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History of Prostitution in Jewish Communities: The Wild West
History of Prostitution in Jewish Communities:
The Wild West
Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work By Hollace Ava Weiner, Rabbi Jimmy Kessler (Reprinted by Permission)
BOOK: Cowtown's Front Page Rabbi
G. George Fox - Fort Worth, TX
The red-headed rabbi's pulse shot up—again. Try
as he might to distance his flock from Hell's Half Acre, in the autumn of
1913 Rabbi G. George Fox overheard ranchers muttering remarks about "Jew
whores." What's more, the Sisterhood at his synagogue of seventy families
was scandalized at the gossip. The women—chief among them his wife Hortense,
a third-generation American—wanted those tramps gone.
The Jewish prostitutes were Eastern European women
who had ventured to Fort Worth's red-light district by way of Galveston,
a port of entry for 8,000 Jewish immigrants since 1907. Fox's colleague,
the saintly Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, was being lauded from Texas to
New York for greeting each refugee at the dock. But as far as Fox was concerned,
the refuse were riding the rails from the Gulf Coast to North Texas, bringing
social disease and dishonor to Jews in Fort Worth. "As rabbi, I could not
and would not escape the responsibility that was mine in this shameful business,"
the rabbi declared in his memoirs.
With the police commissioner and the mayor, Fox arranged
a raid on brothels within "the Acre," a seedy neighborhood of saloons, dance
halls, cathouses, and gambling dens. Madams were advised to surrender their
Jewish girls on charges of disorderly conduct, or face a shutdown. At the
jail, Fox confronted twenty women. Through a Yiddish interpreter, the American
rabbi warned them to turn to legitimate pursuits—or else. In response,
some tugged at the rabbi's heartstrings with sagas of children in foster
homes and hard-luck tales of hunger, violence, and deception driving them
into the "sordid business."
One showed me a lavaliere bearing a picture of her
father, so she said: an old, bearded, Eastern co-religionist. . . . One asked
me whether my rich, fat Jews would take her into their homes and give her
a job. . . . A third challenged us, in Yiddish, to give her a job in some
store. Of course we were stymied. . . . Two of the lot married the men who
were their pimps and went into legitimate business. . . . The rest left town.
When Christian clergymen asked the rabbi why his outrage
extended only to Jewish prostitutes, he advised his brothers in the Tarrant
County General Pastors Association to round up the gentile prostitutes
themselves. But Fox had more legal ammunition at his disposal. The
run-of-the-mill harlots were American-born. If arrested, they could be bailed
out by pimps and madams, or fined and returned to the streets. The Jewish
suspects, many masking their immigrant origins with American aliases, were
subject to deportation as "alien prostitutes." And so they were. Eighteen
Galveston immigrants—including young women such as Byley Salesky, who
went by the street name "Betsy Brown"—were deported to Europe, months
before the outbreak of World War I .
"The job made me unhappy, though I could see no other
way," Fox wrote. Although an advocate of social work—he was chairman
of the Fort Worth Charity Commission and an organizer of a state welfare
conference—Fox found it more prudent to remove than to try to reform
the women. Truth be told, "Jew whore" remarks stirred anti-Semitism among
the general public and insecurity among Jews, who prided themselves on being
law-abiding Americans with a family-centered religion. Fox and his generation
of upwardly mobile Jews wanted to retain their Jewish identity. Yet they
were eager to see themselves as part of the American mainstream, not a remnant
of the Old World like their unwashed, uncouth cousins pouring in from shtetls,
the small towns of Eastern Europe.
Prostitution among Jews—documented in muckraking
magazines and a federal immigration investigation—had prompted Jewish
communities nationwide to police their own. B'nai B'rith, the Jewish fraternal
organization, had helped the Justice Department apprehend Jewish prostitutes
who crossed state lines. Chicago rabbis had worked with the district attorney
and vigilantes to round up Jewish madams in the Windy City. Prostitution
was such a blot on Jewish morality that little attention was given to its
causes, its social solutions, or the men involved in the business. When whispers
of Jewish prostitution surfaced in Fort Worth's New York Café, Rabbi
Fox had precedents to follow.
Fox was not as bold, or grandstanding, as his Baptist
colleague, the Rev. J. Frank Norris, preacher at Fort Worth's First Baptist
Church. The year before, Norris had read aloud from the pulpit the names
of leading citizens who owned brothels. This led not to arrests but retaliation,
as arsonists set fire to the minister's church and parsonage. In contrast,
Rabbi Fox's action in ridding the community of Jewish prostitutes was met
with sighs of relief. He had distanced Fort Worth's Jewish residents from
the taint of immorality. He had gingerly worked with the authorities, without
upsetting the status quo. He had correctly gauged how far to stretch his
moral authority in a town closer to the frontier than the Bible Belt.
Bravado—always applauded in a boisterous western town—masked his
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