to three tons of items “intended for free distribution in Palestine.”[x] Another article in the same issue described “Dr. Lewin-Epstein [who] heads Palestine staff of American-Palestine Line”:  “an ideal representative on the ground whose personality and public record are the best guarantee for the highest type of service to its passengers.”[xi]

Clearly the idea of a Jewish ship captured the imagination of many. Solomon Small (aka Smulewitz) wrote lyrics in transliterated Yiddish and music to “President Arthur’s Zion Ship”[xii]  with the refrain:
President Arthur, sail
Blazing for my children a trail.
I have waited ages long
With a mother's yearning strong.
Israel, my child thou art free
Cometh redemption to thee. . .[xiii]

In the two weeks before the President Arthur departed, press enthusiasm continued to build based largely, it seems, on a steady stream of press releases from Brooklyn. The Chicago Courier reported that not only would the mayor of New York and many prominent government officials attend the launch, but the Hebrew Sheltering House League had adopted a resolution “providing for its participation in the exercises.”[xiv] The implications of the President Arthur’s voyage extended far beyond the simple transport of tourists; the Courier noted that the “Foreign Market, Serving 35 Million People, [is being] Opened by Jewish Steamer.”[xv]

One week before departure, the New York Times reported that the ship in a “successful series of tests . . .  developed a speed of 19.7 knots.” George R. Freeman, marine superintendent of the line, speculated that although the company had planned a “fifteen-day run” the speed “will probably reduce” the voyage “to twelve to thirteen days.”[xvi] In fact, it took nineteen days.

[i]  “New Yorkers Buy Steamship to Start Route to Palestine,” New York Times, November 4, 1924, 23.
[ii] “Jewish Steamers,” Pentecostal Evangel, December 13, 1924, 6."president arthur". Accessed March 18, 2009.
[iii]  “The N.Y. World, the K.K.K. and the President Arthur,” Chicago Daily Jewish Courier, February 5, 1925, 1.
[iv]   “Bishop Manning May Eat Kosher,” Chicago Daily Jewish Courier, February 6, 1925, 1.
[v]   “New York, Palestine at last to get a square deal in shipping,” Chicago Daily Jewish Courier, February 15, 1925, 1.
[vi]   “Freight service to Palestine cut to one third price,” and “Rabbis to have ‘minyan’ on Jewish steamer,” Chicago Sunday Jewish Courier, February 22, 1925, 1.
[vii]   “The Jewish flag on the Jewish ship,” Daily Jewish Courier, March 2, 1925, 1.
[viii]   Palestine Bulletin, February 6, 1925, 4. Another large ad later proclaimed “Freight rates the same as on other lines although ours is a very fast steamer,” Palestine Bulletin, February 27, 1925, 4.
[ix]   “S.S. President Arthur Flies Jewish Flag,” Sentinel, January 2, 1925, p. 33.
[x]   “Jewish steamer offers free service to Palestine,” Sentinel, February 6, 1925, p. 4.
[xi]  “Dr. Lewin-Epstein Heads Palestine Staff of American-Palestine Line, Sentinel, February 6, 1925, 5.
[xii] “Songwriter, lyricist, bard, actor . . . Solomon Smulewitz [a.k.a. Small] (1868–1943) was born in Minsk, Belarus, and immigrated to the United States in 1889.”  He was an active early Yiddish composer.
[xiii]  YIVO/Music Collection, RG 112 Folder 279 Box 20, quoted in Accessed March 18, 2009.
[xiv]  “Ceremonies,” Chicago Sunday Jewish Courier, March 8, 1925, 1.
[xv]  “Foreign Market, Serving 35 Million People, Opened by Jewish Steamer,” Chicago Sunday Jewish Courier, March 15, 1925, 1.
[xvi]  “Marry on the Roof of Rabbi Pool’s Home,” New York Times, March 9, 1925, Sports/Automobiles section, 17.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The SS President Arthur: the Zionist Mayflower Part II: “The most prominent Jews of the world”

Judge Strahl announced the new shipping line in October 1924 when he returned from Palestine, “where he arranged for port facilities at Haifa for the first Jewish steamship line.” He promised, “When the President Arthur sails next March, she will carry more than 600 of the most prominent Jews of the world.” [i] At the end of November, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the officers of the American Palestine Line had gathered in the Brooklyn yard where the ship was being reconditioned to raise the “Jewish Flag” for the first time in history.[ii]
November 1924 Captain Breen & Judge Strahl

Not all publicity was free. On November 2, 1924, the Forward carried a full-page advertisement in Yiddish announcing that the American Palestine Line would link the two lands of America and Eretz Yisrael.[iii] The ad was both detailed and rhetorical. Prices ranged from $550 to $850 per person for first-class passengers, and $275 to $450 for second class, with deep discounts for children. In addition, special arrangements could be made through the steamship line for land accommodations. It also urged readers (in Yiddish):

The Forward, November 2, 1924
“Who among you will go up with me . . . with the modern Ezra the Scribe from our time to see our beautiful land, to see how our wonderful pioneers build the Jewish homeland for our millions of homeless brothers, who are spread over the entire world. To see how our colonies blossom, to see the newly founded modern Jewish city, Tel Aviv; to see the industrial enterprises; it is to see a lesson.”

Ezra the Scribe was Nathan Straus, who was prominently featured at the top of the ad. At the time, Straus was well known for his philanthropy, especially in Palestine, and his Zionist views. The implication of the copy was that Nathan Straus would be leading the children of Israel from America to Palestine. Straus apparently had issued his challenge at a reception in honor of educator and Hebraist and vice-mayor of Jerusalem David Yellin at the Hotel Astor on October 23, 1924.[iv]

Maxwell House Coffee
The ad was the first of many to run in the Forward over the next several weeks. In February 1925, a one-column display advertisement that was repeated weekly announced in Yiddish, “the only true direct ship” with “hundreds of the best Jews from America”; it would be “truly kosher with the supervision of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.”[v] In late February and early March, larger ads in the Forward featured a drawing of the President Arthur in conjunction with products:  Horowitz Brothers and Margareten’s “Matzah with Taste” and Maxwell House coffee.[vi]

A glossy brochure for the maiden voyage also emphasized that prospective passengers would not be going to Palestine in the same manner they – or their parents – may have come to America. “ALL Cabins, both first and second class, are well above the water line of the vessel. It is planned to have assigned to full-tour passengers only such rooms as afford natural light by day.”[vii] Most importantly:  “The S.S. ‘President Arthur’ will carry no steerage passengers.” The refurbished ship, which previously had accommodated as many as 2,300 passengers, would carry 550 first- and second-class passengers only.[viii] (The October 10 New York Times article had said 675.)

Featuring a swimming pool that would be filled every day with ocean water, a gymnasium “equipped with the latest appliances for health-giving and body-building exercises,” and “lecture[s] on subjects pertaining to the land at the journey’s end,” not to mention “MANY of the world’s most noted Jews,” the ship’s maiden voyage promised “most unusual and inspirational” shipmates for the journey. [ix] “The passenger list for the March 12th trip,” the brochure promised, “already reads like a ‘Who’s Who in Judaism.’”[x]

[i]   “Zionists to Run a Fleet.”
[ii]   “Raise Jewish Flag on Ocean Liner,” JTA Jewish News Archive, November 27, 1924.
[iii]   “America with Eretz Yisrael,” Forward, November 2, 1924, 24. I am grateful to my husband, Rabbi Fred N. Reiner, for his assistance in translating all original materials we found in Yiddish and Hebrew.
[iv]  “Papa’s Diary Project.” The 1924 diary of Harry Scheuerman, transcribed and annotated by his grandson, Matt Unger. Scheuerman’s entry for October 23, 1924: “Attended a beautiful reception meeting for David Yellin from Palestine at the Astor, where I met countless friends.”  Accessed June 10, 2011.
[v]   Forward, January 18, 1925; February 1, 1925; Sunday, February 8, 1925.
[vi]  “When the ship … departs … [it] will have a shipment of our famous matzah products . . .” Forward, February 25, 1925, 8. “Maxwell House Coffee on the President Arthur,” Forward, March 11, 1925.
[vii]  “1925 American Palestine SS President Arthur Interiors” brochure, 7. Accessed March 18, 2009.
[viii]  Ibid., 4.
[ix]    Ibid., 3.
[x]     Ibid., 6.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The SS President Arthur: The Zionist Mayflower, Part I

Once I tracked down the story of my great-grandfather's death at sea and burial in Haifa (see June 19, 2012, blog entry), I was determined to learn as much as I could about the circumstances surrounding his voyage. 

In fact, it was an historic voyage for many reasons, many "firsts," but I never have been able to determine why he was on it.  Was he a fervent Zionist?  Was he planning to make aliyah?  Though he had a round-trip ticket, that may have been a requirement of the British mandate government.  Was he planning to go, as were so many of his fellow travelers, to the opening ceremonies of Hebrew University?  At almost 70, was he looking for a thrill:  to be on the first ship to display the "Zionist flag"?  Or was it simply the next ship leaving for the Middle East?  Alas, no one will ever know.

The ship itself, however, and its voyage, prove to be irresistibly interesting to me.  While a Wikipedia entry gives an outline of its story, I found so many more details to fill in.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find anyone interested in publishing it, so I will take the route of many and tell the story here in several installments.

For Jews in the United States and around the world, Wednesday, April 1, 1925, marked a watershed moment, the founding of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. The institution fulfilled the dreams of many Jews, including – among the most prominent – Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, and the first president of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizmann.

Many American Jews attending the ceremonies had arrived only the day before on a steamship that deserves its own place in Jewish and Zionist history. Its story is more than a footnote to the many forms the Zionist dream has taken over centuries; at the same time, its short life demonstrates how a group of entrepreneurs appropriated that dream until it literally went up in smoke.

Jacob S. Strahl
Jacob S. Strahl, an active Zionist and municipal court judge from Brooklyn, headed a syndicate of owners of the new American Palestine Line and its ship, the S.S. President Arthur. On October 9, 1924, these owners announced their intent to operate regular passenger service between New York and Palestine.[i]

For what they said was “the first of the ships to be operated by the new line,”[ii] they purchased a 25-year-old ship built by A. G. Vulkan of Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland). Originally a passenger ship for the Hamburg-American Line to be named the Borussia, and then the Teutonia, it was finally launched as the Kiautschou. The North German Lloyd Company bought it and changed its name to the Princess Alice

The U.S. captured it in 1914 and renamed it the Princess Matoika before using it as a troop transport through the rest of World War I.  In 1920, the Matoika was a last-minute substitute that carried some members of the U.S. Olympic team to Antwerp. They found conditions on the ship, which by then had been converted to a mail carrier, so terrible that they “mutinied.” After a total reconstruction, the Matoika made nearly a dozen trips from Europe, bringing immigrants to the U.S. It had two more owners and finally was renamed the President Arthur to conform with the names of other ships owned by the United States Lines company. [iii]

Strahl clearly was a master at publicity. Prior to his announcement on October 9, 1924, he had traveled to Palestine, and while passenger lists routinely appeared in the New York Times, his name always had a modifier. Among the passengers departing on the Paris on July 23, 1924, was Strahl, on his way “to Jerusalem to organize a Jewish life insurance company.”[iv] When Strahl returned on the France, the Times described him as “one of America’s leading Zionists.”[v]

[i]  “Zionists to Run a Fleet,” New York Times, October 10, 1924, Sports/Automobiles section, 21.
[ii]  Ibid.
[iii]  A complete history of the ship appears on Joe Hartwell, “USS Princess Matoika,” Accessed March 18, 2009.
[iv]  “Ocean Travelers,” New York Times, July 23, 1924, 6. The company became the Judea Industrial Corporation, which Strahl and others ran from 1927 to 1929.  “Celebrate Stock Sale,” New York Times, August 15, 1927, 11; “Start New Fire Insurance Company,” New York Times, July 6, 1928, 32; “ “To Invest Funds in Palestine,” New York Times, August 16, 1928, 33; “Judge Strahl Feted in Jerusalem,” New York Times, August 17, 1928, 5; “Asks Judea Accounting,” New York Times, April 13, 1929, 14; “Fight Adding Stock in Judea Company,” New York Times, July 6, 1929, 14; “Judea Directors Upheld,” New York Times, May 9, 1930, 24.
[v]  “Jusserand Due to Arrive Today,” New York Times, October 3, 1924, 11. Accessed December 10, 2009.