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.”

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