Looking Back

The William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History is a great big “gold mine” of information from the past 104 years of Jewish history.

It occurs to me that, sometimes, researching in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History is a bit like prospecting for gold. The Archive is indeed a great big “gold mine” of information from the past 104 years of Jewish history. And to gather research from this mine does take some digging. Every now and then, however, there is a big, flashy, golden historical nugget just lying there, waiting for you.

I found this week’s nugget while searching for information on another topic. As I was mining the Archive, the front page of the Oct. 29, 1920, issue of the Jewish Chronicle attracted me. I soon discovered that the entire issue was most interesting.

Looking Back

The headline on the front page read: “Beautiful New Edifice to House Temple Beth El.” This was accompanied by an image of a rendering of the Albert Kahn-designed structure. This synagogue, the third Temple Beth El, opened on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in 1923, and would be the congregation’s home until 1973, when it moved to its current Minoru Yamasaki-designed facility in Bloomfield Township. The main story also celebrated 70 years of progress at Temple Beth El, as a congregation, and as an indicator of the growth and strength of the larger Jewish community of the era.

The Temple Beth El story was really good news, but there are contrasting reports within the issue. On page 3, there is a headline: “The International Jew, The New World Menace.” The headline is certainly disturbing, but it is a bit misleading. What follows is an address by Rev. Bradford Pengelly of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. He succinctly states the problem: “A violent and unfair attack has been made upon millions of American citizens who are of Jewish blood …”

Looking Back

The attack he refers to is the publication of the “Protocols of Zion” in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, which was indeed a vicious and unfounded assault on Jews. Page 7 of the issue features another response, an “Open Letter to Henry Ford” from the American Hebrew, that rebukes Ford for publishing such a “stupid, clumsy forgery.” Indeed.

The editorial page reinforced the above stories. There was praise for Temple Beth El as a sign of a healthy Jewish community. But there was also an op-ed: “Einstein and German Anti-Semites.” Only the most ignorant would dispute the genius of Albert Einstein today, but in 1920, he faced a wave of antisemitism denouncing his discoveries.

Looking Back

One other story was very interesting. It was election season that year and Rabbi Leo Franklin urged a “no” vote on a proposed amendment to ban parochial or religious schools in Michigan. Considered to be a largely anti-Catholic action, Jews found common ground with Catholics. On Oct. 31, 1920, a rally of 100,000 people against the ban was held at Navin Field, home of the Detroit Tigers. The proposed amendment was defeated.

This Jewish Chronicle issue was a “gold nugget,” to say the least. The content is about contrast, the accomplishments of and the issues facing the Jewish community 100 years ago. Aside from simply interesting reading for its own sake, in many ways, the reports and articles are still relevant reading for 2020. 

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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