Joseph Brandes: A conversation on everything under the sun

Source: New Jersey Jewish Standard, 6-11-10

So encyclopedic is Joseph Brandes’ knowledge that a conversation with him may skip around from why Jews generally vote Democratic to the secret of being a good teacher to why certain couples have a happy, long-lasting marriage. (In his case, a partial answer is that he and his wife, Margot, who have been married for 57 years, are immersed in Zionist activities.)

Brandes, 82, a retired history professor at William Paterson University, is the author of a fascinating book that has just been re-published: “Immigrants to Freedom: Jews as Yankee Farmers! (1880’s to 1960’s).”

The book tells of 400 Jews from Eastern Europe who came to the United States in the 1880s and started agricultural communities in south Jersey — to escape pogroms and to prove that Jews could be farmers, despite the stereotype of them as tradespeople. They were followed by thousands of others, and in 1902, one of their thriving communities, Woodbine, was even recognized by the state as a borough. A magazine of the time referred to Woodbine as “The first self-governed Jewish community since the fall of Jerusalem.”

These communities eventually vanished — the farmers could make better livings in cities — but their innovations, Brandes points out, influenced Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Born in Poland, Brandes (and his family) left in 1939 and eventually arrived in the Bronx. Brandes graduated Phi Beta Kappa from CCNY’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, then earned a master’s degree at Columbia University in 1950 and a doctorate at New York University in 1958. He taught at William Paterson from 1958 through 1992, and part-time after that. He and his wife have four children: Cheryl, Lynn, Susan, and Aviva.

Here is condensed version of a recent conversation with Brandes.

Jewish Standard: What advice would you give new teachers?

Brandes: The major thing to keep in mind is: Make an effort to develop a personal relationship with your students. You’re not teaching a class: You’re teaching individuals. I found this was most satisfying part of my experience — personal interaction.

J.S.: What drew you to history?

Brandes: I started out as a child loving stories, and to me history was in part stories — real stories about real people. As I matured, it was analysis and learning what the world used to be like. And how the world we’ve inherited developed. History is story of conflict, dilemmas, and complex choices for leaders to make.

In my religious education, there were plenty of stories for me to read in the Bible, about good guys, bad guys, conflicts, how Israel was created in ancient times, the destruction of the two temples, holidays pegged to stories like Passover. I knew these were stories of real people, not fairy tales. The Bible does a very good job of describing the character of its heroes. My mother also read stories to us — by Dickens and others — even when we were young children. We were a family that loved to read.

J.S.: Why American history?

Brandes: I wanted to go into European history. As a kid I liked knights in shining armor and nobility, and I was sorry I couldn’t live through Napoleonic times and the French revolution. They were such exciting times! So much reform! The downfall of monarchies! But I was realistic enough to know I couldn’t afford to spend a year in London or Paris or Munich. I asked for a meeting with Salo Wittkmeyer Baron, professor of Jewish history at Columbia, and told him I wanted to write my master’s thesis on the economic deprivations of Jewish people by the Polish government. He was a thorough scholar. “Can you read German documents?” I said no. And I had forgotten my Polish as well. He gave me good advice: “Don’t do it.”

I don’t regret that decision. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that American history has enough color — with the frontier, the treatment (and mistreatment) of Indians, economic cycles from Colonial times to today, and so forth. I have no regrets.

J.S.: Why do most Jews vote Democratic?

Brandes: Most Jews were once Republicians — because they admired the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt, and they admired Lincoln, who was a Republican and a great president. They became Democrats because of Franklin Roosevelt. He gave them the WPA, Social Security, minimum wage laws.

J.S.: To ask an old question: What are some of the roots of anti-Semitism?

Brandes: One of them is religion. In the early years of Christianity, the first Christians were Jews. Consequently there was a kind of kinship between Jews and Christians, where people who called themselves Jews could also believe in Jesus as a god. And that kind of relationship continued for several centuries — until Christians became worried about the success of the Muslim world. Christianity was also being challenged by people [the Christians] called heretics — that what stakes were for, to burn the heretics. So, more and more, the Christian church focused on cleansing itself of its own heretics, including the French Huguenots.

Also there was the fact that the Jews persisted in existing — they failed to accept the divinity of Jesus, and the existence of Jews was considered to be a threat. Jews were a small minority in a great sea of Christians, but the fear was that the Jews might unite with the heretics in the Christian world and challenge the primacy of the papacy.

Going beyond the religious point, Jews have been a convenient scapegoat — as they are to this day.

J.S.: You’ve been married a long time — 57 years. What is the secret to having a happy marriage?

Brandes: You need a tolerance of each other’s characteristics, not necessarily faults. In many if not most couples, wife and husband have different views on, for example, what they should do with their spare time, athletic activities, books to read. My wife loves to travel; my idea of a good time is staying home. But I’m willing to bend. Isn’t that right, Margot?

Margot Brandes: Not enough.

Brandes (laughs): The fact that we’re both active in Zionism also helps keep us together. We’ve always very strongly pro-Israel and involved in the Jewish community in general. That’s one of things that has made ours a successful marriage. In addition to the fact that my wife is an excellent cook!

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