Sunday, September 19th | 13 Tishri 5782

May 6, 2020 7:00 am

Benjamin Franklin’s Unintended Influence on the Jewish Community

avatar by Harold Brackman


The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The 1880s marked the beginnings of the mass migration to the US of Jewish immigrants from Imperial Russia’s Pale of Settlement, whom Germans and German Jews derogatorily called “Ostjuden.” This migration was paralleled — even preceded — by another movement: the “Americanization” of the Eastern European Jews.

Antomir, the shtetl where the eponymous hero of Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky was born, was close to Grodno, one of the proudest Jewish communities in Lithuania. But by the 1880s, Antomir was already in the grip of the centrifugal forces of modernization — both pushing and pulling — “that broke the spell of the Talmud irretrievably” for Jews like Levinsky.

Speaking for Cahan, Levinsky explained how “hunger” transformed his life: first, “the living thing” in his belly; then, “the thirsting for an appetizer … for some violent change, for piquant sensation” that could not really be separated from the moment “when that word America first caught my fancy.” Memoirists Shmarya Levin and Milton Hindus confirmed the pre-migration power of “Americanization” even before Cahan and Levinsky abandoned Eastern Europe.

Benjamin Franklin — the internationally-celebrated author, scientist, diplomat, and founding father — figures in this story because the “Americanization” of traditional European Jewry started almost a century before the 1880s.

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J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels in Yiddish are the most recent of a long line of popular translations, of which Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1857) — translated into Hebrew as well as Yiddish — was the most famous and influential.

As Shai Afsai has noted, the pioneering book to introduce Franklin’s self-improvement maxims to a Jewish audience was not in Yiddish but Hebrew: Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (“The Book of Spiritual Accounting”), first published in 1808 by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin. Lefin’s book makes no explicit mention of Franklin or his autobiography, but the listing of 13 character traits or “virtues,” to be emulated in a 13-week cycle, is almost a carbon copy of Franklin’s.

Lefin acknowledged his debt in an unpublished work not uncovered until the 1920s. The most significant difference between Franklin’s and Lefin’s books was that the American Enlightenment thinker meant to edify “Virtuous and good Men of all Nations,” while Lefin designed his book specifically to be a work of musar (ethical instruction) that would reinforce the morality of his Jewish readers, as Afsai has written about.

The story of how Franklin’s “self-help” classic came to be introduced to a Jewish audience starts with its publication in a flawed French translation in 1791. As Nancy Sinkoff has shown, and Afsai has noted, the critical link between the American Enlightenment and Eastern European Jews was Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, an English-educated Polish aristocrat. He knew Franklin personally; both belonged to the Parisian Masonic Lodge, Les Neuf Soeurs. Czartoryski probably met Lefin in Podolia (now in Ukraine). Czartoryski not only hired Lefin to tutor his sons in the sciences (which Lefin had studied in Berlin), but later assisted Lefin in publishing his books.

As Afsai notes, Rabbi Israel Salanter, who introduced musar into Orthodoxy, had Lefin’s book republished in the 1840s, which increased its readership — and spread Franklin’s message to more Jews.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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