By Annie Atura
“Whilst we have been busy converting the Jews in other lands, they have outflanked us here, and effected a footing in the very centre of our own fortress . . . Yale College divinity deserves a court-martial for bad generalship.”
Thus read an article in New Haven’s paper, The Columbian Register, upon the establishment of New Haven’s first synagogue, in 1843.
Yale’s ethnic generalship has been in question ever since. The specter of the quota system for Jews at Yale, like that of any number of other systems of discrimination, haunts the Jewish self-understanding and the gentile self-understanding alike. But as much as the system itself is brought up in conversation, there’s a marked lack of interest in the situation that spawned its eventual creation. The quota system is considered only as an oppression, the slavery that gave way to an ever-dubious freedom. Unknown to many, Yale had a historical Jewish presence before the quota, and to talk seriously about the quota’s basis and intent, we ought first acquaint ourselves with that history. To do so, I will cull an abbreviated history of Judaism at Yale, from its founding up to the institution of the quota, from Dan Oren’s comprehensive volume Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale.
I’m suspicious of ascribing any teleological through-line to the history presented here, and I assume that the reader would chafe under such a superimposition on their independent, intelligently formed conclusions. For that reason, I will refrain from inserting my own commentary into the story itself. Nevertheless, the reader will notice two general trends at play in this history, and I don’t think it unreasonable to prime the attentive reader for their appearance. First, more overt legislation against the Jewish presence actually coincided with some measure of practical tolerance. As the legislation became more abstracted, entrenched in a “value system” rather than delineated in crude letters, the threat to Jews and their right to education became more insidious and more deeply linked to cultural fear. Second, the otherization of the Jew and his exclusion from Yale’s culture coincided with a fundamental shift in the perceived goal of the American collegiate education. As college became a capitalist exercise in interfacing with one’s peers in order to secure a future for oneself in a business world based in connections, college culture lost its basic respect for pure academics and therefore feared cultural outsiders who emphasized simple, meritocratic achievement.
Any discussion of Yale involves a discussion of New Haven, and, as the opening quote suggests, New Haven was as intolerant of Jews as it was of all religious dissent. The city’s attempt to shut out Jews, however, smacked particularly of irony. New Haven’s founders affected an historical affinity with the Jews: the Connecticut colony was governed by what its founders called the “Mosaic Code” and the New Haven colony by “Moses His Judicials” (the two governments were originally independent). Until 1791, all residents were taxed to support the Congregational Church. In 1791, individuals who supported another branch of Christianity were excused from that tax – as non-believers were forced to continue to pay it. State law explicitly forbade extra-Christian religious practice. It wasn’t until 1965 – yes, 1965 – that the law denying non-Christians residential rights was stricken from the state constitution.
The presence of Jews wasn’t a big issue at the time of Yale’s founding. In 1701, there were only about 100 Jews – all Sephardim – scattered throughout the British Colonies; by 1750s Ashkenazi Jews began to immigrate at the rate of about a dozen a year. They didn’t constitute a niche group, as they practiced a range of trades. Before 1840, Jews constituted just 0.1% of the population. After 1722, Yale required its faculty members to swear that they had faith in the tenets of Congregationalism, but, even so, it allowed some degree of religious freedom for its students, and intentionally opened its arms to Puritans of all denominations. In 1757, Yale created the first college church – but incoming students were not put to any test of faith. Yet no Jew attended before 1805, and Jews were presumably unwelcome, as were Catholics: the school texts taught that Jews were the “open foes” of the church who “interpret carnally” holy law.
Ezra Stiles (1778-95) was a bit of a tolerant exception: “I can freely live, and converse in civil friendships, with Jews” he wrote; he even emphasized the study of the Hebrew language in no small part because of his friendship with a rabbi from Newport. He also documented the arrival of the first Jewish family in New Haven in 1772: “These Jews indeed worship in the Jewish manner,” he wrote, “but they are not enough to constitute & become a synagogue.” The first real Jewish community in New Haven formed when a group of Bavarian Jews arrived in the 1840s, after economic difficulties in Europe in 1836. More arrived soon thereafter; of the immigrants that left Germany after the quashed 1848 German revolution, 5% were Jewish. Between 1840 and 1860 America saw its population of 15,000 Jews grow to 150,000. In this period they began to find a niche trade: peddling and shopkeeping. Yet, as quickly as socioeconomic disparities give way to racial and religious discrimination, the Jews in the Colonies were not the object of major hatred, displaced as they were by the Catholics, whom the “natives” viewed as untrustworthy and dangerously prone to Jacksonian democracy. African and Native Americans, too, suffered more pernicious racial judgment. Most German Jews were assimilated into the German community, and that ethnic identification shielded them from some degree of active anti-Semitism.
The first Jewish student to attend Yale was Moses Simons, B.A. 1809; after his graduation, he practiced law in New York City from 1816 to 1821 and died in London in 1822. The next Jew to attend came seventeen years later. Judah P. Benjamin was the son of an active Jewish leader from Charleston, South Carolina. He entered the Yale class of 1829 at the age of fourteen, the youngest in his class. Benjamin received his class’s highest grades in his freshman and sophomore years. He was a member of a debating club and was lauded for his “pleasing manner,” as his tutor deemed it. Yet he disappeared from the school in 1827, and later claimed that he was forced out of the school by his father’s financial circumstances. When the college discovered that he was stranded and broke in northern New York, his classmates raised a successful collection for him; in 1828 he wrote a letter of apology to the president for his abrupt departure. Despite his rocky start, he became the first Jew in the U.S. Senate in 1852, and bearing the epithets of the “Brains of the Confederacy” and “Statesman of the Lost Cause” served as Secretary of War for the South in the Civil War. After the war he left for England, where he became more successful still. In any case, there’s no evidence that Yale proved inhospitable because of his religious affiliation, and if anti-Semites chose to attack him on religious grounds during his term in public office, it doesn’t seem that his religion significantly influenced his political interests or social success.
Sigmund Waterman became the first Jewish professor at Yale in 1844. A professor of German, he emigrated from Bavaria in 1841 and become a leader in the Jewish community in New Haven. Like a number of other immigrants, he tutored on a fee-for-service basis, and apparently his appointment didn’t make any waves with either the students or the faculty. After all, the oath of religious faith had been abandoned in 1823. Waterman arranged for a rabbi to lecture the college in the year following his appointment, and this, too, apparently transpired without a backlash. Through the 1870s, there is no evidence that Yale punished Jewish students for their beliefs or otherwise shunned them. In fact, Yale imagined itself to be an island of acceptance: The Yale Literary Magazine published in 1857 that “it matters not what one has been or has done, before he entered College.” This may be because Jews were so small in number at the college that they presented no real threat to the prevailing culture.
But the laissez-faire attitude was not to last. John Hingham, an historian, was under the impression that Jews had overreached themselves: “Not only were most Jews more or less uncultivated, but there is considerable evidence that many were loud, ostentatious, and pushing . . . always forcing [their] way into society that was above [them].” In 1877, the Grand Union Hotel at Saratoga Springs denied entrance to a Jewish banker, and the incident made national news. At Yale, the insidious stereotype took shape in diatribes against the (largely Jewish) “Old Clothes men” that would buy clothes from cash-strapped students. The Yale Daily News called them “human vermin” and conspicuously named them “Bierbaum,” “Herberger,” and “Hartenstein.” The News also marked for derision “that cheekiest and most contemptibly familiar Jew picture framer, Levi” and suggested that someone “kick that man down four flights of stairs and off the campus.” And we mustn’t forget that the News, in the same article, decried “Engell the rapacious usurer.”
Oren marks 1860 as the beginning of an emphasis on the extracurricular at Yale; Phi Beta Kappa disappeared in the 1870s, and sports took the place of academics. Anti-intellectualism went hand in hand with extreme respect for the social hierarchy, and Jews drew attention as “parvenus.” It was no help that the East European Jews were arriving in droves – the first family came to New Haven in 1882, and in forty years’ time the Jewish population would increase twenty-fold. The Eastern European Jews generally arrived without any economic resources but with occupational skill. Their very success became a testament to their dangerousness, not to their merit, in a culture dominated by birth.
Indeed, academic excellence was eyed with suspicion. “In late years the scholar has become almost taboo,” wrote a faculty committee at Yale charged with investigating the academic culture in 1903. None of the nine valedictorians named in the years preceding the committee report had been inducted into a senior society. The student Henry Seidel Canby wrote of the minorities at Yale, “You could see them watching with envious curiosity the courteous indifference of the superior race; they took little part in discussions and asked for no credit. Yet often their more flexible minds could be felt playing round and round the confident Anglo-Saxons, admiring, skeptical, puzzled, and sometimes contemptuous.”
In the Gilded Age, an increasing emphasis was given to networking as wealthy businessmen sent their progeny to be educated among their peers. George Pierson, Historian of the University, wrote that during this period, “Success was really [the students’] goal, not Veritas. . . undergraduates knew that, provided they first learned the rules of the game, they were destined for great prizes, sure to make fortunes, and bound for the managing posts in society.” Waldo Frank, a German Jew and son of a successful lawyer, recalled that his elder brother had advised him to attend Yale, saying, “The good Yale man puts poets in their place. Believes in success.” At this point, around the turn of the century, there were no prejudicial barriers in place in the admissions process, and therefore anyone with demonstrated academic capacity was capable of gaining admission. Yet the college enrollment skyrocketed from 832 in 1890 to 1,190 in 1900, and the resulting room for self-segregation ended in economic stratification. Private dormitories were raised. Secret societies took over social life. Between 1865 and 1916, 80% of the professors were inductees of Skull and Bones.
In the Jewish ghettos, though, respect for pure scholarship thrived. “The East-European Jews who came to live in the Oak Street area brought with them an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Bible,” Abraham S. Alderman, the Treasurer of the Hebrew Free Loan Association and President of Rambam Lodge, wrote. Louis Sachs wrote that the Jews “opened up at seven in the morning and with their wives and children they worked until twelve o’clock at night. And for what purpose? To provide for the kinder, for the boys a college education. They dared even dream about Yale for their children.” Financial aid subsidized as much as 90% of the college tuition, but the economic and social pressure for academic success remained. And Jewish culture did not share the prevailing respect for sports: in 1875, The New Era, an American Jewish periodical, spoke out against the sports complex in college. “Its pursuit may be carried to excess,” they wrote, and they discouraged placing athletes before scholars. Jews at Yale around the turn of the century statistically favored individual, rather than group, sports, and this too alienated them.
In 1890, DKE put on an initiation play called “Shylock: The Sarcastic Sheeny, or the Manoeuvering Merchant of Verdant Venice.” Shylock, in a nod to the same stereotype that the News had exploited decades prior, was named as “A State street pawnbroker, combining at one and the same time all the thrifty motives and tendencies of his race.” The culture of hatred did not go unnoticed. Pi Lambda Phi was founded by three Jewish students who had determined that the extant fraternities merely confirmed racial and socioeconomic snobbery. Uninterested in founding a Jewish fraternity that would merely exaggerate the boundary it sought to erase, they wrote of their new nonsectarian organization, “The fraternity seeks no members save those seeking it. And only the best of those men, who are progressive, industrious, and non-prejudiced, can seek it successfully.” Yet despite the fraternity’s success in other colleges, it disappeared by 1898; the other chapters shortly followed suit.
There was no clear consensus in the Jews’ reports about their acceptance around the turn of the century: some Jews found Yale a beacon of equality, and others a pigsty of self-congratulatory discrimination. There were thousands of undergraduates at Yale; a range of experience was inevitable. And the Jewish presence was only growing. Less than 3% of the class of 1909 was Jewish; yet the class of 1915 was 8% Jewish. In 1912, the Elihu Club, the youngest senior society, voted “That Jews should be denied recognition at Yale.” Soon thereafter, they were denied an equal opportunity for entrance.
If this trajectory of indifference to bigotry fails to surprise us, if the image of Yale as an extracurricular education and the image of Jews at Yale as bluntly studious strikes us as hackneyed even when presented as historical fact, we ought to seriously consider how much we deviate from the model. How much of our familiarity with this sketch of a culture clash comes from our knowledge of Yale’s past, and how much of that conflict do we witness in our present? The administrators didn’t create the quota system alone, after all: the demand for social elitism made it possible. As we know, Jews cannot be said to encapsulate any single ideology. Yet even if the ideology of scholarliness and antisocial devotion has been disassociated from Judaism in the collective mind of pop culture (and surely it won’t truly disassociate for some time yet), it surely applies to others now. We might consider Yale’s Jews’ story as emblematic of a nonsectarian ideological battle. Yale’s soul is still torn between success and truth.