Cohnipedia: How ‘Jewish’ was Joseph Pulitzer?

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

This story was originally published on Aug 10, 2011

Jewish Americans have always taken pride in the fact that according to widely held beliefs and published sources, the original Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), founding editor and publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and namesake of the most prestigious prizes in American journalism, was of at least partly Jewish parentage.

However, a local writer has helped to shine light on a Hungarian historian’s research that shows both of Pulitzer’s parents were, in fact, Jewish.

The entries for Pulitzer in the 1979 and 2007 editions of the Encyclopedia Judaica note that Pulitzer was born in 1847 in Mako, Hungary, son of a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother.

The persistent belief that Pulitzer was Jewish only on his father’s side (and hence, according to the matrilineal descent rules of traditional rabbinic Judaism was technically not born a Jew), remained a constant throughout the life of Joseph Pulitzer, who never published an autobiography and never corrected the misinformation regarding his mother’s Jewishness.

He also avoided discussing the subject in interviews and conversations throughout his life. But thanks to meticulous research by James Palmer, a member of the St. Louis Jewish community with a strong interest in Jewish history, there is no longer any doubt that both of Pulitzer’s parents were “fully Jewish.”

Palmer, who works as director of communications for the St. Louis-based nonprofit agency Boys Hope Girls Hope, published his significant and thoroughly documented findings in the 2008 edition of Gateway, the magazine of the Missouri History Museum. Palmer’s article, “Speculations on Joseph Pulitzer: Gadfly and Mystery Man,” brings to light earlier research by Hungarian scholar Andras Csillag on Pulitzer’s Jewish mother, and clarifies once and for all that Joseph Pulitzer had not just one, but two Jewish parents.

To be sure, Pulitzer never denied that his father was Jewish, had numerous Jewish business contacts and close friends who were Jewish, and suffered from the slings and arrows of vicious anti-Semitism, from which he never flinched.

Apparently, Pulitzer’s obsession with privacy and secretiveness was especially acute when it came to discussing his ethnic and religious origins. Writes Palmer: “Joseph Pulitzer never expressed any religious views and appears to have been a confirmed skeptic after the Enlightenment model. Nevertheless, one must not dismiss the effect of religion on him. In order to understand him more fully, one must consider Joseph Pulitzer not from an American perspective, but from that of which he came: Eastern European Jewish culture and history.”

Until recently, Palmer says, “historians took for granted the standard account of Pulitzer’s ancestry.” There is no record of Pulitzer himself actually stating this version of his ancestry, but early biographers, all of whom knew him personally, are unanimous on this account of his origins, indicating that they heard it from Pulitzer himself, who did nothing to correct the record on his mother’s Jewishness.

Then Palmer delivers his historical bombshell: “However, recent research based on Hungarian-Jewish archival documents has established that both his parents were fully Jewish; that in accordance with Jewish law (Joseph Pulitzer) was circumcised eight days after his birth; and that he received a traditional Jewish upbringing. His older brother Louis (or Lajos) attended Mako’s cheder (Jewish primary school) and there is no reason to think that Joseph’s education differed.”

In my telephone and email contacts with Palmer, he stressed the importance of a groundbreaking paper by Andras Csillag, “The Hungarian Origins of Joseph Pulitzer,” published in the journal Hungarian Studies back in 1987. Csillag’s article cites definitive secular and Jewish records from Hungary that leave no doubt that both Philip and Louise Berger Pulitzer were Jewish in every sense. Each of them was registered by the official Jewish registry (conscription) “under the heading of Religion as “Israelitic” and under Nationality as “Jewish.”

Csillag adds, “Besides, there are other official records from this time, such as e.g., registers of issued passes and passports, which among the particulars and various other data, state the religion as well. They also confirm that Mrs. Pulitzer was also a Jew born in Hungary.”

Palmer makes it clear that Pulitzer’s motivation to “allow this false pedigree to stand,” was “slightly more complicated than simple avoidance of anti-Semitism.”

He notes that Pulitzer, after being discharged from the Union Army in 1865 and coming to St. Louis three years later was “closely associated with other St. Louis Jewish businessmen, including Joseph Weill and A.S. Aloe, father of Louis Aloe, and purchased the moribund St. Louis Dispatch through a proxy, Simon (Sam) Arnold, who like Pulitzer was Jewish and a Civil War veteran.

Later Pulitzer merged his paper with the St. Louis Post, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was born. He also bought the New York Jewish World and for a period owned and operated both papers. Pulitzer, while remaining “mysterious and secretive” about the details of his Jewish parentage, is said by Palmer to have had an association with the St. Louis Jewish community that was “both comfortable and beneficial.” He adds that Pulitzer maintained connections with the St. Louis Jewish community. He writes that Rabbi Samuel Sale of Congregation Shaare Emeth was invited to speak at Pulitzer’s 60th birthday party in St. Louis, where he described Pulitzer in vividly Jewish terms, comparing him to biblical and Talmudic figures.

Even close to 30 years after Pulitzer’s death, Temple Israel’s Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman “spoke of Pulitzer with almost familial pride in a radio sermon,” Palmer notes.

Pulitzer, clearly one of history’s most influential American journalists, was thus an acculturated Jew who married an Episcopalian and did not raise his children as Jews. However, he was intensely Jewish in his temperament and commitment to social justice.

He was, Palmer observes, a Jew “who did not flee Judaism so much as transcend it. Paradoxically, it was his Eastern European Jewish background that enabled him to do so. Being Jewish gave Pulitzer those characteristics and abilities that set him apart from his contemporaries; it informed his motivations and actions throughout his life.”

Indeed, to this very day, Pulitzer’s values, which bridge the Jewishness of his parentage and the universality of his 19th and early 20th century Enlightenment are expressed eloquently in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Platform, which has been published on the Editorial Page of every edition of the paper since his retirement in 1907:

“I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”  –– Joseph Pulitzer, April 10, 1907

To which his fellow Jews can say, “Amen!”

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