When Yiddish Became Y’All

In September 1913, Ephraim Hoffman arrived in Galveston aboard the S.S. Wittekind. Weeks earlier, he left his hometown of Hrubieszow, Poland for the port of Bremen, where he began the weeks-long journey to the shores of Texas.[1] His stay in Galveston would be short-lived—48 hours at most—as was typical of the 10,000 other Jewish immigrants brought to town through the Galveston Movement between 1907 and 1914. To avoid the creation of Jewish immigrant ghettos like those taking shape on the East Coast, the Movement’s coordinators worked fast to place each new arrival in a job somewhere across the American South and West, wasting no time before sending a peddler to Sioux City or a cobbler to Wichita Falls. As Ephraim’s grandson, David Hoffman told me, “They just pinned a note on him—destination Fort Worth.”[2] And so, speaking no English and without family or friends in America, Ephraim went.

Bernard Marinbach, Galveston: Ellis Island of the West (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), illustration 27).

Bernard Marinbach, Galveston: Ellis Island of the West (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), illustration 27).

In just a matter of months, the Ephraim who came to Texas quickly shed his identity as a poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrant. First, he became “Charlie,” then more formally, “Charles.” He learned English language and Texas culture.[3] In a photograph Hoffman sent back to his then-fiancée in the old country, he appears as a bona fide cowboy: a bandana drapes his neck, his pants are overlaid with sheep hides just short enough to reveal the tips of his cowboy boots. One of his legs is supported by the stump of a tree trunk. Wearing a leather belt, holster, and gun, he may as well have just walked off the set of one of the era’s Westerns.[4] Charles Hoffman was a Texas man.

***

In the late 1800s, violent pogroms swept the Pale of Settlement in western Russia. The expulsion of thousands of Jews from major cities like Moscow and Kiev sounded the alarm across the West that Russian Jewry was in peril.[5] As the attacks continued through the turn of the century, Jewish American thinkers and philanthropists knew they were uniquely positioned to rescue their religious brothers and sisters, even while they feared the spreading of the immigrant ghettos—“hotbeds of disease, sedition, and moral depravity”—along the East Coast.[6]

Jacob Schiff, a world-renowned Jewish banker and philanthropist, insisted Russian Jews could be resettled across the South and Midwest instead.[7] In these parts, employment was easier to come by than in the urban ghettos of New York or Baltimore, so Schiff decided to bankroll his nascent resettlement idea, and the Movement was born. The Movement’s central offices would match immigrants with jobs across the South and Midwest, with the ultimate goal of rerouting 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish immigrants away from the East Coast.[8] But where would all these immigrants go?

The Movement’s organizers considered various options: Charleston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Savannah, Montreal, and cities in Mexico.[9] But each had a different flaw. And then they found Galveston. The port already had a direct steamship line connection to Bremen, and the city was also situated at the center of multiple rail lines extending westward.[10] Since the island was too small to provide economic opportunity for thousands of immigrants, the new arrivals would have to spread out, infusing Jewish life throughout the region.

***

The first boat carrying Galveston Movement immigrants arrived on July 1, 1907.[11] Aboard the S.S. Cassel were 87 Jews greeted by Rabbi Henry Cohen and the mayor of Galveston.[12] One immigrant, stepping before the crowd, offered a promise. “A time may come when your country will need us,” he said. “We will not hesitate to serve with our blood.”[13] As a reporter for the Sunday Oregonian watched a boatload of new arrivals disembark in September 1907, he wrote of “a babble of tongues…speaking in German, Yiddish, and Pole.” But “America in a dozen different accents sounds always like ‘America,’” he wrote. “The pilgrims were talking about the new land.”[14]

The targeted territory of the Jewish Immigrants’ Information Bureau (JIIB) lay between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, and Texas welcomed its share of Galveston Movement immigrants. By the end of 1913, over 2,000 immigrants had been resettled in 69 different Texas towns and cities.[15] While some Galveston Movement immigrants were the first Jews to ever live in their new towns, others benefitted from the successes of Jewish residents who had put down roots decades earlier.[16] By 1900, most Jews who had been in Texas for at least a decade thrived both in business, social, and spiritual life. Jewish families established reputable businesses across Texas. They rose to prominence as professors, scientists, newspaper editors and county attorneys. In smaller towns, their mere presence was novel and noteworthy. As Jewish writer Jacob de Haas came through Waco in December 1904, he noted that “almost every town on the route between Houston and Waco had its little collection of Jews.”

The Jews who came to Texas through the Galveston Movement continued this legacy of entrepreneurship and civic involvement. Their names would soon adorn the tops of dry goods and clothing stores, like Luskey’s Western Wear in Fort Worth or Hoffman’s Economy Store in Comanche. Though the German Jews who came before them began this work, the new immigrants steadily infused Judaism into all corners of Texas.

***

Two years after arriving in Fort Worth, Charles Hoffman met Sarah Bernstein through a mutual friend in town. Their courtship carried on through letters written in Yiddish, and Sarah would always remember that on their first date, the young couple sat too close to the band.[17] Only because of the Galveston Movement could Charles, originally from Poland, and Sarah, who grew up in White Russia, meet and marry. As individuals, Charles and Sarah were recent immigrants. But together, in this new life, they were a Jewish Texas couple.

In 1924, Charles, Sarah, and their three sons moved to Comanche, population 3,524 at the most recent census.[18] There, Charles came upon an empty storefront and was told that a Jewish man previously owned the place but skipped town because he owed so many residents money. Charles’ granddaughter, Patricia Bernstein, told me that Charles “decided he was going to settle there and show people that Jews weren’t all like that.”[19] A business of his own was a far cry from Charles’ days peddling bananas and sleeping under his horse-drawn cart. Now he was the owner of Hoffman’s Economy Store.

In Comanche, Charles and Sarah raised three honors students who went on to college and law school at the University of Texas and who excelled at “everything but sports.” They were the only Jews in Comanche, so celebrating religious holidays meant driving 30 miles to Waco or Dublin to be with other Galveston Movement immigrants.[20] Since the Hoffmans’ life in Comanche revolved around the store’s success and since Saturday was the day everyone came into town to shop, the store stayed opened on the Sabbath. Kosher food was nearly impossible to come by. Yet Charles found time to teach his sons Hebrew and study Torah, proving that surviving as immigrants in a new land didn’t require shedding faith and ritual altogether.

Comanche had not always been so welcoming to its minorities. Just 38 years before the Hoffmans’ arrival, black residents in Comanche were given a choice: leave town within ten days or be lynched.[21] Yet Hoffman descendants claim the family did not face any discrimination or anti-Semitism in Comanche. Originally, Charles stayed in Comanche to prove Jews weren’t all scammers and frauds; by the time he left, he had been asked to run for mayor. This love from and for Comanche stuck. “They were products of Comanche,” David Hoffman said of his grandparents and their sons. “Therefore, by association, we are products of Comanche.”[22]

***

Haskell Harelik would also define what it meant to be a Jewish immigrant and business owner in rural Texas. Arriving in Galveston in November of 1909, Haskell set out to peddle bananas across central Texas and ultimately settled in Hamilton. When Haskell arrived in Hamilton, he spoke no English; only his Yiddish was sufficient to communicate with the local German farmers.[23] Soon, Haskell met a banker in town who set him up in a storefront and anglicized “Chazkel” to “Haskell” and “Garelik” to “Harelik.”[24] Confident in his budding dry goods business, Haskell sent for his wife, Leah, and took up residence in Hamilton. Haskell’s grandson would later write a play based on Haskell’s experience. In it, Haskell asks the question that must have crossed many a Movement immigrant’s mind: “How many years have the Jews been wandering? Who says we can’t wander to Texas and rest for awhile?”[25]

The Hareliks weren’t just Texans, they were Texas Jews. The family paid for a Torah to be sent from New York for use in the Harelik home.[26] There were no rabbis or other Jewish families nearby, so they became active members of the synagogue in Waco, 70 miles away. The family could not keep Kosher or close the shop on the Sabbath, but they remained as observant as circumstances allowed. The family Torah, now 100 years old, is used for family bar and bat mitzvahs to this day.[27]

While Haskell built his life in Hamilton, his sister Annie and her husband Velvel did the same in Dublin. Upon his arrival in 1907, Velvel, who went by “W.H.,” went to Fort Worth to sell bananas.[28] From Fort Worth he dragged his wagon to neighboring towns, and Dublin must have made an impression. Soon, W.H. was offered a storefront on the main street. He established Novit’s Department Store, which he ran for 25 years before passing the business onto his son. W.H.’s grandchildren told me that he and Annie never spoke of discrimination or marginalization in town. Rather, known for his cantorial singing voice, W.H. was often asked to sing at church revival meetings.[29]

Just like the Hoffmans in Comanche or the Hareliks in Hamilton, the Novits were Dublin’s Jewish family. Though the department store stayed open on Saturday, the Novits celebrated holidays either at home or with their Hamilton kin, never missing a Passover seder. When they wanted to attend synagogue, the Novits drove to Fort Worth; otherwise, they knew the family Torah in Hamilton was available for use. And the Novit children who stayed and raised their own families in Dublin held onto these traditions as well. W.H.’s granddaughter, Jan Siegel Hart, recalls being driven the 90 miles to Fort Worth for Sunday school. One day, she would drive her own children the 40 miles from Temple to Waco for their Jewish education. Hart reflects, “they all stayed Jewish and we’ve done the same.”

***

In 1908, Abram Lutzky left Pinsk, Russia, bound for Ellis Island. A boot maker in the Russian cavalry, he dreamed of America as a land paved with golden sidewalks. But he was soon shocked to find New York’s impoverished tenements and to learn that in order to make a living, he would have to work on the Sabbath. Already concerned about the wife and young son he left behind in Russia, Abram went back.[30]

Abram’s second attempt at a new life in America brought him to Galveston on December 12, 1910 aboard the S.S. Cassel. He soon found work mending and making boots in Fort Worth, and he sent for his wife and four children three years later. His eldest son, Jake—formerly “Noach”—quickly learned his father’s trade polishing boots in Abram’s modest shop.[31] But Fort Worth, home to the Texas Stockyards, was a cowboy town, and cowboys needed more than just boots. Abram and Jake expanded the shop to include all Western wear. Soon the family Americanized its last name, and Abram became “Abraham.” The new family store—A. Luskey and Son—was born. Later changed to Luskey’s Western Store, the shop became Texas’ leading Western wear chain with branches across the state, from Amarillo to Weatherford. All across Texas, the Luskey name was synonymous with what it meant to be a Texas cowboy.

Luskey’s sons spread out to manage stores across Texas. The Luskeys of Abilene attended synagogue every Friday night to complete the minyan, the mandated group of 10 men required for religious services. Luskey stores across the state closed for Rosh Hashanah, and Luskey grandchildren stayed home from school on High Holidays. Luskeys even chose their neighborhoods accordingly. Sharon Luskey Krost, Abraham’s great-granddaughter, told me that when her family “went to buy a home in Abilene, we couldn’t buy a home in a neighborhood because at Christmas, everyone had to have the same lights. And we weren’t having lights.”[32]

Across Texas, Luskey stores ensured cowboys were well taken care of. But the presence of a Luskey family meant Jewish communities were attended to as well. This was especially true in Fort Worth. In 1936, Jake Luskey bought the plot to expand Congregation Ahavat Shalom to include a playground and Hebrew School.[33] At age 36, he became the synagogue’s youngest president, and his wife became the first woman president of the same synagogue in the late 1990s. The congregation’s only other female president was, of course, a Luskey too.[34]

            ***

The Hoffmans had made it to Comanche, the Novits to Dublin, and the Hareliks to Hamilton. Fort Worth was home to the Luskeys who would soon spread throughout the state. But the end of the Galveston Movement drew nearer. Its organizers saw resettlement throughout the South and Midwest as a practical solution to the plight of Russian Jewry, but they met their match in another movement also looking to rescue eastern European Jews—Zionism. Moreover, the voyage itself was straining and difficult to bear. Most immigrants traveled in steerage and faced anti-Semitism from the German crewmembers on board. Upon arrival, the threat of deportation greeted and often sent away Movement immigrants. But the Galveston Movement’s final blow came in 1912 with the election of Woodrow Wilson, who was elected with the overwhelming support of the restrictionist labor movement and nativist immigration policy advocates. During the first three months of 1914, only 162 Jewish immigrants came through Galveston.[35] The Movement officially ended with the last boat arrival on October 1, 1914.

Immigration to Galveston had not slowed immigration to other East Coast ports, with Galveston landings making up a tiny fraction of Jewish immigration to the United States. But Schiff and the JIIB knew they still had reason to be proud. Galveston Movement immigrants hadn’t numbered as many as once envisioned, but now there were 10,000 Jewish immigrants in new lands across the South and Midwest. Most importantly, the Movement introduced Judaism to corners of the country where religious diversity was limited, and where newcomers weren’t always welcome. These Jews took from, and became a part of, local life and culture as assimilated Americans, but their ties to Jewish faith and culture traveled with them. In doing so, they proved that Jews had a place in the community as decent, involved citizens. And they proved to themselves that there was such a thing as a Jewish, Texan identity.

***

Just this year, after 97 years in business, the Luskeys sold the family store to the other big name in town for western wear, Cavender’s Stockyard Outfitters. In a release announcing the change in ownership, Mike Luskey, one of Abraham’s great-grandsons, reassured his customers that he and his cousin, Alan, would continue to manage the store, and that all current employees would keep their jobs. In a way that seemed to epitomize all that Galveston Movement immigrants in Texas had accomplished, he wrote, “We’re not going anywhere.”[36]

 

Rachel Siegel has dreamed of becoming a journalist since she founded her middle school newspaper, which survived for one whole issue. Now that she is about to graduate from college, she isn’t giving up! If you have a tip, or a couch for her to sleep on, email rachel.siegel@yale.edu!

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] “Texas: The Galveston Experience,” Tracing the Tribe: The Jewish Genealogy Blog, accessed Dec. 9, 2016, http://tracingthetribe.blogspot.com/2007/08/texas-galveston-experience.html

[2] David Hoffman, in interview with the author, Nov. 10, 2016

[3] Hoffman interview

[4] Bernard Marinbach, Galveston: Ellis Island of the West (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), illustration 27

[5] Marinbach, 1

[6] Ibid., 2

[7] Henry Cohen II, Kindler of Souls: Rabbi Henry Cohen of of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 57

[8] Kinder of Souls, 57

[9] Marinbach, 2

[10] Schechter and Winegarten, 83

[11] Marinbach, 2

[12] Ibid

[13] Schechter and Winegarten, 83

[14] “Planting Jews in an American Canaan: How Persecuted Russians Are Brought to the Country Through the Galveston Gateway and Find Useful Work,” Sunday Oregonian (Portland, OR), Sept. 22, 1907, accessed Dec. 9, 2016, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive?p_theme=ahnpdoc&p_action=doc&p_product=EANX&p_nbid=M5AC5FESMTQ4MTE2OTI0Ni40MDM2NjU6MTo0OjgzMjU&f_docref=image/v2:11A73E5827618330@EANX-123A9AFFA7152850@2417841-1235FCE0E119A5E8@57-125BB831CA91F634@Planting+Jews+In+An+American+Canaan+How+Persecuted+Russians+Are+Brought+to+This+Country+Through&p_docref=image/v2:11A73E5827618330@EANX-123A9AFFA7152850@2417841-1235FCE0E119A5E8@57-125BB831CA91F634@Planting+Jews+In+An+American+Canaan+How+Persecuted+Russians+Are+Brought+to+This+Country+Through&p_docnum=-1&f_hlTerms=null

[15] Statistics of Jewish Immigrants Who Arrived At the Port of Galveston, Texas During the Years 1907-1913 Inclusive, Handled By the Jewish Immigrants’ Information Bureau of Galveston, Texas, from American Jewish Archives, Henry Cohen Papers, 1875-1952

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hoffman interview

[18] Ibid.; “Texas Almanac: City Population History from 1850-2000,” accessed Dec. 09, 2016 https://texasalmanac.com/sites/default/files/images/CityPopHist%20web.pdf

[19] Bernstein interview

[20] Hoffman interview

[21] Kevin Brass, “History Still Hidden: Reporter of ‘Statesman’ Racial Cleansing Series Disowns Published Version,” The Austin Chronicle, accessed Dec. 9, 2016, http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2007-03-16/456310/

[22] Hoffman interview

[23] Harry Harelik, in interview with the author, Nov. 9, 2016

[24] Hart interview

[25] Mark Harelik, The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985), 31-32

[26] Hart interview

[27] Hart interview, Harelik interview

[28] Hart interview

[29] Hart interview

[30] Sharon Luskey Krost, in interview with the author, Nov. 13, 2016

[31] Krost interview

[32] Krost interview

[33] “History,” Congregation Ahavat Shalom, accessed Dec. 9, 2016, http://ahavathsholom.org/congregation/history/

[34] Krost interview

[35] Cohen, 63

[36] “There is a New Name in Town,” Cavender’s Stock Yards Outfitter, accessed Dec. 9, 2016, http://www.luskeys.com/

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