Birminghams Rabbi: Morris Newfield and Alabama, 1895-1940

Birminghams Rabbi: Morris Newfield and Alabama, 1895-1940

by Mark Cowett




     American Jewish history has been criticized for its parochial nature because it has consisted largely of chronicles of American Jewish life and has often failed to explore the relationship between Jews and other ethnic groups in America.

    Rabbi Morris Newfield led Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham from 1895-1940 and was counted among the most influential religious and social leaders of that city. Cowett chronicles Newfield’s career and uses it as a vehicle to explore the nature of ethnic leadership in America. In doing so he explores the conflicts with which Newfield struggled to help Jews maintain a sense of religious identity in a predominately Southern Christian environment. Newfield’s career also portrays the struggle of social welfare efforts in Alabama during the Progressive Era. He recognized the need for Jews to develop bonds with other American ethnic groups. Cowett portrays him as a mediator between not only Jew and Christian but also black and white, labor and capital, liberal and conservative—in short, within the full spectrum of political and social exchange in an industrial-based New south city.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817350031
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/28/2003
Series: Judaic Studies Series Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

 Mark Cowett obtained a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cincinatti and teaches in Rockford, Illinois.

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Birmingham's Rabbi

Morris Newfield and Alabama 1895â"1940

By Mark Cowett

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1986 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5003-1


The Early Years: From Hungary through Hebrew Union College

On an early afternoon in June 1895, twenty-six-year-old Morris Newfield heard the Reverend Washington Gladden deliver the baccalaureate address to his graduating class at the University of Cincinnati. Five years had passed since Newfield had come to Cincinnati from Hungary to study at the Hebrew Union College with Isaac Mayer Wise. But Newfield had escaped from Hungary too, bringing with him keen memories. One was his father's unbowed commitment to Talmudic scholarship and his hope that Morris would carry on the family tradition in the rabbinate. Another was the great pain that the family's poverty had caused him, first as a young boy in Homanna and then as a student in Budapest. Morris's father, although revered as a learned man, was very poor. Morris would become a rabbi but not in Hungary. He would work in America, where he would earn not only the respect that the rabbinate endowed but also the security of a pulpit, which had been denied his father.

Mór Neufeld, as he was known in Hungary, was born on January 31, 1869, in Homanna, county of Zemplén, a German-speaking area in northern Hungary. He was a younger son of Seymon Shabsi Neufeld and his second wife, Lena (Klein). Mór's father was the last of a line of Orthodox rabbis who had moved eastward in Europe after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the wake of the Inquisition in 1492. His grandfather, Rabbi Jehudah of Berlin, Germany, had emigrated southward to Bonyhád, Hungary, looking for a congregation. Seymon Shabsi, the name given to all firstborn males in the Neufeld line, studied Talmud, as his father had asked him to do, under Meyer Ash, the chief rabbi of Ungvár (Uzsgorod). After receiving his "Morenu" diploma in 1842, he, like his father before him, had gone searching for a congregation, but he had not found one. As a result, the rabbi was forced, as were many of his fellow Orthodox scholars, to open a business, in his case a yardage goods store in Homanna, and to study the Talmud simultaneously.

Seymon Neufeld's family had a difficult time making ends meet during Mór's childhood. For one thing, Seymon Neufeld, as was the custom among scholars, studied most of the time, hunched over a huge wooden desk that would later be used as his casket. He read and also received other scholars from various parts of Hungary. His wife, Lena, a small, intelligent, and industrious woman, ran the business. Unfortunately, their home on the main street (fö-utca) attracted few customers, although there were many visitors because of Seymon Neufeld's reputation. Then, too, Seymon had married twice — his wives were sisters — and had fathered eleven children. By his first wife, there were five offspring, and by Léna, his second and Mór's mother, there were six, three boys and three girls.The family had many mouths to feed.

Because of the poverty, Seymon's sons had to leave home while they were in their teens to find their places in Hungary or elsewhere. Emil Neufeld, one of Mór's elder brothers, left Homanna when Mór was quite young and in the 1880s came to America, where he developed a flourishing coal business in New York City. Frida and Teréz, two of Mór's sisters, lived in Homanna and helped with the family business. Mano, another brother, became a teacher at one of the gymnasia in Budapest.

Such upward mobility, which was displayed by Hungarian Jews in general, indicated that some conditions were improving by the time of Mór's birth. As a result of newly won social and political freedoms after 1867, Hungarian Jews faced prospects of wider social opportunities. Actually, Jews had already been living in Hungary for nearly a thousand years, having moved there after the dissolution of the Frankish empire of Charlemagne and before the Magyar conquest of Hungary in A.D. 896. For the next 800 years, like Jews in most of Christendom, they were subject to the whims of the conquering peoples of the Danube basin. In 1239 the Magyar emperor Béla IV wanted Jews to help him raise money for his court, but a century later, after the Black Death, they were expelled from Hungary after refusing to convert to Catholicism. The Turks, who reigned in Hungary for 150 years after subduing the Magyars at Mohács in 1526, also persecuted the Jews. Although the Turks protected Jewish traders in the main commercial areas, the traders were forced to pay special taxes in the royal territories. There Jews were also impelled to curry favor with the pompous Hungarian landowners, who used them as managers of their farms but abused their right to act freely.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the fortunes of Jews began to improve with the rule of Joseph II, the enlightened despot of the Habsburg empire. Although his mother, Maria Theresa, despised Jews, Joseph II was determined to turn them into "useful subjects" by allowing them to rent property and to settle in towns. In 1839, Jews were granted the right to live anywhere in Hungary except in a few specified mining towns. The new Jewish communities that sprang up in towns and cities included the twin cities of Buda and Pesth.

In the three decades before Mór Neufeld's birth in 1869, discussions in the Hungarian Diet about economic and social equality for Jews became particularly intense. Joseph Eötvös (1813–1871), a fervent Hungarian nationalist and liberal whose ideas were expressed in his book The Emancipation of the Jews (1840), urged complete and unconditional equality for Jews because he hoped that they could play a significant part in the rebuilding of a great Hungarian nation. Other Magyars as well, including Louis (Lajos) Kossuth, recognized that the Magyar element in the Hungarian part of the Austrian empire was weak; if Hungary was to achieve the hoped-for goal of independence, other cultural groups willing to identify with, and to be assimilated into, the Magyar nation had to be cultivated.

In 1848, when the Magyars revolted against the Habsburg dominance, many Jews, including Seymon Shabsi Neufeld, embraced the cause of Hungarian independence and volunteered to serve with Kossuth's army. This loyalty induced Kossuth to adopt a more favorable attitude toward Jews, and in July 1849 a bill for Jewish emancipation was submitted to the National Assembly in Budapest. The bill was stillborn, however, for the revolution was crushed in the summer of 1849.

Only with a partial restoration of Hungarian political life in the early 1860s, when the Emperor Franz Josef recognized that he needed Hungarian help to maintain his empire, did the question of Jewish emancipation again arise. Ministers Gyula Andrássy and Kálmán Tisza, as well as Ferenc Deák, the foremost political leader of the period, were favorably disposed toward emancipation. Following the Compromise of 1867, the Law of Emancipation was passed, granting full civil and political rights for Jews as individuals.

Respect for Jewish rights in Hungary grew at this time because the Magyars needed Jewish assistance in developing an industrial state and in subduing other cultural minorities in Hungary, such as Romanians and Slavs. Native Magyar aristocrats, preferring the leisurely life of land ownership and civil service to the dirty task of building a firm industrial and financial base in Hungary, allowed Jews to operate in almost every branch of industry and trade. The Act of Trade of 1859 abolished religious discrimination and decreed that nobody could be excluded from the practice of either trade or commerce on account of religion. Because the first large industries in Hungary would necessarily work with agricultural products, Jews in 1860 were able to aid in the development of mills, distilleries, and sugar factories. According to István Végházi in "The Role of Jewry in the Economic Life of Hungary," Jews founded some of the great industrial concerns in Hungary and also made significant contributions in the world of finance.

Jews could also study for the "free professions" such as medicine, law, and journalism. In fact, by the end of the period 1867–1914, they formed a majority of Budapest's lawyers and doctors, owned and edited most of the Budapest newspapers, and were generally very visible — disproportionately so — in the gymnasia and universities across Hungary.

In 1884, Mór Neufeld, at age fourteen, went to Budapest to take advantage of one of the new opportunities for Jews, the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest. This liberal, or as they called it in Hungary, Neolog, seminary had opened seven years earlier as a rabbinical school and center of Jewish learning. It offered rabbinical degrees and doctorates in advanced studies in Jewish learning.

Although both Orthodox and more liberal Jews attended the seminary, it was a symbol of a growing tension among Hungarian Jewry. The school had been started after a split had opened between the Orthodox Jews, who continued to accept past traditions, and the Neologs, who acknowledged Enlightenment influences and wanted fuller integration into the Christian society around them. While many Orthodox Jews continued to study Talmud in the cheders and yeshivas in Hungary, the Neologs, led by the Hungarian Jews from Slovakia, or the area where the Neufelds lived, sought a more secularized education.

In 1869 the internal struggle within Hungarian Jewry reached a high point at a Jewish congress at Pesth, which had assembled for the purpose of organizing the Jewish community on a local, regional, and national basis. The Neologs advocated a centralized system, while the Orthodox Jews were in favor of a large measure of independence for the individual communities, thus thwarting reformist tendencies from above. When the Neologs refused to consider an Orthodox demand that the congress not consider any statute or regulation which was not in accordance with the written and oral law as codified in the Shulchan Aruch, the Orthodox delegates left the congress. With governmental encouragement, the Neologs adopted a constitution for the Jewish community of Hungary and Transylvania and also established a seminary to train liberal rabbis.

Family tradition holds that Seymon Shabsi Neufeld, although trained in a yeshiva in strict accordance with Orthodox ritual, was not an extreme traditionalist and wanted his son to attend the Neolog institution. Mór began his studies in the high school section of the seminary in 1884. His first- or freshman-year report card, however, indicates that he did not do very well. While he studied the Scriptures, the Talmud, Hebrew, Jewish history, the Hungarian, Greek, and German languages, math, science, and singing, Neufeld missed fifteen lecture hours, an extraordinary number. The reason for his absences is not recorded, but he did finish the year. According to his family and his own records, Neufeld spent five years at the seminary and earned a B.D. in 1889.

While he was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest, Mór Neufeld studied with three of the great Jewish scholars in Europe, David Kaufmann, Wilhelm Bacher, and Joseph Bonoczy. He also attended classes with a few students who would later attain illustrious careers. Lajos Blau became a teacher and director of the seminary in Budapest, Gyula Fischer became the chief rabbi of Budapest from 1921 to 1943, Morris Feuerlicht later moved to Indianapolis and served as a secretary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Samuel Kraus achieved renown first as a professor and director of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Vienna, 1905–1933, and later at Cambridge, 1937–1948.

Young Neufeld also matriculated at the Royal Catholic GrandGymnasium in Budapest, from which he graduated in 1889. This opportunity to study with boys of other faiths was also a result of the Emancipation Law of 1867. At least one other Jew graduated in the class of thirty-seven in 1889.

The Budapest Gymnasium was a training ground for future Hungarian leaders. Many of Mór's classmates achieved some distinction in the government of Hungary in the twentieth century. Béla Jakobb was a police commissioner in Budapest, István Kemény became a general counsel of finance, Aurel Knapp was an undersecretary of defense, István Marky served as a colonel in the Hungarian army, Albert Stoffer became a judge in the Royal Supreme Court in Budapest, Béla Szendey was a director of the Credit Bank, and royal Hungarian general counsel of the government, and János Szilárd (Schramar) served as the general counsel of finance of the Ministry of Commerce.

The two years following his graduation from the Royal Gymnasium were terribly unhappy ones for young Mór Neufeld. He had very little to eat and was pursuing a career in medicine without telling his father. He could not admit to his father that he had chosen not to finish his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and that he had instead enrolled at the Medical College of the University of Budapest. Feeling that this decision would hurt his father deeply, he kept it a secret. But Mór was paying dearly for his independence; correspondence from a friend spoke of his "uncomfortable and desperate life" in Budapest in 1890.

After Neufeld had started at the Medical College, his father became very sick. Before he died, the elder Neufeld asked Mór to promise him that he would complete his rabbinical studies, and Mór agreed to please his father. He gave up his dream of a medical career, and a year later, on September 20, 1891, Mór Neufeld (now Morris Newfield) sailed from Rotterdam, Holland, with money that his brother Emil had sent him from New York. He landed at Ellis Island ten days later.

Morris Newfield came to the United States to attend the Reform rabbinical seminary in Cincinnati, the Hebrew Union College. Isaac Mayer Wise had founded the school in 1875 to "train" modern rabbis because he felt that upwardly mobile Jews of German heritage were losing interest in maintaining traditional Judaism in America. From the beginning he hoped to develop rabbis, not in the traditional role as legal scholars, but after the model of Christian ministers. His rabbis would be pastors to their flocks, preaching and teaching. They would also be scholars, but their scholarship was expected to embrace secular learning as well as Jewish studies, so Hebrew Union College students took a degree at the University of Cincinnati as well. Wise wanted rabbis who could operate both as representatives of modern Jewish communities in the larger society and as synagogue leaders nurturing the minds and spirits of their congregations.

Although there is no evidence bearing directly on the subject, there were probably several reasons why Newfield decided to come to America and Hebrew Union College rather than remain in Hungary and attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest. On the one hand, the struggling young student was attracted by the free tuition that Wise offered him. The reformer was having trouble at that time finding students who could pay; a rabbinical career lacked the prestige in America that it would later have. Well-to-do Jewish parents were not allowing their sons to enter a profession that was poorly paid and seemingly unglamorous. As a result, Wise was forced to turn to students such as Morris Newfield to whom a free education seemed very appealing. In addition, Newfield was encouraged to come to America by the example and the support of his half brother Emil Neufeld, who had done very well for himself in the coal business in Brooklyn.

Although his four years at the college were terribly difficult for him financially, Newfield's correspondence indicates that he was happy, perhaps because he understood the necessity of sacrificing in order to secure his future. In 1892 his old friend Albert Markovits in Hungary replied to Newfield's news:

Accept, my dear friend, my congratulations for that which you have accomplished in Cincinnati within so short a period of time. Your choice, due to your uncomfortable and desperate life in Budapest, led you in America to a beautiful, noble, and happy future. I am not only happy for you as a sincere friend, but happy for me, [because] you serve as an example ... that I do not need to be in desperation. From suffering can come a better fate.

Yet this letter sharply contrasts with the emotional and financial stresses that Newfield was facing. When he first arrived at the college in 1891, he knew very little English. Undaunted, he learned the language by living with a family on a farm outside Cincinnati in the summer of 1892. Although his half brother Emil gave him occasional financial help, and Wise gave him food and lodging, he still had very little money. Nevertheless, by 1894 the young rabbinical student had impressed Wise enough in his work at the college to earn the right to teach a course in Talmud at Hebrew Union College and to act as superintendent of the John Street Temple Sunday School. Evidently Newfield's commitment to his future prevented him from minding that he had little time for anything other than his studies and his jobs. Of the twelve students in the 1895 graduating class at the University of Cincinnati, only he did not participate in any extracurricular activities. George Solomon and Seymour Bottigheimer, his two rabbinical classmates, did join clubs at the university.


Excerpted from Birmingham's Rabbi by Mark Cowett. Copyright © 1986 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


ONE The Early Years: From Hungary through Hebrew Union College,
TWO A Leader of Birmingham Jews, 1895–1914,
THREE Newfield the Man,
FOUR A Leader in Birmingham, 1895–1920,
FIVE A Leading Social Worker in Alabama, 1909–1940,
SIX A Moderate in Times of Reactive and Radical Change, 1920–1940,
SEVEN Altered Attitudes toward Zionism, 1895–1938,

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