Saturday, September 28, 2002

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 ambivalence.


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