By: Iric Nathanson
The job was a plum according to the Minneapolis Tribune, and it went to one of the city’s northsiders.
The year was 1896. Alonzo Phillips had just been elected Hennepin County Sheriff on the Democratic ticket. In December, a month after the election, Phillips selected Benjamin Nathanson for the plum job, county bailiff.
As a bailiff, Nathanson would be responsible for serving subpoenas and escorting accused criminals from jail to the local courthouse. The newly appointed county official was a Jewish immigrant, arrived about ten years earlier from his native Lithuania, then part of the Russian empire.
The Tribune’s brief announcement of Nathanson’s appointment noted that he had been a member of the Tammany Society, a sign he was an active member of Phillips’s political party.
According to Nathanson family legend, “Great Grandfather Ben” was the political boss of Minneapolis’s Jewish North Side. As a steamship ticket agent fluent in English, Ben had been able to assist fellow countrymen when they had business to conduct at the county’s imposing court house on Fifth Street and Fourth Avenue South. Ben’s frequent dealings with local officials, as well as his political activism no doubt caught Phillips’s eye and led to his appointment at a time when throngs of Jewish immigrants were pouring into the neighborhood .
Remarkably enough, Ben had been able to move beyond his insular ethnic neighborhood and into the mainstream of Minneapolis civic life during an era when the broader community did little to embrace newly arrived Jewish immigrants in its midst. For decades well into the 20th century, Minneapolis was viewed as decidedly not hospitable to Jews. In fact, it was later identified as the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.
As he moved into the economic main stream, Ben Nathanson became the patriarch of a large and diverse family whose branches spread from Minneapolis north and east to Canada and west to California. With his wife, Yetta, Ben fathered seven sons and a daughter. Several of the sons stayed in Minnesota to become successful businessmen. Two of the youngest moved on to make their fortunes in the film industry during its formative years.
OLD COUNTRY ORIGINS
Benjamin Nathanson, the son of David and Fruma, was born in 1851 and spent his early years in the Lithuanian town of Taurage, near the border with East Prussia. Unlike the Jewish shtetls, the tiny rural communities romanticized in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Taurage was a bustling regional center with a population of about 10,000.
One observer from that era described the town “as a kind of bridge between Europe and Asia. Its close proximity to Germany left its mark on the town. Jews controlled all the trade with Prussia. All the branches of trade were concentrated in Jewish hands.
Another early historical account notes that the Taurage Jews “enjoyed prosperity” and that the town was considered “one of the richest in Lithuania.”
Ben grew up speaking Yiddish- an amalgam of Hebrew, German, and Slavic languages and the mother tongue of Lithuanian Jews, known as Litvaks. Little is known about Ben’s early life in Europe other than his occupation, listed in immigration records as merchant.
In about 1873, he married Yetta Lippman, and soon there were children, starting with Louis in 1874, followed by Ike, Benny, Lena, Cllie, and Nate. In the spring of 1886, Ben began the 5,000-mile journey that would take him to the heart land of the Unit ed States. (Yetta and the children followed later.) Ben left Taurage by train in May for Hamburg, Germany, where he boarded a steamship bound for America.
Ben ‘s reasons for choosing Minneapolis as his new home have not been passed on to later generations of his family.
Like many European immigrants of his time, however, he must have been attracted to the economic opportunities offered by “die Goldene Me dina;” the Yiddish term for America, “the Golden Land.”
For immigrants like Ben and his son , Minneapolis was especially golden in 1886 because it was undergoing an economic boom. The city had been founded 30 years earlier at the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River. The falls later propelled the growth of a milling industry that made Minneapolis the flour milling capital of the world.
Local historian Rhoda Lewin has noted that Eastern European Jews in the 1880s knew about Minneapolis and considered it a wealthy place in which they could move up the economic ladder even as new arrivals in America. According to Lewin, one immigrant is known to have told his family that he knew money could be made there when he saw a sack of flour with the label “Pillsbury Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” If a sack of flour could travel all the way to Russia, there must be big companies with lots of jobs in the place it came from.
Like many states, Minnesota actively sought new settlers and encouraged emigration from Europe in the late 19th century. One advertising tract designed to entice immigrants to the state declared that Minnesota “contains more natural wealth within her borders than any other area of corresponding size on the face of the earth.”
While “die Goldene Medina” pulled immigrants like Ben Nathanson to the United States, an increasingly hostile environment in their homeland was pushing them out of Eastern Europe. In 1881, the Russian government initiated the progroms, a series of mob attacks directed at Jews. Along with this publicly sanctioned persecution, young Jewish men faced the prospect of conscription into the Russian army. By immigrating to the United States, Ben knew he could protect his five sons from the draft.
While the exact date of Ben’s arrival in Minnesota is not known, he probably arrived sometime in late 1886. Several years earlier another Jew from Taurage, Isaac Schulman, had settled in Minneapolis. Later, Ben and Isaac worked together as leaders of North Minneapolis’s leading Orthodox Jewish congregation, Kenesseth Israel. The two men probably knew each other in Lithuania. Schulman may even have written back to Ben and other fellow townspeople in Taurage, encouraging them to come to Minneapolis.
One early Jewish settler in Minneapolis commented on the process of chain or serial immigration that was prevalent for 19th-century European newcomers. “My brother [who came to Minneapolis some years earlier than I] was an up-to-date person,” he recalled. “He just could not stand life in the small European towns. At that time [the 1880s] just about everyone I knew was going to America. So I decided to write my brother, and after a time he sent me a ticket to come to America.
As an established merchant, then in his mid-thirties, Ben probably purchased his own steamship tickets. But he was almost certainly part of the immigration chain of Eastern European Jews that gained momentum in the later decades of the 19th century.
A NEW HOME IN AMERICA
When he arrived in town, Ben Nathanson rented rooms in the small but growing Eastern European Jewish enclave around Washington Avenue North, just a few blocks from the city’s downtown district near the Mississippi riverfront.
In 1887 Ben’s oldest son, Louis, traveled on his own from Taurage to join his father in Minneapolis. Two years later, Yetta and the younger children set sail from Hamburg in August 1889, probably arriving in Minneapolis in the fall. Henry was born there in August 1890, and Morris, the youngest of the eight children, arrived two years later, in September 1892.
By 1893, the family was living at 906 North Fourth Street, two blocks from Washington Avenue. At that time, the neighborhood was quite modest. Most of the newly arrived Jewish immigrants lived in small frame houses with two or three other families. Few of the homes had inside plumbing.
Relations with the non-Jewish neighbors were often strained during the years the Nathansons lived on North Fourth Street. “The Jews of the North Side used to be afraid to walk anywhere above Fifth Street North” reads a report from that era. “It was actually dangerous to go there, because the Germans and the Irish lived there. There was a lot of beard pulling and name calling. The children of these German and Irish people would very often tip over the apple carts or wagons of the Jewish peddlers, and in general they made life miserable for them.”
While some Jewish neighbors preserved their old-world styles of dress in the blocks around North Fourth Street, the Nathansons outfitted themselves in the latest American fashions, as evidenced in a photo of the family taken about 1893. Many Jewish men were never seen without their large, black, felt hats, but Ben appears in the photo hatless, with a neatly trimmed black beard and mustache.
In and around Fourth Street, many Jewish immigrants, not yet speaking English, worked as pushcart peddlers.
Across town, on the south end of downtown, a different group of Jews lived quite different lives. There Jews from Germany and Bohemia had their own close-knit neighborhood . Many were small merchants, fully acclimated to the broader American culture. In 1878, they created Minneapolis’s first Jewish congregation later Temple Israel Synagogue. By the 1890s, that congregation, then known by its Hebrew name- Shaarei Tov- had affiliated with the Reform Jewish movement, intended to update and modernize the Jewish religion and help it blend more easily into contemporary American life.
Reform Jewish religious services, held in some places on Sunday morning rather than Saturday night, seemed in tone, at least, not much different from the Protestant worship practiced at the same time. In fact, some of the same hymns were then sung at both Potestant and Reform services. Men and women sat together at Reform services, and there was a choir and organ music, just as in the Protestant churches. While some Hebrew was preserved, Reform services were conducted mainly in English.
Ben Nathanson, who observed the traditional Orthodox form of Judaism, remained resolutely opposed to the Reform approach, as did many of his Eastern European countrymen. When his daughter Lena and her family left the North Side and moved to South Minneapolis, they joined Temple Israel. But they held their 13-year-old son’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the more traditional Adath Jeshuran Synagogue because they knew that Ben would not set foot in the Reform temple.
At Ben’s synagogue, or shul in Yiddish, services were conducted only in Hebrew. Men and women were strictly separated. In most Orthodox synagogues, women observed the service from behind a screen in the balcony. There were no choirs or organs. To outsiders the services were cacophonous, the men in their hats and prayer shawls praying out loud, or davening, each at his own speed.
The Orthodox world of the Jewish North Side had its own, mostly subtle, differentiations in status. The Kenneseth Israel congregation became the synagogue of choice for the Eastern European immigrant families who, like the Nathansons, were starting their middle-class ascent.
CLIMBING THE LADDER
According to family lore, Ben arrived in Minneapolis well educated and speaking four or five languages. While he worked for a time as a peddler like most of his Jewish neighbors, he was also a pocketbook manufacturer, a whiskey salesman, and later a steamship ticket agent.
His most important opportunity for advancement came with the election of Alonzo Phillips as county sheriff in 1896 and Phillips’s subsequent appointment of Ben as a Court Bailiff.
Records for that period show that Ben earned $780 a year as a bailiff, nearly twice the average wage for an American family during that era. Ben earned a salary of $65 per month when many of his contemporaries were paid only a dollar a day. Thus his job as a county official thrust his family into the middle class of that day.
As bailiff, Ben’s days were often filled with drama. In September 1899, he apprehended Chicago extortionist George Cryderman, who was attempting to shake down J. H. Austin, a dermatologist working in the downtown Syndicate Arcade Building. Described as well dressed, with a brown pointed beard and a moustache, Cryderman had written to Austin, threatening to publish certain secrets about the Minneapolis man in a New York paper unless he paid a bribe of $1,000 to keep Cryderman silent. Cryderman had failed an attempt to manufacture a new hair-preparation product in Chicago and learned of Austin’s successful effort with a similar product in Minneapolis.
Rather than paying the bribe, Austin hatched a plot to trap Cryderman when he came to the Syndicate Arcade Building to collect the bribe. When Cryderman arrived in Austin’s office, Ben was waiting for him with an arrest warrant. Ben served the warrant, arrested the man and escorted him, dazed and shocked, to the city jail.
Another of Ben Nathanson’s exploits had a less successful conclusion. In December 1899, a petty thief known as Louis “Babe” White, and his accomplices, William Garrity and George Brockerman, were arrested on charges of vagrancy and larceny. The three men pleaded guilty to the charges and were sentenced to 90 days in the county workhouse. As the trial was ending, Nathanson and another bailiff, named Goff, arrived at court, ready to escort the three men to the “black maria,” the police van used to transport prisoners to the workhouse.
Goff gripped Garrity and Brockerman by their shirt collars, and called to Nathanson to grab White. “You watch that little fellow close,” Goff warned. But just as Goff issued his warning, White broke loose from Nathanson’s grip and ran down the courthouse hallway.
“Stop him. Stop thief,” Ben called out as White ran out the courthouse door onto Fourth Avenue and turned the corner at Fourth Street.
“Down Fourth Street sprinted the fugitive and after him raced Nathanson, waving his arms and yelling ‘stop thief’ at the top of his voice,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported . “For three or four blocks the race continued, and then White dodged into an alley. Nathanson was there a moment later, but all trace of the young fellow was lost and, empty handed, the court officer returned to the courthouse.”
The next year, in August 1900, as another city election approached, Nathanson was embroiled in a dispute that erupted during the naturalization ceremony for a sizable group of immigrants. Still a court bailiff, Nathanson was a staunch supporter of the incumbent Minneapolis mayor, James Gray, a Democrat. When he discovered that supporters of Gray’s Republican opponent were slipping campaign flyers into the naturalization packets for the new citizens, Nathanson complained loudly and publicly in the court room. The presiding judge ordered him to sit and remain quiet, but he refused. “I won’t sit down, and you can’t make me do it,” Nathanson said, showing the flash of temper that he displayed often in his later years.
That November, Republicans swept into office, starting with the re-election of U.S. President William McKinley and reaching to local offices in Minneapolis, where Gray was ousted by his Republican opponent, Albert Alonzo Ames. The newly elected Republican mayor soon embroiled City Hall in a bout of blatant municipal corruption that came to be known as “The Shame of Minneapolis.”
THE NEW CENTURY
The Republican sweep in 1900 also ousted Hennepin Connty Sheriff Alonzo Phillips, who had appointed Nathanson to the post of bailiff. Phillips’s defeat meant that Nathanson, a political appointee, was out of a job as the new century began.
Nathanson returned to his work as a steamship ticket agent, partnering for a time with his oldest son, Louis. By now, the family had moved out of the modest neighborhood around North Washington Avenue. The rapidly growing Jewish community had moved west to the Oak Lake district, and the Nathansons had moved with it. Initially, the family lived at 631 Seventh Avenue, later around the corner at 719 Oak Lake Avenue.
Oak Lake was established in the early 1880s as a middle and upper-middle-class non-Jewish neighborhood, with curving streets surrounding a small lake. By the turn of the century, however, commercial development began to intrude on the area, and the neighborhood was no longer as desirable as it had once been.
Some were not pleased by what they viewed as the intrusion of the Jews into their neighborhoods. “People became alarmed and frightened at the number of Jews,” noted one observer disapprovingly. “Many of the Jews were small dealers, some rag peddlers, some fruit men, and others in junk… the pride and dignity [of the neighborhood] finally humbled and succumbed to this affront… To close an estate, one of the large residences was sold to a chicken dealer. From this time on, the whole Oak Lake was taken over by the Jews.”
In the early years of the 20th century, with his career as a county official behind him, Ben Nathanson centered his life on his family and synagogue, Kenesseth Israel. During that time, a series of small synagogues, most of them modest, were scattered across the North Side. Many were identified by their ethnicity, with some considered Russian and others Romanian. Kenesseth Israel was known as the Litvak shul, with many of its members hailing from the Kovno Gubernia district in Lithuania.
Ben Nathanson played a key role in the development of Kenesseth Israel when the congregation built its first synagogue, a modest frame structure on North Fourth Street, not far from the family home. In 1894, with Isaac Schulman, he helped start a free Hebrew school for children in the community. Their effort led to the creation of a community wide educational institution, the Minneapolis Talmud Torah. TheTalmud Torah, in turn, helped unify a fragmented community of small religious groups, each with a separate ethnic identity. Later, a spinoff from the Talmud Torah evolved into the Minneapolis Jewish Community Center, which today still serves the local Jewish community.
In 1913, with the Jewish community moving west from Oak Lake into the adjoining Near North district, Kenesseth Israel built a new, more imposing synagogue at 518 Lyndale Avenue, just a few blocks from the Nathanson family home.
While later generations of Nathansons became increasingly secular, Ben remained an observant Orthodox Jew into his later years. A grandson who worked as a medical resident in Detroit in the mid-1920s remembers receiving $10 from his grandfather with strict instructions to purchase a seat at a local synagogue so the grandson could attend the Jewish New Year and fast day services there.
A PROSPERING FAMILY
During the early decades of the 20th century, Ben Nathanson could take pride in the progress of his sons as they climbed the economic ladder. Four of them, Louis, Ben L., Ike, and Collie, were involved in the cigar business. Nathanson owned operations included a wholesale distributing company, a chain of retail cigar stores, and a cigar factory.
While the older sons were moving out on their own, the youngest two, Henry and Moses, were still at home, attending nearby Sumner Elementary School. As a sixth-grader at Sumner, Henry became a published author on July 4, 1903, when the Minneapolis Journal ran his essay on the dangers of firecrackers. He wrote of holding a cannon cracker at five years of age and almost blowing off his hand.
“I ran into the house, shrieking with pain ,” he recalled . “My father had told me not to light any of the large Cannon crackers, but I disobeyed him and was well paid for it.”
The next year, on January 2, 1904, Henry’s younger brother, Moses, had his own essay published in the Journal. Moses wrote about playing with the combination lock on his father’s safe and its door opening just as his father walked into the room: “I expected a scolding, but when father saw me he only burst into a hearty laugh. Every time I see a safe, it reminds me of my funny experience,” Moses recalled.
That year the boys’ constant companion was Dewey, the family’s large Newfoundland dog. In March, Dewey bit a horse owned by a local doctor, causing the horse to bolt and crash the doctor ‘s carriage. Ben Nathanson was summoned to appear in court, where a municipal judge ordered Dewey banished to the country.
The Minneapolis Journal reported that Dewey was a “well known and respected character in North Minneapolis,” who had “fallen out of grace. He had always been “a good faithful and affectionate animal, but he had gotten into bad company and he must now pay the price.”
According to the Journal, Dewey had been a regular visitor at Sumner School, meeting Henry and Moses every day after class. When they learned about the huge canine visitor’s troubles, the boys’ classmates and teachers offered to come to the court as character witnesses for Dewey. The court did not accept the offer, leaving Dewey to banishment.
Apparently this family member’s public disgrace did not adversely affect Ben Nathanson’s standing in the local Democratic Party. That June, he was chosen a delegate to the party’s state convention in Duluth, at which delegates to the 1904 National Democratic Convention in St. Louis would be selected. Ben supported William Randolph Hearst for the Democratic presidential nomination. Newspaper publisher and congressman from New York, Hearst was considered a pro-labor progressive at that point in his career.
By 1910, the trauma of their dog’s banishment behind them, Henry and Morris had become upstanding young men, as evidenced in a photo of their prosperous looking family. Their older brothers, by this time approaching middle age, were beginning to show signs of portliness. Louis, the oldest, had become a political activist in his own right. He would later be appointed head of the Minneapolis Civil Service Commission, the first Jew in Minneapolis to hold such a major civic office.
June 6, 1916, was a proud day for Ben. That day, when Moses, by then known as Morris, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in science, the first Nathanson to obtain any college degree. Three years later, in June 1919, Morris graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School and became a physician, the most highly prized profession then open to the sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
By the 1920s, Ben had retired, and he and Yetta led a comfortable life, surrounded by their children and a growing brood of grandchildren. Many of the younger grand children remember Ben as somewhat fearsome. “He was something of a curmudgeon, but his bark was worse than his bite,” recalled one grandson. But Ben was not always so fearsome. A photo from the 1920s shows him tenderly holding the hand of his granddaughter Marian, about five years old at the time.
While his older children remained in Minneapolis, two of Ben’s younger sons had left home to make their fortunes else where. Nate had moved to Canada, where he had become a major force in the Canadian film industry. His younger brother Henry joined him and later became the head of a film-distributing company, Metro Goldwyn Mayer of Canada.
Given their sons’ connections to the film industry, Ben and Yetta enjoyed a taste of the movie world when they visited California in the winter. A photo from the mid-1920s, shows them surrounded by a group of silent-era actors.
Yetta died in 1929 while on a visit to her son Henry in Florida. Two years later, Ben’s oldest son , Louis, died at the age of 57.
Ben spent his final days at the home of his son and daughter-in-law Ben L. and Frances on Newton Avenue . By then, many of his descendants had moved out of the city’s North Side, but Ben had remained, at the end only about a mile and a half from the place where he had lived 50 years earlier as a recently arrived immigrant.
Benjamin Nathanson died on April 11, 1936, at the age of 85, survived by a daughter, 6 sons, 17 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren. For his descendents, the opening chapter in their family history in America had come to an end.