Philanthropists today are more likely to be pilloried than praised, their actions scrutinized for clues of ill-gotten gains rather than examples of goodwill. Previous generations of philanthropists, especially those who moved into the orbit of American Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had it much easier. Glory rather than “gotcha” covered their tracks.
Jacob Henry Schiff was arguably the most famous and certainly the best known of the lot. Upon learning of his disappearance in 1920, at the age of 73, people wept in the streets; Lower East Side shops, “immersed in darkness”, waved mourning banners and closed their doors on the Tuesday morning of his funeral, while thousands of people thronged the streets in front of Temple Emanu-El in New York , where they took place.
Another 2,000 in the pews – those lucky enough to get an “admission card” – sat reverently throughout the tightly scripted service, touched by its dignity and restraint. “No one present at this Temple funeral will ever forget it,” recalled one of them.
The press made sure of it. In headlines and editorials, Schiff’s passing was widely covered by newspapers as varied as The New York Times and the Jewish Daily. The official document highlighted “the magnitude of his achievements” in the financial and philanthropic sectors of the modern world, before concluding that “Mr. Schiff will be remembered as a great banker, but above all we believe he will be remembered and loved as a great and wise philanthropist.
The Yiddish newspaper, in turn, was true to form. A tad reluctant in its assessment, the left-leaning daily insisted it was not the late man’s philanthropy, “the amount of his cheques”, that was worthy of praise – after all, he correctly noted. title, “philanthropy is nothing more than a way to pay back pennies on the dollar” – but his personality: that of a true “idealist” who was very proud of his Jewish identity.
Schiff’s financial acumen, his acumen, fueled his enormous success as head of Kuhn, Loeb, an internationally renowned investment bank. Convinced of the importance of connecting the east coast to the west coast, the Atlantic to the Pacific, Schiff financed most of the American railroads as well as the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and United States Rubber Co., which placed him in the company of and in league with such plutocrats as JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The financier’s reach also extended overseas, allowing it to issue a series of loans in Japan when, in the early 20th century, it was at war with Russia, and to profit from hearings, and sometimes even supper, with kings, emperors and their consorts, a who’s who of notabilities.
Despite all his association, Schiff never lost sight of or cut himself off from the common man, in whose welfare he took a personal interest. Dressed in his usual attire – a frock coat and top hat, a flower affixed to his lapel – he made it a point every Sunday morning to visit residents of Montefiore Home and Hospital in the Bronx; to greet the many supplicants who have found their way to his house or office; attending and actively participating in an endless series of meetings; and to answer the thousands of letters that demanded his attention.
Through his fiscal success and his deep concern for the welfare of his co-religionists, this “engineer of philanthropy,” as one admirer put it, has gone on to shape the modern American Jewish landscape, which would have been quite different… less complete, guardian and stable – if not for its benefits. Name a contemporary Jewish organization — the American Jewish Committee, say, or the Hebrew Free Loan Society, the Jewish Theological Seminary, or the Jewish Publication Society — and chances are Schiff had a hand in forming and maintaining it. .
Secular institutions, especially those that disseminated knowledge, including the Semitic Museum at Harvard, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library, were also recipients of his largesse, as were the Tuskegee Institute, the Cross -Red and the Henry Street Settlement. , whose efforts to improve the welfare of the poor had “a grip on his heart and mind.”
Despite the many demands on his time and resources, Schiff lived a full life, balancing the responsibilities of philanthropy with the business press and reconciling the two endeavors with his personal affinity for walking, which he did daily, and the bicycle, which he practiced when spending time in his country house. Although he said he preferred “old things”, especially cars to automobiles – “his horses slowly gave way to the faster motor”, recalled a puzzled colleague – Schiff had an adventurous spirit, pushing him to ride in a zeppelin on one occasion and to travel to Europe on 20 others. He also crossed the American continent five times and visited Palestine, Egypt, Algeria and Japan, where he and his wife, Theresa, spent eight weeks in 1907.
While traveling in the Far East, Schiff wrote lively, detailed and often amusing letters at home, which his wife then compiled into a book and presented to her husband as a “surprise” on the occasion of his 60th anniversary. Printed on “Japan paper”, its title page rendered in fake Japanese letters, a copy of Our trip to Japan now resides in the American Jewish Archives, along with a large complement of Schiff’s papers.
In his travelogue, Schiff brings to life the people he and his wife met along the way, including the mikado, who, in thanks for the financier’s support, awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun; the food they consumed, distinguishing between “Western” cuisine, which Schiff and his party members favored, and “foreign-style” cuisine, which they did not prefer; the sites they’ve visited, the “trinkets” they’ve purchased, and the intricacies of etiquette. In one instance, while sitting on the floor on low cushions at an indefinitely ceremonial luncheon, Schiff recounted jumping at the chance (and his feet) to toast his hosts, ostensibly to answer, but in reality, to stretch a little.
How could man make and absorb so much? Perhaps the key lay in the to-do lists he compiled on a “little tablet”, which he “methodically worked through until the slate was wiped clean”, his family recalls.
But not on the Sabbath day.
Schiff had grown up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Frankfurt, Germany, but once in the New World he became a member of New York’s two major Reform synagogues, Temple Emanu-El and Temple Beth-El. “No Jew,” he liked to say, perhaps thinking to himself, “could be a good Reform Jew if he had not once been an Orthodox Jew.” Synthesizing the ideology of the former with many of the ritual practices of the latter, Schiff reserved Friday evenings for his family and refrained from working on Saturdays, instead spending his mornings at Temple Beth-El, which he walked to from his home. “sumptuous”. at the corner of 78th Street and Fifth Avenue.
During the rest of the week, Schiff would have recited his morning prayers as well as grace after meals and kept kosher. For the majority. His grandson, Edward MM Warburg, noting that Schiff had his own “ground rules,” said there were “glaring exceptions” to his grandfather’s dietary practices: “lobster and bacon somehow slipped under the wire! »
A model citizen and good Jew, Schiff was not without flaws, the most publicly noticed of which was his short lock. Even Cyrus Adler, Schiff’s longtime friend and future biographer, acknowledged the “quick-wittedness” of his subject. [and] momentary insistence on his own judgement,” in an otherwise glowing “sketch” he published shortly after his death.
Over the years, Schiff has met many Jewish luminaries, from Israel Zangwill, who recall having “more than once collided with [Schiff’s] conceptions or preconceptions,” to Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “These two strong natures … sometimes clashed,” Adler recounted, referring to Schiff and Schechter, “but they were both great men, and their differences ended in a laugh, Mr. Schiff saying ‘we we are both Cohanim (priests) and priests traditionally”. the philanthropist-priest, hastened to add his biographer, never held a grudge for long and, after reflection, often returned to the point of view of another , conceding that, yes, he could be “rushed.”
Sometimes, however, America’s “most important Jew” stuck to his guns. In 1916, after having read in The New York Times of an incendiary commencement address given at the Jewish Theological Seminary by Mordecai Kaplan, then one of the leading figures of American Jewry, Schiff took considerable offense. What made him see red was Kaplan’s denunciation of the perspective that “it is more important to be a good American than to be a good Jew, or that we should be Americans in public, Jews in private,” a position he vehemently rejected. as “junk music hall patriotism”. Although Kaplan said his intention was not to single out the philanthropist, known publicly to have endorsed this position, the latter refused to be appeased.
It wasn’t just that Kaplan’s remarks offended Schiff the wrong way, hurting his self-love. No ordinary tiff, the tension between the two pivoted and went to the very heart of competing notions of how American Jewry saw itself. From where Schiff sat, there was only one way for the Jews of America to go: to be unhyphenated Americans. Anything that strayed from that notion, that placed as much or perhaps even more emphasis on Jewish national identity, on the distinctiveness of one’s co-religionists, diminished the pedigree of being, or becoming, an American. , and should not be tolerated.
By his own admission, “not a Jew by race, but a Jew by faith,” Schiff has repeatedly expressed his unreserved love for the United States. When at last he was back on American soil after his trip to Japan, he spoke lyrically of the New World and its inhabitants, the “millions who are driven out of the narrowness of the Old World, [who] transform the North American wilderness into God’s paradise, a haven of peace.
He counted himself among them, prompting Louis Marshall, another longtime colleague and friend, to remark that Schiff was “as much an American as if he had come on the Mayflower”.