Monday, December 26, 2011

On Reverend's Handbooks and Bar Mitzvah speeches for American boys of a century ago.

One of the interesting phenomena of American Jewish life a century ago was the Jewish educational literature which reflected the relatively simple education available at the time - sometimes on the part of the author, sometimes on the part of the projected audience. There as a genre of "Reverend's hand-books," the best-known example by Simon Druckerman, published by Hebrew Publishing Company. These usually consisted of simple sermons in English and Hebrew for many occasions, and some basic texts, like the Kaddish; I think I've even seen one which included documents like a Get! (Jewish bill of divorce.)

One book in this genre was The Jewish American Orator (Der Idish-Ameriḳaner redner: a bukh fun 521 redes in Idish, English un Hebraish) compiled by George (Getzel) Selikovitch, a Yiddish writer who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym "Litvisher Philosoph" ("Lithuanian Philosopher"). In this book, some of the sermons are ascribed to himself, Selikovitch, and some to the aforementioned Litvisher Philosoph, which is also quaintly rendered as "Lithvassian Philosopher." The title pages of this book, printed in 1907 (Chanukah, no less, according to the Yiddish section), looked like this:

Selikovitch (1863*-1927) was not an ignoramus; he was writing and compiling these sermons and speeches for a simple audience. Before emigrating to the United States, he was an interpreter for the British army in Sudan and Ethiopia; the results of that experience were printed in a Hebrew book called Tsiurei Masa. Among other interesting things he writes is a conversation with a 16 year old slave girl named Aziza in the Sudanese King's harem (pg. 33).

The introduction includes two short biographical pages, where he informs us that he was born near Kovno and received a traditional education (Torah, Talmud, and the poskim). Orphaned at 16, an "Honorary Lieutenant" in Egypt at 22, where he learned Arabic and English, he eventually returned to Europe, where he penned many articles for Hameliz and Hamaggid, and befriended future celebrities like Eliezer Ben Yehuda. After another trip to the East, he emigrated to the United States, studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved to New York. There he wrote many articles and books in Yiddish, including a Yiddish guide to Arabic . For more complete biographical info, including a detailed description of the Arabic book, see Simon, Rachel - "Teach Yourself Arabic - in Yiddish" (MELA Notes: The Journal of the Middle Eastern Librarians Association; link).

Here he is:

An example of a table from his Arabic book:

Getting back to The Jewish-American Orator, here is the English Table of Contents, which gives an idea of what sort of occasions are meant to be addressed:

As you can see, it is heavy on the Bar Mitzvah material and also includes some sad signs of the times - For an Orphan to [sic] his Bar Mitzva, Funeral Oration at a Young Men's Bier, etc. (Not that I am under any illusion that such sadness has really diminished.)

Here are some samples. A "pshetel" for a Bar Mitzvah boy:

Another one penned by Selikovitz himself:

And here is an Address at the Engagement of an Orphan Girl, where her fiance is told that he is to be her father and mother, as well as husband:

* Mayer Waxman says he was born in 1856, but Selikowitch himself writes 5623 (1863) in Tsiurei Masa.


  1. i love those reverends handbooks. i have druckerman's and i think selikovitch's (also have his "torat buddha"). and the kesuba we used was originally printed to be used by one of these american reverends (even inludes nikkud in case he can't otherwise read the aramaic)

  2. The proposed speeches are mercifully brief!

  3. Do you know this to be true at all any articles relating to it or maybe you can do one thanxs

  4. Handbooks are always a fun thing to see,especially from time periods. I really appreciate this post!

  5. Thank you for sharing this, Fred. It's interesting. I don't know why you assured us that Selikowitz wasn't an ignoramus--the speeches themselves make this clear.

    I was briefly nonplussed--downright minussed, in fact--by the word "talk" on the second line of p. 99. I finally figged out that it was probably a typo for "task."

  6. "Address at the engagement of an orphan girl" is appropriate and extremely moving. Thank you!

  7. Fotheringay-Phipps1:08 PM, December 27, 2011

    As a teenager I once went out with a few other yeshiva guys to bury an old Russian woman in a "Potters Field" (depressing to see some of the relatives driving up in nice cars, but that's OT). Some rabbi drafted into service gave a pretty moving hesped under the circumstances, those being a highly secular audience and him having never heard of this woman before.

    I was pretty impressed, but an older guy there told me it was no big deal - he thought there were these rabbi's handbooks that had hespedim for such circumstances word-for-word.

  8. Man, what does it take to get an answer around here? I was curious to know what the slave girl said.

  9. The humility of these speeches is incredible. Speeches today are all about how great we are; these are all about how thankful we are. At least the Jews I surround myself with today have lost grasp of humility (and I count myself in on the problem too!).



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