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Rabbi Max Heller: Reformer, Zionist, Southerner, 1860-1929

Rabbi Max Heller: Reformer, Zionist, Southerner, 1860-1929

by Barbara S. Malone

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This biography of a pioneering Zionist and leader of American Reform Judaism adds significantly to our understanding of American and southern Jewish history.

Max Heller was a man of both passionate conviction and inner contradiction. He sought to be at the center of current affairs, not as a spokesperson of centrist opinion, but as an agitator or mediator,


This biography of a pioneering Zionist and leader of American Reform Judaism adds significantly to our understanding of American and southern Jewish history.

Max Heller was a man of both passionate conviction and inner contradiction. He sought to be at the center of current affairs, not as a spokesperson of centrist opinion, but as an agitator or mediator, constantly struggling to find an acceptable path as he confronted the major issues of the day--racism and Jewish emancipation in eastern Europe, nationalism and nativism, immigration and assimilation. Heller's life experience provides a distinct vantage point from which to view the complexity of race relations in New Orleans and the South and the confluence of cultures that molded his development as a leader. A Bohemian immigrant and one of the first U.S.-trained rabbis, Max Heller served for 40 years as spiritual leader of a Reform Jewish congregation in New Orleans--at that time the largest city in the South. Far more than a congregational rabbi, Heller assumed an activist role in local affairs, Reform Judaism, and the Zionist movement, maintaining positions often unpopular with his neighbors, congregants, and colleagues. His deep concern for social justice led him to question two basic assumptions that characterized his larger social milieu--segregation and Jewish assimilation. 

Heller, a consummate Progressive with clear vision and ideas substantially ahead of their time, led his congregation, his community, Reform Jewish colleagues, and Zionist sympathizers in a difficult era.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This biography of Max Heller, Rabbi to Temple Sinai in New Orleans, is superbly written and based on thorough research. Heller, a leading New Orleans religious leader and a Progressive in the early years of the 20th century, with members of his synagogue, is to a large degree responsible for the city's failure to tolerate or play a part in the waves of anti-Semitism that emerged in the U.S. before and after World War I. That Malone is a knowledgeable Judaic scholar is evident throughout this volume. It represents another major addition to the history of Jews in the United States and the South."
—Bennett H. Wall, University of Georgia

“ Bobbie Malone’s book is a good read, particularly for those interested in the history of the Jewish experience in the South. The book provides a particularly perceptive view of southern Jewish response to major issues of Jewish concern. In this way, the honesty of her writing gives an entirely different view of American Jewish life.”
Journal of Southern History

“ Rabbi Max Heller is a much needed book on the social and historical elements of Judaism existing during the turn of the century, in the United States and the South. The biography incorporates enormous amounts of information as it follows the life of Heller from a youngster in Prague to his death in New Orleans. The book is an excellent source of information and [it] helps to fill the gap in books about New Orleans Jews and the Jewish community.”
LLA Bulletin

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University of Alabama Press
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Judaic Studies Series
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Rabbi Max Heller

Reformer, Zionist, Southerner, 1860â"1929

By Bobbie Malone

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8735-8


From Jewish Prague to Chicago, 1860–1879

On Sunday afternoon, 13 February 1887, the Board of Directors of the prestigious Temple Sinai in New Orleans called for a general membership meeting to select a new rabbi to lead the congregation. One hundred male heads of household came to discuss the candidacy of the young Max Heller, who had addressed the congregation earlier that month, and after a vote of 91–9, they offered him the position. The Daily Picayune described the new rabbi as "a fine Hebraic scholar, a man of deep thought and broad principles, a graceful and effective speaker" with "no trace of his Bohemian birth in the parity [purity] of his English." Thus Max Heller began forty years of service to Temple Sinai, a career that encompassed the end of one century and the beginning of another.

It was a time of significant upheavals for both American Reform Judaism and the New Orleans Jewish community. Jews in New Orleans confronted problems of immigration and acculturation. Despite its cosmopolitan diversity, the city hardly escaped the fever of racism and nativism that infected "old stock" Americans around the turn of the century. The growing intolerance exacerbated conflicts within the American Jewish community, which did not know exactly how to cope with the massive wave of East European immigrants. The national debate touched a raw nerve among Jews in New Orleans, who felt that racial animosity threatened local patterns of acceptance and assimilation. Heller's response to this crisis and others that were similar embodied the main currents of American Jewish thought. He worked to build support within the Reform Jewish community locally and nationally and sought to broaden its responsiveness. His experience as an immigrant combined with his American Jewish background to shape the Reform Zionist and urban Progressive stance that became the hallmark of his later career.

Heller learned to adapt while maintaining a basic sense of integrity and purpose during his years in the complex ethnic atmosphere of Prague, his native city and the political and cultural capital of Bohemia. Born on 31 January 1860, the only son among the five children of Mathilde Kassowitz and Simon Heller, Max grew up in an intensely patriarchal Jewish milieu that placed a premium on male religious scholarship. Both sides of the family claimed a distinguished lineage of talmudic scholars and rabbis. The advent of a son meant that the family heritage could be transmitted to another generation.

The year of Heller's birth marked the beginning of an especially propitious time for the Jewish community of Prague. The mythical golem who, according to popular Jewish legend, had earlier protected Prague's medieval Jews, seemed once again to hover over the city. After centuries of ghettoization, Prague's Jews were becoming socially mobile. At the same time, German-speaking Bohemians, who enjoyed power as the beneficiaries of the Habsburg empire, faced a challenge from Czechs, themselves stirred by incipient feelings of nationalism. While neither group sought to win over the Jews, the Czech-German struggle defined the social and political framework in which Jews sought to legitimize their participation in civil society. In spite of the ethnic tensions, the promise of social and political equality filled Jewish Bohemians with optimism during the nineteen years of Max Heller's growth to manhood.

The integration of Prague's Jewish community in the second half of the nineteenth century reflected social, political, and economic changes in Bohemia that the Enlightenment had wrought 100 years earlier. At that time Joseph II began liberalizing the restrictions placed on Jewish life. His object was to render Jews "'more useful' to the state" by eliminating the differences between them and their neighbors. He hoped that the "Jewish problem" would disappear with the Jews' assimilation into the larger society. To this end, Joseph II established German as the official language. "Germanization" permitted the unification of diverse ethnic elements within the empire. Germanization also transformed the curriculum of Jewish schools, which had to expand beyond sacred studies. For the first time, Jews gained access to universities and other institutions of higher education.

In response, Jews actively pursued Germanization. They modified their own cultural orientation to accommodate their expectations of improved civil status. As they adopted the German language, they embraced the whole of Western secular civilization. Centuries-old traditions of the static ghetto lost their social relevance, and the Jewish communal structure changed radically. Eventually the modernizers within the new Jewish social order created a more liberal and flexible Judaism that they hoped would preserve Jewish identity while facilitating Jews' survival in an assimilationist world.

Jews throughout Western Europe took an active role in the constitutional movements that heralded the 1848 revolutions. They saw a direct link between their support of liberal governmental reforms and their prospects for securing civil rights. In Central Europe, however, the hopes and actions of Frenchmen inspired an illiberal nationalism that proved inimical to ethnic and religious tolerance. Anti-Jewish riots erupted as a consequence of a larger upsurge of Czech-German hostilities. Many disillusioned Jews, like other disappointed "Forty-eighters," left for America.

In spite of the immediate reaction, 1848 initiated a new era for the Jews of Central Europe. Further reforms facilitating social integration followed, including civil equality with Christians and full political emancipation. Prior to 1852, most of Prague's more than 10,000 Jews still lived in the ghetto, the Judenstadt, then the city's most squalid, least attractive neighborhood. After liberation the area became the fifth borough of the city. Before Max's birth, the Hellers had been able to move from the Judenstadt into a home on a "quiet, tree-lined street." Bohemian Jews were grateful to the monarchy for their freedom. For the remaining decades of the Habsburg empire, they were a devoted and loyal national group that made important economic and cultural contributions to Austrian and Hungarian life. But such devotion bred complications.

While emancipation in the West allowed Jews to participate in the national culture of the country in which they were liberated, in Bohemia and Moravia, Jews had to identify with one of the competing nationalistic interests—either Germans or Czechs. Paradoxically, just at the moment when the half century of Germanization assured Jewish allegiance to the Habsburg kingdom, the balance of power in Bohemia began to shift. As the thoroughly Germanized Jews emerged from the Judenstadt, they began to sense that their identification with German nationalism did not guarantee them political security.

Class considerations reinforced linguistic preference; the German-speaking citizens of Prague, Jewish and non-Jewish, constituted the bourgeoisie. Prague's central Bohemian location on the Moldau River made it an ideal trading center. German speakers controlled most of the commerce and manufacturing as well as the city's administrative and cultural positions. Prague's prominence as a mercantile center affected both the social and the economic profile of its Jewish community.

The Simon Hellers belonged to the stratum of the Jewish community in transit from a well-codified ghetto existence to a modern commercial world. Marriage helped consolidate social and economic gains. The Kassowitz family had a daughter, Mathilde. By securing a traditionally eligible mate, a Hebrew scholar such as Simon, she could bring the prominent family even greater distinction. And to help their daughter attract such a bachelor, the Kassowitzes were willing and able to include with the dowry a men's fabric business, purchased to give the young couple a livelihood. As expected, Mathilde worked alongside her husband so that Simon, "who had never had to engage in anything so mundane as the earning of a dollar," had time enough to study Jewish law.

In the 1860s the Bohemian school system separated into two parts, one Czech and the other German. Jews overwhelmingly continued to support the German schools. As in other parts of Europe, Jews in Bohemia enrolled in secondary schools more frequently than did non-Jews. Max Heller enrolled in the Neustadter Gymnasium, where he prepared for a career in medicine. Like many other Jews, he continued to use the German language less for the sake of national identity than to help him succeed in the larger cultural mosaic of Habsburg society. Prague Jews often participated in German voluntary associations as well. Despite such survival strategies, the Jewish community remained separate socially, feeling no pressure to convert and no desire to intermarry to gain acceptance.

Years later, when Heller was asked to compare Jewish and Czech nationalist aspirations, he replied that he could not. During his upbringing in Prague, he had completely dismissed Czech culture. He recalled being completely uninterested, "occupying as I did, a snobbish disdainful attitude in common with the German milieu in which I was reared." The young Heller considered the Bohemian language a "servant-language in which I could see no merit." Although he harbored no "unkind feelings towards the Czechs," he saw himself "too ardent a lover of German literature" to demonstrate any curiosity in, "much less sympathy with, the Czech struggles." Heller admitted that he had never envisioned "any parallel whatever between rising Czechdom and a reborn Israel."

The Judaism of postemancipation Prague had evolved with the dissolution of the Judenstadt. To conform to the secular world that they were entering, the city's Jews wanted their Judaism to become less ethnic and to retain only ritual and religious aspects that would not interfere with their new position in society. Redefining Judaism as a "religion" allowed them to identify with the larger German community. Not surprisingly, elite and middle-class Jews formed the vanguard of the reform movement. Thus the driving force for many of the changes in Jewish worship came not from the rabbis but from the well-to-do members of the community, whose attachment to Judaism was more superficial than philosophical.

The Heller home, with a traditional Jewish scholar at its head, retained its allegiance to Orthodoxy. Young Max grew up with one foot in the world of Hebraic scholarship and the other in that of German culture. For many neighboring households, assimilation and acculturation gradually led to a marked religious indifference. The Hellers, however, met the new social reality head-on without denying the significance of the religious obligations of the past. They undoubtedly admired the city's rabbis, now Doktorrabbiner (rabbis with doctoral degrees), who could discourse knowledgeably on a variety of topics beyond the Talmud and the Torah. The professionalization of the rabbinate and other traditionally dominant intellectual vocations mirrored the Jewish community's aspirations to upward economic mobility.

Vienna's Jewish bourgeoisie set the standard for both Prague and Budapest. Vienna's well-ordered "world without haste," graphically portrayed by authors Stefan Zweig and George Clare, was also the Prague of Max Heller's generation. Heller himself described a nostalgic scene from his Prague Jewish childhood in an article he published thirty years after coming to America. In "The Chanukkah of My Boyhood," he wrote of walking through the streets of the old Prague ghetto with "my sainted father" on the eighth and final evening of the minor holiday. Heller recalled the "cheering and inspiring sight ... [of] lit-up window fronts" in the Jewish homes where Chanukkah menorahs had been placed. He saw the display as the "public celebration of an episode in our own national history." Jews subscribed to "the primacy of the German middle class in a centralized Austria" while insisting "on respect for their identity as members of a distinct religious group." The latter helped save them from becoming "craven suppliants for status in Gentile society," that is, from emulating Christians without regard for Jewish distinctiveness.

Jewish family life also reinforced the Victorian dictates of the period. The father was the patriarch, "the independent sheik of the house," in the words of Isaac Mayer Wise. Both Clare and James Heller, Wise's biographer, referred to the abuses of privilege, the "petty tyranny," of the father as despot. On the other hand, the rigid hierarchical familial structure imparted a reassuring sense of permanence, order, and stability. Both parents worked hard. Jewish women, like Mathilde Heller, often assisted their husbands in business as well as bearing household responsibilities. Children respected their parents' authority and values; parents encouraged their children's achievements by emphasizing education andmaterial success. As late as 1848, economic pressure caused most children to be on their own after they reached thirteen, the age of Bar Mitzvah, when the male Jew was accepted into the adult community. Before the end of the century, however, parents in the Jewish community were financially able to send their children not only to secondary school but also to the university. A Jewish intelligentsia absorbed current liberal and secular trends in the Prague community just as Viennese Jews did in their capital.

Although Simon Heller was willing to prepare his son for the ever-widening opportunities that Prague society offered, he shrank from personally confronting the secular world and remained devoted to traditional Jewish scholarship. Unable to adapt to the hustle of the bourgeois world, he struggled to support his family in the increasingly competitive environment. His daughters remembered their father's annoyance when a customer entered the store and diverted his attention from a sacred volume. The elder Kassowitzes' plan when they provided a shop for their daughter and son-in-law was rapidly failing: the son-in-law showed no interest in making the venture succeed. In 1877, an uncle borrowed and lost the remnants of Mathilde's dowry. Simon's customers "almost completely stopped interfering" with his studies and took their business elsewhere. Hoping to improve their financial prospects, the Hellers sold their home and moved to Chicago, where relatives and friends had preceded them. The education of their only son was too important to interrupt, however. Accordingly, they arranged for seventeen-year-old Max to remain in Prague. He boarded at the home of a family friend. In this way he was able to complete his studies at the Neustadter Gymnasium with plans to continue as a medical student.

Educationally Max could take advantage of both the Jewish and the German worlds of Prague. After his parents and siblings had emigrated, however, he was obliged to balance his studies with work to support them. While Simon Heller had acquainted his son with classic Hebrew scholarship, the Neustadter Gymnasium taught religion in addition to the fundamentals of a classic liberal education. Heller studied Greek and Latin, earning higher scores in Greek. During his final semester, he took both of these languages and, in addition, German, physics, mathematics, geography and history, and an introductory course in philosophy. In the winter and spring semesters of 1878–1879, he rose from twelfth to eighth in his class of thirty-four. The effort required a discipline that he evidently found difficult to maintain, however. After the family departed for America, Anna, his older sister, wrote him teasingly, "Always think I stand behind you and say: 'Max, study.' Or rather, don't think that, because as usual, when I said that, you didn't do it." Whatever his misgivings about his own study habits, Max helped support himself by tutoring. Still, his father wrote, urging him not to "overburden yourself with giving lessons ... never do we ask that you work at the expense of your health or your studies.... even if morally it is not condoned, 'be selfish and skeptical.' The sad experiences we had in every respect in the last years ... [make it necessary] to give you a guide which we ourselves don't follow ..., imposed upon us by the world around us."


Excerpted from Rabbi Max Heller by Bobbie Malone. Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bobbie Malone is Director of the Office of School Services at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

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