November 12, 1854, is the birthdate of the American Hebraist J.D. Eisenstein, an autodidact who published more than 70 works in his 101 years, including a multivolume encyclopedia of Jewish laws and customs.
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As an immigrant who arrived in the United States at age 18, he was proud of his adopted home, and translated both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution into Hebrew and Yiddish.
Judah David Eisenstein was born in Miedzyrzec, in Polish Russia. When he was 10, his father immigrated to the United States, and he and his mother and siblings followed some eight years later, settling in New York.
A year later, at age 19, Eisenstein married. Initially, he was a businessman, first peddling handkerchiefs and suspenders and later manufacturing shirts. Some sources describe him as financially successful, others as a failure.
What is clear is that however much money he accumulated he sank in 1891 into an unrealized plan for Mizpah Colony, an 800-acre plot of land in Atlantic County, New Jersey, that was intended to provide an agricultural livelihood for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He later wrote that he saw in his failure in commerce “the hand of Divine Providence,” because, “Perhaps if I had succeeded in my business I would not have turned to writing.”
Eisenstein wrote more than 150 articles for the Jewish Encyclopedia and provided seven entries to “Murray’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary.” He also contributed thousands of articles on subjects including American Jewish history to numerous journals.
For Hebrew papers published in Europe, such as Hasfira and Hamelitz, he wrote about the experience of Jewish immigrants in America.
Treasuries on the law
J.D. Eisenstein’s books included a series of “otzarot” (treasuries) on Jewish law, midrashic literature and biblical Hebrew, as well as his Otzar Yisrael, the 10-volume encyclopedia he edited and in large part wrote. And, of course, a personal memoir.
He did more than write, however. Eisenstein organized the Shoharei Sfat Ever (Friends of Hebrew Culture) and set up a reading room for immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side. As a founder of a YMHA on Manhattan’s 42nd Street, he pledged to contribute, he recalled in his memoir, “400 Haskalah books and to pay for one-year subscriptions to European Hebrew newspapers.” He was also an early activist in the Beit Medrash Hagadol, a synagogue on the Lower East Side that offered immigrant Jews “piety and pleasure,” according to Eisenstein.
Eisenstein was a strong defender of traditional Judaism and, at least early in his life, a sharp critic of both Conservative and Reform Judaism. Nonetheless, writes Rabbi Robert L. Samuels, by 1952, when he was offered an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Eisenstein was happy to accept, just as he accepted a similar degree two years later from Hebrew Union College.
A grandchild, Ira Eisenstein, was a graduate of JTS who, as colleague (and son-in-law) of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, became a founder and leader of Reconstructionist Judaism. He edited for posthumous publication at least one of the 16 books that were left unpublished at the time of his grandfather’s death.
J.D. Eisenstein died in New York on May 17, 1956.