Bring Back the Music: Carol Shansky's The Hebrew Orphan Asylum Band

Reviewed by Geraldine Gudefin

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum Band of NYC, 1874-1941: Community, Culture and Opportunity   By Carol L. Shansky Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 195 pp. £41.99

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum Band of NYC, 1874-1941: Community, Culture and Opportunity
By Carol L. Shansky
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 195 pp. £41.99

Historian Beth Wenger astutely observed that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "American Jews gradually manufactured a collective Jewish history in the United States, one that was endlessly repeated and refined, debated and promoted, on holidays and on special occasions, in times of war, during national celebrations and moments of group reflection." [1] In this process, Wenger said, "American Jews ultimately produced definitions of what the United States meant for Jews as well as what Jews meant to the United States."[2] While Wenger and other scholars have been pondering the construction of American Jewish identity for decades, they have ignored one actor that played a significant role in this history: the Hebrew Orphan Asylum (HOA). This now largely forgotten band is the object of Carol Shansky's recent book, The Hebrew Orphan Asylum Band of New York City, 1874-1941: Community, Culture and Opportunity.

Shansky, a professor of Fine and Performing Arts at Iona College, traces the evolution of the HOA band from its first performance in 1874 to the closing of the Asylum in 1941. The HOA, an orphanage established in 1860 by the Jewish charitable organization, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, tended not only for orphans, but also half-orphans and children whose parents could not care for them. Aside from lodging children, it educated them in accordance with the principles of Reform Judaism. In 1873, the orphanage founded a marching band. As Shansky notes, this was in no way unusual: other orphanages, including Jewish ones, established their own bands during that period. Orphanage bands were popular because they provided "a sense of community and belonging for the young people"[3], as well as "some kind of supervision."[4] Additionally, bands offered vocational training for musically talented children. (Interestingly, although the HOA housed both male and female children, its band was composed solely of boys. This is an aspect of the band that deserved more attention from Shansky. Given that the band was intended to provide oversight over the orphanage's children, should we assume that girls were perceived as less in need of authority than the boys? Or was it understood that it would be improper for girls to play music in public?)

On average, the band comprised about 5% of the HOA population, between 30 and 90 musicians. Although founded in the 1870s, Shansky offers little information about the band during the Gilded Age, due to a scarcity of sources and its discontinuation for several years. However, she provides convincing evidence of its importance to both American Jewish history and New York history during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Incredibly popular within the American Jewish community, the HOA band performed at many of the community's events, including religious ceremonies at synagogue, fundraising events organized by Jewish charitable organizations, openings of new Jewish institutions and Jewish summer camps. According to Shansky, the band "became a particular source of affection for its members and pride for the Jewish community at large."[5] Perhaps more importantly, the band was involved in many public displays of Jewish patriotism. Aside from participating in general commemorations, such as Memorial Day celebrations, it also played at events organized for the purpose of highlighting Jewish contributions to American military history—for example, the establishment of a monument to Jewish war veterans in 1905. Jewish displays of patriotism and nationalism became particularly visible during World War I, owing to general ethnic concern with demonstrating loyalty to the United States. During the war, the HOA became an active participant in propaganda efforts, playing patriotic songs at events such as the Liberty Loan program and the Liberty Loan Parade. Through these examples, Shansky argues the HOA band played a direct and significant role in the processes of assimilation and Americanization of Jewish immigrants: "the role the HOA Band held in the Jewish community speaks to the ever-present challenge of assimilation and distinction. The band lent support to the enrichment of the secular side of the Jewish-American experience, becoming a source of pride and identity as well as an example of the Jewish community's keen interest in being a big part of the American cultural landscape."[6]

Moreover, Shansky contends, the band’s reputation reverberated far beyond the American Jewish community itself. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was not just a Jewish organization but a "municipal band."[7] To fully understand the band’s role in New York's cultural life, it is crucial to know that between the Civil War and World War II, bands were a significant feature of American culture. Throughout its history, the HOA band made numerous contributions to the city's civic and cultural life, through its participation in parades, commemorative events, free concerts in the park, and radio broadcasts. To name only a few events, the band played at the Columbus Day Celebrations of 1892, the mayoral election of 1901, the centennial of the death of Alexander Hamilton, the opening of the New York subway system in 1904 and a commemorative concert in honor of the victims of the Titanic in 1912. Occasionally, the band would even take part in non-Jewish religious festivals or play Christian music. In 1915 for instance, the band played hymns at a memorial honoring Booker T. Washington, held at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The American Jewish community took pride in the band's ecumenical approach, as is evidenced by the reaction of the Jewish newspaper, The American Hebrew, to the joint participation of the HOA band and a Catholic band in the Memorial exercises of the dedication of a Soldiers' Monument in 1902: "Catholic and Jew are one when it is necessary to give expression to patriotism and loyalty."[8]

One noteworthy aspect, repeatedly emphasized by Shansky, was the band’s musical excellence and prestige. After World War I, the band repeatedly won national band music competitions. Between 1924 and 1938, it was also frequently broadcasted on the radio, spreading its reputation beyond New York City. According to Shansky, its reputation was "on a par with professional bands,"[9] so much so that they frequently played with renowned musicians. They drew extremely talented bandmasters and composers, ensuring the band’s quality as an institution of music learning. Consequently, some of its members went on to prestigious careers; for example Edwin Franko Goldman, one of the most important bandmaster and band composers of the early-twentieth century.

Given the significance Shansky attributes to the HOA band, the reader is actually left wanting to know more about the members themselves. While Shansky provides good factual information about the bandmasters, she says little about the boys who made up the band, their personal histories and their immigration stories. For instance, I would be curious to know what percentage of the boys originated from Russia, and if any of them had received musical education prior to joining the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. A recent book about Jewish musicians in Russia prior to World War I has highlighted the many contributions of Jews to Russian music, and the centrality of music to Russian Jewish identity.[10] How can we connect that narrative to the story of Jewish music in the United States? What types of continuities and ruptures can we locate in the sources? A greater engagement with the secondary sources produced by modern Jewish historians might have helped Shansky make a more substantial contribution to (Jewish) immigration history.

Shansky fails to provide a clear narrative or set of arguments, thus making it difficult to use her book as a research or teaching tool. However, she should be commended for exploring a somewhat neglected aspect of immigration history: immigrant musicians in early-twentieth century America. In that regard, chapter 3 contains one of the book's most fascinating sections. Shansky describes the role that anti-immigrant sentiments in the 1880s and 1890s played in the formation of the first "professional" musicians' union, and how unionized musicians opposed itinerant bands, often made up of immigrants. In 1895, for instance, the Musical Protective Union denounced "cheap competition" from the military bands of the HOA and the New York Catholic Protectory.[11] Both racial discrimination in the United States and immigrants' contributions to American culture are quite familiar stories, yet stories that are worth remembering in our current political context.


Geraldine Gudefin is a Doctoral Candidate at Brandeis University.


[1] Beth S. Wenger, History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage (Princeton University Press, 2010), 18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shansky, 8.

[4] Shansky, 100.

[5] Shansky, 10.

[6] Shansky, 160.

[7] Shansky, 25.

[8] Cited in Shansky, 28.

[9] Shansky, 88.

[10] James Loeffler, The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[11] Cited in Shansky, 59.