A hundred years ago, the RMS Carpathia pulled into New York’s Pier 54 carrying 705 survivors of the Titanic disaster. Most of the survivors were women and children from first class. But Ida Straus, one of the wealthiest and possibly one of the oldest women on board, was not among them. Neither was her husband Isidor, owner of Macy’s and a former U.S. congressman. Not until the following day did eyewitnesses describe the “most remarkable exhibition of love and [d]evotion” shown by the couple in the chaos of that hellish night, a love and devotion that led to both their deaths.
On Shabbat following the tragedy, New York synagogues were packed as congregations commemorated the Jews who had lost their lives on the Titanic; but the Straus’s heroism was perhaps the tragedy’s most widely publicized story. There were memorial services for the Strauses throughout the city. A planned lecture about the Strauses by the scholar and maggid Rabbi Zevi Hirsch had to be canceled because of a dangerously large turnout.
Yet Isidor Straus, his correspondence and unfinished autobiography show, was a committed secularist, thoroughly assimiliationist, and anti-Zionist.
Ida appears to have had some appreciation for Jewish tradition: Before the couple’s departure on the Titanic, she wrote to her children from London, reminding them that “this is already the third day of Pesach” and “you should all be eating your Matzos.” But Isidor had little patience for such things. In a 1909 letter to Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, he wrote, “While I was born in the Jewish faith, I have never belonged to any synagogue or temple” and “have brought up a family of six children, all now having families of their own, none of whom have ever associated themselves with any religious organization.”
The threads connecting all of the Strauses’ activities, personal and professional, were a strong sense of family and community and the love and devotion that come with it. Isidor and Nathan were business partners. Isidor, when entrusting his sons with his share of Macy’s, showed his enduring affection for Nathan: “Never bear him any malice; his peculiarities are to his virtues as the alloy of iron is to pure gold.” The Straus family homes—in New York, the Adirondacks, and Elberon, New Jersey—were, as described by McCash, bursting at the seams with extended family. After buying Macy’s, Isidor and Nathan became the first businessmen in America to form a Mutual Aid Society for their workers (they covered the deficits out of their own pockets). They rented a summer home and offered employees inexpensive vacations there.
Moreover, Isidor’s alienation from Jewish religion and nationhood did not prevent him from being charitable to the Jewish community, even parts of the community with which he disagreed. He and Ida nurtured countless Jewish institutions and causes. Isidor served as president of Montefiore Home, described by the New York Times as “the largest Jewish hospital in the world.” In 1889 he co-founded and served as first president of the Educational Alliance, which assisted Jewish immigrants to the United States. When a Jewish man lay dying in a New York hospital with a single wish to see his Russian family once more, Ida and Isidor brought them to America and helped them become self-supporting. Most, if not all, of the 27 Jewish survivors of Titanic were third-class passengers, likely seeking to immigrate to the United States. It is safe to assume that Ida and Isidor, if they had survived, would have helped establish them in this country.
Assistant Editor, Jewish Ideas Daily
Full story and associated credits at: