By Edwin Seroussi and Marlena Fuerstman
Who Paid for the First Torah Scroll of Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation?
The earliest document related to the establishment of BHC to survive the vicissitudes of time (and the North Country’s weather) for ninety years is an unpretentious typewritten list of donors hanging on the northern wall of the sanctuary. Titled “List of Donators [sic] and Donations Contributed by the Jews of Bethlehem for a Torah — Season 1920,” the list includes seventy-seven names or households and is signed by “The Committee” of five individuals headed by “Rev. L. Kahn.” (perhaps the individual by the same name who is listed as rabbi of the congregation Anshe Galizia in Memphis Tennessee in the American Jewish Yearbook of 1913/1914).
Names in the document are arranged in two parallel rows, ordered according to the amount of the donation from the highest to lowest. A total of 409 dollars was raised with donations ranging from twenty-five dollars to a single dollar. The hometown of several of the donors appears next to the name. While a majority of the donors where New Yorkers, many others arrived from Boston, Hartford, New Heaven, Bayonne and Passaic (New Jersey), Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) and as far south as Baltimore. Interestingly, the first and last names in the list, “Fierstone” and “Mr. Leviton,” mention Littleton as they hometown.
A thorough research on these seventy-seven names would be a time-consuming mission. However, only when we find who these individuals were we will be able to trace a profile of the background and motivations of those Jews who decided to associate themselves as a community in Bethlehem by purchasing the first and absolutely necessary object needed to fulfill such a mission: a Torah scroll. Such an investigation is only partially possible, for many names in the list mention only a common surname and do not specify the hometown, such as “Mr. Weiss” or “Mrs. Rosenzweig.” At the outset, we may mention that twenty-six out of the seventy-seven names, exactly one third of them, are women. This is a rather unusual phenomenon for such an early period, heralding the active role that women, many of whow at that time came to Bethlehem without their husbands, will have in the future financial maintenance of BHC.
From the names listed in this document, the sixth one, whose donation ranges fourth in its amount (fifteen dollars, corrected by hand from the original printed cipher of ten), is a name that anyone familiar with the history of American Jewry in New York City will immediately recognize. To him we dedicate the rest of this article.
Meyer Jarmulowsky was one of the six children of Alexander Sender Jarmulowsky. The Jarmulowsky father was a towering figure in the history of the Lower East Side as was the magnificent building that he constructed to house his bank, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the USA. Called the “East Side J.P. Morgan,” Jarmulowsky was much more than an exceptional businessperson. He was a respected Talmudic scholar and philanthropist. He led the construction of the magnificent Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street Synagogue (1886, a designated New York City Landmark), the first great house of worship for East European Jews in the United States, of which he was its first president. At the time of his death in June of 1912, the main Yiddish-language newspaper remembered Jarmulowsky as “an East Side businessman of the best kind, a Jew from whom the younger generation of businessmen can learn the duties and obligations that such a position has for Russian Jewish immigrants in America.”
Recent interest on Sender Jarmulowsky by senior researchers interested in the history of the financial aspects of the massive Jewish immigration to America from 1880 to 1924, such as Rebecca Kobrin, assistant professor of history at Columbia University, led to the writing of several essays about him. To contextualize Meyer Jarmulowsky in the backdrop of his celebrated father’s household, suffice here to say that Sender Jarmulowsky was born in 1841 in Lomza, then a province of Russia, now east-central Poland. Orphaned as a young boy, he was adopted by a prominent rabbi who enrolled him in the Volozhin Yeshiva, a renowned Talmudic academy located in present-day Belarus. He was ordained as rabbi, and although he was poor, he became betrothed to Rebecca Markels, whose father was a prosperous merchant. Historian Annie Polland (Annie Polland, Bill Moyers, Landmark of the spirit: the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 2009) says that this “linkage of scholarship with wealth constituted the classic match in East European Jewish society, and enabled the scholar to pursue his studies on a full-time basis.” Despite this, Jarmulowsky chose to try his hand at business, and soon after moving to Hamburg in 1868, he established a firm that facilitated the passage of people and goods across the Atlantic. In 1873, Jarmulowsky set up his second office, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He first appeared in a New York City directory in 1875 as an agent in the firm of Jarmulowsky & Markel, which was located at 193 Canal Street. By 1878, the firm moved to the building at the southwestern corner of Canal and Orchard Streets, a location that Jarmulowsky would ultimately demolish to build the famous S. Jarmulowsky Bank Building. This building, a project that he did not live to see finished as he died in June of 1912, remains one of the architectural jewels of the Lower East Side and in the past couple of years its preservation is being discussed by the New York City Planning Commission.
Jarmulowsky’s partnership with Markel dissolved by 1884, and after that Jarmulowsky was listed in the financial registers as a banker. Although his bank suffered four “runs” between 1886 and 1901, he had a stellar reputation always pulling himself through crises by keeping substantial cash reserves in his safe and additional funds at the Corn Exchange Bank, one of the city’s oldest financial institutions. According to the Yiddish-language Tageblat newspaper, “Sender Jarmulowsky was a name that was known to every Jew in the Old and New World. His business brought him into contact with hundreds of thousands of immigrants to whom the name Jarmulowsky was the guarantee of honesty.” The Jarmulowskys lived on the Lower East Side through the 1880s, and after moving to East 60th Street in 1889, heralding the upgrading of Jewish settlement in NYC, Sender played a key role in organizing the Zichron Ephraim Synagogue on East 67th Street. His philanthropy was vast, and besides the synagogues, he supported the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, Jewish Theological Seminary, Beth Israel Hospital, and Lebanon Hospital among others. Upon his death, he left a relatively “small” fortune of $500,000 that could hardly pay the debtors. The dismantling of the Jarmulowsky bank a few years later marked the end of a significant chapter in the early history of American Jewry and eventually had a severe impact on the fate of his seed for which there is ample documentation in the rich archives of the New York Times, as we shall see.
So much for Jarmulowsky father. But what about his son, Meyer, who it would seem donated fifteen dollars towards the purchasing of the Torah Scroll of BHC? Meyer was born as his father in Lomza (today in Poland), apparently on December 25, 1867 (other records mention the year 1862), and arrived as a child to the USA in 1876. It is notable that Meyer graduated from Columbia University in the Fine Arts in 1890, heralding the remarkable fast move of these successful young Jewish immigrants into the heart of America’s society. On April 4, 1895 Meyer married Fanny Florence Raunheim.
Meyer and his brothers Harry and Louis (notice the shift in the names of the younger brothers to American names) built their own fortunes out of the wealth of their father. Meyer’s business savvy, investing mainly in the thriving Manhattan real estate business, was different, more adventurous and arrogant than his father’s conservative approach to business. Meyer and Louis, expecting huge profits from their real estate speculations, opened their own bank in an exotic, Moorish-style building — designed by Meyer himself — at 165 East Broadway in 1903 while their father was still operating from a much more unpretentious facility. When Meyer’s father decided to build a new building for his bank, he chose neither Meyer as a contractor nor an ostentatious design as his son, a clear sign of the generational gap created within a couple of decades.
While it is hard to believe that Meyer followed in the steps of his father in Jewish scholarship, he certainly was committed to his people and its institutions through charity and personal involvement in community affairs. He is listed as a member of the board of the United Hebrew Charities in 1904 and in 1913 he appears as an official of the congregation Orach Haim (see, Jeffrey S. Gurock, Jacob J. Schacter A modern heretic and a traditional community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy and American Judaism, Columbia University Press, 1997). Moreover, in a report in the NY Times of April 11, 1913, Meyer appears as chair of a special committee representing two hundred synagogues that met to organize the opposition to the new Kehillah, the roof organization of all Jewish communities in the State of New York under the leadership of no less than Rabbi Judah Magnes. Considering Magnes liberal leanings, Meyer positioned himself at the head of the “orthodox” camp.
One of the most celebrated real estate adventures of Meyer was the financing and construction of the Lafayette Theater on the east side of Seventh Avenue between 131st and 132d Streets. The Lafayette opened in November 1912. V. Hugo Koehler, an established theater architect, designed this two-story, 1,500-seat theater in the Renaissance-style and flanked it with two three-story structures at the corner of 131st and 132d Streets for stores, offices and meeting rooms. It was one of Harlem’s best-known buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s staff rated it as of “outstanding significance.” However, it was never designated as a landmark and was radically changed by the church that owns it. Now, the facade of what once was the center of the city’s black theater is largely gone. Meyer played a substantial role in marking the racial borders of Harlem, a process that is discussed by Eric L. Goldstein in his book The price of whiteness: Jews, race, and American identity (Princeton University Press, 2006).
Upon hearing of the outbreak of war in July 1914, thousands of Jews stormed the East Broadway bank owned by Meyer demanding their deposits so that they could send money to relatives in Europe. With only $654,000 in assets and over 1.75 million dollars in liabilities tied up in mortgages, the bank was forced to close its doors by the state of New York. Meyer was attacked with a knife by an outraged depositor. But this was not the end of the story. A NY Times article of 1914 chronicles Meyer Jarmulowsky’s escape from a mob of angry depositors who gathered around the banker’s home on Fort Washington Avenue, demanding their money. Fearing for his safety, Jarmulowsky scampered from his rooftop onto a neighboring apartment house, descended into the building’s basement, and dashed across the street into a waiting cab, narrowly avoiding capture by the protestors. The thirty-seven buildings the Jarmulowsky brothers purchased were placed in escrow. On May 1915, Meyer transfered the thirty-seven pieces of property to a liquidation firm to settle his debts. The Jarmulowsky sons were indicted for banking fraud. When the buildings were finally sold in 1918, only $371,850 was realized from the sale.
In her article ‘Jewish Immigrant “Bankers”: Financial failure, and the Shifting of Contours of American Commercial Banking, 1914-1918,’ (AJS Perspectives: The Newsletter of the Association for Jewish Studies, 2009, pp. 20-23) Rebecca Kobrin says, “Sender Jarmulowsky’s spectacular ascent resulted from his ability to help Jews come to America. His sons’ failure to return these same immigrants’ hard-earned money suggests that Jews not only reshaped the world of American business through their successes but by their mishaps as well. Their failure and the ensuing riot, which was widely covered by all the New York City newspapers, became central to a larger debate on the interrelationship of American character and capitalism, a literature that rarely grappled up front with the roles played by Jews. The discomfort of New York’s Protestant elite with immigrant speculators, as exemplified by the Jarmulowsky family, was rooted in a general anxiety anout the role speculation played in America’s rapid advance as a world economic power.”
These words about greediness, abuse of investors’ good faith and precipitous downfall resound as if they were written hardly a year ago! The meteoric rise of the Jarmulowskys was indeed spectacular and so was their collapse. Already in 1911, before the collapse of the banking business, Bertha Clark, granddaughter of Sender and nephew of Meyer, dragged her family into a messy lawsuit following her elopement to a linen salesman in 1911. When the couple was kept apart for 17 days by Clark’s furious parents, the groom demanded $100,000 in retributions.
On June 22, 1922 the NY Times reported that the 29-year old Arthur Jarmulowsky, allegedly Meyer’s grandson, was convicted and sent to the Bellevue Hospital for “psychopathic observation” after confessing to stealing $1625 from the jeweler Mr. Wexler after the later pawned him jewels in return for “unworthy checks.” In the same report, a supposed brother of Arthur, named Edwin, was sent to the Elmira Reformatory after pleading guilty for defrauding costumers by taking from them money to purchase on their behalf foreign currency. The reporter of the NY Times was obviously wrong. Arthur was born in 1893 and arrived to the USA only in 1899. He was apparently a Meyer’s nephew. Edwin on the other hand, was certainly Meyer’s second son, born in NYC in 1900 and as the NY Times reports, he was indeed twenty-two years old when convicted.
A final note of scholarly caution: Meyer Jarmulowsky’s financial and social stature, and the long-standing philanthropic tradition of his father, makes him the ideal candidate for the identification of the man of the same name in the BHC document.
We know he was still alive in 1919, as shown by his request for a passport on December 12, 1919 showing that he was at least entertaining a trip abroad. We were not able to establish what his destiny was after this period or when did he die. It is plausible, however, that he was in Bethlehem in the summer of 1920 or at least that the Jews who by then were already spending their summers in the White Mountains (keeping a low profile) approached him in NYC.
However, having said all that and putting aside the honor of counting Meyer, son of the great banker and benefactor Sender Jarmulowsky, as one of the founding fathers of BHC, prudence forces us to disclose that four other individuals of the same name arrived from Eastern Europe to the USA in the second half of the nineteenth century. We cannot discard all of these Meyer(s) Jarmulowsky as potential candidates for the man in BHC’s list. Two of these “Meyers” are too young or not well known enough to be taken into consideration as able to afford a vacation in New Hampshire in 1920, let alone making a substantial donation. But one of them, a Meyer Jarmulowsky, son of Aron, born in Poland in 1858 and immigrated to the USA in 1880 would be a another serious contender. He was still very active in the early 1920s living in Manhattan and taking three trips to Europe before disappearing from the scene in 1924. To make things even more complicated, this Meyer had no children but his nephew, born in 1878, lived with him as late as 1920. The nephew’s name was… Meyer Jarmulowsky.
A final footnote: ranging first among the female donor’s in the BHS document “Mrs. B.[?] Jarmulowsky” (six dollar donation). We could not establish the identity of this member of the Jarmulowsky clan, but it is remarkable that the Jarmulowsky’s are the only family represented twice in the BHC document.