For millions of Yiddish-speaking immigrants arriving in America around the turn of the century, di goldene medine demanded even more than understanding a new language and surviving economically. Citizenship required learning about the culture of a young country booming with industry and driven by a heady belief in scientific progress.

In response to this challenge, Yiddish writers produced books to instruct the growing Jewish community in scientific subjects ranging from modern sexual activity to aeronautics, anatomy, astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, and zoology. Such texts were for the most part accurate, well written, and accessible to their lay audiences. Their authors were physicians and scholars who wanted to convey facts rather than promote abstract theories or present their own original research. In many books, carefully-drawn illustrations advanced readers’ comprehension of complex subjects. Some writers, like Abraham Caspe, produced multiple books on disparate scientific disciplines; others, like the prominent New York doctor Benzion Liber, an advocate of health education, were concerned with a single topic. 

The Popularization of Science

Professor Samuel Kassow explains the popularization of science in different sectors of Jewish communities both in the US and in Europe. Kassow also speaks about the development of Yiddish secular education beginning around World War I, as new science textbooks for schoolchildren were written in Yiddish. Furthermore, it is argued that teaching science in Yiddish made science more accessible to Yiddish-speaking Jews and served as a way of using Yiddish as a bridge to the wider world.

These books, supplemented by popular how-to guides and self-help pamphlets explaining American customs like love, marriage, and child rearing, shaped Jews’ social and cultural integration into American society. Such books form an important counterpart to Yiddish plays, poetry, novels, and belles lettres, as they departed from literary themes and values and offered instead practical information about the ways of the world.

More on Yiddish and science from our collections:

Yiddish, Sex, and the Post Office: a 'From the Vault' article by Sophia Shoulson that looks at a manual on sexual health for Jewish immigrants that was suppressed by the US Post Office.