Title: World of Our Fathers
Subtitle: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made
Author: Irving Howe
SKU: ZAF03

    Introduction by Morris Dickstein

    Preface

  1. TOWARD AMERICA

    CHAPTER ONE. Origins

      The World of the Shtetl

      Ferment and Enlightenment

      The Start of Social Change

      The Prospect of America

    CHAPTER TWO. Departure and Arrival

      Crossing into Europe

      The Lure of America

      From Border to Port

      The Ordeal of Steerage

      At Ellis Island

      A Work of Goodness

      “Hordes” of Aliens

      Open Door—and Closed

      The Jews Who Came

  2. THE EAST SIDE

    CHAPTER THREE. The Early Years, 1881–1900

      The First Shock

      “A Gray, Stone World”

      A New Tempo, a New Way

      Peddling and Sewing

      Going to the Land

      In the Tenements

      The Implacability of Gentleness

      A Chaos in Hebrew

      Dislocation and Pathology

      Voices of the Left

      What Migration Meant

    CHAPTER FOUR. Disorder and Early Progress

      An Early Combat

      New Tastes, New Styles

      Spreading Across the City

      An Experiment in Community

      The Failure of the Banks

      Beginnings of a Bourgeoisie

      What the Census Shows

      A Slow Improvement

    CHAPTER FIVE. Slum and Shop

      Working in the Shops

      Rising in the World

      Ways to Make a Living

    CHAPTER SIX

      At the Heart of the Family

      Boarders, Desertion, Generational Conflict

      The Inner World of the Landsmanshaft

      Shul, Rabbi, and Cantor

      Versions of Belief

      From Heder to Secular School

      Dreamers of a Nation

      A Bit of Fun on the East Side

      Up into the Catskills

      Matchmakers, Weddings, Funerals

      To the Brim

    CHAPTER SEVEN. The Restlessness of Learning

      “Americanizing” the Greenhorns

      A Visit to the Cafés

      A Passion for Lectures

      The Self-Educated Worker

      Fathers and Sons

    CHAPTER EIGHT

      Parents and Children

      Delinquents and Gangs

      Girls in the Ghetto

      Going to School

      Jewish Children, American Schools

      Immigrants and the Gary Plan

      City College: Toward a Higher Life

    CHAPTER NINE. Jewish Labor, Jewish Socialism

      Early Weaknesses

      The Girls and the Men

      The Triangle Shirt Fire

      The Jewish Working Class

      The Socialist Upsurge

      The Meaning of Jewish Socialism

    CHAPTER TEN. Breakup of the Left

      Civil War in the Garment Center

      Dual Unions—and the Furriers

      A Network of Culture

      Recovery, Growth, Adaptation

      From Politics to Sentiment

    CHAPTER ELEVEN. Getting into American Politics

      Getting on with Tammany

      The Jews and the Irish

      Maneuvering Within the City

      Low Roads, High Roads

    CHAPTER TWELVE. American Responses

      The Native Reformers

      Stage, Song, and Comic Strip

      From Henry Adams to Henry James

      Legal Rights, Social Rebuffs

    3. THE CULTURE OF YIDDISH

    CHAPTER THIRTEEN. The Yiddish Word

      Sweatshop Writers

      Poets of Yiddishkeit

      The Rise of Di Yunge

      Three Yiddish Poets

      The Modernist Poets

      Literary Life on the East Side

      Yiddish Fiction in America

      After the Holocaust

      An Unyielding Voice

    CHAPTER FOURTEEN. The Yiddish Theatre

      The Vital Hacks

      Time of the Players

      A Theatre of Festival

      Art and Trash

      An Art of Their Own

    CHAPTER FIFTEEN. The Scholar-Intellectuals

      Where Should They Go?

      Dean of Critics

      A Gifted Voice

      A Disinterested Historian

    CHAPTER SIXTEEN. The Yiddish Press

      Kindergarten and University

      A New Journalism

      Tell Me, Dear Editor

      Voice of Immigrant Socialism

      Other Papers, Other Voices

      The Time of the Day

      Writing to the End

  4. DISPERSION

    CHAPTER SEVENTEEN. Journeys Outward

      Entertainers and Popular Artists

      Painters and Sculptors

      The American Jewish Novelists

      The New York Intellectuals

    CHAPTER EIGHTEEN. At Ease in America?

      The Suburbs: New Ways to Live

      Into the Public Realm

      The Holocaust and After

      Israel and the American Jews

      A Fear Beyond Escaping

      The Immigrant Survivors

  Epilogue: Questions upon Questions

    Back Matter

      Image Gallery

      Reference Notes

      Glossary of Yiddish Terms

      Bibliographical Notes

      Acknowledgments

      ABOUT THE AUTHOR

      Publisher Details

For Arien

This 30th anniversary edition is made possible through a generous grant from the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation.

Introduction by Morris Dickstein

Books that last, books that still matter, change from generation to generation. Three decades after it first appeared, World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe’s classic history of Jewish immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side, is at once the same book and subtly different. Its world is more remote, with few survivors still among us, yet also more immediate, because of the bustling new immigration today. This is a paradox worth exploring. What kind of book was it, and how did Irving Howe of all people come to write it? How has the book changed, especially for young people encountering it for the first time?

As history, World of Our Fathers remains a fresh and invigorating book, exhaustively researched, wonderfully readable, unfailingly humane, even tender in its sympathies. It’s an elegy for a lost world, executed with a faultless eye for detail and a dispassionate critical intelligence. Where others have waxed lyrical about our immigrant past, Howe’s book is measured, searching, and evocative. It lives up to the credo found on the last page: “We need not overvalue the immigrant Jewish experience to feel a lasting gratitude for having been part of it. A sense of natural piety toward one’s origins can live side by side with a spirit of critical detachment.”

Howe’s blend of empathic insight and detachment enabled him to write a cultural anthropology of every facet of the Jewish immigrant experience: the shtetl itself, the difficult voyage, the shock of arrival and resettlement, the crowded tenements and long working hours, the terrible poverty and homesickness, the marriage and funeral customs, the social movements, especially the struggle to build labor unions, the settlement houses and synagogues, the matchmakers, dance halls, and Catskill retreats, the politics of Tammany Hall, the war of ideas in the cafes and newspapers, and especially the culture of Yiddish—from poets, novelists, and intellectuals to theatrical divas and popular entertainers. If this was not exactly the world of all our fathers, it was a broad prototype of what they experienced. It was also an exemplary version of the immigrant experience in general, from the wretched living conditions and the loss of language to the painful clash between old folkways and new realities, leading to sharp conflicts between the generations.

Howe was an unlikely yet inevitable person to write this book. Like most second-generation immigrants, he worked hard to put the ghetto behind him. He was a political activist and literary critic, not a historian. The New York intellectuals of his generation rarely wrote books, concentrating mainly on essays, but he was possessed by the historical imagination as it touched the world that had formed and nurtured him. Born in 1920, only a few years before the flow of immigration was cut off, he grew up on the proletarian streets of the East Bronx, not on the Lower East Side. When his father’s grocery business failed in 1930, the family was forced to move to a poorer neighborhood, and he learned a lesson about class he never forgot.

Like other New York intellectuals who came of age in the 1930s, he set sail as a committed internationalist rather than a Jewish writer. His conversion to socialism at the age of fourteen, he thought, had liberated him from merely tribal solidarity. “In the years before the war,” he once wrote, “people like me tended to subordinate our sense of Jewishness to cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics.” He cut his teeth politically in a radical Marxist sect, but after the war he evolved into a broad-gauged essayist steeped in modern literature and 20th-century politics—as a contributor to Partisan Review, founder of Dissent, and an incisive literary critic.

The social and literary issues that agitated him had no special ethnic accent; they owed far more to Marxism, modernism, and the European social novel. But history, in the shape of the war and the Holocaust, conspired to remind him of his Jewish origins, and he turned to Yiddish literature, then virtually unknown among American readers, as a way of coming home. Beginning in the early 1950s, in an endless stream of critical essays and finely conceived anthologies, he helped bring this literature into the cultural mainstream just as its creative power was waning. For Howe, World of Our Fathers was the culmination of a circuitous journey that brought him back to Judaism, not as a religion but as a secular culture that was rapidly going under, a dying world. Was it “another lost cause added to my collection,” he wondered much later.

Since the 1890s, many articulate Jews and fascinated outsiders had written about the Lower East Side; it was the social crucible of a new “trans-national” America, as Randolph Bourne called it. But they often wrote in a parochial spirit, either as muckrakers exposing urban blight, as ideologues debating issues within the community, as social tourists exploring the Lower Depths, or as lyrical celebrants gilding the lily of their own humble beginnings. Unlike Jacob Riis or Michael Gold, Howe had little interest in the social pathologies of the Lower East Side as a “culture of poverty.” Compared to the Harry Goldens and Sam Levinsons of the 1950s, he was immune to the sentimental tug of Borscht Belt nostalgia. The historians’ overworked metaphor of the “epic” of immigration was not his glass of tea. Instead, his arresting vignettes and deftly sketched profiles recapture the tumultuous, not always attractive humanity of the Lower East Side. Stressing the traumas of acculturation and the dream of a better life, Howe offered both suburbanites and intellectuals of his own generation a more complex sense of where they came from.

The book was Howe’s real autobiography—evoking the world of his actual father, to whom he had been “a son with a chilled heart” (as he said ruefully in A Margin of Hope), and the Jewish world and language he had once truculently scorned. When I first met him in the early 1970s, he himself had become the angry father doing battle with the writers and young activists of the sixties generation. He had always been a biting polemicist, but in collections like Steady Work (1966), Decline of the New (1970), and The Critical Point (1973) he launched some especially blistering attacks on the New Left and the counterculture, whose values he largely shared, and on late-sixties writers like Kate Millett and Philip Roth, whose sexual iconoclasm might once have delighted him. But in other essays (on the New York intellectuals, for example, and on literary modernism) a different Howe emerged, softer and more retrospective, a writer reintegrating himself with a past he had once taken for granted, summing up an epoch that was rapidly disappearing into history. Above all Howe mellowed in his work on Yiddish literature, taking refuge from cultural polemics without losing his critical voice—striking a nice balance between filial piety and keen discrimination.

This mellower Howe is the voice we hear in World of Our Fathers, fair to a fault about everyone from nativist critics of immigration and snobbish uptown Jews to the cartoonish figure of the Jewish mother. He takes a special pleasure in noting the discomfiture of radicals and anarchists whenever their worldliness is undercut by an improbable wave of Jewish fellow-feeling. This shock of recognition was, after all, his own story. Still, his socialism, now far less doctrinaire, remains central to the book. A few critics accused him of leaving out religion—the synagogue and yeshiva world of the Lower East Side—others of ignoring the “world of our mothers.” (The book provoked a raft of studies of women’s role in Jewish immigrant culture.)

Neither charge is quite fair, but it can be said that religion figures in the book largely as “secular messianism,” the secular translation of religious vision into social hope. “Traditional faith still formed the foundation of this culture,” he writes, “if only by providing norms from which deviation had to be measured.” And the most vivid women included are social activists like the labor firebrand Rose Schneiderman, Lillian Wald of the Henry Street Settlement, and Belle Moskowitz, the brains behind New York’s progressive governor, Alfred E. Smith. Howe’s emphasis on socialism, organized labor, and Yiddish, if slightly disproportionate, feeds the autobiographical power of the book. He had lived the world he was writing about, and, like so many good historians, he projected his deepest loyalties onto a reading of the past.

This is one reason why the book reads differently today from when it first appeared in 1976. Contemporary readers might be more bewildered by their fathers’ impassioned socialism and unionism than by their threadbare poverty. Taking the safety net of the welfare state for granted (just when it is most in danger of being shredded), they may not understand, first, how working-class socialism emerged from the actual experience of poverty, nourished by notions of social justice ingrained in the Jewish tradition, and, second, that its egalitarian idealism had little in common with the discredited bureaucratic socialism that collapsed in the 1980s.

Despite the waves of renewed immigration in recent decades, including many Russian Jews, a historical rift has opened up between us and the players in Howe’s story. Howe’s initial readers, who made the book a surprise bestseller, were the second-generation Jews whose lives were somewhat neglected in his pages. They were the strivers who had not become intellectuals, socialists, or union activists but had made it in America in business or the professions. They had migrated to the suburbs after the war, only to see their well-educated offspring turn against their values. They had tried to forget the bruising poverty, fractured speech, moral inhibitions, and naive idealism of the ghetto. But despite their lavish temples and generous philanthropy, they came to feel a void in their sense of Jewish identity. In Howe’s book they were able to reconnect historically, with few sentimental illusions, to a world they had long repressed, as Howe himself had done. World of Our Fathers found its way into virtually every literate Jewish home; it provided an emotional catharsis for a generation of aging sons and daughters.

The immigrant experience meant less to their children and grandchildren, who were more likely to turn to Israel, to religion, or to searing testimonies about the Holocaust as a way of finding their identity and forging links with Jewish traditions. Irving Howe knew very well that he was writing at the end of something—the end of socialism, the end of Yiddish, the end of what he called “Jewish secularism,” a rich but transitional culture that had developed at the end of the eighteenth century almost as a substitute religion. Even before the Holocaust incinerated most of Europe’s Yiddish-speaking Jews, Yiddishists in America understood that they were pursuing something that would soon be effaced by assimilation, a culture that might never achieve the power of religious belief. Like a blazing comet, this made its efflorescence seem all the more brilliant.

In a lecture at Hunter College in March 1993, just six weeks before he died, Howe, depleted by a long, draining illness, recited a kaddish for the world whose history he had written:

The immigrant experience, which until recently has been the major substance of American Jewish life, is receding into memory.… Nostalgia grips us all, yet cannot provide the bread or wine of a common future. For what is fading is not just the sweatshops and tenements—we are well rid of them.… What is also fading is the pale bloom of Yiddish.… The effort to maintain a distinctive Jewish way of life in the diaspora apart from religious institutions and beliefs was indissolubly bound up with a distinctive Yiddish culture. Such a culture clearly will not play a major role in the lives of American Jews.

But he reminded his audience that this was merely a long-term trend, a historical probability: “the long term is … long. In the short run, the mixture of shared experience and common memory may be enough.”

Howe also quotes from the conclusion of World of Our Fathers: “Cultures are slow to die; when they do, they bequeath large deposits of custom and value to their successors; and sometimes they survive long after their more self-conscious members suppose them to have vanished.” From ethnic humor to liberal politics, from cuisine to scholarship, the immigrant experience left a sediment of manners, morals, and values that still sharply affects Jewish (and American) life today. It seems clear that Yiddish and socialism were only temporary vehicles of Jewish secular identity, which has always reshaped itself from contemporary sources, from the Enlightenment and Zionism to American pluralism and the counterculture. Succeeding generations, cut off from the immigrant experience, would create their own forms of both secular and normative Judaism.

In his inimitable style of serious joking, Howe once remarked that Israel had become the religion of American Jews, with the Holocaust as its liturgy. Yet both of these issues engaged him deeply in his last years. And when I saw him in synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur, just before the gates of judgment were said to swing shut, I imagined that I was witnessing the death of socialism, or at least of socialism as a self-sufficient secular faith. His presence in the synagogue may have been happenstance—his widow, Ilana, later told me he was keeping her company in place of a friend—but it seemed nonetheless symbolic of the shifting currents of Jewish self-awareness. Irving Howe’s scrupulous book, written with the assistance of Kenneth Libo, is a collage of texts and memories that almost restore a half-forgotten time, now no longer the world of our fathers but of our grandparents and great-grandparents. But it also exposes our braided link to the larger ethnic mix of contemporary life.

Today’s multicultural America, with its new immigrants, its babel of languages, its spasms of nativism, its terrible pockets of poverty, its Darwinian faith in the free market, and its ruthlessly concentrated corporate power, bears a striking resemblance to American society before the first world war. Many of the positions staked out in today’s cultural debates—pluralism, universalism, bilingualism, cultural nationalism, identity politics—were rehearsed during the first decades of the twentieth century. The outcry against new immigrants in the 1990s was as reminiscent of the past as the uncritical celebration of ethnic roots. The tension between identity politics and universal values—between the ghetto and the polis—is endemic to modern American life. Younger Jews, intermarrying in large numbers, caught between tribalism and assimilation yet finding themselves excluded from the rainbow coalition of today’s minorities, could do far worse than to study the historical forces that helped shape their present lives. In World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe turned his own reckoning with the past into a richly textured lesson for posterity.

Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he was a colleague of Irving Howe.

Preface

This book tells the story of those east European Jews who, for several decades starting in the 1880’s, undertook a massive migration to the United States. There were two million of them, and they settled mostly in the large American cities, where they attempted to maintain their own Yiddish culture; then, as a result of both external pressures and their own desires, they made their way into American society. Among the Jews settling in America, the east Europeans were by far the largest component and thus the most influential. To tell their story is, to a considerable extent, to tell the story of twentieth-century American Jews. Nevertheless, this book is not a history of the American Jews as a whole, nor a history of American Jewish institutions, religious or secular. The German Jews, who arrived earlier and whose status and prospects were better, do appear repeatedly in these pages, but mostly insofar as they enter relations with those from eastern Europe. The Sephardic Jews as a group hardly figure at all. In 1870 there were probably about 60,000 Jews in New York. By 1880 the estimate had risen to approximately 80,000; by 1910, there were about 1,100,000 Jews in the city.

This book is a work of social and cultural history and thereby lays claim, with all the notorious pitfalls besetting any such work, to being an accurate record. I have used as major sources the vast memoir literature in both English and Yiddish; an accumulating secondary scholarship which deals with various aspects of immigrant experience; the rich materials of the Yiddish press; accounts in American newspapers, journals, and historical studies; a range of personal interviews; and, to a lesser extent, works of fiction that touch upon this aspect of American life. In addition to the materials used in the social portraits I have drawn, some of them necessarily composites, there are numerous further citations that could have been brought to bear. In fact—heaven forbid!—it would have been easy to make this book twice as long simply by piling up further evidence. But I have used materials that I judged to be representative.

Problems of space have also prevented me from including as much material as I should have liked about the immigrant Jews in cities other than New York. While there were, of course, significant differences between the experiences of immigrant Jews in Chicago or Philadelphia and those in New York, I have gone on the assumption—which the available evidence largely supports—that in crucial respects what is shown here regarding the immigrants of the East Side of New York also holds for those in other large cities. As for the relatively small number of Jews who settled in small towns or became farmers, that is another story.

All documentation appears in the Reference Notes at the end, grouped according to the subsections of each chapter. Footnotes at the bottom of pages are meant to be read as illustrations of or comments on or, sometimes, diversions from the main text.

Where a Yiddish word or phrase is used only once or twice, a translation is immediately provided. Where a Yiddish word is used frequently, a translation will appear with the first use and, if the word recurs over a number of chapters, also at later points. A glossary at the back of the book contains translations of all Yiddish words and phrases. But you don’t have to be Jewish, or know Yiddish, to read this book.

Transliterating Yiddish presents some problems, which I have tried to solve mainly with an eye toward helping the reader. YIVO, the Yiddish scholarly center, has provided a standard system of transliteration, meant mostly for scholarly purposes. It thereby comes into conflict, at some points, with the liberalities of customary usage. For example, the guttural sound in Yiddish is rendered by YIVO as kh, while customary usage in the United States has been ch. It seems mere hindrance to the reader to insist upon Sholom Aleikhem rather than Sholom Aleichem. So, while following the YIVO system as closely as possible, I have made some concessions to customary usage. In this book our great writer remains Sholom Aleichem, and I use Yiddishkeit rather than Yiddishkayt. For the measure of inconsistency in my transliterating, I hope my friends at YIVO will forgive me.

1. TOWARD AMERICA

CHAPTER ONE. Origins

The year 1881 marks a turning point in the history of the Jews as decisive as that of 70 A.D., when Titus’s legions burned the Temple at Jerusalem, or 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella decreed the expulsion from Spain. On March 1, 1881, Alexander II, czar of Russia, was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists; the modest liberalism of his regime came to an end; and within several weeks a wave of pogroms, inspired mostly by agents of the new government, spread across Russia. For the Jews packed into the Pale* and overflowing its boundaries, the accession of Alexander III signified not only immediate disaster but also the need for a gradual reordering of both their inner life and their relationship to a country in which Jews had been living for hundreds of years. The question had now to be asked: should the east European Jews continue to regard themselves as permanent residents of the Russian empire or should they seriously consider the possibility of a new exodus?

There had already been a trickle of Jewish emigration to America—7,500 in the years between 1820 and 1870 and somewhat more than 40,000 in the 1870’s. But the idea of America as a possible locale for collective renewal had not yet sunk deeply into the consciousness of the east European Jews. During the reign of Alexander II many of them had experienced modest hopes of winning equal rights as citizens. Others hoped to persuade the less benighted agents of Russian autocracy that the Jews merited a share in its prospective enlightenment. By the 1880’s that hope was badly shaken, perhaps destroyed.

At no time could the life of the Jews in Russia have been described as comfortable. With the caprice of absolutism, the monarchs had alternated between prolonged repression and intervals of relaxation. They had frequently believed that toleration of other religions might bring a risk of disloyalty to the supreme truth of Christianity, and the more fanatical among them had tried to “convert” the Jews through coercion and force. Rarely were the Jews able to ease their guard against blows from above and below, bureaucrats and folk, and never could they see themselves as citizens like all others. Their role as pariahs, the stiff-necked enemies of Christ, was fixed both in official doctrine and popular legend. Repression took the forms of economic harassment and legal humiliation, sometimes pogroms and accusations of ritual blood murder. At intervals these policies would be eased a little, and the Jews would be allowed, as part of a tendency toward Westernization, to settle in outlying southern and western districts. With the conquest of new territories in the south during the middle of the eighteenth century and the partition of Poland a few decades later, the number of Jews under Russian domination greatly increased. For a time Catherine II welcomed them as merchants and traders who might stimulate the economy, but soon—in what seems a constant alternation between tightening and loosening of the chains of power—her exercise in tolerance came to an end.

Once the Holy Alliance sealed the defeat of Napoleon and stabilized Europe as a concert of reaction, the conditions of the Russian Jews, as indeed of almost all Russians, sadly deteriorated. The reign of Nicholas I, from 1825 to 1855, proved to be a nightmare. Over six hundred anti-Jewish decrees were enacted, ranging from expulsions from villages in which Jews had traditionally resided to a heavy censorship of Yiddish and Hebrew books; from meddling with the curriculums of Jewish schools to a conscription that tore Jewish children away from parents, often at ages between twelve and eighteen, for periods of up to twenty-five years. In his memoirs Alexander Herzen has unforgettably portrayed a convoy of conscripted Jewish children:

“You see, they have collected a crowd of cursed little Jewish boys of eight or nine years old” [a Russian officer tells Herzen in a village in the province of Vyatka]. “… they just die off like flies. A Jew boy, you know, is such a frail, weakly creature … he is not used to tramping in the mud for ten hours a day and eating biscuit … being among strangers, no father nor mother nor petting; well, they cough and cough until they cough themselves into their graves.”

… it was one of the most awful sights I have ever seen, those poor, poor children! Boys of twelve or thirteen might somehow have survived it, but little fellows of eight and ten.…

Pale, exhausted, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy, soldiers’ overcoats, with stand-up collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers who were roughly getting them into ranks.… And these sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the icy wind that blows unobstructed from the Arctic Ocean, were going to their graves.

The acknowledged aim of Nicholas’s measures was the destruction of the Jewish community as a social and religious body. One of his secret decrees explained, “The purpose in educating Jews is to bring about their gradual merging with the Christian nationalities and to uproot those superstitious and harmful prejudices which are instilled by the teachings of the Talmud.” Through the following century, at least until a more scientific precision was developed in the art of murder, the Nicolaitan persecutions would leave a shudder vibrating in the minds of the Jews, with stories passed from generation to generation, even to children of immigrants in America, about little boys forcibly converted by Russian officers or accepting a death of martyrdom rather than yield to such conversion.

No wonder that Alexander II, whom Disraeli called “the kindliest prince who has ever ruled Russia,” aroused enthusiasm among the Jews. Alexander II reduced the period of military service to five years; opened the doors of the universities to some Jews; permitted Jewish businessmen to travel in parts of Russia from which they had been barred. Under his reign the forty million serfs of Russia were freed, though the economic consequences for both the peasants and that narrow stratum of Jews who had occupied a precarious position between landowner and peasants were by no means completely advantageous. But once this weak effort at official liberalism collapsed and the pogroms of 1881 left the Jews stunned and bleeding, it was no longer possible, even for the Russified middle-class Jewish intellectuals, to hold out much hope for Fabian solutions. Though not as bestial as Nicholas, Alexander III pursued a steady anti-Jewish policy. Neither stability nor peace, well-being nor equality, was possible for the Jews of Russia.

The World of the Shtetl

For several hundred years this culture had flourished in eastern Europe. Bound together by firm spiritual ties, by a common language, and by a sense of destiny that often meant a sharing of martyrdom, the Jews of eastern Europe were a kind of nation yet without recognized nationhood. Theirs was both a community and a society: internally a community, a ragged kingdom of the spirit, and externally a society, impoverished and imperiled.

The central trait of this culture was an orientation toward otherworldly values—though this may be too simple a way of describing it. For the world of the east European Jews, at least in its most serious and “ideal” manifestations, did not accept the Western distinction between worldly and otherworldly. Kierkegaard’s dictum that “between God and man there is an infinite, yawning, qualitative difference” might have struck them as a reasonable account of their actual condition, but not as a statement of necessary or inescapable limits. In order to survive, the east European Jews had to abide by the distinction between worldly and otherworldly, but they refused to recognize it as just or inevitable. In their celebration of the Sabbath and in the sharp line they drew between the Sabbath and the rest of the week, they tacitly acknowledged that they had to live by the ways of the world; this was the price of exile and dispersion. Ideally, however, the worldly and otherworldly should be one—here on earth. Every Jew would have recognized immediately the symbolic rightness in the refusal of Reb Shloyme, a character in Peretz’s drama Di goldene keyt (“The Golden Chain”), to accept “the week,” those six mundane days that lie scattered beneath the glory of the Sabbath.

The life of the east European Jews was anything but an idyl. Given the pressures from without and a slow stagnation within, this world was bound to contain large portions of the ignorant, provincial, and even corrupt. One of the motivating forces behind the communal and political movements that sprang up during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, as well as of the Yiddish poetry and fiction written at the same time, was a desire to stir the blood of a society that had gone sluggish, to cleanse the life of a people that had suffered too long from isolation, poverty, and violence.

Locked into a backward economy, the Jews of eastern Europe continued to act and think primarily in premodern, prebourgeois terms. The struggle for livelihood, unending and rarely successful, occupied much time—it had to. But never was it regarded by the acknowledged spokesmen of the Jews as the primary reason for existence. Scholarship was, above all else, honored among the Jews—scholarship not as “pure” activity, not as intellectual release, but as the pathway, sometimes treacherous, to God. A man’s prestige, authority, and position depended to a considerable extent on his learning. Those who were learned sat at the eastern wall of the synagogue, near the Holy Ark. Women often became breadwinners so that their husbands could devote themselves to study, while householders thought it their duty, indeed privilege, to support precocious sons-in-law studying the Holy Word.

There was another side, of course. Scholarship often degenerated into abysmal scholasticism. Intellect could be reduced to a barren exercise in distinctions that had long ago lost their reality. Manual labor was frequently regarded as a mark of social disgrace. Among the more orthodox, modern thought met with furious resistance: how could the works of man measure against the Word of God? Secular books, by the early or mid-nineteenth century, began to be smuggled into the yeshivas and read on the sly, their forbidden contents eagerly examined by students as they chanted the Talmudic singsong. A few rabbis were ready to receive the new learning of the West, but in the main the rabbinate felt that any large infiltration of Western thought would be its undoing; and it was right.

The traditional world is lovingly summoned by a nineteenth-century Jewish writer as he describes a visit to a heder (school):

Soon a poorly clad couple entered, the man carrying in his arms a young boy of about six, wrapped in a talit [prayer shawl]. Both father and mother were weeping with joy, grateful to God who had preserved them that they might witness this beautiful moment. Having extended a cordial welcome to the newcomers, the melamed [teacher] took the hero of the celebration into his arms and stood him upon a table. Afterwards the boy was seated on a bench and was the first to receive cake, nuts, raisins and dainties of which the happy mother had brought along an apron-full. The teacher then sat down near the youngster, placed a card with a printed alphabet before him and, taking a long pointer, began the first lesson by blessing his newly-initiated pupil that he may be raised for the study of Torah, marriage, and good deeds.

And here, in quite another voice, is a report, written in 1894, of a Jewish school in Vitebsk:

Our Talmud Torahs are filthy rooms, crowded from nine in the morning until nine in the evening with pale, starved children. These remain in this contaminated atmosphere for twelve hours at a time and see only their bent, exhausted teachers.… Their faces are pale and sickly, and their bodies evidently not strong. In parties of twenty or thirty, and at times more, they all repeat some lesson aloud after their instructor. He who has not listened to the almost absurd commentaries of the ignorant melamed cannot even imagine how little the children gain from such instruction.

Which of these accounts is the truth, which can we believe? There is no simple answer, for each summons a portion and only a portion of the truth, so that the two qualify and complement one another.

The world of the east European Jews was colored throughout by religious emotion, yet it was not a theocracy: by no means were the rabbis undisputed rulers. It was a world dominated by an uneasy alliance between a caste of the learned and the somewhat wealthier merchants. In their formal value system, the Jews gave precedence to the learned, but as with any other formal system, this precedence was honored at least as much in the breach as in the observance. The closer this world came to modern life, the more did wealth challenge and usurp the position of learning. There was never, it is true, a formal dispossession of learning, but often enough there smoldered a subterranean rivalry between learning and wealth that could suddenly flare into the open. What preserved a degree of social fluidity was that learning, at least potentially, was open to everyone and not the exclusive property of any group or caste.

Socially this world had not yet split into sharply defined and antagonistic classes. By the 1880’s some Jews had settled in the larger cities, such as Warsaw and Lodz; within the next few decades the number of Jews moving from the shtetl to urban concentrations increased sharply. The beginnings of a Jewish proletariat started to appear in the cities, though in the main it consisted not of factory workers but of artisans employed in small shops. Strikes broke out, class feeling hardened. But in the shtetl one could hardly speak of fully formed rival classes, since few Jews owned any massive means of production and fewer still sold their labor power. Often the relations between the social strata of the shtetl came to little more than a difference between the poor and the hopelessly poor. Only if the pressures of the external world had been suddenly removed would the suppressed economic conflicts within the shtetl have reached full expression. As it was, the shtetl nestled in the crevices of a backward agricultural economy where Jews, often prohibited from ownership of land, had to live by trading, artisanship, and their wits. But if, strictly speaking, the shtetl did not have articulated social classes, it was still far from what we would now regard as a democratic community. Distinctions of caste were urgently maintained, through learning, economic position, and the concept of yikhes, which pertains to family status and pride.

Gross misapprehensions about the nature of the shtetl have flourished since its destruction by modern totalitarianism. The shtetl was not a village—the term east European Jews used for a village was dorf. The shtetl was a town, usually a small one; it sometimes had cobbled streets; it occasionally had imposing structures; and it rarely was picturesque. It consisted, writes a portraitist, of

a jumble of wooden houses clustered higgledy-piggledy about a market-place … as crowded as a slum.… The streets … are as tortuous as a Talmudic argument. They are bent into question marks and folded into parentheses. They run into culs-de-sac like a theory arrested by a fact; they ooze off into lanes, alleys, back yards.… [At the center is] the market-place, with its shops, booths, tables, stands, butchers’ blocks. Hither come daily, except during the winter, the peasants and peasant women from many miles around, bringing their live-stock and vegetables, their fish and hides, their wagonloads of grain, melons, parsley, radishes, and garlic. They buy, in exchange, the city produce which the Jews import, dry goods, hats, shoes, boots, lamps, oil, spades, mattocks, and shirts. The tumult of the market-place … is one of the wonders of the world.

Because the shtetl lived in constant expectation of external attack, all the inner tendencies making for disintegration were kept in check. The outer world, the world of the gentiles and the worldlings, meant hostility, sacrilege, brute force: the threat of the fist against the defenseless Word. This condition of permanent precariousness gave the east European Jews a conscious sense of being at a distance from history, from history as such and history as a conception of the Western world. Living in an almost timeless proximity with the mythical past and the redeeming future, with Abraham’s sacrifice of his beloved son to a still more beloved God and the certain appearance of a cleansing Messiah*—for heaven was real, not a useful myth, and each passing day brought one nearer to redemption—the Jews could not help feeling that history was a little ridiculous, an often troublesome trifling of the gentile era. Once the shtetl began to crumble under alien pressures, the sense of history, suddenly rising to acute consciousness, became an obsession; or more accurately, the modern idea of time as the very stuff of life which can never be held or held back, was absorbed into a faith that had always been addressed to eternity, so that certain of the political movements among the east European Jews, notably Zionism and socialism, received nutriment from the very faith they had begun to displace.

The world of the east European Jews was a world in which God was a living force, a Presence, more than a name or a desire. He did not rule from on high; He was not a God of magnificence; nor was He an aesthetic God. The Jews had no beautiful churches, they had wooden synagogues. Beauty was a quality, not a form; a content, not an arrangement. The Jews would have been deeply puzzled by the idea that the aesthetic and the moral are distinct realms. One spoke not of a beautiful thing but of a beautiful deed. Only later did Jewish intellectuals discover that, even in the usual Western terms, there was an innocent beauty in Jewish liturgical music, the carving of the Holy Arks, the embroidery of prayer shawls, the calligraphy of the Holy Scripts. But where intellectuals saw these as objects or qualities to be isolated for aesthetic inspection, their ancestors had seen them as integral elements in the cultivation of God’s Word.

It was the word that counted most. Yiddish culture was a culture of speech, and its God a God who spoke. He was a plebeian God, perhaps immanent but hardly transcendent. Toward Him the Jews could feel a peculiar sense of intimacy: had they not suffered enough in His behalf? In prayer His name could not be spoken, yet in or out of prayer He could always be spoken to. Because the east European Jew felt so close to God he could complain to Him freely, and complain about Him too. The relation between God and man was social, intimate, critical, seeming at times to follow like a series of rationalistic deductions from the premise of the Chosen People. The Jewish God, to whom one prayed in Hebrew and with whom one pleaded in Yiddish, had been humanized through experience with His people. He had been taught the uses of mercy. The despair with which a Kafka knocks on the door of the Lord suggests that he does not expect the door ever to be opened, whereas the rasping impatience with which Yiddish folk writers of the Hasidic period appealed to the Lord leaves no doubt that they knew He would respond.

“There is a sense,” writes Isaiah Berlin, “in which no social problem arose for the Jews as long as rigid religious orthodoxy insulated them from the external world. Until then, poor, downtrodden, and oppressed as they might be, and clinging to each other for warmth and shelter, the Jews of eastern Europe put all their faith in God and concentrated all their hope either upon individual salvation—immortality in the sight of God—or upon the coming of the Messiah.”

Together with a living God went a holy language, Hebrew, known by the educated and admired by the ignorant. The events of Jewish life were divided into two endless days, the Biblical yesterday and the exile of today. History was seen less as a vertical movement through time than as a horizontal simultaneity, and Jewish history as the emanation of a pure idea, the idea of the Chosen People. In a sense, history did not even exist: there was only an endless expectation until the Messiah came, and until that moment there would be the glory of Hebrew, a language not unaffected by the passage of time but meant ultimately to stake out a defiance of time.

Near and beneath Hebrew flowed another language, Yiddish. Elbowed away from the place of honor, it grew freely and richly. Based originally on a mixture of Middle High German dialects, it soon acquired an international scope, borrowing freely from almost every European language. Neither set nor formalized, always in rapid process of growth and dissolution, Yiddish was a language intimately reflecting the travail of wandering, exile, dispersion; it came, in the long history of the Jews, like a late and beloved, if not fully honored, son.

The moral and psychological burdens this world took upon itself were very great. Nature is not a frequent presence in Yiddish thought or writing; it hardly could be in a culture so desperately besieged and so thoroughly committed to the exploration of moral order; but when it does appear, as in the writings of Mendele Mokher Sforim, the first major Yiddish novelist, it is often used self-consciously as a counterpoise to that deadening of appetites which long years of study in the yeshivas might entail.

In other respects, the Jews did make their peace with natural impulse. The view that sexual activity is impure or at least suspect, so often an accompaniment of Christianity, was seldom entertained in the shtetl. Paul’s remark that it is better to marry than to burn would have seemed strange, if not downright impious, to the Jews, who believed that marriage and procreation, far from being a lesser evil, were a positive good. The modern idea of sexuality as a form of play sufficient unto itself could hardly flourish in the east European Jewish world. But this was still very far from the puritan notion that the human body is inherently suspect. Similarly, the idea of asceticism, a kind of programmatic withdrawal from communal life, played only a minor part among the east European Jews, partly because a society of deprivation is not likely to be tempted by the luxury of self-deprivation. As for romantic love, that appears during the twilight of the shtetl, when the values of the West have begun to undercut its foundations. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by families, with the wealth and rank of the groom counting for more than personal feelings. In Sholom Aleichem’s writings, romantic love comes to signify the breakup of traditional forms and values.

At the peak of its development the shtetl was a highly formalized society. It had to be. Living in the shadow of lawlessness, it felt a need to mold its life into lawfulness. It survived by the disciplines of ritual. The 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that a pious Jew must obey, which dictate such things as the precise way in which a chicken is to be slaughtered; the singsong in which the Talmud is to be read; the kinds of food to serve during the Sabbath; the way in which shoes should be put on each morning; the shattering of a glass by the groom during a marriage ceremony—these were the outer signs of an inner discipline. In so heavily ritualized a world there was little room for individuality as we have come to understand it, since the community was the manifestation of God’s covenant with Israel, as the family was the living core of the community. The world of the east European Jews clung to its ways, and to nothing more fiercely than the myth of the Chosen People, the full irony of which it was the first to recognize, above all in the network of humor it threw up against the alien world.

No simple response is possible, no unambiguous one adequate, to this lost world of the east European Jews. There is truth, even if idealized and sublimated, in the elegiac memoir of Abraham Heschel:

A blazing passion permeated all activities.… Immersed in complicated legal discussions, they could at the same time feel the anguish of the Divine Presence that abides in exile. In endeavouring to unravel some perplexity raised by a seventeenth-century commentary on a commentary on the Talmud, they were able in the same breath to throb with sympathy for Israel and all afflicted people. Study was a technique for sublimating feeling into thought, for transposing dreams into syllogisms, for expressing grief in difficult theoretical formulations.… To contrive an answer to gnawing doubts was the highest joy. Indeed, there was a whole world of subdued gaiety and sober frolic in the playful subtleties of their pilpul [dialectic].… Carried away by the mellow, melting chant of Talmud-reading, one’s mind soared high in the pure realm of thought, away from this world of facts and worries, away from the boundaries of the here and now, to a region where the Divine Presence listens to what Jews create in the study of His word.

And there is truth, more acrid and bitter, in the words of Ba’al Makhshoves, the pioneer Yiddish literary critic, who in a study of Mendele Mokher Sforim writes about the shtetl:

Jewish poverty is a kind of marvel to Mendele, for no parallel to it can be found anywhere. This is not the poverty of the great European cities, nor is it the poverty of the Russian peasant.… Jewish poverty has no idea what a factory looks like, for it exists in the shtetl where it has its origins in fathers and grandfathers who have been wretchedly poor since time immemorial. The Russian peasant, poor as he may be, is the proprietor of a small piece of land. And his condition is not hopeless—one feels that sooner or later it will improve. But Jewish poverty is utterly without a cure; the Jew has no available means for improving his condition, which will remain abject as long as he lives among alien peoples. In villages where life should have brought him closer to the earth, he lives as though he were in the city.…

This Jewish community has a remarkable past. It walks around with two thousand years of history on its back.… It is separated from the outside world as though it were an island in the middle of an ocean, and what goes on in that world is like a splashing of surf that never reaches higher than the ankles. The members of this community are bound and shackled to one another, and should one of them wish to break away, he has no choice but to cast himself into the waves, which will carry him apart from the Jewish world forever.

The Jews live in constant fear lest they stray out of the narrow cage into which their forefathers had directed them, heaven forbid, and they tend even to forsake whatever pleasures Jewish law allows them. They are constantly placing new yokes upon themselves. They hide their natural impulses. They renounce the darker elements in their nature. They have ears only for the reading of the law, eyes only for scrutinizing sacred texts, voices only for crying, “Hear, O Israel.”

They regard themselves as a chosen people, and they live worse than dogs; they believe in an eternal life after death, and yet it is a sufficient ideal to them to see marriage as only for making children.… The Eternal People in Mendele’s world who live by plucking chicken feathers and furnishing holy items for the religious institutions of Glupsk, die three times a day from hunger.…

But long before the world began to percieve this, the Jew, with his sharp intelligence, had sensed it himself. He then realized there were only two ways of expressing himself If his senses had still been fresh, he could have tried, in his bitter disillusionment, to make something better of his life.… But among his atrophied senses there remained vivid only the sixth one: an overly sharp intelligence which tended to laugh and jeer at the contradictions of the life he was leading.…

A sharply critical intelligence that hangs suspended over a dead body feels the agonies of life as though in a dream; they pass through the dust-covered sense and reach the mind like some distant flicker of lightning without thunder.… In Jewish wit one can hear the voice of self-contempt, of a people who have lost touch with the ebb and flow of life. In Jewish mockery one can hear … the sick despair of a people whose existence has become an endless array of contradictions, a permanent witticism.

Ferment and Enlightenment

The picture sketched here of east European Jewish life is necessarily a static one; the reality was of course full of internal conflict and change. Jewish life in east Europe, it can reasonably be said, had been stagnant for centuries, in the sense, first, that the rabbinate had maintained its power and become more rigid in outlook and, second, that the relationship of the shtetl to the Russian empire remained one of weakness and dependency. Yet there had been upheavals and convulsions too. In the seventeenth century the false messianism of Sabbatai Zevi had shaken the Jews in a paroxysm of antinomian desire, which the Yiddish writer Hayim Greenberg has described as “the absolute negation of the Galut [Diaspora] and all its manifestations, the revulsion against continued passive waiting for redemption, the stubborn refusal to be reconciled to the hobbled reality of Jewish life.” In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Hasidism, a movement of pietistic enthusiasm drawing upon the aspirations of plebeian Jews, swept across eastern Europe to brighten its spiritual life. And in the nineteenth century the Haskala, or Enlightenment, brought modern thought to at least the middle-class segments of the Jewish population. The greatest ferment came, however, in the last third of the nineteenth century. A phalanx of new political and cultural movements, all competing for intellectual hegemony in the Jewish world; a generation of thoughtful and, in some instances, distinguished intellectuals; an upsurge of the Jewish masses to social awareness, revolt, and self-education; the blossoming of a secular Yiddish literature which, at its very beginning, thrust out such major figures as Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz; above all, the widespread feeling in both the shtetl and city that Jewish culture had again come alive—all these were signs of renascence.

As long as the authority of the rabbis was supreme and east European Jewry remained self-sufficient in its religious life, a secular culture could not flourish. It could hardly be envisaged. But under the impact of the European Enlightenment, especially that of Germany; after the internal fissures produced by competing movements for Jewish revival, including some within the tradition itself, such as Musar, an effort at ethical purification within the limits of orthodoxy; through the appearance of such worldly movements as Zionism, socialism, and various blends of the two; in short, as a result of the confluence of these and other forces, the east European Jews turned to the idea of secular expression. Turned, one might say, with religious intensity to the idea of secular expression.

Through the last third of the nineteenth century and into our own time, first in eastern Europe and then in the immigrant centers of America, there came into being the culture of Yiddishkeit.* This is a period in which the opposing impulses of faith and skepticism stand poised, one fiercely opposed to the other yet both sharing a community of values. It is a period in which Jewish intellectuals find themselves torn by conflicting claims: those of the alien world, whether in the guise of accomplished cultures or revolutionary movements, and those of their native tradition, as it tugs upon their loyalties and hopes for renewal. It is a period of extreme restlessness, feverish collective dreaming, pretentious ideological effort. The sufferings of an oppressed people rub against and contribute to utopian expectation and secularized messianic fervor.

In the first decade of our century, the life of east European Jewry boils over with movements, parties, associations, many of them feeble and short-lived, but others—like socialism, Zionism, Yiddishism—soon to become major forces in Jewish public life. We make distinctions between religious and secular ideologies, and we are right to make them; but in the heated actuality of east European Jewish life the two had a way of becoming intertwined, with the imagery of religious aspiration finding a strange hospitality in secular speech. (The word herem, for instance, signifying in its religious context “excommunication,” comes to be employed by Jewish socialists to mean a boycott of employers.) Religious Jews reluctantly entering political life sometimes borrow the rhetoric of militancy from their secular opponents. Jewish socialists celebrate the rising proletariat of Warsaw and Lodz as a reincarnation of ancient Jewish heroism. Polemics grow fierce and differences of opinion acute; but from the vantage point of time, it seems clear that the energies of collective resurgence holding the Jews together were more important than the vocabularies of political sectarianism driving them apart.

There had been a considerable history in Jewish life of movements that came to the Yiddish language through expedient motives, usually a wish to reach the masses who could read nothing else, and then remained with the language out of love. Only Hasidism, arising from the depths of folk experience, had never shown condescension to Yiddish or supposed that God cared in which language men offered devotion. The maskilim (enlighteners) of the Haskala had at first looked down on Yiddish and had themselves often written it badly, with heavy admixtures of Hebrew and adulterations of German; yet they had been driven by necessity to employ Yiddish—otherwise how enlighten the unenlightened? The early Jewish socialists, as if to validate their revolutionary credentials, were hostile not merely to Yiddish as a language but to everything having to do with Jewish tradition. The major Jewish socialist movement, the Bund, at first showed little concern for the cultural resources of Yiddish, using the language only because it was the natural medium for speaking to the Jewish proletariat; but after a time the Bundists recognized that their task was not merely economic and political but cultural as well, so that despite their radical secularism they could not avoid an uneasy relationship to traditional Jewishness. For them, too, Yiddish became a language to be loved, the very marrow of their experience. By contrast Zionism, at least before it became a mass movement, was hostile both to traditional Jewish ways and to those who sought to build a lasting Jewish culture within the Diaspora.

Zionists [Lucy Dawidowicz remarks] chose to revolutionize their own Jewish society, to “normalize” the Jewish people, make it like all other peoples, and, above all, to repudiate Israel’s chosenness … they came to loathe the Jewish Diaspora, the good and bad without distinction: the inflexibility of religious tradition, the Yiddish language and its folk culture, the Jewish gift of accommodation and nonviolent resistance.… The philosophical concept of the negation of the galut became, among many Zionists, a negation of Jewish creativity in the Diaspora.

The spokesmen and artists of Yiddishkeit, while always aware of its precarious condition and trained to sharpen their gift for irony on the stones of this awareness, had nevertheless to assume that the survival of Yiddish culture was not in question. The cultural milieu they created was one in which all the competing tendencies of Jewish life were brought together under maximum pressure. That the centuries-long reign of the rabbis had been challenged with some success, to the point where the more vital rabbis began themselves to search for new modes of belief—this led to a release of intellectual energies. That this release nevertheless occurred under conditions both economically cramped and socially humiliating—this gave the work of the Yiddish writers an occasional touch of unreality and led to a suspicion that they were no more than scribbling luftmenshn who dealt in ideas without substance.

Today we know that the survival of Yiddish culture was very much in question. For insofar as the Yiddish intellectuals continued in the path of their own tradition, they could not open themselves sufficiently to the surrounding cultures of Europe and America, nor engage themselves sufficiently with the values of modernity to which they now and again aspired. Yet insofar as they accepted the secular cultures of their time, they risked the loss of historical identity, a rupture with that sacred past which could stir the skeptics almost as much as the believers. The culture of Yiddishkeit—at once deep-rooted and precarious, brilliant and short-breathed—had always to accept dilemma as the ground of its existence. It had always to accept the burden of being at home neither entirely with its past nor entirely with the surrounding nations. Out of its marginality it made a premise for humaneness.

One condition for the rise of a Yiddish culture was that to the rising young intelligentsia of Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna, and the numerous peripheral shtetlakh the traditional religious system should remain a powerful force yet seem more and more inadequate. The winds of the Enlightenment, sweeping across the airless streets of the Pale, promised secular freedom—but were not strong enough to bring it. The past remained vivid, even beautiful, to those who found themselves attacking it as obsolete, while the future enticed, almost against their will, those who declared themselves defenders of the past. You could denounce religion as superstition and worse, but the Yom Kippur service shook the heart, and the voices of the Talmud lured the mind. You could decry the secular writers as apostates and worse, but no one with a scrap of Yiddish could resist Mendele’s satires or Sholom Aleichem’s ironic monologues.

It was a condition of east European Jewish life that every idea emerging from it be brought to absolute extreme, even while—and no doubt because—few of its ideas could be realized in actuality. And while the thrust of historical energy that Yiddishkeit represented for the east European Jews would in the long run be exhausted in mid-twentieth-century America, the immigrant Jews of the East Side and other such settlements would for some decades continue to act upon the vision of an indigenous Yiddish culture, one retaining its ties with the national-religious past of the Jews yet dedicated to a humanitarian, perhaps even universalist present.

The rhetoric of this period seems at times a little overblown, a little grandiose, but deep down the Yiddish writers and intellectuals knew perfectly well how precarious their culture, their very existence, really was. Abraham Reisen, a Yiddish poet, once wrote a lovely little quatrain reflecting the dominant mood among his contemporaries:

My life I would compare

To a lamp with a bit of kerosene:

The lamp continues to flicker,

But it hasn’t the strength to flare.

At the center of this culture was a loving attachment to Yiddish as a language. In the east European milieu Yiddish had been treated as both spoiled darling and neglected stepchild; it had been loved for its pithiness and folk strength yet regarded as unworthy when compared with the sacred tongue of Hebrew or the learned one of German. Yiddish was the language that sprang first to a Jew’s lips, a language crackling with cleverness and turmoil, ironic to its bones; yet decades of struggle were required before the learned, somewhat modernized Jews could be convinced—some never would be—that this mere zhargon, this street tongue, this disheveled creature wearing the apron of the Jewish week, this harum-scarum of a language recklessly mixing up bits of German, Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Provençal, English, and God alone knows what, could become the vehicle of a literature through which Jewish life would regain its bearing.*

One ideology behind Yiddishkeit, never very elaborate, was developed in the 1890’s by the historian Simon Dubnow. He saw the Jewish people as a spiritual community held together by historical, cultural, and religious ties, despite the absence of a common homeland or territory, and he urged the Jews to struggle for cultural and religious autonomy in whichever country they happened to find themselves. In opposition to the Bundists, he stressed the unity of the Jewish people, and in opposition to the Zionists, he desired the preservation of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. The ultimate experience of Yiddish culture, as distinct from its momentary ideological tendencies, would in fact come close to Dubnow’s prescription:

perennial struggle for communal autonomy—autonomy of the cells that make up the body of the nation—in a form that is appropriate to the conditions of the time; a struggle for national education at home and in schools established for this purpose—education in the ancient national language and the vernacular languages developed in the Diaspora which unites the entire people or large sections of it; a struggle for the cultivation of all basic national possessions and their adaptation to universal culture without damaging their own individuality.

For Yiddish secular culture, all roads led to the home in Warsaw of I. L. Peretz, one of the founding figures of modern Yiddish literature. Peretz lacked the brilliance of Sholom Aleichem or the corrosive wit of Mendele Mokher Sforim, the two other masters of the literature; but insofar as the culture of Yiddishkeit took on intellectual coherence, Peretz stood at the center. He opened his house and his heart to the younger Yiddish writers and intellectuals, often the sons of rabbis and learned men, often themselves yeshiva bokhurim (religious students) in both physical and cultural flight from their youth. He was familiar with the thought of the West, for one strand of his creative self would always be cosmopolitan and skeptical. In a passionate little essay, “Hope and Fear,” he composed a remarkable warning that the gods of secular progress might fail, long before leading European writers would announce that their god had indeed failed. At the same time Peretz turned back lovingly to the half-buried cultural past of the east European Jews, discovering a treasure of legend in folk and Hasidic sources.

What Peretz did, remarked Jacob Glatstein, himself a major Yiddish poet, was to create “single-handed a Jewish nineteenth century.” By this phrase Glatstein meant that Peretz succeeded in yoking together the worldly culture of Europe with the religious traditions of the Jews, or, more precisely, that Peretz rediscovered and refined the Jewish tradition so that on its own it could enter the era of intellectual modernism that began in the nineteenth century. It was an achievement that signified the coming-of-age of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia in both eastern Europe and, soon enough, the United States.

The Start of Social Change

For several centuries the rabbis, intent upon preserving “the ancient Jewish faith,” had “served as an armor for the Jewish people in their struggle for national existence.” Not many rabbis would have acknowledged so mundane an end, but there is historical evidence that they did have some awareness of their distinctive social role. When, for example, Jewish reformers under Haskala influence proposed changes in the schooling of the young, the rabbis resisted such schemes on the grounds that even a partially secularized education would deprive Jewish youth of traditional ways of life without really enabling them to find a place in the gentile world. Motives apart, the rabbis were speaking to a reality.

Seen from a distance, the forms of Jewish family life in eastern Europe can be judged as harshly as the encrusted rabbinate, since both had been hobbled by an excess of ritual and regulation. Yet it was the ferocious loyalty of the Jews to the idea of the family as they knew it, the family both as locus of experience and as fulfillment of their obligation to perpetuate their line, that enabled them to survive. So too did the tradition of communal self-help and solidarity, soon to become one of the most powerful forces in secularized Jewish life. Often, it seems, the Jews aroused the anger of Russian authorities precisely because of the inner discipline with which they bore oppression.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the agencies of communal survival were visibly weakening. The rabbis had been seriously challenged; the family had begun to buckle under the weight of alien ideas and economic distress; and no communal solidarity could cope with the growing pauperization. All through the last third of the century, the economic situation of the east European Jews kept growing worse. In a four-year period, 1894–1898, the number of Jewish paupers increased by almost 30 percent. “In many communities,” writes the historian Salo Baron,

fully 50 percent of the Jewish population depended on charity, particularly during the Passover week.… In Russia, as in other countries going through the early stages of modern capitalism, the rich grew richer while the poor became more and more indigent.… It has been estimated that in many communities up to 40 percent of the entire Jewish population consisted of families of so-called luftmenshn, that is, persons without any particular skills, capital, or specific occupations.

All these troubles were further aggravated by the legal restrictions placed on Jewish residential and occupational rights.

The emancipation of the serfs had a damaging effect on those Jews, not large in number but still important in the Jewish economy, who had worked as agents of the nobility or as economic middlemen disposing of the peasants’ produce. Jewish petty officials and traders tended to be squeezed out, and as a result many rural Jews were compelled to seek employment in the cities.

Inevitably, as the shtetl began to empty a portion of its youth into the slums of Warsaw, Vilna, Lodz, Minsk, Bialystok, and other cities, the first blurred signs of a Jewish proletariat began to be seen—that proletariat Karl Kautsky would declare in 1901 to be “still more oppressed, exploited, and ill-treated than all others, a pariah among pariahs.” How terrible were the conditions of these Jewish workers, really more artisans than proletarians, can be glimpsed in a petition sent to the governor of Vilna province in 1892: “… work in the shop lasts from 7:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. or 12:00 P.M., and before holidays the employer makes us work all night.” A report submitted by the Bund to the International Socialist Congress of 1896 estimates that the average working day of a Jewish artisan was between fourteen and sixteen hours, with the pay as low as two to three rubles a week. If such conditions were everywhere characteristic of nascent capitalist economy, they had a special source in the Pale: a generalized poverty forcing upon small employers intensive exploitation of labor, as well as the technological backwardness of the handful of “Jewish industries.”

All through the 1880’s and 1890’s bitter strikes kept breaking out, often led by Bundists or Bundists-to-be and celebrated by them as evidence that the class struggle was deepening within the Jewish community. “In di gasn, tsu di masn” (“Into the streets, to the masses”), went a popular Vilna song of the 1890’s. Yet even as these strikes would occasionally bring some relief to Jewish workers, it soon became clear that their effect could only be marginal. Courageous and brilliant in strikes, the Jewish workers often lacked the discipline that comes from factory structure; they would allow their organizations to disintegrate in “normal” times, and only a tiny portion of them managed to elbow their way past the barriers of discrimination that kept them out of the larger and better-paying industries. Abraham Liessen, the Yiddish poet, acutely remarked that among the Jews the class struggle could be little more than “pauper against pauper.” In western Europe and in the great Russian factory centers, “workers struggle against capitalists who are very wealthy, while in our Jewish towns and cities the workers struggle against paupers like themselves.” Ber Borokhov, the left-Zionist theoretician who believed that a significant Jewish proletariat could be created only beyond the Pale, argued that the class struggle within the Jewish community was bankrupt from the very start, since the Jewish craft industries were in decline and their artisans becoming more and more obsolete. Even the Bund, committed as it was to political work within the Pale, had to recognize at least the partial validity of what Liessen, Borokhov, and others were saying. The Bundist leaders,

Kremer and Gozhanskii, conceded that … the socialists were operating under severe handicaps. Kremer admitted that since many Jewish artisans might in time become employers who could operate independently within their own shops, “a worker regards his situation as temporary and agrees to put up with a certain amount of sacrifice.” Gozhanskii even questioned whether one could hope to improve the living conditions of the Jewish artisan masses when, as he said, “some masters are so poverty-stricken that an increase in wages will force them to close down the shops.”

Yet by a final historical reckoning the nascent labor and socialist movements achieved something of great consequence for the Jews. In these early struggles there began to emerge a new social type who would become the carrier, and often the pride, of Yiddish culture: the self-educated worker-intellectual, still bearing the benchmarks of the Talmud Torah, forced to struggle into his maturity for those elements of learning that his grandsons would accept as their birthright, yet fired by a vision of a universal humanist culture and eager to absorb the words of Marx, Tolstoy, and the other masters of the nineteenth century. A certain Moses “the Binder”

read everything he could get his hands on. Yet in the course of time he developed a feeling for good books … he would read only those which enriched him spiritually, which satisfied his need to learn. He loved literature, and was especially interested in the classics. His favorites were works of the great satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin, and those of Turgenev and Tolstoy, Zola and Dickens.

A young artisan describes his socialist “teacher”:

I remember as if it were today with what a remarkable feeling of fear and awe I and other students sat on a wooden bench near a large brick oven that was hardly warm. Opposite us, at a table, sat a young man of twenty-seven or twenty-eight [Arkady Kremer, one of the founders of the Bund, whose lectures created the feeling that] a new soul had entered me.

The rise of early Jewish socialism was a key factor in stirring the masses of both city and shtetl to a new awareness of their condition, their possibilities, their unused powers. But insofar as objective conditions imposed severe limits upon social revolt within the Jewish community—for such revolt had always to face the feebleness of its victory, the bitterness of its handful of fruits—the very release of insurgent energies led to frustration and despair, sometimes to the abandonment of the Jewish world entirely. One labor militant, writing from Minsk, shrewdly remarked that “in fact we were only preparing socialists for America.” His point could have been generalized. Except for the religious and cultural movements, which by their nature were self-sufficient, all the new energies within the Jewish world of eastern Europe were doomed to failure. Neither communal growth nor political gradualism, neither socialist aggressiveness nor Zionist preparations could break, or break out of, the limits of the Pale. If nothing else, the cultural-political revival of these years made the Jews painfully aware of how intolerable their life remained.

Some of the younger Jewish radicals, convinced that the Bund was locked in parochial impotence, decided to join their Russian comrades to build a revolutionary movement that would encompass and then destroy the empire. This represented a personal solution that in relation to Jewishness was not very different from assimilation or conversion. Just as the distinguished orientalist Daniel Khwolson could explain his conversion by a witticism that won admiration even from those who despised him as an apostate—“Yes, I was convinced that it is better to be a Christian professor in Saint Petersburg than a Jewish melamed in a shtetl”—so the young Jewish intellectuals taking up the banners of populism and Marxism could declare that making the revolution among gentiles was better than leading petty strikes among Jewish brushmakers. But even as they tried to don the mask of racial anonymity, many young Jewish radicals met with rebuff. Lev Daitch, an early Marxist, would recall affecting the dress and speech of a muzhik to “go to the people.” One day a peasant asked him point-blank, “Are you not a zhid [Jew]?” and Daitch could only keep silent. Another Jewish socialist, Shalom Levin, would recall his difficulties, all too characteristic, in approaching gentile workers:

Someone would send along a bottle of “monopolke” [whisky]. They would pour it into tea glasses and drink it down like a glass of water. I had to drink along with them, otherwise I would not have been a “good brother.” I hoped that by becoming their “good brother” I would be able to make them class conscious. In the end neither of us achieved anything. They could not make me a drunkard, and I could not make them class conscious.

Still more troubling to at least some of the radical Jewish youth was the position taken by the populist groups, especially Narodnaya Volya, defending pogroms against Jews on the grounds that such outbursts expressed the legitimate resentments of the peasants against their exploiters. The dilemma in which the more sensitive Jewish revolutionists felt themselves has been described by Lev Daitch:

A revolutionary can indeed give no practical answer now to the Jewish question. What should he do, for instance, in Balta where they beat Jews? Take their part? This would mean … bringing down the wrath of the peasants on the revolutionaries: “Not enough they have murdered the Tsar but they also defend the zhids!” The revolutionaries thus find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: this is a simple cul-de-sac for both the Jews and the revolutionaries.

The Prospect of America

Had the persecution and poverty of the late nineteenth century occurred at a time of cultural stagnation or even stability, it would probably have led to the sort of internal convulsions that had previously broken out among the east European Jews: perhaps a new version of the orgiastic false messianism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, perhaps a new phase in the ecstatic pietism of Hasidism, perhaps some unforeseeable religious outburst. Had the cultural renewal of the east European Jews occurred in relatively “normal” circumstances, without the wounds of external assault and internal hunger, Yiddishkeit might have established itself as the stable culture of a minority people slowly undergoing that process of assimilation that would later occur in the United States. But what now uniquely characterized the east European Jews was the explosive mixture of mounting wretchedness and increasing hope, physical suffering and spiritual exaltation. And what was new in their experience was that for the first time they could suppose there was someplace else to go, a new world perceived as radically different from the one in which they lived. The spiraling energy, strength, hope, dream of the European Jews enabled many of their sons and daughters to make their escape to America, sometimes for mere personal relief, often with the wish for a fulfillment of those collective aspirations which had been nurtured but could not be realized in the old country. America, even as it drained millions of Jews from shtetl and city, helped the Jews of eastern Europe to survive and for intervals even flourish as a community. America was safety valve and haven, place for renewal and source of support.

Serious debates were bound to arise as to whether emigration should now become a communal policy. As early as 1882 a conference of “Jewish notables” met in Saint Petersburg to discuss this question. The majority of the delegates feared that mass emigration, officially encouraged by the Jewish community, would appear unpatriotic and might undermine the struggle for emancipation. Russky Evrei, a Russian-language weekly edited by Jews, wrote:

Pogroms are a result of rightlessness and when that has been obviated the attendant evils will vanish with it. By supporting mass emigration the Jews would be playing into the hands of their enemies, who hope they will flee from the field of battle.

The views of the minority at the Saint Petersburg conference were expressed by a delegate from Kiev, Max Mandelstam:

Either we get civil rights or we emigrate. Our human dignity is being tramped upon, our wives and daughters are being dishonored, we are looted and pillaged; either we get decent human rights or else let us go wherever our eyes may lead us.

Among the Jewish intellectuals of various persuasions there grew up the conviction that anti-Semitism, as they experienced it in Russia, was a disease beyond cure in the foreseeable future. Leon Pinsker, in a famous essay, declared Judeophobia to be

a form of demonopathy, with the difference that the Jewish ghost has become known to the whole race of mankind … and that it is not disembodied like other ghosts.… Judeophobia is a psychic disorder. As such it is hereditary and, as a disease transmitted for two thousand years, it is incurable.

No matter what the more Russified Jewish intelligentsia said by way of caution or how the handful of wealthy Jewish merchants hesitated, the masses made their own decision. Millions would soon tear themselves away from the land that held the dust of their ancestors; millions would leave the shtetlakh and cities in which they had built their life, their Houses of Study and burial societies, their wooden synagogues and paintless houses, their feeble economy and thriving culture. Obsolete artisans, socialist firebrands, bewildered wives, religious fanatics, virtuosos of the violin, illiterate butchers, scribblers of poetry, cobblers, students, luftmenshn—above all, the numberless ordinary Jews, the folksmasn for whom being a Jew was not an idea or a problem but the vibrant substance of their lives—now began to ready themselves. And not merely because their life in common was weak, but because as Jews they knew themselves to be strong.

* The Pale of Settlement comprised that area of czarist Russia in which the Jews were legally authorized to settle. The Pale covered an area of about 386,000 square miles, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. By 1897, slightly less than 4,900,000 Jews lived there, forming 94 percent of the total Jewish population of Russia and about 12 percent of the population of the area.

* In a lovely phrase, Maurice Samuel writes that for shtetl inhabitants, “the Bible was a daily newspaper.”

* Like other important terms in cultural discourse, Yiddishkeit has no single, agreed-upon meaning. No one has a monopoly on the term, and, naturally enough, different groupings of opinion within the Jewish world have used it in different ways. Yet there may be the possibility of some common, minimal usage.

As I use the term here, Yiddishkeit refers to that phase of Jewish history during the past two centuries which is marked by the prevalence of Yiddish as the language of the east European Jews and by the growth among them of a culture resting mainly on that language. The culture of Yiddishkeit is no longer strictly that of traditional Orthodoxy, yet it retains strong ties to the religious past. It takes on an increasingly secular character yet is by no means confined to the secularist elements among Yiddish-speaking Jews. It refers to a way of life, a shared experience, which goes beyond opinion or ideology.

* Today it seems almost impossible to imagine that there was a time when in both eastern Europe and America the lovers of Yiddish had to create a movement for its defense within the Jewish world. Calling themselves Yidishistn, they organized a conference in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1908, at which writers, intellectuals, and public figures came together to declare a programmatic adherence to Yiddish, not merely as a language meriting its quotient of respect and pedagogic rights but as the agent of a national-cultural idea.

CHAPTER TWO. Departure and Arrival

In the thirty-three years between the assassination of Alexander II and the outbreak of the First World War, approximately one third of the east European Jews left their homelands—a migration comparable in modern Jewish history only to the flight from the Spanish Inquisition. Some, with the blood of the pogroms barely dry, fled in fear for their lives; others chose to leave in organized groups searching for a new soil in which to replant Jewish life; most went for personal reasons, to ease lives that had become intolerable and release ambitions long suppressed. Yet, in its deepest significance, the migration of the east European Jews constituted a spontaneous and collective impulse, perhaps even decision, by a people that had come to recognize the need for new modes and possibilities of life.

Circumstances often made it unavoidable that the Jews flee from Russia, Poland, and Romania; circumstances sometimes made it convenient for them to leave; but the impetus and the desire were their own. They moved westward not only because life was hard under the czar, but because elements of strength had been forged in the Jewish communities and flashes of hope sent back by brothers who had already completed the journey. They moved westward because they clung to the dream of national fulfillment while hoping individually to gain some decencies of survival.

To separate, for any but analytical reasons, the most exalted motives for the migration from the most self-centered is probably a mistake. What Maldwyn Jones says in his history of immigration holds for the Jews quite as much as for other national groups: “The motives have been very similar from first to last: a mixture of yearnings for riches, for land, for change, for tranquility, for freedom, and for something not definable in words … a readiness to pull up stakes in order to seek a new life.”

Only a tiny minority undertook the journey with ideological intent. The national pioneers of Am Olam (Eternal People), marching off to the trains with Torah in one hand and Das Kapital in the other, neither expected nor desired that the masses of ordinary Jews follow in their footsteps; but these idealistic settlers were greatly admired among ordinary Jews, less for their vision of setting up agricultural communes than for their determination to break with shtetl lassitude. One Jewish immigrant, Dr. George Price, kept a diary during 1882, the year he left for America, and what he wrote can stand as representative of what millions felt:

Sympathy for Russia? How ironical it sounds! Am I not despised? Am I not urged to leave? Do I not hear the word zhid constantly? Can I even think that someone considers me a human being capable of thinking and feeling like others? Do I not rise daily with the fear lest the hungry mob attack me? … It is impossible … that a Jew should regret leaving Russia.

The other half of the story is told by Mary Antin, who came to the United States nine years after Price:

America was in everybody’s mouth. Businessmen talked of it over their accounts; the market women made up their quarrels that they might discuss it from stall to stall; people who had relatives in the famous land went around reading their letters for the enlightenment of less fortunate folk … children played at emigrating; old folks shook their sage heads over the evening fire, and prophesied no good for those who braved the terrors of the sea and the foreign goal beyond it; all talked of it, but scarcely anyone knew one true fact about this magic land.

There was strong resistance to the idea of migration. In the eighties and nineties it was the orthodox Jews who were most skeptical: they had little faith in any mundane solution to their problems and they foresaw that America would mean a weakening of the faith. “Where do you travel and wherefore do you travel?” wrote one of them. “You are heading for a corrupt and sinful land where the Sabbath is no Sabbath. Even on Yom Kippur they don’t fast. And for what purpose are you going there? So you can eat meat every day? … But their meat is treyf [unkosher]. No good Jew would touch such meat.” There were other, more personal reasons. Older Jews were often unprepared for the hazards of the journey; the small class of prosperous Jews had a stake in remaining where it was; letters from those who had emigrated sometimes painted a bleak picture of “the golden land”; and then, of course, there was that natural conservatism which causes human beings to cling to what they can for as long as they can.

The departure from Russia, Poland, Romania, and Austro-Hungary can be traced along four main routes:

1. Jews coming from the Ukraine and southern Russia would usually cross the Austro-Hungarian border illegally, travel by train to Vienna or Berlin, and regroup themselves for the journey to one of the major ports of embarkation: Hamburg and Bremen in Germany, Rotterdam and Amsterdam in Holland, and Antwerp in Belgium.

2. Jews emigrating from western or northwestern Russia would surreptitiously cross the German border and proceed to Berlin and then the northern ports.

3. Jews from the Austro-Hungarian empire would legally cross the German border, journey to Berlin, and there join with the mass of Jews from Russia to proceed to the ports.

4. Jews from Romania, whose mass migration first began in 1899, traveled mostly through Vienna, Frankfurt am Main, and then the Holland ports, though a few took the sea voyage from Trieste or Fiume.

These paths of migration were seldom direct. Theoretically, Jews from the Ukraine might have embarked from Odessa, going through the Black and Mediterranean seas to the Atlantic. Or they might have crossed the Romanian border, which was considerably closer to them than the Austrian town of Brody, where most of the Ukrainian Jews in fact gathered. The Jews of northern Russia might have gone from Libau, the Baltic port, rather than undertake the illegal and sometimes dangerous trip across the German border. In both north and south, however, the roundabout routes were used for quite sensible reasons. A sea journey from Odessa was rarely practical, since it meant a longer and costlier trip than would be involved in the combination of rail travel across Europe and embarkation from a north European port. More important, Brody was preferred to the Romanian border because the Romanian authorities were feared as particularly savage anti-Semites while the Austro-Hungarian empire seemed mildly benevolent. As for the north, Libau was for a few years a popular port of embarkation, more than 21,000 Jews sailing from there in 1904 alone; but the Russian passport required at Libau was not only expensive, it also raised the fear, especially among draft-age men, of becoming entangled with czarist authorities. By all accounts, it seemed safer to sneak across the Russo-German border, even if that meant the risk of theft and rough treatment. With systematic perversity, the czarist regime made it hard for Jews to get legal passports yet tolerated illegal border crossings.

The mass of Jews moving westward included thousands of refugees in direct flight from pogroms, a small number of would-be settlers intent upon creating “normal” modes of Jewish life through agricultural co-operatives (notably the Am Olam, or Eternal People, movement), and the masses of ordinary immigrants traveling as individuals or in family units. The refugees appeared as waves of victims first after the outrages of 1881–1882, then again in 1891, when Jews were driven out of Moscow and other Russian cities, and still again after the Kishinev massacre of 1903. (Another group came after the defeat of the 1905 Russian Revolution, though these were political rather than strictly Jewish refugees.) Of settlers with programs there were a mere handful, not a significant factor in the over-all migration. The mass of Jews leaving eastern Europe were simply the folksmasn in an upheaval at once desperate and purposeful, people determined to escape conditions of misery.

Crossing into Europe

The first major exodus began during the summer of 1881, when thousands of refugees, in flight from pogroms that had spread across the whole of the Ukraine, poured into Brody. Starving and homeless, sometimes forced to sleep on the streets, and treated far less well by the Austrian authorities than the legends about Franz-Josef had led them to expect, these refugees presented a problem not merely for the Jewish community of Brody, obviously unable to care for them, but for the entire Jewish population of Europe. Clinging to their acrid pride even in wretchedness, the east European Jews had harsh things to say about their more prosperous west European brothers. Yet the west European Jewish communities, through such agencies as the Baron de Hirsch Fund and the Alliance Israelite Universelle, did help. Their responses were inadequate and, given the scope of the migration from the east, could hardly be anything but inadequate. But relief poured into Brody, refugees were enabled to travel to Hamburg and Bremen, quarters were set up—often miserable, but set up—in the ports. In Paris a committee headed by Victor Hugo organized a public protest against the pogroms, and liberal newspapers undertook subscriptions to aid the refugees. The world, or at least a few decent portions of it, could still be moved by the sight of thousands of victims, perhaps because it had not yet become hardened to the sight of millions.

In the spring of 1882, after renewed pogroms in Russia, fresh streams of victims poured into Brody, which had now become a magnet for all the helpless who had heard of the relief and emigration depots in that town. During the early months of 1882, there were perhaps twenty thousand refugees clustered in Brody, which normally had a population of no more than fifteen thousand; and what had at first been envisaged as a limited relief operation by the Alliance now began to confront the Jews of Europe as the task of coping with a mass exodus. During the next few years permanent agencies, especially, after 1900, the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, were created to help the east Europeans on their way. In view of the strained relations that would continue for decades between German and east European Jews, it is only fair to record that the German Jews worked hard and often well in behalf of the thousands pouring in from the east. They established information bureaus to help the travelers; they negotiated special rates with railway companies and steamship lines; they set up precautions against the hordes of scoundrels, both Jewish and gentile, who tried to fleece the immigrants; they negotiated with governments to ease the journeys. In the peak decade of immigration, 1905–1914, some 700,000 east European Jews passed through Germany, and 210,000 of these were directly helped by the Hilfsverein. Mark Wischnitzer, a historian of immigration close to the institutions created by east European Jewish immigrants, acknowledges that “the German Jewish community always bore the brunt of the tidal wave of emigration from eastern Europe.” Before 1900 its work was inadequate: “Orderly migration requires a long and thorough preparation by experts in the field.… The voluntary committees of the 19th century, created ad hoc, were simply unable to perform this work.” Later, things improved—but the problem grew larger. Between 1901 and 1914 the number of Jews who left Europe, almost all of them from Russia, Romania, and Galicia, came to 1,602,441. A leader of the German effort to help the emigrant Jews, Dr. Paul Nathan, came to the conclusion that in the period of 1900–1903 90 percent of them “went forth each year on their own initiative and at their own risk.”

In the earlier years some efforts were made by the Alliance Israelite Universelle to repatriate the Russian Jews, or, more accurately, to persuade them to attempt repatriation. In late 1881, Charles Netter, an official of the Alliance who had been dispatched to Brody, wrote his home office in Paris: “The emigrants must be checked, otherwise we shall receive here all the beggars of the Russian empire.” Netter issued an appeal to the Jewish press in Russia saying that no new emigrants would be received in Brody, but, as the Alliance ruefully admitted, this met “with scant results.” It reveals the magnitude of feeling that had overcome the refugees that, no matter how wretched they were in Brody, they rejected the idea of returning to the land of the czars. In 1882 Netter wrote to his Paris headquarters: “They [the refugees] will get along with or without our help, as shown by the fact that they are already beginning to do so.” A group of Jewish emigrants sent the Alliance a touching declaration in October 1881: America, they said, “is the most civilized region, and offers the most guarantees of individual freedom, freedom of conscience, and security of all property … and endows every one of her inhabitants with both civil and political rights.” And when the Alliance, in response to heavy pressure from the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, proposed to send only males to New York, a group of refugees wired Paris: “Impossible accept. Spirits broken, hope lost. Even more unhappy than in Russia. Would rather starve than leave families.” Recognizing how stiff-necked these east European Jews could be, the Alliance gave up the idea of repatriation. Its efforts, through circulars and correspondence, to persuade the Russian Jews to remain where they were had about as much effect on them as, in the words of a Yiddish saying, “last year’s snow.”

“Strangely enough,” writes Wischnitzer, “American Jewry [in 1881], a quarter of a million strong, was at first indifferent, apathetic and unfriendly, to say the least” toward the prospect of hordes of immigrants from eastern Europe. Why “strangely enough”? The Jewish organizations in America had been set up by the German Jews; their life was reasonably comfortable, sometimes prosperous; what benefits could they foresee, what but certain embarrassment and probable burden, from a descent of thousands of penniless Jews whom they supposed to be steeped in medieval superstition when not possessed by wild radicalism?

During the 1870’s and 1880’s the general feeling in America was receptive to immigration, though the Jewish community tended to favor a mildly restrictionist approach. Myer S. Isaacs, a leader of the German Jews, reported to the Board of Delegates of American Israelites: “The dispatch of poor emigrants to America has long constituted a burden and unjust tax upon our large cities.… It is habitual with benevolent organizations in certain cities in Europe to dispatch utterly helpless Jewish families to America—only to become a burden upon our charities.”

The records, inner correspondence, and public statements of the American Jewish organizations all through the 1880’s bristle with anxieties concerning an influx of debilitated and pauperized east European Jews. All insist that only skilled workers, healthy and young, be encouraged to come. All plead that the American Jewish community, expected to take care of “its own,” lacks the resources to do so. All charge that the Jews of western Europe are not carrying a fair share of the costs.

If we are now inclined to regard such attitudes as unfeeling, we must remember that the security of the Jews already settled in the United States was neither long-standing nor well established. The depressions of the time had done damage to many Jewish businesses, and by the mid-1880’s there was already a sizable body of poor Jewish immigrants in the urban ghettos.

A statistical account of expenditures during those years lent some credence to the complaints that funds [among American Jews] were lacking. Although only a small proportion of the many thousands of newcomers who settled in New York City applied for aid to the United Hebrew Charities, from 1881 to 1889 that society expended over $500,000 annually for immigrant welfare. An additional $500,000 was spent each year for general relief. But the amount consigned for immigrant use … proved insufficient. Three-fourths of the needy immigrants looked for help to charitable institutions, but only one-tenth of those seeking such aid received any.… The relatively wealthy of New York’s established Jewry found it difficult to sustain an increase of 200,000 Jews in one decade, about 80,000 of whom arrived in New York City from 1885 to 1889.

That the Jews in America should respond at first with anxiety, even hostility, is therefore not at all surprising. What is remarkable is that the German Jews in America soon began systematically to help the immigrants; by 1891 Dr. Julius Goldman, representing the United Hebrew Charities at a conference of European Jewish societies, could say that, yes, America was the best destination for the Russian-Jewish refugees; and by the early 1900’s the German-Jewish leaders had not only organized effective relief in the larger American cities but also were engaged in a subterranean struggle against efforts to restrict immigration. Their sense of solidarity, their moderate but firm liberal principles, their growing ease in America—whatever the reason, they were now committed, especially through the work of such figures as Jacob Schiff and Louis Marshall, to supporting the masses of Jews pouring in from eastern Europe.

They came, these masses, in several mounting waves: first in the eighties from Russia, then at the turn of the century from Romania, and after 1905 from Russia again. The departure from Romania was especially dramatic. In 1878 the Treaty of Berlin, which Romania had signed with the European powers, had guaranteed Jews full civil and political rights, but venal Romanian governments had systematically violated this treaty, sometimes through decrees reducing thousands of Jews to pauperdom, such as one in 1884 that prohibited them from peddling in the cities. In 1899, when economic depression led to famine, a pogrom was organized in the city of Jassy by its police chief, violent denunciations of Jews were delivered in the parliament, and Jews were expelled from entire districts. There followed a remarkable episode in which Jews, acting through improvised committees, began to leave the country as fusgeyer (walkers, wayfarers) who tramped hundreds of miles across the country.

In towns and townships [writes Joseph Kissman, a historian of the Romanian Jews], bands of emigrants organized for the purpose of journeying on foot to Hamburg and thence to America.

The wayfarers of 1899 were different from the earlier emigrants. In the first place, the human material consisted not of poor, worn out, exhausted peddlers, but of young, healthy people, mostly artisans and workers.… The very manner in which these groups were organized testified to their idealism and youthful romanticism.…

The members sold all their belongings, saved their meager pennies, trained themselves in marching long distances, and strengthened their spirit of brotherhood. Some groups, before departing, went to the synagogue and took a solemn oath to share with one another their last morsel of bread.…

The fusgeyer established a “press” of their own. In these newspapers we find appeals for aid, articles in which they say farewell to their old home, and sometimes a bit of verse. Dozens of such papers came out, but apparently no more than one issue of each.… The authorities were surprised at the attitude of the non-Jewish peasantry toward the fusgeyer. Impoverished peasants stood on the dusty roads waiting for them and bringing water, bread, and milk.

One fusgeyer would later remember a contingent “in double file, clad in brown khaki, military leggings, and broad-brimmed canvas hats, each with an army knapsack on his back and a water-bottle slung jauntily over his shoulder.” Another, in a Yiddish reminiscence composed in old age, recalled the first contingent that set out from Barlad in April 1900, singing a recently composed “Song of the Fusgeyer”: “Geyt, yidelekh, in der vayter velt; in kanade vet ir ferdinen gelt.” (“Go, little Jews, into the wide world; in Canada you will earn a living.”) The group of seventy-five men and three girls set off from the center of town:

After the speeches, our captain gave a signal on his cornet, and our march began. The order of our ranks was the following: first the captain, then two men with flags, one the Romanian and the other the blue and white, and then we following, ordinary foot soldiers, four in a row, and finally a wagon with our baggage.… At the outskirts of the city we began saying farewell in earnest to our parents, sisters, and brothers. It was painful to wrench ourselves from the arms of our relatives.

Offering amateur theatricals as a way of raising funds, the Barlad fusgeyer met with fervent receptions in town after town; Jewish communities greeted them as pioneers, and ordinary Romanian folk were often friendly too. Our memoirist, honest to the bone, records that as his group was zigzagging to the Hungarian border, it discovered that one of its leaders had absconded with the funds it had painfully accumulated; but to avoid giving their Romanian enemies a chance to crow, they decided to hush up the incident, “bite our lips,” and sell the wagon for money with which to proceed.

In the thirty-four years between 1881 and the First World War, 75,043 Romanian Jews entered the United States, approximately 30 percent of the total Jewish population of Romania. An additional small number went to other countries. The fusgeyer were only the most exuberant strand of the Jewish emigration from Romania, those young people who wanted not merely to escape but to display their feelings while escaping. Though many of their expeditions disintegrated and they never came to more than a tiny percentage of the entire emigration, the fusgeyer help to sustain our contention that the departure of the east European Jews must be seen not merely as a sum of individual responses but also as a collective enterprise, not merely as a reaction to material need but also as a sign of moral yearning, not merely as a consequence of despair but also as a token of morale.

The Lure of America

“Even an imaginative American,” writes a Jewish memoirist, “must find it very hard to form anything like a just idea of the tremendous adventure involved in the act of immigration.” Tremendous adventure, yes, but only if that term comprehends a rich share of misery and trauma. The misery of journeying to America is by now a familiar story, but the trauma of undertaking the journey is often suppressed. The purposefulness of Am Olam, the bravado of the fusgeyer are exhilarating, but far more frequent were the wrenchings of personal ties, the tearing away of sons from distraught mothers and grim fathers. Young men eager to escape, but shaken by the thought of a lifelong separation, would cultivate a secret ally, mother against father or father against mother, appealing to hopes that both shared but one was readier to act upon than the other. “My father,” remembered Stanislaw Mozrowski, a Jew from Montenegro,

would not even let me talk to him about my hopes. My place, he said emphatically, was at home. Once in a while my mother would feel that he was in a good mood—wives can sense these things—and she would look at him, put her finger over her mouth as if to say, “don’t say anything, let me do the talking,” and start by remarking about something I had done well, and of course he would agree. Then she would begin to talk about my future. He would immediately stiffen, but sometimes she would continue until he would pound on the table and yell, “Silence! No more, do you hear?”

More characteristic, perhaps, was the experience of Marcus Ravage:

In the evening when we were alone together my mother would make me sit on her footstool, and while her deft fingers manipulated the knitting-needles she would gaze into my eyes as if she tried to absorb enough of me to last her for the coming months of absence. “You will write us, dear?” she kept asking continually. “And if I should die when you are gone, you will remember me in your prayers.” …

At the moment of departure, when the train drew into the station, she lost control of her feelings. As she embraced me for the last time her sobs became violent and father had to separate us. There was a despair in her way of clinging to me which I could not then understand. I understand it now. I never saw her again.

Trapped in the shtetl, seldom familiar with the experience or idea of travel, and sensing in their bones that, whatever the ultimate benefit, the immediate loss was certain to be irreparable, many of the fathers bitterly resisted the demands of their sons. The fathers were trapped. They could not make out a persuasive case for keeping their sons at home, to be drafted into the army or becoming herring salesmen at town fairs, but neither could they overcome their own sense of despair at the falling apart of their families. For who really knew what this America was like, and who could be sure that, with or without streets of gold, one could remain a Jew there? Let us not suppose for a moment that they were all naïve and narrow-minded, these stubborn Jewish fathers. “A person gone to America,” recalls Marcus Ravage, “was exactly like a person dead … the whole community turned out, and marched in slow time to the station, and wept loudly and copiously, and remembered the unfortunates in its prayer on the next Saturday.” If most communities were less demonstrative than Ravage’s Vaslui, all shared its underlying feeling.

Yet the inducements seemed overwhelming. Letters from America often vibrated with optimism, sometimes falsely so. The occasional emigrant who came back with the insignia of success—the others never came back—could not always keep from spreading misinformation, like the wonderful Couza, who returned to Marcus Ravage’s home town dressed in frock coat and silk hat, bringing gifts of razors, pen holders, and music boxes, donating 125 francs to the shul (synagogue), and telling everyone “there were many ways of getting rich in America. People paid, it seemed, even for voting.” (Later it turned out that poor Couza, with frock coat and silk hat, lived in a tenement on Attorney Street, and his wife took in piecework.) Steamship agents, spreading Yiddish leaflets, were shameless in their deceptions. Little brochures in Yiddish and Hebrew tempted the Jews with stories of riches and freedom. “I remember having read a book, Paris in America,” writes Gregory Weinstein, which “thrilled me with its description of the blessed life where all men were equal before the law, where manual labor was held in high esteem.”

Such Hebrew periodicals as Hamelits and Hatsfira, published in Saint Petersburg and Warsaw, were more cautious, reporting for instance that “there is no land which devours its lazy inhabitants and those not suited to physical labor like the land of America” and that the “lot of Jewish peddlers” was “toil of flesh and weariness of soul.” But even such publications, read in any case by a mere handful of Russian Jews, gave glowing pictures of American opportunity (as well as angrily reporting a banquet of the Hebrew Union College at which shrimp cocktails were served—food as treyf [unkosher] as treyf can be.) In these papers there regularly appeared a little advertisement, “Bank Wechsel und Passage Geschäft” (“Money Exchange and Steamship Passage Office”), which probably had more impact than any quantity of reporting. Even those who wrote soberly, like George Price in his booklet Yidn in amerika (1891), could not resist the enticements of myth: the journey across the Atlantic, he told people back home, was “a kind of hell that cleanses a man of his sins before coming to the land of Columbus.” If so, there would be no lack of opportunity for cleansing.

From Border to Port

For those without legal passports, the first major crisis along the journey was the border crossing into Austria or Germany. Bands of smugglers, increasingly expert, worked on the fears of the emigrants. The imagination of these Jews was stirred and disordered; removed from the small circle of space in which they had spent their lives, they became easy prey to rapacious peasants and heartless fellow Jews. Only when they came under the guidance of the German-Jewish organizations in Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen could they be shielded from sharpers and thieves. Abraham Cahan’s account of his 1882 crossing of the Austrian border is classic:

We were to leave the train at Dubno where we were to take a wagon through the region around Radzivil on our way to the Austrian border. That would be our last city in Russia; across the border was … Brody.

In the evening we followed two young Ukrainian peasants to a small, freshly plastered hut. One of the peasants was tall and barefooted and carried a small cask at his side. In Austria, there was no tax on brandy, so he smuggled it into Russia; on his return trip, he carried tobacco, more expensive in Austria, out of Russia.

We waited a long time in the hut before realizing we were being held for more money. Having paid, we moved on. We made a strange group going across fields and meadows in the night, halted suddenly every few minutes by the tall peasant holding up his finger and pausing to listen for God-knows-what disaster.…

We stumbled on endlessly. It seemed as if the border were miles away. Then the peasant straightened up and announced we were already well inside Austria.

Another emigrant, writing about himself in the third person, adds a touch of excitement:

The crowd was told that in the dead of night they would be permitted to slink across the border provided they paid for the privilege. This they had expected, but what they were not prepared for was the fording of a stream. They were also told to be very cautious, to make no noise, and get over as quietly as possible. Terror lent impetus to swift movement and Alter made a dash for the opposite bank. But to his dismay, the tin cup inside the coffee pot began to rattle. This would surely give the alarm to the guards who would not hesitate to shoot. There was no alternative.… He opened his bundle and threw away the can—his first step on the “downward path.”

Legal travelers stumbled upon other hurdles. The German authorities, fearful of plague during the 1880’s and 1890’s, conducted inspections—rigorous, impersonal, but worst of all, incomprehensible—of every trainload of emigrants:

In a great lonely field, opposite a solitary house within a large yard, our train pulled up at last, and a conductor … hurried us into the one large room.… Here a great many men and women, dressed in white, received us.…

Another scene of bewildering confusion, parents losing their children, and little ones crying … those white-clad Germans shouting commands, always accompanied with “Quick! Quick!”—the confused passengers obeying all orders like meek children.… Our things were taken away, our friends separated from us; a man came to inspect us, as if to ascertain our full value; strange-looking people driving us about like dumb animals … children we could not see crying in a way that suggested terrible things; ourselves driven into a little room where a great kettle was boiling on a little stove; our clothes taken off, our bodies rubbed with a slippery substance … a shower of warm water let down on us without warning … we see only a cloud of steam, and hear the women’s orders to dress ourselves—“Quick! Quick!” or else we’ll miss—something we can’t hear.

In Hamburg, more questioning, disinfecting, labeling, pushing, money taken, money stolen, and a strange imprisonment called quarantine:

Two weeks within high brick walls, several hundred of us herded in half a dozen compartments … sleeping in rows … with roll-calls morning and night … with never a sign of the free world beyond our barren windows … and in our ears the unfamiliar voice of the invisible ocean, which drew and repelled us at the same time.

But discomfort, hunger, humiliation, were as nothing to the one absolute fear gripping all emigrants: that one of their family might be sent back or kept off the boat after the dockside inspection.* In a sketch that comes from the very center of Jewish experience, Sholom Aleichem describes a family waiting in Antwerp:

People tell them that they should take a walk to the doctor. So they go to the doctor. The doctor examines them and finds they are all hale and hearty and can go to America, but she, Goldele, cannot go, because she has trachomas on her eyes. At first her family did not understand. Only later did they realize it. That meant they could all go to America but she, Goldele, would have to remain here, in Antwerp. So there begins a wailing, a weeping, a moaning. Three times her mama fainted. Her papa wanted to stay here, but he couldn’t. All the ship tickets would be lost. So they had to go off to America and leave her, Goldele, here until the trachomas would go away from her eyes.

Port cities were especially dangerous because there “a whole array of vocations existed to fleece the emigrant … keepers of hostels; railroad employees, ships’ officers and crews, and preeminently, ticket agents. Many of these dealers were Jews who spoke Yiddish, and exploited their victims’ trust in them. Stolen baggage, exorbitant lodging rates … tickets sold to the wrong destination by unscrupulous agents.” Con men, cheap-Jacks, sharpers, white slavers, thieves, money changers, thugs: a rich assortment of villains drawn from all races worked the ports of the north Atlantic. The Alter whom we encountered fording a stream at the Russian border would later become a prosperous businessman who frequently traveled in Europe, but he always refused to return to Hamburg:

This unsophisticated young man was the easy prey of all kinds of advisers.… They told him to stock up on herring and potatoes and bread for the ocean voyage, which he did. He also took the advice of some mean practical joker who told him that if he bought a bottle of whisky and drank the complete contents as soon as he got aboard, he would not be seasick. He did that too. He was not exactly seasick but dead drunk.… The voyage lasted seventeen days so he had plenty of time in which to recover.

Once the west European Jewish agencies started to supervise at least some of the land journey of the Russian emigrants, things became better.* The more spectacular cheating was stamped out. There were times when corporate good will thawed into warm generosity. One group of emigrants before the turn of the century was welcomed in Breslau “as though for a wedding feast. Rich ladies and gentlemen acted as waiters; even Jewish military officers waited on us. Physicians were also on hand … and it goes without saying that they were kept very busy, for is there a time when a Jew is not in need of a doctor?” With time the emigrants grew more worldly, learning from the experiences of those who had already gone and heeding the cautions of the Jewish organizations. And since it also became a custom for steamship tickets to be sent in advance by relatives in America, the emigrants could be cheated only in relatively small ways.

The expense of the journey from Romania or the Ukraine can be estimated with fair precision; what that expense signified is harder to say. In 1903 steerage from Bremen to New York was $33.50 and from Antwerp $34, though the rates were increased the following year. The cost of getting to one of the ports, together with the expense incurred while crossing borders and paying off officials, was perhaps half again as much. Somehow, vast numbers of Jews in eastern Europe scraped together the money, often by selling their last few possessions and arriving penniless in New York. If an emigrant wanted to bring his wife and children, he had to lay out what for him was a small fortune. Often it was necessary for husbands to go first and bring their families later. Some husbands never did bring their families later.

The Ordeal of Steerage

Was the Atlantic crossing really as dreadful as memoirists and legend have made it out to be? Was the food as rotten, the treatment as harsh, the steerage as sickening? One thing seems certain: to have asked such questions of a representative portion of Jews who came to America between 1881 and 1914 would have elicited stares of disbelief, suspicions as to motive, perhaps worse. The imagery of the journey as ordeal was deeply imprinted in the Jewish folk mind—admittedly, a mind with a rich training in the imagery of ordeal.

Of the hundreds of published and unpublished accounts Jewish immigrants have left us, the overwhelming bulk can still communicate a shudder of dismay when they recall the journey by sea and the disembarkation at Castle Garden or Ellis Island. Only a historian sophisticated to the point of foolishness would dismiss such accounts as mere tokens of folk bewilderment before the presence of technology, or of psychic disorientation following uprooting, journey, and resettlement. Tokens of bewilderment and disorientation there are, certainly, and these contributed to rhetorical exaggeration about the ordeal of the Atlantic crossing. But the suffering was real, it was persistent, and it has been thoroughly documented.

By the time they reached the Atlantic, many immigrants had been reduced to a state of helpless passivity, unable to make out what was happening to them or why. An acute description of this experience has been provided by Oscar Handlin:

The crossing involved a startling reversal of roles, a radical shift in attitudes. The qualities that were desirable in the good peasant [and, we might add, in nonpeasant Jews also] were not those conducive to success in the transition. Neighborliness, obedience, respect, and status were valueless among the masses that struggled for space on the way. They succeeded who put aside the old preconceptions, pushed in, and took care of themselves.… Thus uprooted, they found themselves in a prolonged state of crisis.…

As a result they reached their new homes exhausted—worn out physically by lack of rest, by poor food, by the constant strain of close, cramped quarters, worn out emotionally by the succession of new situations that had crowded in upon them. At the end was only the dead weariness of an excess of novel sensations.

Let us sample a few memoirists, of widely varying sensibilities, as they recall the Atlantic journey. Morris Raphael Cohen, a philosopher distinguished for acute skepticism, wrote:

We were huddled together in the steerage [of the ship Darmstadt] literally like cattle—my mother, my sister and I sleeping in the middle tier, people being above us and below us.… We could not eat the food of the ship, since it was not kosher. We only asked for hot water into which my mother used to put a little brandy and sugar to give it a taste. Towards the end of the [fourteen-day] trip when our bread was beginning to give out we applied to the ship’s steward for bread, but the kind he gave us was unbearably soggy.…

More than the physical hardships, my imagination was occupied with the terrors of ships colliding, especially when the fog horn blew its plaintive note.… One morning we saw a ship passing at what seemed to me a considerable distance, but our neighbor said that we were lucky, that at night we escaped a crash only by a hair’s breadth.

Here is a passage from an unpublished memoir by a barely literate woman writing in Yiddish more than fifty years after her arrival in 1891:

The sky was blue—the stars shining. But in my heart it was dark when I went up on the ship.… We rode three weeks on a freight train so I had plenty of time to think things over. My future … where am I going? to whom? what will I do? In Grodno I was at least someone in the store. But in America, without language, with only a bit of education.… Young people laughed and joked even though in my heart it was like the storm at sea.… And then a real storm broke out. The ship heaved and turned. People threw up, dishes fell, women screamed … but in my heart I didn’t care what happened.

And here is the voice of a self-educated immigrant whose sense of life’s indignities recalls the English novelist Smollett:

On board the ship we became utterly dejected. We were all herded together in a dark, filthy compartment in the steerage.… Wooden bunks had been put up in two tiers.… Seasickness broke out among us. Hundreds of people had vomiting fits, throwing up even their mother’s milk.… As all were crossing the ocean for the first time, they thought their end had come. The confusion of cries became unbearable.… I wanted to escape from that inferno but no sooner had I thrust my head forward from the lower bunk than someone above me vomited straight upon my head. I wiped the vomit away, dragged myself onto the deck, leaned against the railing and vomited my share into the sea, and lay down half-dead upon the deck.

In all such recollections, the force of trauma overcomes differences of personality and cultivation. Steerage could reduce people to a common misery, and insofar as it did, their reactions were likely to be the same whether they were illiterate or students of the Talmud. We may suspect that the shock of being uprooted led some memoirists to overstate, we may have ironic reservations about the Jewish appetite for remembered woe; but there is plenty of dispassionate evidence, ranging from government reports to acounts by journalists who themselves took the trip in steerage, that supports the dominant immigrant memory. Edward Steiner, an Iowa clergyman, wrote a book in 1906 called On the Trail of the Immigrant, sober in content yet full of passages like this one:

The steerage never changes, neither its location nor its furnishings. It lies over the stirring screws, sleeps to the staccato of trembling steel railings and hawsers. Narrow, steep and slippery stairways lead to it.

Crowds everywhere, ill smelling bunks, uninviting washrooms—this is steerage. The odors of scattered orange peelings, tobacco, garlic and disinfectants meeting but not blending. No lounge or chairs for comfort, and a continual babel of tongues—this is steerage.

The food, which is miserable, is dealt out of huge kettles into the dinner pails provided by the steamship company. When it is distributed, the stronger push and crowd.…

On many ships, even drinking water is grudgingly given, and on the steamship Staatendam … we had literally to steal water for the steerage from the second cabin, and that of course at night. On many journeys, particularly on the Fürst Bismarck … the bread was absolutely uneatable, and was thrown into the water by the irate emigrants.

By the turn of the century conditions had in some cases improved. The German lines offered a modified steerage on their newer ships, a sort of separate stateroom containing two to eight berths and with improved sanitary conditions. The lucky ones came on these ships, some of which, like the Kaiser Wilhelm, could now make the trip from Hamburg to New York in a bit less than six days. And even the gloomiest of accounts speak about the upsurge of hope and animal spirits among the younger immigrants: there was often music, cardplaying, even dancing when the weather eased and the decks could be used. Sometimes, the more ambitious younger emigrants brought along Russian-English dictionaries and tried to master a few words for the moment of their arrival. Above all there was talk: the Jewish immigrants’ burgeoning nostalgia for the old country and curiosity about the new.

A congressional committee investigating steerage conditions in 1910 offered an enormously detailed report which, in bureaucratic prose, substantiates the recollections of the immigrants themselves. In the old-type steerage, it reported, “filth and stench … added to inadequate means of ventilation,” creating an atmosphere that was “almost unendurable.… In many instances persons, after recovering from seasickness, continue to lie in their berths in a sort of stupor, due to breathing air whose oxygen has been mostly replaced by foul gases.” A woman investigator, disguising herself as a Bohemian peasant, gave vivid details:

… one wash room, about 7 by 9 feet, contained 10 faucets of cold salt water, 5 along either of its two walls, and as many basins.… This same basin served as a dishpan for greasy tins, as a laundry tub for soiled handkerchiefs and clothing, and as a basin for shampoos without receiving any special cleaning. It was the only receptacle to be found for use in the case of seasickness.

The toilets for women were six in number.… They baffle description as much as they did use. Each room or space was exceedingly narrow and short, and instead of a seat there was an open trough, in front of which was an iron step and back of it a sheet of iron slanting forward.… The toilets were filthy and difficult of use and were apparently not cleaned at all in the first few days.

… Everything was dirty, sticky and disagreeable to the touch. Every impression was offensive. Worse than this was the general air of immorality. For 15 hours each day I witnessed all around me this … indecent and forced mingling of men and women who were total strangers and often did not understand a word of the same language.

If a certain prissiness creeps into this report, a tone we will encounter even in the most warmhearted of native responses, it does not finally matter. For about a crucial moment of the immigrant experience, this investigator offered a good portion of the truth.

At Ellis Island

“The day of the emigrants’ arrival in New York was the nearest earthly likeness to the final Day of Judgment, when we have to prove our fitness to enter Heaven.” So remarked one of those admirable journalists who in the early 1900’s exposed themselves to the experience of the immigrants and came to share many of their feelings. No previous difficulties roused such overflowing anxiety, sometimes self-destructive panic, as the anticipated test of Ellis Island.* Nervous chatter, foolish rumors spread through each cluster of immigrants:

“There is Ellis Island!” shouted an immigrant who had already been in the United States and knew of its alien laws. The name acted like magic. Faces grew taut, eyes narrowed. There, in those red buildings, fate awaited them. Were they ready to enter? Or were they to be sent back?

“Only God knows,” shouted an elderly man, his withered hand gripping the railing.

Numbered and lettered before debarking, in groups corresponding to entries on the ship’s manifest, the immigrants are herded onto the Customs Wharf. “Quick! Run! Hurry!” shout officials in half a dozen languages.

On Ellis Island they pile into the massive hall that occupies the entire width of the building. They break into dozens of lines, divided by metal railings, where they file past the first doctor. Men whose breathing is heavy, women trying to hide a limp or deformity behind a large bundle—these are marked with chalk, for later inspection. Children over the age of two must walk by themselves, since it turns out that not all can. (A veteran inspector recalls: “Whenever a case aroused suspicion, the alien was set aside in a cage apart from the rest … and his coat lapel or shirt marked with colored chalk, the color indicating why he had been isolated.”) One out of five or six needs further medical checking—H chalked for heart, K for hernia, Sc for scalp, X for mental defects.

An interpreter asks each immigrant a question or two: can he respond with reasonable alertness? Is he dull-witted? A question also to each child: make sure he’s not deaf or dumb. A check for TB, regarded as “the Jewish disease.”

Then a sharp turn to the right, where the second doctor waits, a specialist in “contagious and loathsome diseases.” Leprosy? Venereal disease? Fauvus, “a contagious disease of the skin, especially of the scalp, due to a parasitic fungus, marked by the formation of yellow flattened scabs and baldness”?

Then to the third doctor, often feared the most. He

stands directly in the path of the immigrant, holding a little stick in his hand. By a quick movement and the force of his own compelling gaze, he catches the eyes of his subject and holds them. You will see the immigrant stop short, lift his head with a quick jerk, and open his eyes very wide. The inspector reaches with a swift movement, catches the eyelash with his thumb and finger, turns it back, and peers under it. If all is well, the immigrant is passed on.… Most of those detained by the physician are Jews.

The eye examination hurts a little. It terrifies the children. Nurses wait with towels and basins filled with disinfectant. They watch for trachoma, cause of more than half the medical detentions. It is a torment hard to understand, this first taste of America, with its poking of flesh and prying into private parts and mysterious chalking of clothes.*

Again into lines, this time according to nationality. They are led to stalls at which multilingual inspectors ask about character, anarchism, polygamy, insanity, crime, money, relatives, work. You have a job waiting? Who paid your passage? Anyone meeting you? Can you read and write? Ever in prison? Where’s your money?

For Jewish immigrants, especially during the years before agencies like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) could give them advice, these questions pose a dilemma: to be honest or to lie? Is it good to have money or not? Can you bribe these fellows, as back home, or is it a mistake to try? Some are so accustomed to bend and evade and slip a ruble into a waiting hand that they get themselves into trouble with needless lies. “Our Jews,” writes a Yiddish paper,

love to get tangled up with dishonest answers, so that the officials have no choice but to send them to the detention area. A Jew who had money in his pocket decided to lie and said he didn’t have a penny.… A woman with four children and pregnant with a fifth, said her husband had been in America fourteen years.… The HIAS man learned that her husband had recently arrived, but she thought fourteen years would make a better impression. The officials are sympathetic. They know the Jewish immigrants get “confused” and tell them to sit down and “remember.” Then they let them in.

Especially bewildering is the idea that if you say you have a job waiting for you in the United States, you are liable to deportation—because an 1885 law prohibits the importation of contract labor. But doesn’t it “look better” to say a job is waiting for you? No, the HIAS man patiently explains, it doesn’t. Still, how can you be sure he knows what he’s talking about? Just because he wears a little cap with those four letters embroidered on it?

Except when the flow of immigrants was simply beyond the staff’s capacity to handle it, the average person passed through Ellis Island in about a day. Ferries ran twenty-four hours a day between the island and both the Battery and points in New Jersey. As for the unfortunates detained for medical or other reasons, they usually had to stay at Ellis Island for one or two weeks. Boards of special inquiry, as many as four at a time, would sit in permanent session, taking up cases where questions had been raised as to the admissibility of an immigrant, and it was here, in the legal infighting and appeals to sentiment, that HIAS proved especially valuable.

The number of those detained at the island or sent back to Europe during a given period of time varied according to the immigration laws then in effect (see pp. 53–54) and, more important, according to the strictness with which they were enforced. It is a sad irony, though familiar to students of democratic politics, that under relatively lax administrations at Ellis Island, which sometimes allowed rough handling of immigrants and even closed an eye to corruption, immigrants had a better chance of getting past the inspectors than when the commissioner was a public-spirited Yankee intent upon literal adherence to the law.

Two strands of opinion concerning Ellis Island have come down to us, among both historians and the immigrant masses themselves: first, that the newcomers were needlessly subjected to bad treatment, and second, that most of the men who worked there were scrupulous and fair, though often overwhelmed by the magnitude of their task.

The standard defense of Ellis Island is offered by an influential historian of immigration, Henry Pratt Fairchild:

During the year 1907 five thousand was fixed as the maximum number of immigrants who could be examined at Ellis Island in one day; yet during the spring of that year more than fifteen thousand immigrants arrived at the port of New York in a single day.

As to the physical handling of the immigrants, this is [caused] by the need for haste.… The conditions of the voyage are not calculated to land the immigrant in an alert and clear-headed state. The bustle, confusion, rush and size of Ellis Island complete the work, and leave the average alien in a state of stupor.… He is in no condition to understand a carefully-worded explanation of what he must do, or why he must do it, even if the inspector had the time to give it. The one suggestion which is immediately comprehensible to him is a pull or a push; if this is not administered with actual violence, there is no unkindness in it.

Reasonable as it may seem, this analysis meshed Yankee elitism with a defense of the bureaucratic mind. Immigrants were disoriented by the time they reached Ellis Island, but they remained human beings with all the sensibilities of human beings; the problem of numbers was a real one, yet it was always better when interpreters offered a word of explanation than when they resorted to “a pull or a push.” Against the view expressed by Fairchild, we must weigh the massive testimony of the immigrants themselves, the equally large body of material gathered by congressional investigations, and such admissions, all the more telling because casual in intent, as that of Commissioner Corsi: “Our immigration officials have not always been as humane as they might have been.” The Ellis Island staff was often badly overworked, and day after day it had to put up with an atmosphere of fearful anxiety which required a certain deadening of response, if only by way of self-defense. But it is also true that many of the people who worked there were rather simple fellows who lacked the imagination to respect cultural styles radically different from their own.*

One interpreter who possessed that imagination richly was a young Italo-American named Fiorello La Guardia, later to become an insurgent mayor of New York. “I never managed during the years I worked there to become callous to the mental anguish, the disappointment and the despair I witnessed almost daily.… At best the work was an ordeal.” For those who cared to see, and those able to feel, there could finally be no other verdict.

A Work of Goodness

Whatever could be eased in the trauma of arrival, the Jewish community tried to ease. When the immigrants reached Ellis Island, they found waiting for them not only the authorities with their unnerving questions, but also the friendlier faces of HIAS representatives. HIAS is one of the few Jewish agencies that over the decades has been praised by almost every segment of the American Jewish world—no small feat in a community that has been notoriously contentious. It was also one of the first major institutions in America set up and administered by east European Jews on their own.

There had been Jewish immigrant aid societies as far back as the 1870’s. In 1881 the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (HEAS) was founded, and eight years later, the Hakhnosas Orkhim, a sheltering home for penniless immigrants. A makeshift group, the HEAS was utterly unprepared for the flood of immigration. In 1882 it sent east European Jews to farm colonies in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Colorado, but without sufficient training or funds; the colonies quickly collapsed. In October 1882 some four hundred immigrants housed by HEAS on Ward’s Island to await medical inspection rioted, charging, the New York Times reported, that they were being “brutally treated by HEAS officers, who fed them decayed food and beat both men and women on the least provocation.” The riot was quelled and the rioters placated, but the incident left a feeling of dismay on the East Side. Shadowed by these failures, HEAS dissolved in 1883. It took another nine years before HIAS, as it came to be known throughout the world, was formed in New York City, as the result of a meeting called in an East Side store by a landsmanshaft* anxious to provide burial for Jews who had died on Ellis Island.

One of the first things HIAS did was to station on the island a representative who could mediate between the immigration officials and the flow of incoming Jews. Between 1904 and 1909, when immigration came to a peak, this representative was Alexander Harkavy, whose name is still remembered as the compiler of a Yiddish-English dictionary. Both their ignorance of legal formalities and their language handicaps made it hard for immigrants to cope with Ellis Island officials; the presence of Harkavy and his successor, a shrewd lawyer named Irving Lipsitch, acted as a strong restraining hand upon authorities who might otherwise have been inclined to dispose of cases a shade too rapidly.

HIAS representatives were sent to the shipping lines of Britain and Germany to protest steerage conditions. The Hamburg-American line was pressured into posting Yiddish notices explaining its ship regulations. On shore, HIAS worked out a system of placing immigrants with their relatives—not as easy as it might seem, since the relatives often knew only a bit more about American ways than did the immigrants. And as soon as they were checked out at Ellis Island, the newcomers would be steered by HIAS agents past the numerous sharpers, some posing as pious Jews, who waited on shore. These swindlers would remain a constant disgrace to the East Side; in March 1912 HIAS reported that it was prosecuting Hyman Eskins and David Teffit for cheating immigrants.

All immigrants received at Ellis Island a Yiddish bulletin issued by HIAS, full of hardheaded advice—an English translation was issued in 1912 under the happy auspices of the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution:

The immigrant who needs assistance from [HIAS] agents should hold in his hand or have pinned upon his coat … the card of identification which has been given out by the ship’s doctor.… The agent will come to meet the immigrants and, when necessary, will act as their interpreter in the examination that is necessary before admission.

The immigrants who have been admitted, but have neither relatives nor friends to receive them, are taken by these same agents to the office of HIAS.… They will be accompanied, together with their baggage, either to their respective destinations in other parts of the city, or to the railway station to continue their journey. The agents who undertake this duty are entirely worthy of confidence, and their services are rendered without any charge whatever.…

The home of HIAS is open day and night.… Accommodations are provided for men, women and children. There is an interpreter for Oriental Jews.… Pen, ink and paper are supplied free, as are also newspapers. Immigrants may use this Society as a forwarding address for letters. There are excellent baths, always at the free disposal of guests.

HIAS also ran an employment bureau, which, said its First Annual Report, “was kept open every night, except Friday.” City editions of the papers would be rushed over from Park Row, and the staff would remain until morning, trying to match immigrant to want ad.

In 1908 HIAS began to issue a bilingual monthly, The Jewish Immigrant, mostly in Yiddish, which was circulated widely in Russia, providing reliable information on who could and could not be admitted in the United States. Alexander Harkavy conducted a homely Yiddish column explaining immigration laws and giving advice on proper behavior at Ellis Island. Such bits of help proved extremely valuable, since it gave the immigrants not merely practical guidance but a sense that there were friends and brothers waiting for them.*

By 1914 HIAS had grown from a modest welfare society with a budget of less than ten thousand dollars to an organization with a nationwide membership, offices in Washington, D.C., and a number of port cities, and affiliations throughout the world. During 1912 there were more than 150,000 callers at its information bureau at 229 East Broadway. New immigrants helped at its home that year numbered 14,992, of whom over 3,000 were given shelter. Its naturalization aid meetings were attended by nearly 12,000 at different periods during the year; Sabbath afternoon classes by 4,000 children; at times space had to be bought elsewhere to shelter the overflow of immigrants.

Gradually—and as an early indication of the ability of east European Jews to adapt themselves to the American political structure—HIAS learned to function as a pressure group working to beat back nativist and/or bureaucratic attempts to reduce the flow of immigration. When a committee of the New York State Legislature proposed in 1911 to deport aliens suffering from mental disorders, HIAS attorneys persuaded the committee that immigrants afflicted with such disorders within three years after their arrival should not be liable for deportation if it could be shown that their ailment had been caused by some event after they had reached American shores—which was virtually to remove the possibility of deportation on mental grounds. In 1913 HIAS fought hard against the Burnett bill, previously vetoed by President Taft, which would have required a literacy test for immigrants. Such campaigns brought the east European Jews who ran HIAS into effective alliance with the German Jews who had more experience and skill at lobbying. Superbly energetic and persistent,* HIAS learned to play the bureaucratic game at least as well as the government’s bureaucrats, maintaining with them an amiable relationship, yet prepared, when necessary, to fight their rulings.

In later years it became fashionable to sneer at the tendency of American Jews to create a bureaucratic plethora of organizations. No doubt there was a point to such criticism—but not with regard to HIAS. Thousands of sons and daughters, as also their sons and daughters, would find life a little easier, a little more comfortable because of the men who waited at Ellis Island with those blue caps on which the Yiddish letters for HIAS had been embroidered.

“Hordes” of Aliens

The sheer magnitude of immigration from Europe during the last third of the nineteenth century made it certain that old-stock Americans, even if favoring in principle an open door for aliens, would begin to feel uncomfortable. From the vantage point of distance, what seems remarkable is not the extent of antiforeign sentiment that swept the country but the fact that until the First World War it did not seriously impede the flow of immigration.

“We are the heirs of all time,” wrote Herman Melville in the 1840’s, “and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearth-stone in Eden.… The seed is sown, and the harvest must come.” Forty or fifty years after Melville wrote these classically patriotic lines, the “harvest” had turned sour for many Americans, both the fastidious patricians and embattled plebeians.

In the 1860’s and 1870’s, when cheap labor was needed by the railroads and both western and southern states were eager to absorb white settlers, American business interests sent special agents to Europe in order to attract immigrants. Popular sentiment remained attached to the notion that America was uniquely the land of refuge from tyranny and a country where fixed class lines gradually softened. Jews, to be sure, were already encountering social discrimination in the 1870’s, some of it due to a feeling that the recent immigrants from Germany, unlike their refined Sephardic cousins who had been here for a long time, were too “loud” and “pushy” in their social ascent. For the most part, however, there was not yet any large-scale articulation of anti-Semitic prejudice, if only because the Jews did not yet figure in the popular imagination as a major force in American life. Only during the last two decades of the century did the multiplication of aliens come to seem a national problem. Historians of immigration have distinguished, with rough usefulness, between “old” and “new” immigrants, the former mostly from northern and the latter from southern and eastern Europe. Close in cultural style to Protestant Americans, the “old” immigrants seemed more easily assimilable and thereby less threatening than the “new.” By the eighties and nineties the mass influx consisted largely of “new” immigrants, ill-educated and often illiterate peasants whose manner could unnerve native Americans. And most immigrant Jews were regarded as among the “new.”

Nativism as a movement taking the “immigrant hordes” as a target for attack began to make itself felt during the eighties; in its rudimentary forms it emerged as a xenophobia bristling with contempt for unfamiliar speech, dress, food, and values. Much of the hostility toward immigrants was stoked by the fear of radicalism which swept the country during the late eighties, partly as a result of the Haymarket Affair of 1886, in which six immigrants were sentenced to death after a bomb explosion at an anarchist rally in Chicago, and partly as a result of fierce labor struggles across the country, which could be attributed conveniently to foreign agitators. Second only to antiradicalism as a nativist motif was a virulent hatred of Catholicism. The Roman Church was feared as a vessel of medieval superstition, dripping with European decadence; and by the last years of the century public warnings began to be heard, not for the first or last time, that “they are taking over.”

It would be an error to suppose that anti-immigrant feelings were confined to a single social class or political outlook. Brahmins and rednecks, bourgeois and proletarians, reactionaries and populists—all joined the outcry against the intruders. The one constant was that the outbreak of a depression, something that occurred with distressing frequency during the eighties and nineties, meant both a drop in the number of immigrants and a rise in sentiment against them. These were hard years in American society: unsettled by the consequences of rapid industrialization and uncontrolled urbanization, tormented by incomprehensible economic collapses, haunted by the fear that the country, as it moved away from the age of the independent farmer, might come to take on the social bitterness of Europe. The “new” immigrants, helpless in urban slums, seemed to many native Americans both symptom and cause of a spreading social malaise. Could they be expected to honor the democratic outlook of the Founding Fathers? Would they not disdain the traditions of individualism on which the nation had thrived? Were they not hopelessly marred by ignorance, dependence, superstition? If so enlightened a public figure as Henry George could write in 1883, “What in a few years more, are we to do for a dumping-ground? Will it make our difficulty the less that our human garbage can vote?”—if so humane an intellectual could speak in this way, it need come as no surprise that mere editorialists and common folk began to look upon the alien “hordes” as a threat to their well-being.

Some liberal academicians joined the cry for restricting immigration, though with arguments more subtle than those of the newspapers or the streets. They saw the immigrant masses as a threat to democratic survival, their presence as making still harder the solution of already difficult social problems. As John Higham, the historian of nativism, has remarked:

It was not difficult for this early generation of urbanized reformers—full of dark forebodings and ill-experienced in realistic social analysis—to fix upon the immigrants as a major source of current disorders. Nor was it entirely unreasonable for men who feared a decline of opportunity and mobility to lose confidence in the process of assimilation. In discovering an immigrant problem, the social critics of the eighties might not indulge in the characteristically nativist assault on the newcomer as a foreign enemy of the American way of life.… But they raised the question of assimilation in a broadly significant way by connecting it with the issues of the day. They gave intellectual respectability to anti-immigrant feelings.

Other segments of the population joined the attack. Influential figures in the Brahmin elite of New England warned that the millions of immigrants were a threat to political controls and cultural authority; they feared, with reason, that an America bustling with foreigners would mean an end to their caste pre-eminence. In 1894 a small group of Bostonians formed the Immigration Restriction League, which proved to be a skillful propaganda agency for the campaign against aliens. Equally skillful in his own way was the Congregational clergyman Josiah Strong, who thundered against the massing of aliens in the cities, where they would spawn crime, immorality, radicalism, and Catholicism. The Republican party, protector of Anglo-Saxon respectability, served as the political home for the restrictionists, though in a while some of the party’s more sharp-eyed leaders noticed that votes of foreign-born citizens were every bit as good as those of natives. Even the reform movements that kept cropping up in the nineties—temperance, women’s rights, clean government—saw the immigrants as besotted and benighted.

For the unions, the problem was especially hard. Many native-born workers looked upon aliens as unfair competition, ready to work for wages that no respectable American would accept—and it would be foolish to deny that this complaint had some validity.* Unionists often saw the immigrants as a mass of potential strikebreakers, again with some validity. Jewish immigrants seldom came into direct conflict with unionized American workers, first because they usually worked in trades that had barely been touched by native unionism, and second because some of them brought over a tradition of class solidarity that would have made it seem shameful to become a scab. Yet during the eighties and nineties Jewish immigrants were occasionally tricked into brief service as strikebreakers—one immigrant who arrived in the early eighties, I. Kopeloff, has left a recollection of being taken directly from Castle Garden to the New York waterfront, put to work at heavy labor, and then suddenly pounced upon by an enraged mob. Only later did Kopeloff and his fellow immigrants discover they had been used to replace striking workers; they immediately left in indignation.

Some unions clung to sentiments of internationalism, and, more important, large segments of union membership were themselves foreign-born and therefore inclined to be unsympathetic to restrictionist agitation. The unions were largely responsible for the passage in 1885 of the Alien Contract Labor Law, which brought to a halt the practice of importing European labor under contract to work for wages below union scales. For a few years during the late eighties and early nineties, such union leaders as Samuel Gompers, himself a Jewish immigrant who had worked as a cigar maker in New York, tried to check the restrictionist wing in the AFL. Only during the mid-nineties, when the country was struck by a very harsh depression in which millions of workers found themselves jobless, did the unions come out in favor of restricting immigration.

Open Door—and Closed

All through the several decades between the early eighties and the First World War, a struggle took place in American society between the partisans of free immigration and the advocates of restriction. Partly to regulate but also to limit immigration, a series of acts was passed by Congress—though, more important from the standpoint of those who wished to enable the Jews to find refuge in the United States, most of the proposals for radically cutting down the number of immigrants were beaten back. Let us note, as pertinent to our story, a few of the acts that were passed:

1882—an act extending the category of “excluded classes” to include lunatics, idiots, and “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” This last clause would become a major cause of dispute between immigration authorities and HIAS, since the vagueness of its language opened the possibility for arbitrary rulings. The act also stipulated that aliens excluded upon arrival were to be returned to Europe at the expense of the shipowners—which meant that more stringent physical tests would now be given at the European ports.

1885—the Alien Contract Labor Law, already described, which did not seriously affect Jewish immigration.

1891—an act that added to the “excluded classes” paupers, polygamists, persons suffering from “a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease,” and persons whose tickets had been paid for by someone else, unless it was shown that they were not otherwise objectionable. The last two provisions, even if not malicious in intent, led to hardships for Jewish immigrants.

1891—the most comprehensive act yet passed on immigration, transferring entirely the inspection of immigrants from the states to the federal government, prohibiting the encouragement of immigration by advertisement, and extending the principle of deportation to “public charges.” This last provision led to some harassment of immigrants, as fearful stories spread among them about the danger of being sent back to Europe after a year in the United States if they could not support themselves. An unintended consequence, however, may have been strengthened arrangements in the Jewish community for self-help.

1903—an act tightening immigration and especially fulfilling the wish of President Theodore Roosevelt that “we should aim to exclude absolutely not only all persons who are known to be believers in anarchistic principles … but also all persons who are of a low moral tendency or of unsavory reputation.”

Irksome as such laws were from the point of view of the immigrants and their defenders, none constituted nearly so great a threat as the recurrent proposal that persons unable to read or write their own language be barred. Such a law would have been a severe blow to free immigration, and each time it was proposed in Congress, all the resources of the various ethnic communities had to be mobilized in opposition. By the turn of the century, these resources were considerable, for the foreign-language press had grown into a powerful institution, the economic strength of the immigrant communities had increased, and in a number of states immigrants had become citizens in sufficient numbers to swing crucial elections. Three times literacy proposals passed the Congress, three times they were vetoed by presidents—Cleveland in 1897, Taft in 1913, Wilson in 1915.

In the struggle against restrictionism, the German Jews developed notable skill at employing the kinds of quiet pressures that have played a crucial role in American politics. The single most effective publicist in behalf of free immigration was Louis Marshall, a brilliant lawyer of German-Jewish descent and for many years head of the American Jewish Committee. Though a formidable speaker ready to take on restrictionists in public debate, Marshall worked best behind the scenes, through well-argued and well-mannered appeals to public officials. He kept pointing out that illiteracy was not itself a ground for regarding an immigrant (or anyone else) as “undesirable” and that “men able, sometimes, to speak fluently five or six languages” may nevertheless be “degenerates, forgers, blackmailers.” Quite free of illusions as to the mental breadth of the politicians he wished to influence, Marshall was on occasion prepared to tap their antiradical prejudices—as in a 1907 letter to Governor Page of Vermont in which he remarked that “an educated immigrant is not ordinarily the most beneficial. The ranks of the anarchists and the violent socialists are recruited from the educated classes, frequently from among those who read and write several languages.”

The Jewish socialists, favoring mass pressure rather than private persuasion, were always dubious, often scornful of Marshall’s methods—though it must be admitted that their hostility was partly the result of a refusal to adapt themselves to the workings of American politics. On the level of expediency, Marshall understood the politics of America far better than they did. The best chance for maintaining a free flow of immigration, he felt, was to keep the issue out of the public arena; he had no wish to rouse the deep, almost unconscious sentiments which he knew to lie waiting in the most kindly of gentile souls. In 1905 he wrote to a friend,

I consider a public discussion of [the immigration] question at this time by any Jewish organization, an extremely unfortunate step. It serves to attract the attention of Congress and of the various labor unions, to the fact that we expect a large influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia. It is a subject which can only be handled with the greatest delicacy.

In sharpest contrast to Marshall’s tactics—indeed, as part of a prolonged debate within the Jewish community—was the approach of the labor and socialist groups that believed in public militancy and mass demonstrations. Some historians have suggested that in fact there occurred a tacit division between polite lobbyists and rude protesters; if so, neither would have admitted it.

In the spring and summer of 1909 the East Side was deeply shaken by a conflict between many of its leading spokesmen and the New York commissioner of immigration, William Williams. The commissioner had decreed that an immigrant would need twenty-five dollars in order to be admitted, a sum that for most arrivals from eastern Europe represented a small fortune quite beyond their ability to secure. Appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, Williams had introduced desirable reforms at Ellis Island, even posting signs reminding officials to be courteous to aliens. Intractable, public-spirited, honest, Williams believed in a “strict” interpretation of the immigration laws; privately, in correspondence with Roosevelt, he had expressed the view that “all below a certain physical and economic standard” should be excluded. Precisely his righteousness kept him from bending to humaneness—a rigidity not unknown among American reformers—and made him come to seem an enemy of the immigrants. HIAS agents found him much harder to deal with than his predecessors.

Directly after the edict requiring a twenty-five-dollar fee, the Jewish Daily Forward, by 1909 a considerable power in the East Side and even, for that matter, in New York, began a fierce campaign against Williams. Day after day it hammered at his cruelty, his prejudice; the support of leading liberals was enlisted; angry mass meetings were held. On July 7 the Forward printed a letter from one hundred immigrants detained at Ellis Island pleading that when breaking up their homes in Europe they had known nothing about the twenty-five-dollar requirement. “Most of the immigrants working in factories today,” thundered the Forward, “came to these shores without a penny. But they are the ones who have built up the palaces, machines, food and clothing which America enjoys. Williams’s new ruling has no common sense and no fair play.”

Surprised by this outcry, Williams retreated in part, saying that only “some” immigrants would be required to have twenty-five dollars; yet he continued to direct his staff toward a harsher series of examinations, and the result was a sharp increase in the number of immigrants sent back from Ellis Island. On July 14 the Forward reported that some of those detained had gone on a hunger strike, led by Alexander Rudenief, son of a Russian army doctor, who had made a flaming speech in the mess hall that the food “is suitable for hogs. We are treated like wild beasts. We sleep on a wet floor.” Continued the Forward reporter: “The officials were afraid that a revolution would break out and an inspector ran into the room with a revolver. The immigrants looked at him scornfully—it had not occurred to them to use violence.”

Secretary of Commerce and Labor Charles Nagel, himself a second-generation American, rushed to New York to investigate the scandal. “The twenty-five dollars is not important,” he said; “the immigrant must prove he is healthy and has a trade.” But again, the seeming reasonableness of this remark could be turned against the immigrants, many of whom, never in a position to learn a trade, had been forced to live by their wits. The Forward did not let up, even after the twenty-five-dollar provision was relaxed. On August 2 it reported that during the month of July 1,333 immigrants had been sent back from Ellis Island, twice the usual number. A month later it carried a report from its Russian correspondent, A. Litwin:

You can’t imagine the chaos that Williams’s twenty-five-dollar edict has created in the towns and villages of Russia. Thousands of emigrants on the eve of departure don’t know what to do. Those who had a few extra rubles, though not the entire fifty, decided to take a chance and embark … while cabling to their friends in America.

The Forward kept denouncing the treatment of immigrants at Ellis Island, and when Williams left his post a few years later, it ran a headline, “The Haman of Ellis Island Resigns.” But such victories were only temporary, perhaps illusory, since the basic trend in American politics was by now toward restricting immigration. A forty-volume congressional report issued in late 1910 prepared the way; the First World War brought immigration entirely to a stop; and by 1924, after a brief postwar rise in the number of European Jews accepted in the United States, restrictionism gained a seemingly permanent victory.

The Jews Who Came

The most difficult questions remain: who came? Which Jews? Rich or poor, city or shtetl, old or young, religious or secular? Are there verifiable distinctions of character, sensibility, opinion, and condition to be observed between those who remained and those who left? And were there differences between the kinds of Jews who came to America in the 1880’s and those who came in the first decade of the twentieth century?

Like most truly interesting historical questions, these do not lend themselves to convenient answers. Few statistics, and those usually inadequate, were kept among the east European Jews. (Many evaded legal registration in order to save their sons from the draft; others drifted about so much they were probably never counted.) In the United States, immigration statistics prior to 1899 were classified by country of nativity, not by race, religion, or nationality, so that with regard to the last two decades of the century students of Jewish immigration such as Samuel Joseph and Liebmann Hersch could do no more than work up estimates. Even the statistics for the years after 1899 do not provide answers to many questions one would like to ask—and in regard to the replies Jewish immigrants gave about their occupations, a decided skepticism is in order. (A portion of those innumerable “tailors” surely had less than expert acquaintance with needle and thread.)

The enormous memoir literature provides some clues, but not enough: the habit of sociological scrutiny was not yet strongly developed among east European Jews, nor were the necessary conditions of leisure and detachment available. Besides, to those who came to the United States the need for flight seemed so overwhelming that they rarely supposed their journey required elaborate explanation. The statements one finds in the memoir literature are persuasive through their very repetition.* We came because we were hungry; we came because we were persecuted; we came because life in Russia or Poland had grown insufferable. These are the answers one gets over and over again, and there is not the slightest reason to doubt them. But what they do not, perhaps cannot, explain is why some Jews acted on these urgent motives and others did not.

The statistics give some clues, not why people came but which people came. Between 1881 and 1914 close to two million Jews arrived in America, the overwhelming bulk of them either directly or indirectly from eastern Europe. A migration of such magnitude must have drawn upon all segments of the Jewish population, though in varying proportions at different points in time:

The Jewish migration was much more a movement of families than that of other European nationalities and groups.

That the Jewish movement is essentially a family movement is shown by the great proportion of females and children in it. From 1899 to 1910, out of a total immigration of 1,074,442 Jews, 607,822 or 56.6 percent were males, and 466,620 or 43.4 percent were females.

Between 1899 and 1910, 267,656 or practically one-fourth of all the Jewish immigrants were children under fourteen years.

For the entire period the percentage of females in the Jewish population was much higher than in the total immigration, 43.4 percent of the Jewish immigration being females as compared with 30.5 percent of the total.

The proportion of children under fourteen years of age was 24.8 percent, while that in the total immigration was only 12.3 percent.

The Jewish migration, like that of all other groups, was overwhelmingly a movement of young people.

Between 1899 and 1909 the percentage of Jewish immigrants in the age group fourteen to forty-four was 69.8, while that of every other immigrant group was decidedly higher, the Greek reaching 94.6. There is a plausible explanation for this difference. Because the Jews brought more young children, came as families (either all at once or in sequence), and also brought a somewhat higher percentage of older people, than most of the immigrant groups, the percentage of those between fourteen and forty-four had necessarily to be lower among them. Nevertheless, the immigration was, as it had to be, overwhelmingly a movement of young people.

The Jewish immigration was directed much more toward permanent settlement in the United States than was that of other European groups.

While only two thirds of the total number of immigrants to the United States in the years between 1908 and 1924 were to remain here permanently, 94.8 percent of the Jews remained permanently. In the crucial year of 1908, only 2 percent of the Jewish immigrants returned to the old country. Neither legal impediments, nor hardships upon arrival, nor recurrent depressions could drive the Jews back to Europe. A study of the immigration statistics shows that in the years directly after a depression the total number of immigrants declined but that the decline among Jewish immigrants was both slower and less precipitous.

The Jewish migration contained a higher proportion of skilled workers, many of them from urban or semiurban environments, than that of any other group; correspondingly, it contained a much smaller proportion of unskilled laborers.

Before the [First World] War one-fifth of all immigrants, but two-thirds of the Jews specifying occupation, were skilled laborers.… The percentage of Jews among the skilled laborers coming into the United States was three times as high as their proportion among all immigrants with occupations.

Of these skilled Jewish workers, clothing workers embraced 60 percent—or 40 percent of the entire Jewish immigration—in the years between 1899 and 1914.

… the Jews coming to the United States, 1899–1914, included about 80,000 workers on buildings and furnishing, 50,000 workers on machines and metals, and 40,000 workers in the food industry.

One can say, broadly, that out of three Jewish migrants specifying occupation, there is one luftmensh and one tailor.

If one does speak “broadly,” it ought to be suggested that some of those “tailors” and “building workers” were also luftmenshn who assigned themselves occupations in order to get past Ellis Island. And the category of “skilled laborer” employed by U.S. immigration authorities had only the haziest relevance to the Jewish workers who came over, since many of them were small craftsmen and artisans without industrial experience. Nevertheless, the statistics do indicate that the Jews coming to the United States had a considerably better preparation for urban life than did most of the other immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

We do not have statistics as to how many Jewish immigrants came directly from Russian and Polish cities and how many from the shtetl. But it is known that in the last two decades of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth century there was a large population movement out of the shtetl and into the Russian and Polish cities, so that many of the Jewish immigrants would have had a brief—though only brief—urban experience on the other side.

We may conclude that the Jewish immigration constituted, among other things, an extension or final step in the profound dislocation that was occurring in eastern European Jewish life—from shtetl to Russian or Polish city, and then to New York, as a series of steps in the breakup of a traditional society.

The Jewish migration changed in character between the 1880’s and the 1900’s, with a greater number of intellectuals, relatively educated persons, and skilled workers coming in the later period.

In part, this merely reflected changes in the social structure of the east European Jewish community during those years—the trend toward urbanization already mentioned. The proportion of teachers, rabbis, engineers, musicians, and physicians among the Jewish immigrants did not change radically in the years between 1899 and 1908, but the number of such persons did go up sharply (91 Jewish teachers in 1899, 269 in 1907; 197 “other professionals” in 1899, 1,045 in 1907). The character of the immigrant communities in New York and elsewhere was crucially affected.

Here is a statement by an ordinary Jewish immigrant who, still sharp-witted at the age of eighty-two, was interviewed in an old-age home:

I am a tailor and I was working piecework on Russian officers’ uniforms. I saved up a few dollars and figured the best thing was to go to the U.S.A. Those days everybody’s dream in the old country was to go to America. We heard people were free and we heard about better living. I was seventeen when I came in 1905. I was the first to leave from my family. My father didn’t want me to go … I figured, I have a trade, I have a chance more or less to see the world. I was young.

A few phrases ring out: “everybody’s dream … was to go to America” and “I have a chance more or less to see the world,” the first characteristic but the second not. Strictly speaking, not everyone did want to go to America, but as hyperbole, the statement touches upon a central truth.* As for “a chance more or less to see the world,” it is not the kind of phrase that appears frequently in Jewish memoirs, perhaps because their authors, by the time they came to write, did not look upon such a confession as weighty enough. But to read these memoirs extensively is to grow convinced that “adventure” did play a role—if not in the sense of Treasure Island, then in the sense of Kim: if not fun for the devil, then journey for a breakthrough. Even in those airless Talmud Torahs, even in those claustrophobic shtetlakh there were Jewish boys panting for a chance to get out and stretch their legs. A few may have resembled the youngster later to become Darwin Hecht, M.D., who began running away from home before he was ten and decided to leave for America at the age of eleven:

When Mother saw me copying the addresses she asked me where I was going this time. I told her I was going to America. To my surprise, she said, “Very well, you can go.” She looked over the addresses I had copied to make sure they were correct. The next day she assembled a few items, such as a change of underwear and some food, and tied it all in a large multi-colored handkerchief. She gave me 40 groshn [ten cents] and a post card with my home address on it, and she told me to mail it as soon as I crossed the Russian-German border. She took me to the railroad station, kissed me goodbye, and put me on the train with no railroad ticket, no ship ticket, no passport. She probably thought this would be another escapade and that I would be back home as usual, though what was really in her thoughts I will never know. Thus my venturesome journey to America began.

As he made his way across Europe, this Jewish Roderick Random hid under railroad seats, was arrested as a vagrant in Hamburg, smuggled himself under a woman’s skirt to get on board ship, and, that failing, clambered up the side of the ship to stow away. Discovered, he became the ship’s darling and told the captain a yarn about “going to look for my father who had deserted my mother.” Surely there were always a few such Jewish boys, unspoiled by their environment for the risks and pleasures of adventure.

At least for the 1880’s and 1890’s, if somewhat less so for the later years, there is truth in the remark of a Jewish historian that “the Jewish immigrants … constituted in great part the ‘dissenters,’ the poor and underprivileged, the unlearned and less learned, and those who were influenced by secularism.” This estimate conforms to the observation frequently made by Yiddish memoirists and historians that the immigrants of the 1880’s tended, socially speaking, to be the flotsam and jetsam of the old country, the luftmenshn without trades or roots driven to take a chance across the sea.

At some points, such as after the 1881 pogroms or the 1903 Kishinev massacre, there were large-scale movements of Jews from regions of eastern Europe that were closer in character to mass flights than to ordered migrations. When these occurred almost everyone left who could leave—though here too the sick and the old remained because they had no choice, while those who rejected immigration often clung to shattered homes and businesses. But in the years when conditions in Russia reached a measure of stability, people were able to make choices. Clearly, age was a decisive factor: the young were always a large portion of the immigrants, grown restive precisely through the stimulus created by the Yiddish cultural-political upsurge, or stirred to personal hope by reports from relatives already in America. In part, the Jewish migration was a function of the intellectual and spiritual turmoil within the Jewish community of eastern Europe; and some, if not the majority, of those who left would have wanted to get away even if there had been no hunger or persecution.

At least before 1905 Jews who held strong religious or political convictions were less likely to emigrate than those who did not. The socialists of the Bund believed they should stay in Russia and Poland in order to organize the Jewish working class; the Zionists, that America was a false hope, no more than the Diaspora aglitter, and that preparations for leaving should be directed toward the Holy Land; and the Orthodox Jews, that America was a jungle of worldliness in which the faith might be destroyed. Once the Russian Revolution of 1905 failed, some Bundists fled to avoid imprisonment; others concluded they had exhausted their possibilities in the old country, so they too joined the trek to America; but many Bundists remained, to rebuild their movement into the powerful force it would become during the twenties and thirties. The number of Orthodox Jews entering the migration also increased, not out of ideological decision but because the postrevolutionary reaction in Russia was deeply discouraging to Jewish life.

As for the vast majority of ordinary Jews, the folksmasn who responded more to the urgencies of their experience than to any fixed ideas, they had no “principled” reason whatever for remaining under the czar. Many stayed; there were ties of sentiment, family obligations, personal fears, all the elements of psyche and will that shape our lives. But by 1905 those who decided to leave the old world were no longer merely the displaced and declassed but increasingly the energetic, the vigorous, the ambitious. “The happy and powerful,” De Tocqueville has written, “do not go into exile.” Yes, but sometimes the aroused and determined do.

Most historians of the Jewish immigration have agreed that the social and cultural characteristics of the Jewish immigrants in the 1905–1914 period were notably different from those who came during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. By and large, the later immigrants brought with them a somewhat higher cultural level than those who had come twenty-five or thirty years earlier: first because there had occurred in the interim a resurgence of Jewish consciousness in eastern Europe (the Bund, Zionism, Yiddish literature, a range of political and religious movements), and second because important segments of the Jewish intelligentsia now felt that the time had come to leave. That some progress had meanwhile been made among the Jews in New York caused the journey to seem less fearful; an immigrant in 1905 was not quite the pioneer he would have been in 1882.

The point should not be exaggerated. Given the sheer magnitude of the migration, there were bound to be large numbers of ignorant or barely educated Jews arriving in any year between 1881 and 1914. And even in the 1880’s there were already the thin beginnings of a Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia in New York. By the turn of the century, however, such notable figures of Yiddish culture as Abraham Reisen, the poet, and Abraham Liessen, the poet and publicist, were coming to America, men who represented a distinctly higher level of cultural sophistication than the New York “sweatshop poets” of a few years earlier.

Finally, it would be a mistake to suppose that the regional, class, and social distinctions that can be applied to, say, the Italians who came to America will help very much in explaining the east European Jewish immigration. The Italians came from their own independent nation, in which they had developed a far more stratified and internally diverse society than had the Jews; and this fact was strongly reflected in the regional, class, and cultural character of the Italian immigration. Individual Italians might be in flight, but not the Italians as a people. Of the Jews, however, it can almost be said that a whole people was in flight. So cautious a historian of Jewish immigration as Liebmann Hersch makes this point:

On the average, of 1,000 Jews in the Russian Empire, 13 came annually [between 1899 and 1914] to the United States and 15.6 emigrated annually from Russia. This is one of the highest rates of emigration recorded in the history of modern migrations. As it is an average rate for a period of 16 years and as 95 percent of the emigrants remained abroad, we must go back to the great Irish emigration in the middle of the nineteenth century to find an exodus of equal magnitude.

It is best to turn back to the folk voices themselves. An unpublished Yiddish memoirist writes, “They pushed me into America”—“they” being all those forces of oppression he encountered in his youth. Another unpublished Yiddish memoirist recalls still more vividly, “A powerful storm-wind ripped us out of our place and carried us to America.” No one in the path of that “storm-wind” was left untouched.

* The increasing strictness of these inspections had a direct economic motive: steamship companies were required to take excluded immigrants back to Europe at their own expense. In a 1903 report, Henry Diedrich, the U.S. consul at Bremen, wrote:

“The large German steamship lines have had so much expense in returning emigrants from the United States who have been excluded under our laws that they have entered into an arrangement with the Prussian railway authorities under which the latter companies refuse transportation to persons from Austria and Russia who fail to meet certain requirements. Accordingly, Russian emigrants must have passports, steamer tickets to an American port, and a certain sum of money.… On the day before each departing steamer every one of these emigrants, who have already undergone the sifting process twice—on the border of their native country and again at Ruhleben—are most carefully inspected for the third time here under the supervision of the United States consul.”

* The magnitude of the problem is suggested by the fact that between 1882 and 1902 the number of emigrants departing from Bremen alone was 2,173,919. We do not know how many of these were Jewish, but even if we assume no more than a sizable minority, it becomes evident that the German Jewish agencies simply lacked the resources to handle such vast numbers.

* Ellis Island was opened as an immigration center in 1892, shortly after the federal government took over the supervision of incoming aliens. Until 1890 the matter had been in the hands of the states, and in New York, starting in 1855, immigrants were received at Castle Garden, a massive structure built in 1807 as a fort on a small island close to the west side of the Battery (later attached to it through landfill). During the early 1850’s Castle Garden had been used as a concert hall; Jenny Lind and Lola Montez performed there.

By the 1880’s it became clear that Castle Garden could not possibly take care of the thousands of immigrants arriving each week. In the late 1880’s several government investigations were held into conditions at Castle Garden, at which missionaries testified that immigrants were forced to sleep on hard floors, some were made to pay twice for shipment of their baggage, and others were cheated by moneychangers who hung about the Battery like leeches. One of the New York state commissioners testified that the Castle Garden operation was “a perfect farce.”

These scandals were compounded in regard to immigrants detained for medical examination, who were sent to Ward’s Island in the East River. Here, writes Edward Corsi, a commissioner of immigration for the New York district at a later time, “riots occurred frequently. Many immigrants escaped by swimming to the Manhattan shore [an exaggeration—I.H.], asking to be arrested and confined in the New York jails, rather than remain there with the insane and, as some charged, in a state of starvation. An investigation on one occasion revealed the startling fact that the bodies of dead immigrants were being used for purposes of dissection.”

* Years later a scrupulous British ambassador, A. C. Geddes, visited Ellis Island and reported back to his government. By 1922, when he wrote, the high point of immigration had been passed, yet conditions struck him as bad:

“The line of male immigrants approached the first medical officer with their trousers open. The doctor examined their external genitalia for signs of venereal infection. Next he examined inguinal canals for hernia. The doctor wore rubber gloves. I saw him ‘do’ nine or ten men. His gloves were not cleansed between cases. I saw one nice, clean-looking Irish boy examined immediately after a very unpleasant-looking individual … I saw the boy shudder. I did not wonder. The doctor’s rubber gloves were with hardly a second’s interval in contact with his private pans after having been soiled, in the surgical sense at least, by contact with those of the unpleasant-looking individual.”

* Nor were such limitations confined to the lower ranks of immigration officials. The Immigration Commission of 1910, created by Congress, published a Dictionary of Races or Peoples, which, together with elementary anthropological material, could announce that “the Jewish nose, and to a less degree other facial characteristics, are found well-nigh everywhere throughout the race, although the form of the head seems to have become quite the reverse of the Semitic type.… Taking all factors into account, and especially their type of civilization, the Jews of today are more truly European than Asiatic or Semitic.”

It would probably be a mistake to regard such passages as evidence of deliberate anti-Semitism; they indicate, however, that notions were afloat that hardly encouraged a warm-spirited response to alien peoples.

* An association of people who had emigrated from the same town or district.

* A piquant incident is described by Mark Wischnitzer:

“HIAS maintained the American Jewish tradition of nonsectarian philanthropy. A group of 54 Russian peasants landed in New York … in 1905. Having no relatives in the U.S. to act as guarantors, and lacking the $25 required in lieu of a guarantee, the men in the group were detained for deportation. Harkavy remonstrated with Commissioner Williams, pointing out that the Russians were hale and hearty farmers who were not likely to become public charges. When he was unsuccessful in his representations, Harkavy signed a guarantee for the men, who were then found lodgings at HIAS expense.… All of the men obtained work after a while, with the exception of one hospitalized in Philadelphia (HIAS met the bill of about $100).

“The peasants wrote home that no Russian representative had met them … but that a Jewish society had intervened in their behalf.… When it learned of this, the Russian government … offered the HIAS an annual subsidy of six thousand rubles for assistance to Russian subjects.

“John Bernstein [an early HIAS leader] recounted years later how the offer came up for discussion at a special meeting of the Board of Directors. Some favored accepting the money; others argued that since immigrants often left Russia illegally, there was a danger that the Russian government might try to get information about them from the Society. Then, too, Jewish public opinion would strongly oppose the acceptance of any subsidy from the Tsarist government. The offer was rejected on the grounds that the HIAS … did not wish to limit its independence by accepting government support.”

* An illustration of HIAS’s doggedness in fighting for the rights, sometimes more than the rights, of immigrants: In 1914 Joseph Aronoff, in the United States for a year and earning ten to twelve dollars a week, was notified that his wife and four children, who had arrived on the S.S. Königin Luise at Baltimore, were to be returned to Europe because two of the children, Rachel, ten, and Kazia, eight, had contracted tinea tonsurans (ringworm of scalp), a loathsome, contagious disease requiring an indefinite period to effect a cure. HIAS followed up this case for two years, arranging for prolonged and difficult treatment, warding off attempts by the authorities to declare the children incurable and thereby deportable. The family struggled to pay the hospital bills, enormous for the time; a private benefactor, one Mr. X, was recruited by HIAS to cover part of the cost; the children were cured and remained in America.

* “The tremendous immigration influx of 1882, followed by the industrial depression of 1883–1886, persuaded many wage-earners that the whole incoming stream directly threatened their livelihood. In New York City an Independent Labor Party petitioned Congress to impose a head tax of $100 on each entrant. Philadelphia saw the appearance of a National Home Labor League, aiming ‘to preserve the American labor market for American workingmen.’”

* In 1891 the Department of the Treasury sent two special commissioners, John B. Weber and Dr. Walter Kempster, to investigate the causes of emigration from Europe to the United States. They spent several months touring the major concentrations of Jewish settlement in Russia. Their conclusion seems classically precise: “Aside from a small proportion of Jews who look longingly and hopefully toward Palestine, next to their religion and their persistent eagerness for education, America is the present hope and goal of their ambition, toward which their gaze is directed as earnestly as that of their ancestors toward the promised land.”

* The Forward’s Russian correspondent, A. Litwin, wrote in 1909: “If they could afford it, half the Jewish workers in the big cities and all in the small towns would emigrate. They save up the hundred rubles for the ticket for years, adding a groschen to a groschen, going half-naked, borrowing and pawning.”

2. THE EAST SIDE

CHAPTER THREE. The Early Years, 1881–1900

Where was I to go? An awkward, unkempt, timid youth of sixteen, with the inevitable bundles, I dumbly inquired my way from the Battery to the slums.… The only vantage point I had was an address on the letter my uncle had given me to deliver to a friend of his. I showed this to an officer who sent me in the direction of the East Side. I probably could have done it without an address, for where else did immigrant Jews congregate?

It was a long walk, especially on a hot summer’s day … Orchard Street. The crush and the stench were enough to suffocate one: dirty children were playing in the street, and perspiring Jews were pushing carts and uttering wild shrieks. A far from pleasant first impression.… Was this the America we had sought? Or was it only, after all, a circle that we had traveled, with a Jewish ghetto at its beginning and its end … Division Street, Bayard Street, Canal Street, Allen, Ludlow, and Essex streets with their dark tenements, filthy sidewalks; saloons on nearly every corner; sinister red lights in the vestibules of many small frame houses—all these shattered my illusions of America and made me feel terribly homesick for the beautiful green hills of my native Vilna.…

In the late afternoon I walked along East Broadway. Old, white-bearded men sat on some of the stoops, and the skullcaps on their heads made me feel at home.…

On the way I encountered a familiar figure, one who was anathema in his home town. There I would have scorned even to notice him. It was Shmuel, the son of a horse thief, who had probably followed in his father’s footsteps. But here! What a joy it was to have Shmuel greet me effusively with “Why are you here? What crime did you commit?” He assumed that the only people that emigrated were those who had run afoul of the law and wished to avoid punishment.… At any rate, he proved a friend in need and directed me to the house where I was supposed to find a welcome. But alas, the man I expected to find was already on his way home—an American failure.…

The landlady, observing my dismay, invited me to partake of a cup of coffee with cake. I was amazed. Cake for breakfast! … My first full meal was an object lesson of much variety. There were several kinds of food, ready to eat, without cooking, from little tin cans that had printing all over them. Someone attempted to introduce me to a queer, slippery kind of fruit which he called “panana,” but I had to forgo it for the time being. After the meal I had better luck with a curious piece of furniture on runners, called a “rocking chair.” There were five of us newcomers in the room, and we found five different ways of getting into this American machine of perpetual motion.…

I was given the privilege of leaving my bundle while I went through the swarming streets to try to find work, as well as a place to sleep, since all the “corners” in the place I had just left were already leased.

The first English expression that struck my foreign ear as I walked through the ghetto that day and which I set down in my American vocabulary were “sharrap” (shut up) and “garrarrehere” (get out of here). It took me a little while to learn that the English tongue was not restricted to these two terms.…

A job was offered me on the waterfront as a laborer if I could get to work immediately. Since it was a Jewish holiday I could not accept. Then someone told me of a job in a grocery store. I had no idea what this was, but I rushed back to search for my diploma from the yeshiva. Finally I found the grocer and exhibited my credentials. The grocer handled it gingerly and remarked, “I guess you can chop wood all right without that.” Well, at least it didn’t prevent me from getting the job, for which I was to receive board and lodging.…

And while the bed linen wasn’t particularly white or clean (the sheets were decorated with little blood stains), we gladly surrendered ourselves to sleep and the American fleas, who were the first to enjoy our blood—until we went to work in the factories.

Loneliness, weariness, and, at last, night under the roof of a stranger who shared his home with me. Thus closed my first day in the United States.

This composite of recollections could be duplicated by hundreds of similar ones, for the experience of immigrants was so unsettling there was at first little possibility for variation of response. Only a bit later, after the opening weeks of panic, could they begin to look about them and take the measure of this new world.

The First Shock

In the early eighties the Jewish quarter was still small, with much of the East Side under the control of Irish and German immigrants.

A few Jewish families had moved into houses along East Broadway at Clinton and Montgomery Streets. Only a few years earlier this had been a purely native American section.… The number of Jewish families diminished as one moved away from East Broadway toward Henry to Madison, Monroe and finally to Cherry Street where there were no Jews at all. In the other direction, the Jewish quarter … extended north to Delancey Street.

East Broadway, in those days an imposing avenue with wide sidewalks and distinguished homes, was often called ulitza (the Russian word for street) because the Jewish intellectuals who made it their center felt it was more cultivated to speak Russian than Yiddish. By 1883 “we hear of great overcrowding in Essex and York Streets among Russian and Polish Jews. It was said that in one house of 16 apartments, of two rooms each, about 200 people were quartered.… On the East Side the Jews have pressed up through the [whole area] driving the Germans before them.”

Within a few years, the Lower East Side became the most densely populated area in the city. By 1890 it had 522 inhabitants per acre, by 1900 more than 700. The density of the Tenth Ward, reported the University Settlement Society shortly after the turn of the century, was greater than that of the worst sections of Bombay. And since many small shops were crammed into this area, the crowding by day was scarcely less extreme than by night. One of the worst spots was “the Pig Market,” as the Jews called it, on Hester near Ludlow, where everything but pig could be bought off pushcarts—peaches at a penny a quart, “damaged” eggs, eyeglasses for thirty-five cents, old coats for fifty cents—and where greenhorns would bunch up in the morning to wait for employers looking for cheap labor.

In 1890, within the small space bounded by the Bowery on the west, the river and its warehouses on the east, Houston on the north, and Monroe on the south, there were some two dozen Christian churches, a dozen synagogues (most Jewish congregations were storefronts or in tenements), about fifty factories and shops (exclusive of garment establishments, most of which were west of the Bowery or hidden away in cellars and flats), ten large public buildings, twenty public and parochial schools—and one tiny park, on Grand and East Broadway. Gangs of German boys pressed down from the north, Irish from the south. A dominant impression of the Jewish quarter, shared by immigrants and visitors alike, was of fierce congestion, a place in which the bodily pressures of other people, their motions and smells and noises, seemed always to be assaulting one. Of space for privacy and solitude there was none.

“Curse you, emigration,” cried Abraham Cahan in a letter written for a Russian newspaper in 1882. “Accursed are the conditions that have brought you forth! How many lives have you broken, how many brave and mighty have you rubbed out like dust!” Such sentiments were not at all unusual in the eighties and nineties. Coming to America with inflamed hopes, some of the immigrants became demoralized and others permanently undone. Not only was their physical situation wretched—that, after all, they had long been accustomed to. Far worse was the spiritual confusion that enclosed their lives.

No controlling norms or institutions, neither rabbinical nor communal, could now be accepted as once they had been; no myths of tradition or even slogans of revolt. Those who wanted to remain faithful to traditional Judaism—and in these years many did—had now to make a special effort. Pressures of the city, the shop, the slum, all made it terribly hard to stay with the old religious ethic. The styles and rituals of traditional Judaism had been premised on a time scheme far more leisurely, a life far less harried than urban America demanded. As for the new ethic of materialist individualism, what could this mean to a garment worker who spent sixty hours a week in a sweatshop, physically present in America yet barely touched by its language, its traditions, its privileges? Those immigrants who stood fast by religion found whatever solace it could offer, those who turned to secularism gained the consolations of new theory. But the masses of immigrants, who rarely thought to call religion into question yet found it harder and harder to regard it as a system illuminating the totality of existence—what was left to them? Fragments of a culture, a parochialism bred by centuries of isolation, and a heritage of fear, withdrawal, insularity. Except for those who clung to faith or grappled toward ideology, the early immigrants consisted of people who were stranded—stranded socially, morally, psychologically. That all this was happening at the very time Jewish life in eastern Europe had begun to experience a secular renewal did not change things very much. Few immigrants in America had a close knowledge of the east European renewal; it was too far away to brighten or sustain their lives. All they could bring to their experience in America—and after the first shattering years, it would prove to be a great deal—was that shared tenacity with which Jews had always clung to life.

“A Gray, Stone World”

Over the centuries they had accumulated a rich experience in living as a minority within a hostile culture.

The need to adjust to conditions of life in a strange country first became a problem for other groups only in America; but for Jews it was a problem they had had to face for many centuries. Others came to their new country with one culture; the Jews came with two, and frequently more than two, cultures. One culture they carried deep within themselves, within their spiritual and psychic being. The other they bore upon themselves, like an outer garment.

Given this training in the strategies of the pariah, the Jews were “able [in America] to skip the whole period of accustoming themselves to minority status which demanded so much energy … from other groups.”

True enough for the Jewish immigrant experience as a whole, this observation needs qualification in regard to the eighties and nineties. For the Jews who came during these years often were not able to carry “deep within themselves” the heritage of their past; many were so shaken by the ordeal of flight and arrival that for a time they seemed all but culturally dispossessed. It would take at least a quarter of a century before they could regain the culture they had left behind. As the Yiddish writer B. Rivkin has observed: “The first immigrant generation … were Jews without Jewish memories or traditions.… They shook them off in the boat when they came across the seas. They emptied out their memories. If you would speak with disrespect, they were no more than a mob. If you would speak with respect, they were a vigorous people.”

Lost in the cities of America, the immigrant Jews succumbed to waves of nostalgia for the old world. “I am overcome with longing,” wrote an early immigrant, “not only for my Jewish world, which I have lost, but also for Russia.” Both the handful of intellectuals and the unlettered masses were now inclined to re-create the life of the old country in their imaginations, so that with time, distance and suffering, the past they had fled took on an attractive glow, coming to seem a way of rightness and order. Not that they forgot the pogroms, not that they forgot the poverty, but that they remembered with growing fondness the innner decorums of shtetl life. Desperation induced homesickness, and homesickness coursed through their days like a ribbon of sadness. In Russia “there is more poetry, more music, more feeling, even if our people do suffer appalling persecution.… One enjoys life in Russia better than here.… There is too much materialism here, too much hurry and too much prose—and yes, too much machinery.” Even in the work of so sophisticated a Yiddish poet as Moshe Leib Halpern, who began to write after the turn of the century, dissatisfaction with the new world becomes so obsessive that he “forgets that his place of birth was very far indeed from being a paradise.” “On strange earth I wander as a stranger,” wrote Halpern about America, “while strangeness stares at me from every eye.”

Yet, for all their homesickness and desperation, the early immigrants chose overwhelmingly to remain in America. We have no reliable statistics concerning re-emigration during the late nineteenth century, but we do know that in the first decade of the twentieth century the Jews had the second lowest rate of return among all immigrant groups. The Yiddish historian Elias Tcherikower estimates that in 1882 re-emigration came to 29 percent; “more than 3,000 Russian-Jewish immigrants were returned to Europe through the United Hebrew Charities. Later the rate of reemigration declined. But in 1886–87 there was a depression in the United States—and in 1888 an increase in the rate of re-emigration among the Russian Jews.” For the vast majority, however, there seemed no choice: neither suffering nor nostalgia could induce them to go back to the country of the czars. They gritted their teeth; they called upon those reserves of stoicism which form so essential a part of Yiddishkeit; they settled down, often with savage self-denial, to the task of survival.

The Lower East Side of the nineties, said the Yiddish writer Leon Kobrin, was

a gray, stone world of tall tenements, where even on the loveliest spring day there was not a blade of grass. The streets are enveloped in an undefinable atmosphere, which reflects the unique light, or shadow, of its Jewish inhabitants. The air itself seems to have absorbed the unique Jewish sorrow and pain, an emanation of its thousands of years of exile. The sun, gray and depressed; the men and women clustered around the pushcarts; the gray walls of the tenements—all looks sad.

It was as if the whole immigrant community, stunned by the ordeal of the sweatshop, tense before the hostilities of surrounding ethnic communities, irritated by the condescension of the prosperous German Jews, were reeling from the shock of adaptation.

The new and alien people who came across the sea to this unimaginable city [wrote the Yiddish novelist David Ignatow] felt themselves caught up in a terrible storm that would soon tear them limb from limb. Buses and trolleys rushed through the streets with devilish force. Waves of people pounded the streets, their faces like foam. The immigrants came to feel a sense of fright before the weight of these massed streets. It was all wild, all inconceivable.

All wild, all inconceivable: the way people walked, the rhythms of the streets, the division of the day into strict units of time, the disposal of waste, the relations among members of the family, the exchange of goods and money. One early immigrant, I. Benequit, remembered that the first time his mother went shopping for food in New York, at a grocery store on Essex Street, “she brought back twenty pounds of black bread and several white hallas [white bread used for the Sabbath],” thinking that as in Europe you had to lay in a supply for the whole week. “As a result, fifteen pounds of the bread got moldy and had to be discarded.” A larger confusion occurred when the Baron de Hirsch Fund made an informal census of the Lower East Side in 1890. “The Jewish neighborhood was excited … paupers began to build castles in the air. It was rumored that the Baron had to know how many immigrants there were in New York because he planned to give $100 to each person and, according to another source, $500.”

These were innocent confusions resulting from the pain and absurdity of adapting to a new life. Other confusions were due to the force of social memory as it led the immigrants to misconstrue what was happening about them. All through the nineties they were subjected to a campaign of proselytizing by Christian missionaries who set up headquarters and held rallies on the East Side. The likelihood of conversion being what it was, this could hardly be considered a serious problem, yet the immigrants reacted to it with rage, even violence. Missionary soapboxing fanned memories of forced conversions in Russia, and it seemed, on top of all the other burdens of America, a gratuitous provocation. One of the first missionaries to appear, during the late eighties, was the Reverend Jacob Freshman, a meshumed, or convert from Judaism, fairly benevolent and totally ineffectual. More flamboyant was Hermann Warszawiak, son of a Polish rabbi, who used his oratorical gifts to capture the imagination and tap the funds of old-family Protestants. Warszawiak was cordially hated in the Jewish streets, the Yiddish press frequently sneering that his converts were mere flotsam bought off by petty bribes. Something of a confidence man, Warszawiak built models for a large structure, “Christ’s Synagogue and Jewish Missionary Training School,” for which he kept collecting money; the building itself he never began. Least bearable of these missionaries was Wilson Dunlop, a gentile paralytic, who spoke in the late nineties from a large wagon on Orchard and Rivington streets. Dunlop’s preaching carried a streak of fanaticism which his listeners were quick to catch out, and while he himself was never hurt, his followers were frequently roughhoused.

Nor was it only the street Jews who reacted so violently to the missionaries. The banker Jacob Schiff, a refined Jewish gentleman who mingled easily with Christian gentlemen, privately subsidized Adolph Benjamin, a one-man crusader who kept a merciless check on the finances and morals of the missionaries. The Christian agencies supporting these missions failed to realize how deeply they offended the feelings of immigrant Jews—or perhaps, with the arrogance of wealth and place, they did not care. As late as 1899 the Forward printed a scare story, based on no visible evidence, that “doctors are revealing the fact that parents bring in children with a cross scratched or burned on their arms. Missionaries lure the children to their building with sweets or pennies and then scratch the cross.” Only with time did the East Side learn to brush aside, or ignore, or even find amusement in the clamor of the missionaries.

A New Tempo, a New Way

During these early years, the nerves of the immigrant community were constantly exacerbated, frequently to breaking point. What might seem the most trivial problems signaled a need for major adjustments. A common theme in immigrant memoirs is the way family life suffered disruption because wives, daughters, husbands, and sons went to work at different times of the day, making it impossible for members of a family to eat together. Generalizing about such matters, Hillel Rogoff, later an editor of the Forward, remarked:

Physical exhaustion was aggravated [during the eighties and nineties] by moral and spiritual anguish.… The safe old moorings of Jewish family life loosened, the privacy of the home was invaded and its sanctity frequently profaned by boarders, the minds of the children were often poisoned against their parents by the ridicule of the gutter.

The tempo of life in America, its “intensity and hurry,” struck Morris Raphael Cohen as one of the major forces shattering traditional Jewish decorum. “At six o’clock in the morning,” remembered Cohen, “the alarm would wake us all up.” His mother would prepare breakfast, his father say the morning prayers after snatching a bit of food, and then both father and older brother leave so as to be in the shop by seven. Alarm clocks were simple, even useful objects, yet they signified an entirely new world outlook. Once, continued Cohen,

I had occasion to visit my father’s shop, and I was impressed with the tremendous drive which infiltrated and animated the entire establishment—nothing like the leisurely air in Minsk where my Uncle Abraham had worked and where the men would sing occasionally. Sometimes my father and another presser would start a competitive drive to see who could press the largest number of jackets during the day.

For immigrants who remained Orthodox in religious belief and custom, these early years were especially hard. Their expectations of status collapsed in mockery, their sense of self faltered into shame. A Hebraist named E. Lisitsky has left a recollection:

I had only one friend in my loneliness, one whom I met every day in the synagogue and to whom I poured out my heart—the Talmud.

I was alone in the synagogue, sitting at the table and swaying over the open Talmud, chanting in the old country tone. Loud sounds burst in from the street—the sounds of the new life into which I had been cast.… The cries reproached me mockingly: what are you doing among us, you unworldly idler?

Like many others in the eighties and nineties, Lisitsky wandered from job to job, at ease with none, fearful he would lose his spiritual balance in the scramble for bread. In a cigar factory, where “workers with gaunt, jaundiced faces and eyes the color of cigar ash bent over the tables,” he listened to their vulgar talk and it made his “heart turn over: that’s what I would be like.” At one point he met a Hebrew poet Menakhem Dolitsky, who had also stumbled into America and to whom he showed a poem he had written in Hebrew. “Stop it!” cried Dolitsky:

The devil with poetry! Don’t be a fool poetaster! You know what happens to Hebrew poets in this country: First stage—Hebrew poet. Second stage-Hebrew teacher—or rather herder, with the children as unwilling cattle. Third stage—you write trashy novels for servant maids.… Do anything, be anything, peddle candles and matches—sell windbags and bubbles.… Be a tailor, a shoemaker, a cobbler—anything but a Hebrew poet in America.

Few of the rabbis and learned men who came to America during the eighties and nineties were ever able to make a bearable life for themselves—unless they were among those who adapted only too well to the new world, becoming businessmen of the synagogue. One Hebrew writer wrote to a Yiddish newspaper in Poland: “For God’s sake, do not come here.… America is good only for the boors and the ignorant.… The Jewish community in America is deceived by its leaders and misleaders, the makhers and knakers [operators and big wheels].” Helpless and repelled, such men took a revenge of sorts in little-known parodies mocking America, the land of ama reka, or hollow people, the treyfene medine, or unkosher country, where Judaism would find its ultimate burial in the pits of freedom. One of these parodies, mimicking Talmudic style, begins:

The New World stands on three things: money and money and again money. All the people of this country worship the Golden Calf.

Imitating the Psalms, a parodist writes:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of scholars, nor standeth in the way of the enlightened, nor sitteth in the seat of the learned. But his delight is money, and in the accumulation of wealth does he meditate day and night.… For money answereth all things, but the poor man’s wisdom is despised.

Another parodist remarks:

Akabiah the son of Charlie said: Consider three things and you will be able to exist in America: forget who you are, wear a mask before those who know you, and do anything you can.

Here is one assuming the tone of pilpul, or dialectic:

Rabbi Saphra said; A peddler has four characteristics. He is like a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve. Like a sponge he absorbs all kinds of merchandise from the storekeeper, like a funnel he throws everything at his customers, like a strainer he lets the merchandise pass through his hands and retains only the debts, and like a sieve his pockets are never benefited by what he retains.

Some of these parodists indicate they have already had a taste of the new world’s blessings:

The Presser said: “Be submissive to thy boss, for he is thy God. The machine is thy Law, and the table at which thou workest is the altar upon which thou sacrificest thy blood and sweat to the money God.”

This is the way to live in America. Bread and salt shall be thy food, water from the hydrant thy drink, the floor in the shop thy bed, and eighteen hours a day shalt thou work.

And what these parodists intimated the Hebrew poet Dolitsky wrote directly:

Let us deal wisely and become drawers of water,

Load the peddler’s pack and knock on the doors,

Sit bent on the workbench,

Bore with the awl or sew breeches—

But of what avail is here the wisdom of Israel?

Had the ordinary immigrants been able to read such compositions, they would have relished their sarcasm; but few even knew about the work of these isolated Hebraists. The masses had their own emotions, and these came out in their own ways. How they felt about their first years in the new land has been classically expressed by Marcus Ravage, who after painful efforts learned to write in the new tongue:

The immigrant is almost invariably disappointed in America.… The alien who comes here from Europe brings with him a deep-rooted tradition, a system of culture and tastes and habits—a point of view which is as ancient as his national experience and which has been engendered in him by his race and his environment. And it is this thing—this entire Old World soul of his—that comes in conflict with America as soon as he has landed.…

With every day that passed I became more and more overwhelmed at the degeneration of my fellow-countrymen in this new home of theirs.…

Cut adrift suddenly from their ancient moorings, they were floundering in a sort of moral void. Good manners and good conduct, reverence and religion, had all gone by the board.… The ancient racial respect for elders had completely disappeared.… Tottering grandfathers had snipped off their white beards and laid aside their skull-caps and their snuff-boxes and paraded around the streets of a Saturday afternoon with cigarettes in their mouths, when they should have been lamenting the loss of the Holy City.

One reason for this demoralization was noticed by David Blaustein, perhaps the most gifted Jewish community worker on the East Side. The immigrants’ struggle for existence, at least during the first few years, “becomes to them more severe than it was in their native lands.” In Europe they were oppressed collectively, while in America economic pressure weighed most heavily on the individual. Jews trapped in a shtetl or a Polish city could feel they were martyrs for a sacred cause, and thereby take a kind of comfort in their misery, but in America “they could find no political explanation of their suffering” and were therefore inclined to blame themselves. Blaustein, whether he knew it or not, was providing an East Side variation on a theme by De Tocqueville.

The immigrants who came after 1905 would call those of the eighties and nineties farloyrene menshn, lost souls. And many were lost souls. How many? It is not really possible to say. Thousands must have succumbed quietly to the wretchedness of the East Side, overcome by exhaustion and prepared to end their days quietly and without fuss, over an iron or a sewing machine. What did they wrest out of their lives? A few moments of pleasure now and then at the Yiddish theatre; an occasional bitter strike, usually doomed to defeat yet signifying their will to dignity; whatever visions of the good life might come from hearing the socialist oratory of an Abraham Cahan or a Morris Hillquit; and the persuasion, surely the firmest of all, that, no matter what else, they had escaped the czars and the Cossacks and that here they might yet see their sons and daughters move on to something better. But they themselves were lost, victims of the immigrant world’s pinched re-enactment of primitive accumulation—as if nature had given them no voice, or history no claims. They felt they were repeating a familiar Jewish fate; they could hardly have known they were also victims of a recurrent American condition. “In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life,” Nathaniel Hawthorne had written a few decades earlier, “somebody is always at the drowning-point.” A good many of the early Jewish immigrants went under, nameless and unremembered.

Peddling and Sewing

“What does one do here for a livelihood?” asked an immigrant in the eighties who had been a maskil, or learned man, in Russia. “You do what everyone does,” came the reply, “you become a peddler.” With a pack on his back and a “garland of tinware hanging from my shoulders, I began crawling up and down the stairs.”

Peddling had behind it an old American tradition: the Yankee wandering through the midwestern states, the German Jew penetrating the South and striking up a relation of sorts with the blacks whom local storekeepers refused to deal with. For German Jews, peddling in the mid-nineteenth century often served as a path to advancement: the country was expanding, agents of trade were needed in outlying places, and the “Jew peddler” was generally regarded as fair and square. Once the east European Jews started coming, some of them also took to peddling in the countryside and occasionally settling down in a small town.*

In the soft glow of retrospect there has been a tendency among American Jews to endow peddling with a certain glamour. Sometimes, perhaps, with reason: as in the stories that have come down to us of Jews wandering into small southern towns and being treated as if they had just stepped out of the Old Testament. But in the cities of the North, during the years of industrial expansion, peddling was backbreaking and soul-destroying work. There was only one reason to become a peddler: you had no skill and wanted to stay out of the shops. A popular Yiddish writer of the late nineteenth century, Oyzer Blaustein, wrote in one of his sketches:

Those who cannot work, or do not want to work [in the garment industry] take to peddling. You need no more than to know the names of a few items in English and to have been blessed by heaven with a special gift—shamelessness, so that you don’t become depressed when you are turned away or are taunted by strangers. By now America is sated with peddlers.… Before the big emigration from Russia, peddling wasn’t a bad way to earn a living; when a peddler went out to the country with his goods people greeted him with pleasure.

Bernard Weinstein, later a mainstay of the Jewish unions, recalled that “there was no article that wasn’t being peddled” by Jews in New York during the eighties and nineties. “Apart from notions, they sold fish, bread, fruit, milk, tin and copper hardware.… Every peddler had his own tune; the glazers, for example, who were Orthodox Jews, cried out their wares with a depressed sort of tune.”


The weary round

With time, peddling would become a bit more sophisticated, but in these early decades it was simply a matter of going from house to house, up and down the stairs, knocking on doors, and hoping to cajole a housewife. House-to-house peddling was not merely exhausting, it often had its humiliations—Irish boys seemed to take special delight in taunting Jewish peddlers.

The next day I made up my mind to knock at every door. I went and I knocked, but many refused to open the door, shouting that they did not need anything. Some did buy a couple of cents worth of goods, but with the air of one giving alms, as though to pity a poor immigrant.… My face burned with shame but I dragged myself along.

Abraham the butcher became a peddler on the advice of his landslayt. They said it was no disgrace, almost all the millionaires in America had started out that way. But Abraham felt that carrying the basket was degrading. People insulted him, thinking he had no soul.… Still, at night when he came home and saw his empty dwelling full of little children, he forgot the insults. He still had hopes of becoming a butcher again. America is young, Jews are coming from all corners of the earth.

It was precisely such hopes that enabled the peddlers to keep going:

Later on I made six dollars on a Saturday. I advised my uncle to become a peddler; he was not very smart but he managed to eke out five dollars a week. In seven weeks I saved up sixty-five dollars apart from what I paid my mother every week for food. Then I borrowed a few more dollars from my mother—and became the “boss” of a shirt factory.

That was the path upward, at least for a moment—many of these “bosses” would fail and drop back into the ranks of the peddlers and workers. What drew some immigrants to peddling—a minority, but an especially vigorous one—was the possibility that through intensive self-exploitation they might save up a little money, start some sort of petty business, and thereby avoid becoming garment workers.

The majority of Jewish immigrants, both in the eighties and nineties and in the early years of the twentieth century, could not hope to escape the traumas of proletarianization. For the nineties we have two sources of statistical data, admittedly imprecise. The Baron de Hirsch Fund polled 111,690 of the approximately 200,000 Jews living in New York in 1890. More than half were children. The number of gainfully employed came to 22,393; shopworkers in the needle trades to 13,437, or 60 percent, and shopworkers in other industries to 1,540, or 6.9 percent. Only 2,440 of those polled, or about 10 percent, listed themselves as peddlers. Our second source is the U.S. census of 1890, which did not specify “Jews” as an immigrant category but did list “Russians.” Students of Jewish immigration have worked out a rough estimate according to which it seems plausible that about 80 percent of these “Russians” were Jews and have thereby concluded from the 1890 census that about half the Jews employed in American industry were clothing workers.

The garment industries formed an ideal setting for superexploitation: seasonal in setting; capricious in product; requiring labor both disciplined and, for the most part, semiskilled; encouraging the sudden rise of new manufacturers and contractors with only a petty capital investment; and peculiarly open to such social evils as homework, child labor, the contract system, and various refinements of cutthroat competition. The labor historian John R. Commons wrote a definitive analysis of the industry for the U.S. Industrial Commission:

The Jewish contractor was not a mere middleman; he was necessarily a tailor and an organizer of labor, for his work was done by a system of division of labor calling for various grades and forms of skill.…

The man best fitted to be a contractor is the man who is well acquainted with his neighbors, who is able to speak the language of several classes of immigrants … and can obtain the cheapest help.…

The contractor in the clothing trade is largely responsible for the primitive modes of production; for the foot-power sewing machine; for the shops in the alleys, in the attics, on top floors, above stables, and in some cases, in the homes of the people.… Usually it is not necessary to have more than $50 to start a shop with foot-power machines.…

The unlimited hours of work, often seven days in the week, is a feature of the contracting system. The contractor himself works unlimited hours.… He deals with people who have no knowledge of regular hours. He keeps them in the dark with regard to prevailing number of hours that other people work.

Take the Second Avenue Elevated, wrote Jacob Riis, “and ride up half a mile through the sweaters’ district. Every open window of the big tenements, that stand like a continuous brick wall on both sides of the way, give you a glimpse of one of these shops.… Men and women bending over their machines or ironing clothes at the window, half-naked.… Morning, noon, or night, it makes no difference.” Nor was it unusual, reported a New York state factory inspector in 1893, “when the weather permits, to see the balconies of the fire escapes occupied by two to four busy workmen. The halls and roofs are also utilized for workshop purposes very frequently.”

Bernard Weinstein, who came to America in 1882, describes a garment shop in the late nineteenth century:

The boss of the shop lived there with his entire family. The front room and kitchen were used as workrooms. The whole family would sleep in one dark bedroom. The sewing machines for the operators were near the windows of the front room. The basters would sit on stools near the walls, and in the center of the room, amid the dirt and dust, were heaped great piles of materials. On top of the sofas several finishers would be working.… Old people … using gaslight for illumination, would stand and keep the irons hot and press the finished coats, jackets, pants and other clothes on special boards.

Max Pine, a leading figure in the Jewish unions, recalls how he became a tailor in his youth:

The contractor approached me, looked me up and down, and a satisfied little smile appeared on the heavy lip under his thick, yellow mustache.

“A healthy specimen,” he declared, “red cheeks, clearly a good eater. You’ll do all right in America!”

So we arranged our “bargain,” standing right there. I was to pay him $25 and work unpaid for three weeks. And after I had finished my apprenticeship, I would be on my own.

In this atmosphere, remarked Lillian Wald of the Henry Street Settlement, “tuberculosis seems the disease most to be dreaded.… We see so much of it that we call it the tailor’s disease.” And an unusually reflective factory inspector found himself wondering in 1899 about the relation of family life to work, of women staying home to women going to the shops:

On the one hand, we have the 3-year-old child helping its mother [to fix trimmings on women’s dresses] in the home—never out of sight—always where the mother could attend to its wants and allay its fears and sufferings. While, on the other hand, we see the mother compelled to desert her three little ones of very tender years, going out to the shop to work, because the law prohibits her bringing the work into her home. As a result, these unfortunate little ones … are left alone in a tenement, shut up in a fireless room with no one to attend to their wants.

An overwhelming number of immigrant Jews nevertheless flocked to the needle trades. Why? Because those who had already become workers in eastern Europe brought with them a little experience as tailors. Because the garment shops were located close to the familiar East Side streets (or equivalent slums in other cities) and an immigrant just off the boat needed no English in order to reach them. Because some garment bosses were willing to let religious Jews keep the Sabbath and work instead on Sundays. Because the industry had been expanded ever since the Civil War, through the use of machinery and the manufacture of ready-made clothing, so that large numbers of new hands were needed. Because it took only a little time to learn how to run a sewing machine or press a garment. And because many employers were themselves Jews, at first mainly German but by the turn of the century increasingly east European, and therefore inclined to hire greenhorns whom they could exploit with familial rapacity.

The conflicts between German and east European Jews have been traced to a variety of cultural causes, but one brute fact should be kept in mind: the relations between German and east European Jews in the garment industry during the eighties and nineties were often those of class enemies. Of the 241 garment factories in New York City in 1885, 234 were owned by Jews, or more than 97 percent, and of these the great majority were unquestionably German Jews. An early trade-union leader put the matter with complete realism: “The early class struggles in the modern clothing industry in New York were Jewish class struggles; both masters and men were of the Hebrew race.”

Working hours in the sweatshops, especially during busy seasons, were indefinite at both ends of the day. “In the ‘inside’ shops [manufacturers], as a rule, the hours [during the eighties and nineties] were sixty a week, the work day beginning at seven or eight in the morning and ending at 6 P.M. In the ‘outside’ shops [contractors], the working hours were 84 a week. But besides ‘regular’ hours, there was overtime … and in addition many of the workers took material home and worked until two or three in the morning.” Though most of them had never been in a shop or factory before coming to America, these immigrant Jews fell in readily with the requirements of “labor discipline.” They had no choice. But also, they were psychologically prepared for extreme deprivation and self-exploitation, if only they could suppose that it had some foreseeable end, or feel that after seven years of bondage would come Rachel. Self-indulgences like liquor, whoring, and wastrelism had rarely been part of their experience; revolt would not break out until years later; the bewilderments of cultural dislocation contributed to docility; and as for sickness, whether “the tailor’s disease” or some other, each boat landing at Castle Garden brought eager replacements. So they bent their backs and submitted, for a while.

One immediate effect of large-scale immigration and the mushrooming of sweatshops in the early eighties was a sharp decline in wages. The average wage of a semiskilled worker in the garment trades fell from $15 a week in 1883 to $7 a week in 1885. The New York State Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 1885 that “the very best workers” were “getting $10 a week, while the women employed in the industry were earning from $3 to $6 a week.” Continued this report: “Some even with the aid of their families and working fourteen hours a day could earn only $12 and $15 a week. Others could make only $4 by working ten hours a day.” By the end of the eighties wages rose somewhat, with the income of cloakmakers in 1888 being approximately $12 a week; but then, with the depressions of the early nineties there was a good deal of seasonal unemployment and occasional lowering of wages, though a series of strikes did lead to temporary improvements. The year 1893 was especially bad, with the United Hebrew Charities forced to open soup kitchens on the East Side to feed starving workers. And then, by a cruel irony, there followed a time of more work and better pay for the garment workers because the depression of 1893 had been so severe it forced a considerable number of Americans to start buying ready-made clothes.

That many of the suddenly proletarianized immigrants deeply resented their lot, everything in their experience—their culture, their radicalism, their sufferings—makes clear. A characteristic view of early immigrant life appears in I. Raboy’s touching Yiddish novel, Iz gekumen a yid kayn amerika, or “A Jew Came to America,” especially in a chapter entitled “Dos fargrebt vern,” or “Becoming Coarsened”:

Mannis was heartsick because there was no time to look into a holy book. It hurt him to watch himself gradually becoming vulgarized—outside and inside. What does he think about in America? Very early, as soon as he gets up, he thinks it’s time to run to the shop.… At noon he thinks about taking a rest and about his stomach. After his dry lunch, sitting on a pile of rags, Mannis finds his eyes are starting to close. He would like to doze off. But that’s impossible.… He has to rush and rush until it’s dark. Then he rushes home and gulps his warm supper, and then he is so full that he sits like a dummy and can’t move.

All that takes care of the outside, the part you can see with your eyes. But what about the inside, the part you can’t see with your eyes? All day he doesn’t hear a single refined word. The machines bore holes in his brain with their clatter, and the coarse words of Dave the foreman crush the spirit.… Life loses its flavor and the very earth beneath your feet becomes abhorrent. God, you say, I’m worse than the horse in the stable; he gets beaten, but at least once in a while he gets a pat on the rump, too.

Going to the Land

Was there no way for Jewish immigrants to escape both peddling and the sweatshop? A few hundred zealots, organized in Russia during the early eighties as Am Olam (Eternal People), sought a radical escape from the economic rootlessness which the centuries had imposed on the Jews. Am Olam proposed to establish farm co-operatives in America so as to “normalize” Jewish life, which meant to abandon petty trade and the role of middleman. Some wanted to build socialist agricultural communes, anticipating the Israeli kibbutz, while others were concerned mainly with national rehabilitation through a strengthening of the Jewish economic fabric. To the goal of founding colonies “in the spirit of Robert Owen, Fourier, and Tolstoy” the Am Olam movement brought the religious fervor that would mark so many Jewish political movements.

It was a movement characterized equally by spiritual loftiness and historical inexperience. One of its founders could write in his diary before leaving Russia: “In free America, where many people live closely in peace and amity, we Jews too shall find a place to lay our heads” [emphasis added]. The Vilna group of Am Olam, still more naïve, hoped to create in the United States a separate “Jewish canton.” The group in Minsk showed, by contrast, a certain realism when it proposed merely to seek “an uninhabited place in which all members can gather,” so as to prevent the harassed Jews “from being exposed in their new domiciles to the same trials they had previously undergone.” They seem to have understood in Minsk that people coming to the new world did not necessarily escape the prejudices of the old.

Arriving in America, Am Olam found the problems of colonization staggering. “Land was free or very inexpensive, but the cultivation of that land required considerable sums of money and unusually great exertion. The available land was usually virgin and had to be cleared and prepared. Farming implements and machinery, livestock and homes were needed. Without aid, the Jewish immigrants, who were unaccustomed to this type of hard work, could not accomplish anything.”

But they went ahead. A colony of about 100 settlers was set up in 1881 on Sicily Island, Louisiana, where the men labored hard to clear and plant but were overwhelmed by a flood from the Mississippi that destroyed twenty thousand dollars’ worth of equipment. More disastrous was the fate of a colony set up in eastern Arkansas in 1883 by about 150 people. The land upon which they settled was virgin forest, so thick as to make farming impractical. They then tried to sustain themselves by cutting and selling staves, but only too late did they learn that this required such heavy labor that it was beyond their capacity. By July, a few months after settlement, 90 percent of the colonists were sick with malaria and yellow fever, and about twenty died. Money from the staves was slow in arriving, mosquitoes consumed them, the heat wore out spirits and bodies, starvation crept up each day. A kindhearted Jewish businessman in the neighborhood helped the settlers a little, and the Am Olam headquarters in New York sent money for food, medicine, and railroad tickets. By September the colony disbanded.

Still fired with visions of the ideal, some of the young settlers set up another colony, called Cremieux, this time in South Dakota, where they would not have to suffer the southern heat. They spent their capital lavishly on horses and household effects, only to discover that because the land they had bought was arid they would have to spend still more money on digging wells. And by then they did not have enough. Fires, freezing winters, drought, inefficient work methods—all beset the colony. Cremieux failed, only to be followed, three miles away, by Bethlehem Judea, where young and strong unmarried men—it might be easier without the burden of families—struggled for eighteen months to build a co-operative colony. In the end they sadly agreed to divide their land into small private holdings.

The last and most ambitious Am Olam colony, helped by a large gift from Jacob Schiff, was established in 1883 at New Odessa, Oregon. Learning from the mistakes of the past, the colonists put aside some capital with which to get past the inevitable early failures. New Odessa lasted five years, and, by comparison with its predecessors, thrived during some of them. A letter from one of its members, dated August 2, 1883, gives a picture of its life:

This is our daily schedule: we work from six in the morning till half-past eight in the morning. From then to 8:45 we have breakfast. Work is resumed at ten and continued to four in the afternoon. Between four and five is dinner, followed by a rest period and intellectual activity. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday are devoted to the study of mathematics, English and to William Frey’s lectures on the philosophy of positivism. On Wednesday current matters are discussed and on Saturday, the problems of the “commune.”

On Sunday we rise at six and immediately a lively discussion begins on the subject of equal rights for women. In the beginning the women had demanded full equal rights. They had gone to work in the forest, with the men taking their turn in the kitchen and laundry. Soon, however, the women realized that they were not yet fit for that type of work and they returned to their previous tasks. Now they assure us that they have acquired the necessary physical strength and endurance for work in the forest.…

After breakfast one member goes to survey the farm, another reads a newspaper or a book, the rest sing, shout and dance. At four dinner is served. Two men wash the dishes, the choir sings.… At seven in the evening begins a session of mutual criticism.

How long this session lasted we do not know, but one reason for the difficulties at New Odessa was the moral-ideological disputes that seem unavoidable in such enterprises. Once the colony failed, some of its members went back to the East Side and set up a co-operative laundry on Henry Street, a sad outcome for people seeking “productive labor” on the land. Even the laundry failed, and its disenchanted members drifted away, a few becoming important figures in the Jewish socialist movement and others losing themselves in the routines of immigrant life.

The Jewish communes suffered from the problems all communes suffer: it is hard to remain true to fraternal principles when the group must also constitute a competitive unit in the market, it is hard to sustain moral idealism when settlers discover unanticipated wants, it is hard to find people who can combine absolute selflessness with grueling labor. But there were special reasons for the failures of Am Olam. All the colonies were poorly financed, all were too far from the centers of Jewish immigrant settlement, all were beset by a conflict between the ascetic impulse that led to their creation and the libertarian principles by means of which they tried to live. Some of the settlers, remarked Abraham Cahan, “confused communism with the concept of eating off the same plate and sleeping in the same bedroom.” Most important of all, the leap from a Ukrainian shtetl to Oregon or South Dakota—the cultural leap, the economic leap—was simply too great. What sheer will and purity of heart could do they did, but sheer will and purity of heart were not enough. There is a manuscript diary left by Charles K. Davis, an American-born Jew who in 1882 tried to lead a group of settlers, far better acquainted with American conditions than the green youths of Am Olam, to an agricultural colony in Kansas. In one humorous paragraph Davis records the central problem of such colonizing schemes, the problem of cultural distance:

I forgot to mention yesterday that in order to be in style here I put on my old blue suit a blue flannel shirt a broad brimmed straw hat and have dispensed with both coat and vest and together with the fact that I have not been shaved since last Wednesday I think I compare favorably with the natives excepting that I am afraid I cant get used to carrying my pistol around all the time its too heavy and beside I am afraid they might criticize it as it is only a 38 calibre. While a 44 is regulation out here.

Nothing, at first glance, could seem less similar than the experience of Jewish immigrants packed into city slums and the experience of these few hundred rural colonists. Yet both represented a common difficulty in coping with American realities. The mass of immigrants had to survive the peddler’s pack and the sweatshop; to learn, if they could, how to improve their lot in a situation beyond their control; and to consider, if they cared to, whether in adapting to American society they would be paying too high a moral price. Some who sank into resignation had no choice: life was simply too hard for them. Others may have chosen to cut themselves off from the corruptions of success. All had to suffer the pain of trying to adjust to the harshness of late-nineteenth-century America. So too, despite their program and selflessness, did the settlers of Am Olam. They had to learn how ruthless were the conditions of the society into which they had plunged, and they had to learn how severe were the limits of their own will and sacrifice. The ideas they had brought to America would help them, but mostly in realizing material goals they wished to repudiate. Within a few years they had to come back to the slums and the streets, the locale in which the immigrant Jewish experience was to play itself out. And nothing—neither theory nor ideal—could alter that fact.

In the Tenements

Just north of Canal Street and extending from Mott to Elizabeth stood the “Big Flat,” an enormous tenement occupying six city lots. Water was supplied to tenants from one tap on each floor, set over a sink outside the north wall. These sinks, serving as the only receptacles for refuse, were loathsome, especially in the winter, when the traps beneath them would freeze. Each apartment had three rooms and drew its light from a single window in the “living room.” The two inner rooms were always dark and without ventilation, since the space allotted each resident averaged out to 428 cubic feet per head, far below the legal limit of 660. The annual death rate per 1000 for the years 1883, 1884, 1885, and the first nine months of 1886 came to 42.40, as compared with 25.72 for the city as a whole; nearly 62 percent of the deaths in the “Big Flat” were of children under five years of age, while in the city as a whole the percentage was a bit more than 42.

The Jews (also some Italians) living in the “Big Flat,” reported an investigator of the New York Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, “are locked in the rooms like sardines in a box.… On the first floor are rooms for fourteen families, and they are mostly occupied by low women and street walkers.… While I was there I saw a family getting put out on the sidewalk.… The halls are about ten feet wide, and the smell is something awful.”

Meticulous in accumulating detail, this investigator continued: “The rents of rooms are as follows: first floor, $9.50 per month for three rooms; second floor, $9.25; third and fourth floors, $9; fifth and sixth, $8.50 and $8.75.”

The investigator visited the top floor, inhabited entirely by “Polish Jews”:

In No. 76 a peddler lives, with his wife and four small children. The rooms, like the rest of this floor, are very dirty. In a corner next to these rooms a pile of garbage about two feet high lies, right at the head of the stairs as you go up. The children on this floor are very poorly clad … nothing but a loose gown, and no underclothing at all.

Rooms 77, 78, and 79 are crowded with men and women sewing on machines. The men generally work the machines, and the women sew the buttons on and make button-holes. They work for large clothing firms.

Rooms 86, 87, and 88 are full of dirty bedding. The women were sitting out in the hallway sewing on children’s knee-pants for some store, and there were no men around.

In room 91 I saw five small children and the mother, but no men. The rooms were full of bedding, but I could see no bedsteads. I heard that it is a lodging-place for Jewish peddlers.

Is there any reason to suppose that the “Big Flat” was spectacularly worse than the surrounding, smaller tenements into which the immigrants were packed? Not really. Some tenements had slightly better physical appointments, and on the East Side as a whole health conditions were somewhat better during the eighties and nineties than in non-Jewish districts, perhaps because of the discipline that the Jewish family was still able to exact. From every available source—contemporary journalism, memoirs, government reports, sociological studies—the evidence seems conclusive: living conditions in the Jewish quarter during the last decades of the nineteenth century were quite as ghastly as those of early-nineteenth-century London.

An immigrant remembers a two-room apartment on Allen Street containing parents, six children, and six boarders. On Saturdays, since the father was a cantor, the apartment was turned into a synagogue. Two daughters took in dresses to sew at home. One boarder, a shoemaker, worked in the apartment. “The cantor rehearses, a train passes, the shoemaker bangs, ten brats run around like goats, the wife putters in her ‘kosher restaurant.’ At night we all try to get some sleep in the stifling roach-infested two rooms.”

Poverty has its shadings, wretchedness its refinements:

Not everyone was equally poor. When an immigrant family could occupy a two- or three-room apartment without several boarders, they were considered lucky. Boarders were a natural institution, particularly in the early years when most immigrants came without their families. But even the privilege of being a boarder was not enjoyed by every greenhorn. There were various categories of boarders. A star boarder slept on a folding bed. But I knew a printer who every night unscrewed a door, put it on two chairs; he couldn’t pay as much as the one who had the bed.

Even an unscrewed door made into a bed could seem attractive to those who had no roof. During the nineties, especially in the summers, there were homeless immigrants who found shelter at night in the “expresses” or coaches that were left on the streets after their horses were taken to the stables.

In Ner Hamaaravi, a New York Hebrew periodical started in 1895, there is a story called “Breach of Promise” in which a Lithuanian Jew is shown marrying a girl for her money. “At one o’clock in the afternoon the ceremony is performed in the ‘American Star Hall,’ in the evening two roomkes [little rooms] are rented, on the following day furniture is purchased, and in the evening the couple already has three boarders and three borderkes [female boarders]. On the third day the husband goes back to work and the wife runs away with one of the boarders to Paterson.”

Lawrence Veiller, a splendid human being who devoted himself to tenement reform, organized in 1900 an exhibit in the Sherry Building at 404 Fifth Avenue to prove that in New York “the working man is housed worse than in any other city in the civilized world, notwithstanding the fact that he pays more money for such accommodations than is paid elsewhere.” At this exhibit Veiller set up a cardboard model of an entire tenement block, bounded by Chrystie, Forsyth, Canal, and Bayard streets, in the heart of the East Side. With thirty-nine tenements, the block contained 2,781 people, who among them had only 264 water closets and lacked access to even one stationary bathtub. Only forty apartments had hot running water; and on this block, over the past five years, thirty-two cases of tuberculosis had been reported. Veiller, an amateur sociologist before the age of sociology, insisted that even if the block he had chosen was somewhat worse than others, it revealed the truth about the whole of the East Side.

Throughout the eighties and nineties the New York Times kept sending reporters to the Jewish quarter, who sniffed about, recoiled from the clamor and stench, yet had to acknowledge the plight of its “half-starved” inhabitants. An explorer in this world “will find no richly-fed men, extravagantly attired, gleaming with diamonds, fat as Jeshurun, rubbing their hands and computing their tremendous and illicit gains with an oily satisfaction.” On the contrary, he will see “attenuated creatures, clad in old, faded, greasy, often tattered clothing … men and youths whose cheeks are pinched and pale and hollow, whose lungs yield to the first advance of the Autumn cold and fill the air with incessant coughing; whose sad, lustrous eyes look at him pitifully, like the eyes of hunted and captured animals that press up to the bars of their cages.” And then, as if to reassure his readers, the Times reporter added: “None of them has any jewelry.”

Whatever the indignation of reformers and reporters, the problem during the eighties and nineties was less how to escape from the tenements than how to remain in them. Key terms of anxiety have survived the experience of the immigrants, echoing still in the memories of grandsons and granddaughters, and one of the most terrible among these is “dispossess.” Only sickness could raise more fright than the prospect of being thrown out on the street. In the depression year ending September 1892, the district of Judge Alfred Steckler, covering the East Side, issued a total of 5,450 dispossess notices. A man of some feeling, Judge Steckler said: “Hundreds of cases full of the most pathetic disclosures are constantly cropping up in my court.… I rarely set the machinery of the law in motion without first making an effort to have the landlord give a little further period of grace.… Perhaps the granting of a week’s grace will give them a chance to get on their feet, and resume their struggle against a poverty that is as hopeless as it is cruel.”

The Implacability of Gentleness

No act of individual kindness could change immigrant life as it needed to be changed, yet such acts, when they occurred, were received with a warmth, almost an excess of gratitude. Lillian Wald (1867–1940), the nurse who founded the Henry Street Settlement, grew within her lifetime into a figure of legend, known and adored on every street.

She came to the East Side in 1893, a German-Jewish young woman of twenty-six who had been raised in a comfortable bourgeois family, a “spoiled child” as she later kept insisting, still largely innocent of the sufferings of life. Her father had been an optical dealer in Rochester, New York, and Lillian had gone to “Miss Cruttenden’s English-French Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies.” She had wanted to enter Vassar at sixteen, but someone at the college ruled that she was too young. If Vassar didn’t want her, she would go elsewhere—to another life.

Several years later, Lillian Wald entered the New York Hospital’s School of Nursing, learning there what she needed to learn, not least an unflinching and unsentimental capacity for living near pain. In 1893, after a frustrating interval at an orphan asylum where the children were ill-treated, she began running a class in home nursing for East Side women. One day a little girl came up to Miss Wald, asking that she visit someone sick at home. Lillian Wald followed the child to a dismal two-room apartment that housed a family of seven plus a few boarders. “Within half an hour” she had made the central decision of her life: she would move to the East Side, there to give her life as nurse, settlement-house leader, and companion to the afflicted.

There are two kinds of fastidious people, those who recoil from messes and those who stay to clean them up. Lillian Wald stayed, not out of exalted sentiments or angelic temperament, but because there was work to be done and no one else seemed likely to do it. She stayed at a time when only a handful of social workers paid any attention to the place, and long before it took on associations of glamour or nostalgia.

Together with another nurse, Mary Brewster, Lillian Wald lived and worked in a fifth-floor apartment at 27 Jefferson Street, with the single indulgence of a private bathtub. Lavinia Duck, soon to be a fellow nurse at the Henry Street Settlement, visited these tiny rooms and found the “chief solicitude” of Miss Wald and Miss Brewster to be a wish “to make their own impression as friendly souls before whom all the confidence and problems of living might be safely opened. Their nursing was their open sesame.”

The two young women made themselves available to anyone asking for help; they charged a trifle to those who could afford it and gave services freely to those who could not. “I came with very little program of what could or should be done,” said Lillian Wald; she kept her eyes open, saw the magnitude of need, rushed to whoever called for help, and persuaded others to join her. “I went into every room in the front and rear tenements, set the dwellers to sweeping, cleaning, and burning the refuse. In some rooms swill thrown on the floor, vessels standing unemptied after the night’s use. I saw the housekeeper, who promised cooperation in keeping the place cleaner, and I impressed on her that I would repeat the rounds next day and frequently thereafter.”

Her tasks were endless. Children with summer bowel complaints that sent infant mortality rates soaring; children with measles, unquarantined; children “scarred with vermin bites”; a case of “puerperal septicaemia, lying on a vermin-infested bed without sheets or pillow-cases”; a pregnant mother with a crippled child and two others living on chunks of dry bread sent in by neighbors; people “ill from organic trouble and also from poor food.”

In October 1893 she was writing, “We have found several cases of typhoid fever, and in every case succeeded in overcoming hospital prejudice, accompanying patients to the hospital wards and doing what we could to satisfy their first uneasiness.” Sometimes Miss Wald or Miss Brewster would stay deep into the night with patients for whom the very idea of a hospital struck terror. When patients were too sick to be moved, they would fetch surgeons to the apartment, help with operations, and then provide aftercare. It was all terrible enough during these depression years, but “we are not discouraged, and the more intimately we come to know these poor Russian Jews the more frequently we are rewarded with unexpected gleams of attractiveness.”

Substantial help came from Jacob Schiff, the German-Jewish philanthropist. Between him and Lillian Wald arose a curious relationship: he helped defray costs on condition that his part be kept secret and she send him monthly letters detailing her activities. Could so intelligent a man as Schiff have thought it necessary to keep check on so selfless a woman as Lillian Wald? Perhaps; but it seems happier to suppose that he asked for these reports out of an admiring recognition that her simple sentences bore a moral substance to be treasured.

Visit and care of typhoid patient, 182 Ludlow Street. Visit to 7 Hester Street where in rooms of Nathan S. found two children with measles. After much argument succeeded in bathing these two patients and the sick baby. The first time in their experience. They insisted no water and soap could be applied to anyone with measles for seven days.

Gave tickets for Hebrew Sanitarium excursion to Mrs. Davis and three children, Mrs. Schneider and five children for Tuesday’s excursion but five of the seven children are nearly naked, I am convinced, have no apparel in their possession. So we will make their decent appearance possible for the picnic.

Many of these people have kept from begging and it is not uncommon to meet families, to whom not a dollar has come in in seven months—the pawn shop tickets telling the progress of their fall, beginning some months back with the pawning of a gold watch, ending with the woman’s waist.

The multitude of unemployed grows and many who had been able to live for the first few months [of 1893] are now at the end of their resources. However we are glad in one respect, that having no money to engage the midwife they allow us to furnish doctors … who do intelligent good work.

In a rear tenement, top floor, on Allen Street, a doctor found a woman, a Mrs. Weichert, crazy and ill with pneumonia and typhoid; cared for by her 14 year old daughter. She had been crazy for some time and the husband and child had kept it secret, fearing she would be forcibly taken to an asylum were it known. Though she died in a few days, I shall always be glad that one doctor told us in time so that she was made human and decent, bedding given and the child assisted to making her dwelling fit for habitation before her end.

Lily Klein very ill with pneumonia for whom we procured medical attention and nursed. The child died but the night before Miss Brewster had remained with the child all night. She was ineligible for hospital as she had whooping cough. Father deserted and mother worn out, was not safe to leave a child so ill with.

Annie P., 44 Allen Street, front tenement, second floor. Husband Louis P. came here three years ago and one year ago sent for wife and three children. From that time unfortunately, his trade, that of shoemaker, became less remunerative. She helped by washing and like labor, but two months ago he deserted her, though she stoutly maintains he returned to Odessa to get his old work back. The youngest, Meyer P., age five years, fell from the table and injured his hip. He lay for 7 months in the Orthopedic Hospital, 42nd Street; he was discharged as incurable and supplied with a brace.… The mother is absolutely tied by her pregnant condition; the cripple is in pain and cries to be carried. They had no rooms of their own but paid $3 a month to Hannah A., a decent tailoress, who allowed the family to sleep on her floor.… Sunday I saw them. Monday I filed application with Montefiore Home for Meyer’s admission.… Tuesday I went to Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society, saw Superintendent, and obtained promise of place for the two well children by Thursday.… Thursday afternoon we washed and dressed the two children, and I left them in the afternoon at the Asylum, leaving my address for the Superintendent so that he might know their friend in case of need. They have absolutely no one in America but their mother.

Once and for all, she gave her heart to those “poor Russian Jews” (even, with time, learning some Yiddish words and phrases). “We are full of the troubles of our neighbors,” reads an early letter, and it would remain that way to the end. When the papers printed denunciations of immigrants who had joined food riots, Lillian Wald fought against these slurs upon her neighbors. When these neighbors started to form trade unions, she sided with them openly.

Some of the immigrants kept themselves apart from Miss Wald’s nurses—there were rumors they were secret agents proselytizing for Christianity—but others started climbing the five flights to their apartment, asking for help, sometimes just wanting to talk. Mary Brewster had to quit: she was overworked, and her health failed. A growing number of nurses came to volunteer, some taking the fifteen-dollar-a-week salary and some quietly returning it. Miss Wald began looking for a larger place, to be used entirely by what had come to be called the Nurse’s Settlement. She found a house at 265 Henry Street and moved in. For a time she kept the name Nurse’s Settlement—it was really the best name—but had to give way to the pleas of a boy’s athletic club attached to 265 Henry, which could no longer bear the teasing of opponents on the baseball field: “Hey, noices! Noices!” So they called the place the Henry Street Settlement.

The Settlement kept growing: by 1898, eleven full-time staff, nine of them nurses; by 1900, fifteen nurses; by 1906, twenty-seven nurses. As her work succeeded, Miss Wald’s power grew, and she used it shrewdly and to keen effect. She persuaded the city to start a program of public nursing—the very phrase was hers. She persuaded the Board of Education to put nurses into the schools. She worked hard on committees opposing child labor; joined the movement for more playgrounds; badgered the mighty and wheedled the rich for money, telling them not about her theories (it is doubtful she had any) but about “little Louie, the deplorable condition of whose scalp is denying him the blessings of education”; joined the suffragettes, though not militantly; became an active pacifist in the First World War, brushing past unpopularity as if it were one of those unfortunate neighbors needing help. Ready as she was to charm millionaires for help, she never allowed that to stand in the way of her persuasions. In the 1910 cloakmakers’ strike, she aligned herself firmly with the strikers—where else could she be? They were her neighbors. Within the Jewish world, she was especially skillful at creating links between the Germans and east Europeans, gaining the confidence of the former in behalf of aid to the latter.

A reporter for the New York Press wrote of her: “Picture to yourself a woman still in the freshness of youth: tall and well-proportioned.… The mouth is tender, sensitive, sympathetic. The chin says, ‘I will.…’ The would-be violator of sanitary regulations calls her ‘She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.’ … The poor, invalid Yiddish mother claims her as an intimate friend.…” Jacob Riis adds to the picture: “The poor trust her absolutely, trust her head, her judgment, and her friendship. She arbitrates in a strike, and the men listen.… When pushcart peddlers are blackmailed by the police, she will tell the mayor the truth, for she knows.”

By 1916 the Settlement owned half a million dollars in property and had extended its activities far beyond the original task of nursing. Still, that task remained a central one, the annual budget for the Visiting Nurses Service coming to $150,000 and the more than one hundred nurses making 227,000 visits a year. Large as it now was, the Settlement kept its personal tone, run along the principles of anarchic matriarchy.

Miss Wald was the ideal Fabian. Shrewd, practical, dry-eyed, she had a genius for the concrete, seeing life as it was and wanting to make it better. There was no shrinking, no condescension, no idylizing, no sentimentalism, no preening, little theorizing, nothing but work, hard and endless and free from contaminations of self. Writing an article about the Settlement toward the end of her life, she began with a simple question: “Have you ever seen a hungry child cry?” It was a question that haunted all her years, driving her incessantly, making her into a “do-gooder”—a phrase that can never be used lightly by anyone who comes to know what Lillian Wald did for those “poor Russian Jews” stranded in America.

By some later perspectives, Lillian Wald missed a good deal in life. She never married, she seems to have had no intense personal relationships, she yielded her emotions to all about her, she showed small inclination toward self-scrutiny or introspectiveness. If these were the costs of her life, the rewards were at least as high. In the experience of thousands, she made a difference; on the consciousness of her contemporaries, she left a mark. Like the other superb women of her generation who plunged into the work they saw in front of them—women like Jane Addams, Rose Schneiderman, Lavinia Duck, Florence Kelley—she made a mockery of all the idle chatter about a “woman’s place.” “The subtle and persistent saintliness of these social workers was in the end more deadly than all the bluster of business. Theirs was the implacability of gentleness.”

A Chaos in Hebrew

In eastern Europe the ordeal of poverty had been eased by a spiritual discipline centered on the synagogue and enclosing every department of life; in America religious authority could never be monolithic. No matter how many immigrants remained Orthodox in belief, what was now decisive was that the Jewish community as such could no longer be structured primarily along religious lines. Religion might still mean everything to individual Jews, but the Lower East Side was a secular community. It could not be otherwise.

With the mass migration there had naturally occurred an enormous growth in the number of synagogues. By 1890 there were 146 in New York City, some of which, like Ohab Zedek, the Hungarian congregation on Norfolk Street, were imposing structures; there were also reported in the same year 251 melamdim, or private Hebrew teachers, on the East Side. Uncounted congregations were mere storefront groups set up by rabbis desperate for livelihood and forced to improvise. During the eighties and nineties there were frequent complaints of ignorance, sacrilege, bad manners, and poor teaching; the intellectual, and sometimes the moral, level of a good many of these religious institutions was low. In 1886 Rabbi Moses Weinberger, just arrived from Hungary, caustically noted that the number of self-declared Hebrew teachers was so great, some had announced themselves ready “to teach any Jewish child, whoever he be, rich or poor, wise or foolish, for 10¢ a week.” Some heads of families, continued the rabbi, failed to understand the bargain they were being offered, and hoped to drive fees down to the point where “schoolmasters will accept a penny an hour.” Hebrew-school teaching was a scorned profession “which cannot support its practitioners.”

In the early nineties Hirsh Masliansky, an educator and popular Yiddish preacher, announced Jewish education in New York to be utterly chaotic. Indigent melamdim, few of them qualified or able to cope with American children, would trudge from floor to floor, peddling Torah “like other merchandise.” Invited to inspect a Talmud Torah on East Broadway, Masliansky found that

The teachers were … well grounded in the Bible and Hebrew grammar, some also in Talmud; but there was no system or program of teaching. The principal was an elderly man schooled in German and Mendelssohn’s translation of the Bible, and made sure that the interpretations were at least 50 percent in German.

I felt so sorry for the little American yidelekh whose childish shoulders had to be burdened with three languages. Until three in the afternoon they studied English in the public schools; from four until eight they studied two foreign languages at once: Hebrew and half-German, jumbled together with every breath they took. To teach German to American Jewish children was a mishegas [madness].

I examined them and found that they could read elementary Hebrew, following all the rules of vocalization. This was the pedantic trivia which occupied the youngsters for hours every day. When I asked them to explain the meaning of a section of the Torah, they replied mechanically in halting, incorrect semi-German, not even knowing what they were talking about.

Not all the schools were as bad as Masliansky said, the craze for German soon died out, and a good part of what was wrong had merely been carried over from the old country. During these very years substantial Jewish schools, including the Hebrew Free School Association and a variety of yeshivas, were being set up. Nevertheless, the impression of incompetence and a partial breakdown of intellectual morale has a firm foundation in reality. There could be no esaping the traumas of early settlement.

Dislocation and Pathology

That symptoms of social dislocation and even pathology should have appeared under the extreme circumstances in which the early Jewish immigrants lived, seems unavoidable. There was crime, there was wife desertion, and there were juvenile delinquency, gangsterism, and prostitution during the eighties and nineties, as well as during the early decades of the twentieth century—probably more than the records show or memoirists tell. How could there not be?

Precise information on these matters is hard to come by, and the reasons are obvious. Communities struggling for survival seldom rush to announce their failures. The craze for sociological investigation that would overtake America in the twentieth century was not yet very strong. And over the centuries the Jews had developed a cultural style encouraging prudishness and self-censorship: there were things everyone knew, had no choice but to know, yet only rarely was it deemed proper to speak or write about them. Life was hard enough without indulging in luxuries of revelation.

Any realistic inhabitant of the East Side could nevertheless have told one, say, in 1890 or 1895 where prostitution flourished—mainly along Allen Street, with its dark and smelly houses and its rattling elevated train, but also on Houston, Rivington, Stanton, and Delancey streets. The very possibility that some of their own might be mixed up with prostitution horrified the immigrant Jews: it ran wholly against the values and inhibitions they had brought across the ocean. Yet it was also true that prostitution had already shown itself in the Jewish neighborhoods of east European cities; the subject would soon appear in Yiddish literature, notably in Sholem Asch’s popular play God of Vengeance, in which the central character is a procurer trying to keep his daughter from the path of shame; and for decades whispers would slip through the Yiddish-speaking world about Jewish white slavers who sent kidnaped Jewish girls from eastern Europe to brothels in Latin America.

Describing New York immigrant life in 1903–1904 for a Russian audience, Isaac Max Rubinow reported that “the vices affected mostly the Americanized Jews, that is, those who have adopted the outward luster of so-called Americanization.” By its nature, Rubinow’s notion could not be verified, though it fits in with the general assumption that the spread of social pathology will be hastened by a breakdown of social structure. Dancing academies, some of them mere way stations to brothels and recruiting grounds for “cadets,” as pimps were then called, began to be advertised in the Yiddish press during the late eighties. In 1899 Frederick Shackleton, pastor of a Forsyth Street church, complained that solicitation was openly practiced from the stoops of tenements near his congregation. In 1894 the Lexow Committee and in 1899 the Mazet Committee, both appointed by the New York State Legislature, dug up quantities of material concerning crime, police corruption, and prostitution on the East Side. Lists of pimps and madams compiled by these committees include a fair number of Jewish names—Joseph Klein, Charles Jacobwitz, Minnie Wiener, Louis Sugarman, Bertha Greenberg, all operated in the Jewish quarter. The same is true for the prostitutes—Lena Cohen, Ida Katz, Sadie Felman, others. A president of an Allen Street synagogue, Isaac Pearlstein, testified before the Mazet Committee that “the women of these houses stood on the street and annoyed the congregation. They … call to the people that are passing by.… It is a very bad thing for the men and children going to the church to have to pass through all the things in all the houses.” An investigator for the committee, Edward Riordan, reported that “I have observed boys and young men peddling cards for disorderly houses and girls on Allen Street.… [Their job is] getting customers for them and warning them of the approach of enemies, and looking after the girls.” Especially striking is the accumulated material showing a close relationship between vice on the East Side and the Tammany political machine, often through the organizing gifts of a Jewish “godfather” named Max Hochstim.

Newspapers and memoirs offer substantiating evidence. The New York World, in 1896, reported the suicide of Lena Meyers, twenty-eight, found in her room at 193 First Avenue. The young woman had sent money regularly to her parents in Cracow from her earnings as a prostitute, and two weeks before her death had received a letter in Hebrew from her mother thanking her for money received and asking, “Lena, why don’t you get married? Do you want to be an old maid?” Death was thought to be the result of drinking carbolic acid. (The Mazet Committee listed other young women, mostly prostitutes, who took their lives: a sprinkling of Jewish names.) Recalling his childhood on the East Side, Michael Gold would write: “On sunshiny days the whores sat on chairs along the sidewalks. They sprawled indolently, their legs taking up half the pavement. People stumbled over a gauntlet of whores’ meaty legs. The girls gossiped and chirped like a jungle of parrots. Some knitted shawls and stockings.… Others chewed Russian sunflower seeds.”

By the turn of the century, the Yiddish press began to pay attention. The Forward wrote in 1898: “It is better to stay away from Allen, Chrystie, and Forsyth streets, if you go walking with your wife, daughter, or fiancée. There is an official flesh trade in the Jewish quarter. In the windows you can see human flesh instead of shoes. Chrystie is full of saloons and prostitutes who are not afraid any more, because ‘we are Tammany’”—a sardonic reference to the recent electoral victory of the Tammany machine, to which Jews had contributed and which brought a relaxation of police regulations on the East Side, as throughout the city.

Throughout these years the immigrant community was extremely sensitive, as all such communities must be, to charges that it served as a breeding ground for crime. Its standard defense was offered by Abraham Cahan in an article he wrote in 1898 for the Atlantic Monthly: “Jews constitute six percent of the total population of New York state [but] furnish only three percent of the prisoners of that state.… The ratio of foreign-born Jews to the total immigrant population is fifteen percent, yet less than five percent of the foreign-born prisoners are of the Hebrew race.” True enough; yet if seen not as a problem in ethnic defense but as a problem to be confronted within the East Side itself, the subject of crime could not be so easily disposed of. Some of the “crime” was innocent. Peddlers could not avoid breaking local regulations if they were to survive; the kosher slaughter of chickens in tenements, while violating the sanitary code, was unavoidable. Immigrants still firmly Orthodox went to their rabbis for divorce and then assumed they could legally remarry; in 1890 a grand jury declared that “granting these so-called divorces should be absolutely prohibited by law.” After a while, the rabbis found it wise to accept this brake on their authority.

The Jewish population, wrote William McAdoo, a New York police commissioner, “is not apt, unless under great pressure, to resort to force or to commit crimes of violence.… Among themselves disputes are mostly confined to wordy arguments. They argue with great vigor and earnestness, but the argument ends as it begins.” McAdoo was acute enough to note that Jews fresh from Europe had “a great suspicion and fear of the police. The words ‘police,’ ‘law,’ ‘prison,’ conjure up dire possibilities in their minds, and for self-protection they naturally become evasive and secretive.”

The most frequent crimes in the Jewish neighborhood were crimes of fraud, not violence. Studying 1898 police and municipal court records, the University Settlement Society concluded that Jews “are prominent in their commission of forgery, violation of corporation ordinances, as disorderly persons (failure to support wife or family), both grades of larceny, and of the lighter grade of assault,” but were “notably little addicted to intoxication” and furnished “a very small proportion of vagrants.” How poor the whole immigrant world still was is suggested by the fact that most summonses issued in these courts were for amounts below fifteen dollars! “A low criminal record, somewhat litigious, very poor, yet furnishing an extremely low contingent to the vagrant classes—these are the characteristics of the East Side Jew.” Seventy years later a scholarly survey based on newspaper reports for the years 1900–1904 came to the same conclusion.

To the Jewish immigrants, the idea of physical violence among themselves seemed a little unreal, perhaps not to be taken very seriously. When the Forward began publishing, in 1897, it gave special attention to a murder on the Lower East Side precisely because it was so unusual an event: “Shapiro murders Liberman. All because his fiancée left him. Claims self-defense. Terrible uproar in Jewish quarter.” Love, the article began, “a deeply rooted, fiery love, ended last night with an awful murder in the Jewish quarter.” Closer by far to the common Jewish feeling about violence, especially violence committed by one Jew against another, was a Forward story a few weeks earlier: “Wants to be a hero. Hasn’t got much luck. Sam wants to shoot his uncle and stepdaughter but only manages to wound his knee and his own finger.”

Far more frequent during these years were Forward accounts of gross deceptions and pitiable swindles. “Adler’s family affairs. A seventy-five-year-old man marries a twenty-five-year-old girl, steals her sixty-seven dollars, and disappears. Also has another wife.” Or: “Who is the murderer? An awful tragedy with a young child. Child falls in boiling water. Mother calls babke [a woman ‘healer’] instead of doctor; she cuts child’s skin with pair of scissors. After this, child dies. Babke has not yet been found.” Or: “Wanted to force his bride to shame. Man brought over girl from Russia, promising to marry her. When she arrived, he tried to make money through her.” Or, in a Hardyesque vein: “Ten months ago Jacob Shrek sold his thirty-year-old wife for a watch and chain, worth $150, to David Saks. Saks, who lived with Mrs. Shrek, wanted his watch back and went to the police to report that Shrek had robbed him. Now all three are in prison. The wife had previously been jailed in Philadelphia on a bigamy charge.”

As the possibilities of American enterprise became clearer, Jews found their way to more sophisticated crime, and some showed a talent for gambling. Arnold Rothstein, to be celebrated in the 1920’s as “the J. P. Morgan of the underworld” and immortalized in The Great Gatsby as Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, began his career by watching games of “stuss,” a New York version of faro. At sixteen Rothstein was making himself useful at the headquarters of Big Tim Sullivan, a Tammany boss of the nineties, by running errands and translating the requests of Yiddish-speaking constituents. It was at Big Tim’s that Rothstein met Monk Eastman, a gangster, probably Jewish, who enjoyed some fame; later, when Rothstein went into the moneylending business, Eastman’s mob provided collectors. “You’re smart Jew boys,” Sullivan told Rothstein and his friend Herman Rosenthal, “and you’ll make out as gamblers. That business takes brains.” By 1902 Rothstein was on his own, taking bets on races and fights, running crap games for large stakes; by 1906 he had a twelve-million-dollar bankroll. When he died in 1928, at the age of forty-six, Rothstein received an Orthodox Jewish funeral, in accordance with the American requirement that, no matter how brutal their lives, gangsters retain a tie of sentiment with the faith of their fathers.

Others showed a diversity of talents. Isaac Zuker headed a Jewish arson ring and ended his career with a thirty-six-year sentence. Harry Joblinski ran a school for young pickpockets and at one time was said to have employed fifteen apprentices. Somewhat earlier and into the mid-eighties, “Mother” Marm Mandelbaum acquired fame as a leading New York fence; she was estimated to have disposed of over five million dollars’ worth of stolen property from her Clinton Street headquarters. “Mother” Mandelbaum employed the legal talent of Howe and Hummell for an annual five-thousand-dollar retainer and set herself up as an ambitious hostess in the criminal world.

She is said to have been a Fagin and to have maintained a school in Grand Street, not far from Police Headquarters.… She also offered advanced courses in burglary and safe-blowing, and to a few of the most intimate of her associates gave postgraduate work in blackmailing and confidence schemes. The fame of this institution became widespread, but Marm Mandelbaum became alarmed and dismissed her teaching staff when the young son of a prominent police official applied for instruction.

Monk Eastman, born Edward Osterman in Williamsburg, had among his colleagues and surbordinates such accomplished hoodlums as Spanish Johnny, Sophie Lyons, Nathan Kaplan “the Kid Dropper,” and Little Kishky, all of Jewish birth and some to depart this earth with Orthodox rites. Eastman enjoyed close connections with Tammany Hall, especially when floaters were needed at election time; his main contacts were “Silver Dollar” Smith, a barkeep and alderman born either Charles Solomon or Solomon Finkelstein, and Max Hochstim, an assistant to Smith, who brought together politics and prostitution. Smith’s saloon, across the street from the Essex Market court, was solidly paved with silver dollars, an appropriate setting for Jews who came to gain favors and arrange for the “fixing” of summonses and tickets.* The close relationship between politics and crime later served as the subject of a crude but vivid novel, Samuel Ornitz’s Haunch, Paunch and Jowl, in which the narrator, a cheap lawyer, remembers: “I keep the political irons hot, fix the cops, do all the backing and filling in connection with the criminal cases. I split fees with court clerks … I take care of the boys all the way down the line from the judge on the bench to the bootblack in the criminal courts’ hallway.”

Crime befouled the life of the East Side during the eighties and nineties; later, as immigrants learned the devices of native enterprise, the neighborhood would export some notable graduates to New York’s underworld. East Side leaders and institutions were steadily worried, more than they allowed themselves to say in public or admit to the gentiles, about the spread of prostitution among Jewish girls and thievery among Jewish boys. But in the life of the immigrant community as a whole, crime was a marginal phenomenon, a pathology discoloring the process of collective assertion and adjustment; most of the immigrants had neither training in, nor understanding of, nor appetite for, imported or native criminal methods. Crime was a source of shame, a sign that much was distraught and some diseased on the East Side; but it was never at the center of Jewish immigrant life.

Voices of the Left

Torn apart by the pressures of extreme contradiction, the culture of the East Side during the eighties and nineties was at once depressed and ebullient, shaken to its roots and clenched with a will to survive. The culture expressed itself most articulately through the writings of the sweatshop poets (see pp. 420–25), an indigenous Yiddish theatre (see pp. 460–67), and the politics of radicalism. Though the sweatshop poets affected the lives of only a minority among the immigrants, the theatre and radical politics touched the masses, bringing popular dilemmas and yearnings to the sharpest focus.

The radicalism that a tiny segment of immigrant Jews had carried across from eastern Europe was intellectually primitive and politically untried. It had more to do with a visceral reaction against religious Orthodoxy than a precise analysis of modern capitalism. It had more to do with the hope of self-transformation—gropings toward mild bohemianism, ethical experimentation, sexual freedom—than organizing working-class protest. The ferocity with which this early Jewish radicalism proclaimed its cosmopolitanism mirrored the ferocity with which traditional Judaism had clung to messianic separatism. In its turbulent emotions this radicalism was still strongly tied to the world it was rejecting, still deeply responsive to the fathers it meant to outrage.

In the eighties the spokesmen for Jewish radicalism were small groups of intellectuals, really semi-intellectuals soon forced by American circumstances to become workers. They knew little about the conditions of the Jewish working class in eastern Europe, still in its early stages of formation, and knew next to nothing about the conditions of the working class in America, either native or immigrant. Declamatory, impassioned, theoretic, and sectarian to the marrow, these pioneer radicals sometimes called themselves socialists and sometimes anarchists, but they really had little of any tradition to go by. They were a mixture of socialist, anarchist, positivist, village atheist, and enlightened young Jew in love with the heroic style of the Russian populists. In the meeting halls and tenements of the Lower East Side they had to work out for themselves—with little help, at first, from the masters of European socialism—the ideas they meant to bring to the oppressed and the strategies by which to stir them into action.

A good portion of the early immigrant radicals either would not or could not speak Yiddish. What was this Yiddish? A wretched jargon of shnorers (beggars) and luftmenshn, a dialect of the shtetl where medieval prejudice had clamped Jewish minds. No one, surely, had ever associated Yiddish with secular thought or proletarian uprising. Those looking for liberation turned to Russian as the language of grandeur, the language of poets like Pushkin and Nekrasov and rebels like the early narodniki. In their yearnings for culture, many of the young Jewish intellectuals in eastern Europe had come to associate Russian with “high” sentiments and Yiddish with their own backwardness. Transferred to the East Side, where the Jewish immigrants were forced to become proletarians, these attitudes came to be snobbish and self-defeating. Even before there was a radical movement, radical intellectuals were displaying an elitist condescension toward the masses they proposed to liberate, the masses in whose behalf they would make enormous sacrifices.

In the late spring of 1882 there broke out a bitter longshoremen’s strike on the New York waterfront. A number of immigrants, just off the boat and still being housed at Castle Garden, were recruited as strikebreakers. One of them, I. Kopeloff, later active in the anarchist movement, recalls that a delegation of Irish and German workers came to them explaining “that we were scabs who were taking the bread out of the mouths of the strikers’ families.… I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong or what my sin was. Why should I not be permitted to earn my piece of bread? And what was this union, or why were those for it kosher and those against it treyf?”

The radical Jewish intelligentsia, loosely organized as the “Propaganda Association” (full title: Propaganda Association for the Dissemination of Socialist Ideas Among Immigrant Jews), distributed handbills calling for a meeting at Eisl’s Golden Rule Hall at 127 Rivington Street on July 7, 1882, with the aim of persuading Jewish immigrants not to become strikebreakers.

These handbills were printed in Yiddish: it was essential that Jewish workers be able to read them. But the speeches at the rally were delivered in Russian: it was necessary that the radicals maintain their linguistic purity. Sergius Schevitsch, a Russian socialist of elegant speech and bearing, explained why it was wrong for Jewish workers to scab on Irish longshoremen, and by all accounts his several hundred listeners, or at least those who could make something of his Russian, were persuaded. At the meeting’s end a green young immigrant named Abraham Cahan rose to make a few impassioned, if stray, remarks, in Russian too, that brought him to the notice of the leaders of the association. Intoxicated by this success, Cahan challenged them by saying that if they wanted to reach Jewish workers they would have to provide Yiddish speakers. “What Jew doesn’t know Russian?” snapped Mirovich, one of the leaders. Cahan’s answer was decisive: “My father.” Coming from Saint Petersburg, Mirovich was quite ignorant of the shtetl Jews whose Russian was limited to the few phrases needed to placate a peasant or policeman. “More in jest than in earnest,” the association proposed that Cahan lecture in Yiddish—and thereby, it is only a slight exaggeration to say, begins the story of Yiddish-language radicalism in the United States.

Together with a teen-age friend named Bernard Weinstein, whom he had converted to socialism while the two were working in a cigarette factory and who would later become a mainstay of the Jewish trade unions, Cahan distributed five hundred Yiddish leaflets “in the Jewish streets.” On August 18, 1882, he spoke for two hours “in the simplest Yiddish” to several hundred people, explaining “Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value, the theory of class struggle, and the inevitability of socialism.” About all of these formidable topics Cahan knew only a little more than his audience, and there is cause to marvel at the ability of this youngster—an ability, in the radical milieu, alarmingly widespread—to speak at great length out of small knowledge. His lecture, it was later recalled by Weinstein, “kindled a wave of excitement … as if the dumb had begun to speak”; indeed, one reason so many came was that “the greenhorns wanted a chance to experiment with ‘freedom of speech.’” A few weeks later Cahan gave another lecture, this time three hours long, in which he attacked the millionaires with “elaborate Vilna curses” and urged the workers “to march on Fifth Avenue with their tools and their axes and to seize the palaces and the riches which their labor had produced.” Not many Jewish workers owned tools and fewer still axes, so that Cahan’s call to revolt, as he himself wrote years later, was “a boy’s, not a man’s, speech.” It was also typical of the moment, with its mixture of Marxist approximations and anarchist bravado, its verbal radicalism at once innocent and empty.

For several years the social democratic and anarchist outlooks existed uneasily side by side in the discussion groups and lecture societies the immigrant radicals formed, split up, and re-formed. Not everyone was certain as to which he really was, or what the differences amounted to, and some, like Cahan, shifted back and forth between anarchism and socialism before coming to a halt. As the Jewish radical immigrants moved from the Propaganda Association to the Russian Workingmen’s Association and then to the Jewish Workingmen’s Association (107 members, and significant because for the first time there was candor in labeling), and, after that, to Section 8, the Yiddish-speaking branch of the Socialist Labor party, they kept struggling among themselves for definition, grasp, rectitude, and extreme posture. And also for contol of the library. Each group, with a membership overlapping the others, would accumulate a few radical and scientific books, and when the time for a split arrived it was over those books, visible tokens of their yearning for enlightenment, that the factions would quarrel most.

Intellectual distinctions took time to work up, but the inevitable law of sectarianism—that in the absence of mass participation and social power it is ideology that becomes the substance of politics—was fiercely at work. A former czarist officer who had renamed himself William Frey preached a “religion of humanity” garnished with vegetarianism, and for a little while this Tolstoyan ascetic, whom Cahan regarded as a “moral giant,” claimed admirers in the Jewish colony. Competing with him was Dr. Felix Adler, the father of Ethical Culture, who would deliver, with pomp and circumstance, weekly lectures at Chickering Hall, on Fifth Avenue near Eighteenth Street. Far to the left of Frey and Adler thundered Johann Most, the German anarchist leader and, at that time, advocate of “propaganda of the deed,” or terrorism. In 1883 Most printed in his German-language paper, the Freiheit, the infamous “Catechism of a Revolutionary,” a defense of political amorality written by Bakunin and Nechayev. Most was not much of a thinker—Karl Marx had denounced his “idiotic secret conspiratorial plans”—yet in the Jewish radical milieu of the eighties, where fervor counted at least as much as sense, he gained a following. One immigrant would remember the “teachings of the three,” Adler, Most, and Frey, as “confounded in the minds of the youth, and an ethical-anarchist-positivist hash resulting.”

For a few years, during the late eighties and early nineties, it was anarchism that captured the imagination of the more radical immigrants. In the totality of its rejection, in the absolutism of its intellectual system, in the theological fervor with which it assaulted traditional theology, this anarchism mirrored the deracination of a stratum of immigrants. It spoke to their sense of being utterly adrift, without ties in the old world or new, at home nowhere but in the regions of their thought. And it provided them with a self-contained milieu in which their feelings of hurt and aspiration could burn, and burn themselves out, barely in touch with such mundane considerations as wage struggles, trade unions, and electoral contests. Their statements of internationalism notwithstanding, these early radicals wanted to keep within the familiar bounds of the immigrant culture, for even when scoffed at on the East Side, it was still the place where they felt most at home. The great world they dreamed of conquering was actually the world they were least prepared to visit.

Organized in 1886 as the Pioneers of Liberty, the anarchists held weekly forums at which several score listeners would regularly appear; in 1889, renamed the Knights of Freedom, they began publishing the weekly Varheit, which lasted five months; a year later they started bringing out the Freie Arbeiter Shtime, a weekly that would become the longest-lasting Yiddish paper in America, and would offer both political comment and a range of social and cultural material in Yiddish. At the anarchist forums doctrine was expounded, the Almighty told off, and instruction offered in the social and natural sciences. When a debate was arranged, the audience could grow to several hundred or more—the immigrant world loved these gladiatorial exercises in oratory and dialectic. Jacob Merison, a veteran of those days, has recalled one debate between Saul Yanofsky, an anarchist leader, and Louis Miller, a social democratic writer: “Quotations pour out of Miller like burning lava from a volcano. He cites Marx and Bakunin, Kropotkin and Jules Guesde, Darwin and Buckle, Spencer and Hegel, Aristotle and Spinoza, until his opponent is utterly shattered. The hall resounds with applause. Miller has emerged triumphant.”

Like its European equivalents, Jewish anarchism had little concern with strategy or tactics, methods of persuasion or councils of conciliation. For a vital minority of Jewish workers, anarchism was the name of their despair. And inevitably

the religious question was at the core of the [anarchist] struggle against the existing social order. The masses, uprooted from an integrated and tradition-bound way of life inseparable from Orthodox Judaism, and subjected to disintegrative pressures, were, although perhaps inchoately, attempting to reorder their lives. This meant dealing with the question of religion, and confronting the propaganda of the radicals in their midst. Public avowal of agnosticism, atheism, apostasy, and backsliding was no new phenomenon in Jewish life by the 1880’s. The anarchists, however, went far beyond secularism or anticlericalism in the bitter extremes of their antireligious struggle.

That they might thereby put off Jewish workers ready for political radicalism yet still attached to their religious past was an argument the anarchists dismissed with scorn. For they were less interested, at least to begin with, in struggles for improving the common lot than in articulating an entirely new outlook upon life within the Jewish world. Morris Winchevsky, a leading Yiddish poet and publicist, later remembered ironically, “For me … disbelief and hatred toward all faiths reached a high point of fanaticism.… My greatest delight was to prove that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, that Joshua did not cause the heavens to stand still.” The anarchist Alexander Berkman recalled a conversation:

“I do not believe in religion.”

“Young man … when, permit me to ask, did you reach so profound a conclusion?”

“Since I wrote the essay ‘There Is No God.’”

“When did you write it?”

“Three years ago.”

“How old were you then?”

“Twelve.”

It was a village atheism, in a reconstituted Jewish village, where faith among the masses remained strong and the mere thought of apostasy required emotional courage. That the anarchists and some of the social democrats chose to demonstrate their freedom from superstition by holding balls and parades on Yom Kippur night, the most sacred moment of the Jewish year, showed not merely insensitivity but also the extent to which traditional faith dominated those who denied it. The Pioneers of Liberty declared in 1889 that they were simply intent on celebrating in their own way “the great festival of the slaughter of the fowl,” but this home-brewed anthropology fooled no one; what was ringing in their ears was not the sound of primitive ritual but the haunting melody of Kol Nidre. The parodies of the traditional prayers they printed in their papers were often clever, but also revealed how well they remembered the prayers. In 1890 the anarchists moved their ball to the Brooklyn Labor Lyceum, on Myrtle Avenue, and announced:

Grand Yom Kippur Ball.

With theatre.

Arranged with the consent of all new rabbis of Liberty.

Koll Nydre Night and Day.

In the year 5651, after the invention of the Jewish

idols, and 1890, after the birth of the false Messiah.…

The Koll Nydre will be offered by John Most.

Music, dancing, buffet, “Marseillaise,” and other

hymns against Satan.

The consequences of such tomfoolery were or should have been predictable. Many immigrants, although no longer Orthodox, still maintained a sense of piety toward religious occasions, and the anarchist assault came to seem a threat to their very being. Later, too late, one anarchist leader would recognize that “the war against God … played a great part in the decrease of anarchist influence in Jewish life.”

There were moments when the anarchists could still rouse the emotions of the Jewish workers, but, as a rule, more through invocations of martyrdom than appeals to ideological rightness. When the convicted defendants in the 1886 Haymarket case in Chicago, almost certainly victims of a frame-up, were finally put to death, the Jewish anarchists held protest rallies on the East Side, as well as in other cities with immigrant populations. This was the kind of issue Jews could quickly grasp: they had known pogroms, they now learned about legal outrage. In 1903, when Alexander Berkman, an intellectual more sophisticated than the earlier anarchists, shot H. C. Frick, the labor-hating steel magnate, this example of “propaganda of the deed” shocked a good many of the Yiddish-speaking comrades. Talking about violence, they had not really meant that anyone should actually take gun in hand and try to kill another human being!

After a bloody strike in Colorado coal mines owned by the Rockefellers, a young anarchist woman, Marie Ganz, decided that “one man is guiltier than all others … and he must no longer live.” She went to the Rockefeller office and was met by a secretary, who told her, “Mr. Rockefeller isn’t in town.… What can I do for you?”

“‘If you’re Mr. Rockefeller’s secretary,’ I replied, ‘I want you to tell him that if he doesn’t stop killing the workers in Colorado I’ll shoot him down like a dog.’

“‘I will deliver your message,’ returned the young man suavely, and bowed me out.

“Already the newsboys were yelling extras that Marie Ganz had tried to shoot Rockefeller. Had tried! Bah!”

Throughout the nineties, and beyond them, Emma Goldman—young, vibrant, brilliant—loomed across the immigrant milieu as a solitary heroine of emancipation, a little admired and a little feared, an astonishing sort of “Jewish daughter” to have arisen in a world still far from morally relaxed or even at ease with its secularism. Speaking for “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestrained by man-made law,” she suffered constant legal assault whenever she toured the country. The East Side became for her a place to which she could retreat in relative safety, and during the depression of 1893 she found employment there as a social worker, serving the jobless bread and leaflets with equal zest. But, in truth, her notoriety in the world at large was always greater than her influence among the Jewish immigrants; she was one of the first intellectuals to “graduate” from and then move out of their milieu.

By the nineties it was becoming clear that anarchism would never win the Jewish workers, simply because it had no answers to their immediate needs and, out of an ideological willfulness, denied their intuitions as to what might be achieved in America. For all their claims to emancipation, the anarchists largely shared the feelings of lostness that were so heavy in the early immigrant world. When they denounced the ballot box as a proposed way of achieving social change, they were not merely reflecting standard anarchist doctrine; they were also speaking out of the bewilderment Jewish workers felt when confronted with American politics. Once the immigrants began to root themselves a little in native life, they quickly brushed aside the ultimatism of the anarchists—as later, they would the dogmatism of many socialists—and worked to improve their conditions of existence.

Such efforts, for a good many years, were doomed to fail. Repeated attempts were made to organize unions of Jewish immigrant workers during the eighties and nineties; sometimes they would break out into ferocious strikes ending in hunger and demoralization; sometimes reach a momentary victory soon dissipated by their inability to maintain a stable organization. What characterized the outbursts of working-class rebellion on the East Side during these years was the repeated conjuncture of heroism in strikes and ineptitude in organization. The immigrants brought with them no tradition or experience of unionism, as would the generation coming to America after 1905. These early immigrants, writes the Yiddish historian Abraham Menes,

were obsessed by one idea: to work as hard as possible and spend as little as possible in order to save passage for the family [that had remained in Europe]. The accusation leveled against the Jewish immigrants of the eighties, that they were themselves to blame for the intolerable working conditions of the sweatshop, was not entirely unfounded.… The workers wished to work longer hours and thus to earn a little more, so as to hasten the day when they could bring their families to America.

Workers imbued with this outlook might, as in fact they did, erupt into desperate strikes once life came to seem unbearable; but they were not really good material for unionization, which requires persistence at least as much as heroism.

In the few stable unions that were organized, the interests of the workers and the traditions of Jewishness tended to seem all but inseparable. Union leaders understood the need for weaving Biblical references into their agitational speeches (“Moses was the first walking delegate”) and to justify the heretical course they were now advocating by injunctions of Orthodox piety. Bernard Weinstein has left a charming vignette of a visit he made to one intensely Jewish union:

Among the unions we had at the end of the nineties a few were composed of old men, like the pressers’, the butchers’, the ragpickers’ locals. One of these that we of the United Hebrew Trades helped organize in 1894 was a union of cleaners. Its members, who had mostly been tailors in Europe, operated out of cellars and worked by hand. They’d take dirty old clothes, wash them with benzene, dye them with brushes, and then press them. Many a time their pails of kerosene would spill over and cause fires in the tenements.

The union of these elderly cleaners had been started by one of its younger members, M. Segal, of the Socialist Labor party, and their meetings turned out to be quite lively—they usually arranged to have representatives of the United Hebrew Trades in order to settle the frequent fights that would break out, fights of joy.

We couldn’t really complain about this uncomradely mode of behavior since the worklife of these people was very bitter—old men, usually in yarmulkes, standing twelve to fifteen hours a day by long tables in dirty cellars, cleaning dirty clothes.

One day three of us from the United Hebrew Trades were invited to a meeting held on the top floor of a loft at 49 Henry Street. This time, it turned out, there’d be no fighting—apparently our presence shamed them out of it.

When we arrived, everyone was sitting around a table facing the chairman; all wore yarmulkes except a few younger members with hats. Most were dressed in long smocks resembling caftans. Everyone had a glass of beer in hand, and before him a plate of herring and chunks of pumpernickel.

The place was half dark from the smoke of pipes and one could have been deafened by the banging of the beer glasses. A few fellows served as waiters and would steadily put down glasses of beer with a “l’chaim.”

The chairman stood on a platform in the middle of the room. When he noticed us—we hadn’t known where to sit among the hundred or so members—he summoned us to the head of the table. As we drew near, everyone rose and as the chairman recited our “pedigree” we were resoundingly toasted with the clinking of glasses.…

The noise grew. Someone began a Simchat Torah melody; glasses continually refilled from a nearby barrel; also, pails of ice to keep the beer cold. Finally I asked my bearded neighbor, “What’s the occasion?”

“How should I know?” he answered. “Every meeting is like this, or else we wouldn’t show up. The men give a few dimes apiece, and we have a Simchat Torah. That’s how we are—sometimes we kiss each other from happiness, sometimes we fight.”

At the end of each of our speeches, we all cried out, “Long live the union!” as the old Jews applauded and bumped glasses. Meanwhile a few started to move aside the tables and began dancing to a Hasidic tune.

In our report to the UHT, we called this group the Simchat Torah Union.

Strikes broke out again and again during the eighties, in the garment, cigar-making, bakery, and hat-making industries; unions were improvised again and again, sometimes by workers meeting in a hall and waiting for the socialists to send over Bernard Weinstein, Abraham Cahan, or Joseph Barondess to act as speaker-organizer; but of lasting results there were few. In 1883 a strike broke out at the large Keeney Brothers tobacco plant, which employed many Jewish immigrants, but after a few weeks the men had to drift back to work. In 1885 there was a major strike by the Jewish cloak-makers, some fifteen hundred strong, who claimed they had to work from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM in order to make from twelve to fifteen dollars a week (relatively decent wages for the time); they were demanding a rate that would allow them to make the same amount while working “only” from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM. The Times reported that the strikers “also demanded that in the future they be treated with politeness and consideration.” This strike ended with a written agreement, rare for those days, but again the union itself was neither firm nor durable enough to enforce it for any length of time. In 1888 a central body of Jewish unions, the United Hebrew Trades, was organized, though for some years it had more trunk than branches.

A glimpse of the Yiddish press in the years before the turn of the century reveals the heartbreaking difficulties behind even the simplest strike. Here is a characteristic report:

The strike of the knee-pants makers in the firm of Cohen and Braun, Brooklyn, continues. The workers have been on strike for two weeks and nobody thinks of returning to work until their persecutor, the rude foreman, has been fired. Especially admirable is the attitude of the Poles in this shop. The “lovely” foreman tries to create intrigues among the workers. He tells the Poles that the Jews are on strike because they don’t want to work with them, and to the Jews he tells the opposite. But all these tricks cannot help him.

Yesterday he promised the Poles fifty dollars for everyone who went back to work, but that didn’t help either. Until today there were no scabs. Tonight, however, they tried to frighten the geese. Somewhere they found five whole scabs.… Accompanied by five cops, this procession entered the factory. The pickets doubled up with laughter, that these guys, who are likely to finish one pair of knee-pants a day, should do the work of seventy workers.

Probably the workers at Cohen and Braun were not quite as sanguine as the reporter made out—the phrase about “the geese” is terribly revealing. That it was hard to persuade Jewish workers to organize lasting unions during these years, all the testimony confirms. The Yidishe Folkstseitung, a pioneering radical weekly put out between 1886 and 1889 by two earnest young men who had saved up five hundred dollars working in Boston garment shops, devoted issue after issue, written in broken Yiddish, to simple lessons in solidarity: “When two people establish a relationship as husband and wife, they create a family organization,” and by extension that was what the Jewish workers needed. Again and again, the Folkstseitung came head on against the limitations, the fears, the bedraggledness of its readers. It was singularly empty of humor, colloquial ease, or any effort to describe the actualities of Jewish life in New York. (Perhaps the editors felt that their readers knew those actualities only too well.) Yet even into the impoverished pages there crept motifs that would later course through the radical Yiddish press. “Together with the cry of ‘food’ there is another to be heard throughout the world: ‘I want more light in my darkened life.’” The word finsternish, darkness, recurs again and again, as the one note Yiddish readers could be expected immediately to recognize—their lives are overcome by finsternish and it is to escape from finsternish that men must learn to act.

In 1890, a more sophisticated Yiddish radical weekly began to appear, the Arbeiter Tseitung, published by the Yiddish-speaking section of the Socialist Labor party. Only a few years intervene between the two papers, but the gap in political culture is enormous. In the Arbeiter Tseitung, there is more relaxed and pithier writing; there are poems by Morris Rosenfeld, who would gain recognition as the lyricist of the sweatshop, and even one or two by Abraham Cahan (“Dos Lied fun Operator,” “The Song of the Operator”); there are homely theoretical pieces by M. Hillkowitz, later to become Morris Hillquit, theorist of the Socialist party; there is a serialization of the Yiddish classic Di Kliatche, by Mendele Mokher Sforim; and there is the beginning of a serious effort to report back to Yiddish readers the terms of their own life. When thousands of Jewish workers marched to Union Square on May Day 1890, demanding an eight-hour day, the Arbeiter Tseitung came alive with a proud description; when cloakmakers went on strike, as they did almost every year, the reportage was crisp and impassioned. Behind this improvement was the guiding hand of Abraham Cahan, a master journalist of the years to come; now he was working his way toward a plain style, especially in the pieces he wrote under the by-line of Der Proletarishker Magid, the working-class preacher, in which he shrewdly united the manner of an old-country itinerant preacher with the stripped ideas of socialist agitation.

To readers of a later time, much of what appeared in the Arbeiter Tseitung may appear intellectually coarse and primitive, but far more pertinent is the response of Morris Raphael Cohen, then a youth on the Lower East Side: “For intellectual stimulus I turned every week to the Arbeiter Tseitung. In its columns I read translations of Flaubert’s Salammbo.… I was seriously interested in the news of the week and in Abraham Cahan’s articles on socialism, which were in the form of addresses like those of the old Hebrew preachers.”

For all the defeats and difficulties encountered by the pioneer radicals and unionists, these were the years in which the future leadership of the Jewish labor movement was being forged. From failures in trade union organization, valuable lessons were slowly learned. From the 1886 Henry George campaign, after which the United Labor party disintegrated into its component parts and most of the radicals went back to their sectarian preoccupations, the lessons were slower to come by—it would take some time before the Jewish immigrants learned that, through unity and shrewdness, they could become a power in the political life of the city. And impressive young men began to appear: Abraham Cahan, with his intuitive grasp of the immigrant mind; Morris Hillquit, who began as a shirtmaker and became the best mind of American social democracy; Bernard Weinstein, a model of the selfless and modest union leader; and Joseph Barondess, half charismatic agitator and half charlatan.

Among all the early Jewish radicals, Cahan stands out overwhelmingly. Somehow, he managed frequently to break past the formulas of his comrades and to see that for “those gray haired, misunderstood sweatshop hands of whom the public learns every time a tailor strike is declared” there were so few joys “that their religion is to many of them the only thing that makes life worth living. In the fervor of prayer or the abandon of study they forget the poverty of their homes.” Hardly a profound or original thought, but for the time an immensely valuable one. Cahan could grasp the way religious emotions slide into secular passions and how necessary it was for anyone trying to organize immigrant Jewish workers not only to avoid antagonizing but positively to draw upon their religious loyalties. He told of visiting a mishna class of striking vestmakers and hearing one of them declare:

Ours is a just cause. It is for the bread of our children that we are struggling. We want our rights and we are bound to get them through the union. Saith the Law of Moses: “Thou shalt not withhold anything from thy neighbor nor rob him; there shall not abide with thee the wages of him that is hired through the night until morning.” So it stands in Leviticus. So you see that your bosses who rob us and don’t pay us regularly commit a sin, and that the cause of our union is a just one.

Cahan’s attitude toward these matters was ruled mostly by tactical considerations, by his understanding that for the Jewish unions it would be suicidal to confront religion head on. Later, when editing the Forward, he wrote some notable articles that went beyond mere tactics and into the psychology of fanaticism:

The most comical and, at the same time, saddest thing is to see an atheist turn his irreligion into a cold, dry, unfeeling, heartless religion—and this is something most of our unbelievers used to do. One must not sit at a Seder; one must extend no sympathy to the honest, ignorant mother who sheds tears over her prayer book.… In truth, our early unbelievers were, in their own way, just as fanatical, just as narrow-minded, just as intolerant as the religious fanatic on whom they warred.

And in one major respect that did involve subtleties of doctrine, Cahan moved far beyond the ideologues of the Jewish left. It was a standard belief among them that “we have no Jewish question in America,” as an 1890 conference of Jewish workers’ organizations formally declared. At that time Cahan would not have explicitly rejected this view, but the whole thrust of his mind was to see things differently, less in the set categories of Marxism and more through his own restless intelligence. Anyone with eyes to see, anyone with ears to hear, had to know that there was “a Jewish question in America,” as indeed there was and would be everywhere else. Cahan used his eyes to see, his ears to hear.

If Cahan emerged as the most lucid intelligence in the early Jewish labor movement, the figure who best embodied its awkward turbulence—its pathos, its hysteria, its selflessness—was Joseph Barondess (1863–1928). His name has not survived beyond a small circle of Jewish labor veterans, for he was neither thinker nor writer and he left nothing except some achievements. But for at least twenty-five years Barondess was one of the two or three most popular figures on the East Side, as agitator and communal spokesman, genuinely a man of the people.

On and off he was a leader of the cloakmakers’ union; occasionally the ally, sometimes the opponent, of the socialists; a public hero during strikes; self-appointed manager of folk celebrations and funerals (“It was almost a pleasure to die,” recalls a contemporary, “knowing that Barondess would arrange the rites”); failed actor, shirtmaker, insurance agent, untiring organizational busybody. For some years he was called “King of the Cloak-makers,” one of those emotionally overspilling men for whom the East Side provided the ideal outlet. Capable of complete selflessness in behalf of the garment workers, he could also behave toward them like a feudal lord bullying his serfs. When aroused, he would deal out slaps to rebellious followers and, as if to show himself evenhanded, to labor-sweating contractors. His mind was a sloppy instrument, but he could always win the hearts of the Jewish workers through his soaring voice, his gift for lacing Talmudic epigrams into radical agitation. To the cloakmakers of the nineties, it was precisely Barondess’s gaudiness that made him seem the kind of man appropriate for leadership. Had he succeeded in becoming an actor, he once confided to a friend, he would have called himself Baron d’Ess.

Beginning as a cloakmaker in 1888, when he earned five dollars a week for thirteen hours a day, six days a week, Barondess catapulted himself into union leadership. The emotional channel between the workers and himself was wide if shallow, turbulent if erratic. He stressed in his speeches his essential simplicity, a simple Jew among simple Jews; but he also exploited the yearning of Jewish workers to discover some thread of distinction in their lives, a yearning that would make them forever susceptible to leaders, actors, and intellectuals affecting the “Russian style” of bohemian aristocratism: cane, flower, hauteur, rhetoric. “He talked, dressed, and behaved like an actor,” recalls Joseph Rumshinsky, the theatre composer. “Barondess looked like a brother of Jacob Adler or Boris Thomashefsky. He talked like a Shakespearean actor, always very dramatically—whether he was addressing the workers, discussing a pogrom, or ordering a glass of tea. He always impressed on his brother workers that while he was with them and understood them, he was a being superior to them.”

To the socialists of the nineties Barondess presented a problem. They could never fully rely on him, feeling the uneasiness intellectuals always feel toward “natural” leaders. They feared that his ability to excite the workers might turn him into a demagogue who would escape their control. As against the crusty logic of a Cahan and the quiet sense of a Hillquit, Barondess spoke to the workers with sturm und drang, returning to them the turmoil of feeling they had brought into immigrant life. He would abuse them with paternal intimacy, and they loved it:

In accursed Russia, under the czar, you traded with the gentiles and earned a few kopecks a week. Only on Saturday could you enjoy a piece of meat. So you think that your wretched pay in the sweatshop, given by the cockroach bosses, is a lot. But let me tell you: these are hunger wages for America. You could earn ten times as much if you weren’t such idiots.… You are in America now and not in Shnipishok, Tunadefka, or Blutofka [names of shtetlakh in the fiction of Mendele].… Here you can live like human beings! If you only weren’t such cows, such oxen, such jackasses!

After an especially bitter cloakmakers’ strike in 1891 Barondess was arrested on a charge, probably false, of extorting money from a manufacturer. Convicted, he was sentenced to twenty-one months in Sing Sing. At a meeting of the cloakmakers after his sentencing, Barondess broke into unrestrained weeping and the hundreds of workers listening to him also wept, as if overcome by the shared outrage of their lives. A few weeks later Barondess panicked, jumped bail, and fled to Canada; only after other union leaders pleaded with him did he return to New York, demoralized, to spend some months in prison before being granted a pardon. A lion at speechmaking, he shared the common Jewish dread of the gentiles’ prison. To flee during battle, however, was to violate the radical code, and Barondess’s critics, neither few in numbers nor gentle in language, did not fail to notice this weakness. The United Hebrew Trades issued a troubled statement condemning Barondess as a leader yet forgiving him as a man; apparently it was one thing to judge him through the severe prism of Marxism, another to remember that he was an immigrant with wife and children whom he had to feed.

It took only a few years for Barondess to regain his popularity on the East Side. In 1904 he ran unsuccessfully as a Socialist candidate for Congress, and somewhat later, shifting his allegiance, became active in the Zionist movement. A creature of the popular imagination, he was the kind of man who usually follows the popular drift, so that his career charted the major ideological shifts and turns of the immigrant world. By nature Barondess was a tumler, a celebrant, a noisemaker. When nine thousand Jewish workers poured into Union Square on May Day 1890, in one of their earliest ventures beyond the streets of the East Side, Barondess rode at their head, on a white horse that did not always behave properly. (It may have been a gentile horse.) At every banquet, at every celebration, parade, ceremony, and funeral—his eloquence reached its height at funerals—Barondess was there, to speak, to arouse, to weep. In 1911 he was appointed to the Board of Education, a major sign that the East Side was gaining power in New York.

Coarse and tender, incoherent and shrewd, commonplace and theatrical, Barondess was the archetypal leader who grips the hearts of workers by mirroring in gaudy excess their yearnings for drama, storm, magnitude. As a creature of their making, he rose up above them, giving substance to their fantasies. When he died, in 1928, the Jewish unions had long since ceased having a place for him, and perhaps it was just as well. Old friends and old enemies alike came to his funeral, remarking that it would have been a far more impressive occasion had Barondess been there to deliver the eulogy.

Cahan and Barondess represented two sides of early Jewish radicalism, the logic and the turbulence, the grasp and the passion. Each was groping for ways to set the struggle of the immigrant workers in a native context, though only Cahan really understood how this might be done. Cahan saw that the greatest strength of the budding socialist movement on the East Side would be its intimate association with the workers in the shops, even though—indeed, because—this might force the radicals to modulate some of their theories and relax some of their postures. Perhaps more than anyone else, Cahan encouraged the development of the kind of quick intelligence, the mixture of idealism and pragmatic shrewdness, that would make possible the later victories. What was first necessary, he understood, was that the Jewish radicals learn to create permanent organization after heroic strikes, and then, that the Jewish community itself become persuaded of its own possibilities once it had moved past the agonies of early settlement and into a tentative morale.

What Migration Meant

The mass migration of the Jews from eastern Europe to the United States signified not only the beginning of a major change in the physical circumstances of the Jewish people; it also brought an upheaval in their social existence that was at some crucial points similar to the Industrial Revolution of about a century earlier. Masses of people being forced out of, and then choosing to flee, the land; a loss of traditional patterns of preindustrial culture; the sudden crowding of pauperized or proletarianized human beings into ghastly slums and their subjection to inhumane conditions of work; a cataclysm that leaves people broken, stunned, helpless—these elements of the Industrial Revolution were re-enacted, within a shorter time span, in the mass migration of Jews during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

In one experience—rapid, sometimes violent, rarely understood by those who suffered it—this migration combined at least three kinds of change: first, a physical uprooting from the long-familiar setting of small-town life in eastern Europe to the wastes and possibilities of urban America; second, a severe rupture from and sometimes grave dispossession of the moral values and cultural supports of the Jewish tradition; and third, a radical shift in class composition, mostly as a sudden enforced proletarianization. Any one of these alone would have been painful; the three together made for a culture shock from which it would take many immigrants years to recover. Some never did.

At least during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the great majority of the east European Jewish immigrants came from the shtetl. There was no other place from which they could have come, since the process of urbanization among the east European Jews was just beginning. Indeed, it is essential to remember that immigration to America and a movement to the cities in Poland and Russia were closely linked, both as to cause and in time; the youth who fled the economic and cultural stagnation of the shtetl might go to New York or he might go to Warsaw, depending on circumstance and desire, but what mattered most was that he had to go somewhere, he felt himself stifled and without hope in the shtetl. Among the Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe in the years between 1900 and 1914 a growing minority would already have had some taste of city life, though not a very long or deep one; but in the first wave of immigration, most of those who came knew little about city life in any firsthand way. For the majority, the first sustained experience of modern urban life began the day after they left Castle Garden, when they could either lose themselves in the streets of the East Side or prepare to travel to one of its smaller equivalents in Chicago or Philadelphia.

The shtetl had been wretched enough, and every impulse to romanticize it must be resisted. But at least it was a thoroughly known place where one’s ancestors lay buried, it did not loom up to terrifying heights before one’s eyes, it required no special knowledge of machines in shops or on trolleys, and it seldom had much to do with the rigors of the clock. The shtetl encouraged that indifference to time which a true religious existence demands and a life of pauperdom enables. To many of the immigrants, when they first arrived in the United States, the sheer noise of the streets, the bulk of the buildings, the constant pushing and elbowing and rushing of daily existence, were terrifying. How painful the transition from rural to urban life can be is a familiar theme among modern historians, but consider how much more shattering it must have been when this occurred as a movement from one continent to another, from an autocratic, patriarchal, Christian culture to a democratic, egalitarian, secular culture. No matter how much more attractive the latter may have seemed in prospect, it was also, at least at first, terribly alarming. Little wonder that—like an upswell of emotion, sometimes nausea—the dominant motif in the culture of the immigrant Jews during these early decades was nostalgia, the homesickness of castaways.

The east European Jews who came to the United States in the eighties and nineties left behind them, perhaps inevitably, a good portion of their culture and religion. The rabbis, the learned institutions, the political leaders, the burial societies, the intellectuals, the wealthy: almost all the figures of moral authority remained in the old country. In the 1905 period it would be different, for then a portion of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia would join the workers, the paupers, the petty traders, in crossing the ocean. But now, by the common judgment and memory of the immigrants themselves, those who came were the dispossessed, the wanderers, the surplus population of the decomposing shtetl, those without a place in the old home or those whose homes had been destroyed. The immigrants who came were the adventurous and the adventurers; men without skills in search of elemental survival; or fugitives from the czar’s armies and the shtetl’s barrenness. New cultural and social institutions would be created by the Jews in the American cities, and already there were present in those cities some Jews, mostly from western Europe, who helped ease the pain of adjustment and offered some continuities with traditional faith. But in the main, the Jews who risked migration during the late nineteenth century were subjected to multiple shocks. For many, the pressure to work on the Sabbath became a problem threatening the security of their souls. For others, whose religious disenchantment, begun in the old country, had been completed in the American slums, there were no longer sufficient cultural or moral guides, no longer those rules of obligation and denial which, even if one hated and cursed them, made a discipline of each day. Those who found succor in the surrogate faiths of anarchism and socialism were perhaps fortunate, since these yielded new principles by which to live. But for the mass of immigrants the effects of the transition were violently disruptive. If airless, the shtetl had been snug; it was a social world in which the totality of existence came under the command of religion and in which everyone knew his precise status. But here in the United States life seemed at first utterly chaotic, so much so that the idea of freedom could only gradually be apprehended and enjoyed; it was a social world in which no one quite knew where he stood and which even raised the subversive possibility that where a man stood was open to his own definition.

A very few years after the mass migration, there also began within the immigrant community that process of internal social differentiation which is characteristic of American society as a whole. The beginnings of a middle class among the east European immigrants can already be detected by, say, 1890; a decade later there are a number of Yiddish-speaking millionaires and a considerable movement outward, beyond the East Side and into Jewish neighborhoods in upper Manhattan and Brooklyn, a movement signifying the modest rise of a middle class. But when the large waves of Jewish immigration first reached the United States in the eighties and nineties, the overwhelming consequences were proletarianization, a decline in real wages over the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and then, with the period of prosperity that came to the United States during the first few years of the twentieth century, a slow rise in real wages.

The first major Jewish proletariat appeared in the United States. Physically, socially, culturally, the immigrants were poorly equipped for proletarian life. They lacked the stamina, the casual acceptance of burdens, the roughness of manner by means of which working-class communities in Europe and America have come to accept and ease their lot. Surely that is one reason the immigrant Jewish workers proved to be so fiercely, if fitfully, rebellious, and so eager to escape the conditions of life against which they rebelled.

* Morris Witcowsky, who began peddling in the South during the late 1890’s, has remembered that “for the first four years I peddled with a pack on my back. This pack when full of merchandise weighed about a hundred and twenty pounds, eighty pounds strapped to the back and a forty-pound ‘balancer’ in the front. It is not as serious as it sounds. You get used to it. Anyway, it gives you tremendous shoulder and arm and leg muscles.…

“Many times a customer on my route, Negro or white, would ask me questions about the Bible. I would come to a farmhouse and see the farmer walk across the field to meet me and the wife come out of the house. As I went toward the farmer, he would say to me, ‘We had a big argument at the prayer meeting.…’ The farmer would tell me the argument was something about Daniel in the lion’s den, or maybe it was about Jonah, and he would ask me to settle the argument, because I was a Jew and they all looked at me as an authority.

“Selling on credit to the Negro was called ‘having a book on the shvartses,’ which meant carrying a ledger sheet for a Negro customer. Do not misunderstand me. ‘Shvartses,’ which means ‘the blacks,’ was not a sign of disrespect.”

* When the daughter of Silver Dollar Smith, eighteen-year-old Matilda, married Izzy Dreyfuss, a reporter at the Essex Market Police Court and a link between the judicial powers there and the alderman across the street, the wedding was held at the Vienna Hall, Fifty-eighth Street and Lexington Avenue, in an atmosphere of social and political splendor. The Herald reported that “when Mr. Dreyfuss went to pop the question to the Alderman, he was so sure of violent treatment that he had a warrant for his arrest on charge of assault in his pocket. It turned out, however, that it was not necessary to serve it. The young man to his surprise was accepted, but on the express condition that the wedding should not take place without the family getting a full week’s notice. Elopements were barred.

“Wedding presents came yesterday by the barrow load. All the principal officials of the city remembered the happy pair. Inspector McLaughlin sent a silver sugar bowl. Lawyer A. H. Hummell sent a dozen gold ice cream spoons.

“A large number of others who have had occasion to admire the courteous way in which the bridegroom administers the affairs of the police court showed practical recognition. Police Captain Dougherty gave a plush rocking chair; Chief of Police McKane of Coney Island a silver dinner set of 96 pieces; Police Justice Divver, silver dessert spoons and his compliments; Pat Keenan, a gold clock; Coroner Levy, Dresden china shepherdesses … Henry Eichler, a silver pitcher (for water); Judge Newburger, a silver clock; Max Steinberg, a piano lamp; Max Hochstim, a piano; and Jake Mittnacht, an iron safe.”

There were four hundred guests; each of the ushers wore “massive diamond pins”; the ceremony was performed by Rabbi Bernardt Hast; and the menu was in French.

CHAPTER FOUR. Disorder and Early Progress

Slowly and at unmeasured cost, the immigrant Jews began to get a grip on their lives. By the mid-1890’s it had become clear that neither material suffering nor social uprooting would permanently break their morale, even if a good many individuals were reduced to a mute resignation. The worst moment came during the 1893 depression, which erased whatever small gains they had made in the previous decade. Hunger really did stalk the streets of the East Side in 1893 and 1894, and only the dedication of the charitable agencies prevented a debacle. “It cannot be denied,” writes an authoritative Yiddish historian, “that there was a fear that the historical experiment in America might end in catastrophe. Many of the immigrants themselves, in their letters back home, warned against such a possibility.”

A determination to stick it out was, nevertheless, all but universal among the immigrants. Radicals might sneer and Orthodox condescend, but the American idea had begun to take hold of the immigrant imagination. No matter how imperfectly realized in social reality, it was an idea with enough moral power to persuade them that they should persevere in the new world, and thereby it reinforced the habits of stoical endurance that the centuries had bred in eastern Europe. The success with which many German Jews had made their way into the American economy remained an example close to hand, at once inspiring and irritating. And perhaps most important, there was simply no place else to go. The slums of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were the last frontier: either the Jews would make a new life here or the whole experience of migration would collapse in shame.

Once the country started its slow drive back to prosperity during the years between 1898 and 1904, the immigrants were able to relax their anxieties. If wage rates did not rise significantly in “their” industries, at least they now found it easier to get work.

The signs of strengthened morale were numerous, and close observers like Abraham Cahan, David Blaustein, and Charles Bernheimer noticed them. Immigrant Jews showed a new readiness to take on their enemies—neighborhood hoodlums, bigoted politicians, or brutal policemen. Jews straightened their backs a little. The style of resignation brought over from Europe began to give way to a feeling that Jews had as much right as anyone else in America to claw and grab. The communal affairs of the East Side grew more various: an outpouring of social activities, political factions, collective programs. Even a light sprinkle of hedonism refreshed the surface of immigrant life. A middle class, still fragile but increasing in numbers and confidence, started to make its appearance, and on top of it, a few millionaires like Harry Fischel, William Fischman, and Reuben Sadowsky, who still spoke Yiddish like everyone else and were remembered as having recently been quite as bedraggled as anyone else. Poverty remained the basic condition of life, as it would be for a good many years to come, but it was a poverty that took on a livelier complexion, a firmer tone. This was not the disconsolate poverty of the eighties, nor could it, by any stretch of ideology, be called “a culture of poverty.” It was the condition of a people struggling to re-establish and redefine its sense of collective worth.

Greenhorns kept streaming off the ships. The immigration from eastern Europe reached a peak in 1906, when 153,748 Jews arrived in America. From 1904 to 1907 inclusive, the years of greatest Jewish immigration, a total of 499,082 came; from 1900 to 1910 inclusive, 1,037,000. Numbers counted. They gave the East Side a sense of accumulating strength, the comfort of massed ranks.

The new immigrants often had to re-enact the grueling initiation of those who had arrived in the eighties and nineties. Within the immigrant economy they served a function somewhat like that of the immigrants as a whole (both Jewish and gentile) in the American economy of the eighties and nineties. Until they could “break in” as garment workers or at the other Jewish trades, they usually had to take the lowest-paying jobs. Still, the worst was over, the first clearings had been cut, the newcomers did not have to face a wilderness. Landsmanshaftn offered a corner of friendship and helped to find work. Trade unions absorbed some of the more experienced “politicals” (usually Bundists) into posts of leadership. Credit unions would soon help immigrants open small businesses. Night schools offered instruction in English. Relatives, perhaps by now moved to Brownsville or Harlem, taught the greenhorns how to use the streetcars, where to buy cheap clothing, and when to drop by for a meal. Jewish charities helped the destitute—during the severe 1908 depression, relief was distributed on a larger scale and more generously than it had been fifteen or twenty years earlier. If the new immigrants had to undergo some of the same hardships as the first wave from eastern Europe, they did so in circumstances less punitive and more shielding. And in a milieu that they could quickly discern as familiar, for by 1904 or 1905 “the East Side” signified a sprawling area that had taken over adjacent streets from other ethnic groups (notably those between Houston and Fourteenth streets, east of Second Avenue) and had established “colonies” in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

Oysgrinen zikh—to cease being a greenhorn—became a favorite motif of Yiddish culture in America, a subject for comedy and pathos in stories, theatre, and popular songs. Also for romantic charm, as in the song about the pretty grine kuzine, or greenhorn cousin: Es iz tsu mir gekumen a kuzine,/ Sheyn vi gold iz zi geven, di grine,/ Di bekelekh vi royte pomerantsn,/ Fiselekh vos betn zikh tsum tantsn. (A pretty cousin came to us,/ Pretty as gold, this greenhorn,/ Her cheeks were like red oranges,/ Her feet just begging to dance.)

The newer immigrants climbed onto the shoulders of the old, building on their sacrifices and profiting from their mistakes, while the older ones could feel that they were veterans of early heroic days, now at ease in the city. Among the intellectuals of the 1904–1907 immigration there was a certain disdain, even snobbism, toward the ill-educated Jews who had come to America fifteen or twenty years earlier, though the line of separation between the two generations could never be as sharp as that between east Europeans and Germans.

The social landscape of the Jewish immigrant world, until now resembling an extended flat plain with a small rise at one end, began to take on a more complicated shape. There were more hillocks, even a few hills and plateaus. The flood of greenhorns enabled some of the older immigrants to push their way forward, perhaps becoming “cockroach contractors” in the garment industry or little candy-store keepers, or owners of those clothing stores where customers were unceremoniously “pulled in” from the street.

By the turn of the century there was also a scattering of social workers, reformers, teachers, all those “do-gooders”—selfless Yankees, earnest German Jews, a few Americanized immigrants from eastern Europe—who established an elite of conscience on the East Side, trying to bring the techniques of self-improvement to a community not always receptive to innovation. Among the native Americans were Lawrence Veiller, Robert Weeks De Forest, Frances Perkins, Stanton Coit; among the German Jews, Lillian Wald, Felix Adler, Louis Marshall; among the east European Jews, David Blaustein, Boris Bogen, Paul Abelson, Henry Moskowitz. These people—settlement-house leaders, advocates of tenement reform, community officials—could hardly begin to cope with all that was wrong in the immigrant world; but many of them trained immigrants in the skills with which to extract some benefits from American society. They taught immigrant fathers the value of knowing how to read and write a few lines of English. They taught immigrant mothers the sacredness of hygiene and green salads at dinner. They taught immigrant Jews how to talk, and talk back, to chilly school superintendents, impudent court clerks, rude police sergeants, all those officials inclined to truculence and condescension.

At no point, however, did there really emerge a unified leadership among the immigrant Jews—certainly not until the creation of a Kehilla, or community organization, in 1908. Jewish garment workers might adore Joseph Barondess when he rose to speak, the Orthodox relish Hirsh Masliansky’s Yiddish sermons, and a wide range of readers follow Abraham Cahan in the Forward; but all shared a disinclination to elevate anyone to the rank of “spokesman” or “leader.” The immigrant Jews were deeply suspicious of makhers, or busybodies. They recalled with distaste the community organizations of the old country, in which rabbis and businessmen had often weighed heavily on the backs of the poor—and wanted none of that here. Inner competition, even a portion of chaos, might be more to their advantage. The skepticism that formed part of their moral baggage made the whole idea of a monolithic community seem repulsive. Besides, as the experience of the Irish immigrants suggests, an airtight community could impede social mobility by making everything too cozy and self-contained.*

Because of the peculiar circumstances of their history, the east European Jews brought with them considerable experience in creating “secondary associations” that would cut through the confines, and limit the authority, of family and synagogue. Even during the first years of the immigration, which were marked by a quantity of social disorder, they filled out the social spaces between family and state with a web of voluntary organizations, the very kind that, more than half a century earlier, De Tocqueville had seen as distinctively American but which, in this context, were distinctively Jewish. Tacitly but shrewdly, the immigrant Jews improvised a loose pattern for their collective existence. Most wanted to maintain a distinctive Yiddish cultural life while penetrating individually into American society and economy; most wanted to insure their survival as a people while feeling free to break out of the ghetto; and most hoped for cultural and religious continuity while opting for a weak, even ramshackle, community structure. Before the term became fashionable they made their way to a sort of “pluralism”—and the later decades proved them right.

An Early Combat

On July 30, 1902, a thick shapeless procession, estimated by the police at 25,000 and by the Yiddish papers at twice that number, coiled its way through the East Side, stopping at synagogue after synagogue, to follow the coffin of Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph. There was no music save the chanting of pupils from the Hebrew schools. A gentle soul, Rabbi Joseph had been invited in 1887 to come from Vilna and assume the post of chief rabbi, a title without clear warrant in the synagogue structure of New York. His tenure had been unhappy, and he had shown few gifts for adapting to the coarseness of New York life. Now, as if in expiation, the whole Jewish community came to mourn his death.

Passing along Grand Street, the funeral procession reached the factory of R. Hoe and Company, makers of printing presses. Suddenly, from the second floor of this building, missiles started to descend upon the tightly packed Jews. A contemporary, non-Jewish account picks up the story:

Instead of turning up their faces to the factory windows and protesting with words and gestures, as the merry pressmakers expected, the Jews set up a mighty shout and, with a common impulse charged upon the factory. Before the clerks and workers on the ground floor knew what had happened they were surrounded by bearded men and bewigged women, jabbering excitedly and clutching at things as though intent upon wrecking the place. Meanwhile, the Jews outside had opened fire on the factory windows with bricks, stones or any other projectiles they could lay hold of.…

The fray took its most serious turn when the police arrived.… They set to work at once swinging their clubs vigorously as they drove the Jews from the factory. Scores of persons were hurt, mostly by the policemen’s clubs.

At no previous point in the life of the East Side had there been so free a display of Jewish fury. “This was more,” wrote the Forward, “than even Jewish patience could take. Everybody’s blood started to boil. ‘Lynch them, those animals, those dogs!’ we heard from all sides.”

Protest meetings, at which Barondess and Cahan were among the speakers; a crude anti-Semitic statement by Inspector Cross, the official in charge of the police detail, who had allegedly told his men, “Club their brains out”; court fines for the ninety-three Jews arrested; a special investigation ordered by Mayor Low, resulting in a halfhearted apology—all followed in rapid order. For the Jews themselves, the riot had a shock, perhaps a tonic effect. The Forward wrote with some pungency:

Nobody ever talked about inequality in America. Everyone tried to hide it. Not only the gentiles, but the Jews themselves, the elite of our American Jewry, tried to hide this insulting inequality.… They are like heder boys who think that if you want to stop the thunder during a storm you hide your ears in your kapote [long coat].… But the behavior of the police, and still more the attitude of the American press, clearly prove that there is little sympathy here for the Jews. At this moment of shame not one English paper, not one important Christian voice, was raised in protest.… About all this, dear reader, we now have to think a little, so that we will know where we stand in the world.

Such reflections apart, what mattered most about the riot was that for the first time thousands of immigrant Jews had shown a spontaneous readiness to fight as others fought. Morally a dubious acquirement, but psychologically bracing and, on a small scale, perhaps even a turning point in the history of the East Side.*

There were other signs of this new combativeness. Some were internal, against abuses within the Jewish streets, and others external, against gentile tormentors. In early May 1902 Jewish retail butchers began a boycott against the wholesale butchers, many of them German Jews, whom they charged with ruthlessly forcing up prices. Two days later the wholesalers yielded, but when the stores reopened, many failed to pass on the lower prices. Rage swept through the East Side, with women complaining they could not afford to buy kosher meat if the price rose to seventeen or eighteen cents a pound. The “revolution,” as the Forward excitedly called it, started on Monroe Street between Pike and Market, where Mrs. Edelson and Mrs. Levy—unremembered heroines of protest—refused to pay the new prices. Clashes occurred in front of butchershops, a “Ladies Anti-Beef Trust Association” was formed, immigrant housewives were arrested by the police, women poured kerosene over meat, and, as the Forward wrote, “hundreds of women, screaming and cursing the swindlers of the poor,” roamed through the streets.

A scene at court:

Rebecca Ablowitz, of 420 Cherry Street, speaks to the judge:

“Why do you riot?”

“Your Honor, we know our wounds. We see how thin our children are and that our husbands haven’t strength to work.…”

“But you aren’t allowed to riot in the street.”

“We don’t riot. But if all we did was to weep at home, nobody would notice it; so we have to do something to help ourselves.”

“Three-dollar fine.”

Together with meat strikes went rent strikes extending over several years, touching even the Galitzianer Jews (those from Galicia), who on the East Side were regarded as somewhat passive. In 1904 the rent strikes grew especially violent, spreading to Harlem and Brownsville under socialist leadership. That same year the East Side was stirred by a children’s strike—125 girls, many between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, walked out at the Cohen paper-box factory on the Bowery, where they had been paid three dollars per thousand cigarette boxes and then had suffered a wage cut of 10 percent. Benefit concerts were held, the Forward raised a special fund, the United Hebrew Trades scraped together seven hundred dollars to see the children through a fierce struggle. “Do-gooders” were especially helpful, through the recently formed Women’s Trade Union League, an alliance of women unionists and social workers led by Jane Addams and Rose Schneiderman.

Joining in the spirit of the moment, Jewish street peddlers also began to organize, holding parades and meetings to protest harassment by the police. In 1903 the city set up a market near the Williamsburg Bridge for the fish peddlers, an especially lively group, and banned the selling of fish on pushcarts. It was a classic instance of officials concocting a scheme with little relation to reality—three hundred stalls were provided, and there were over a thousand peddlers of fish. The peddlers pointed out that to be fixed in a stall meant losing the business of housewives who lived far from the bridge. In July they held a parade, lined up six abreast and accompanied by brass bands: it was such a pleasure to make a bit of noise in the world! Soon they were back on the streets with their pushcarts, an indispensable part of immigrant life.

If inner wounds brought the Jews to anger, they responded still more passionately to news of disaster in the old country. The 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, a town in southern Russia, in which forty-nine people were killed and more than five hundred injured, seemed like a nightmare revisited. Relief and protest were organized on a scale the immigrants had never before undertaken. The administration of Theodore Roosevelt, though sensitive to the growing importance of Jewish votes, was not sure how to respond to Jewish demands, at first hesitating to forward a B’nai B’rith petition to the czarist government and then refusing on the ground that its wording was too sharp. In common outrage against the pogroms, German and east European Jews came together, their differences tabled for the moment; no matter how much the east Europeans may have scorned the Germans, they had to acknowledge that Louis Marshall and Jacob Schiff could mobilize financial resources and political connections beyond the reach of the East Side. What worried both the Germans and the east Europeans was that as a result of the pogroms a greater number of Jews would now be wanting to leave Russia—and how would the United States respond to a flood of penniless newcomers?

Among the immigrant Jews, Kishinev evoked a clash concerning strategies of protest that would become a recurrent problem in American Jewish life. The conservative Tageblatt could not quite bring itself to say that mass demonstrations were pointless, but it steadily minimized their value, charging they were used by radicals for political aggrandizement. On the other hand, “many socialists,” admitted Abraham Liessen, the Yiddish poet, “say we are too hysterical about Kishinev, since it was not an event that involved class-conscious workers or labor struggle.” Such socialists, Liessen said, “are Pharisees. What if some of the victims were members of the upper classes? These are our people, our blood and our pain.” At least as cogent were the reflections of Abraham Cahan, who kept trying to extract from day-to-day East Side events some guiding ideas for the future: “The Americans promise not to hinder new immigration. But soon they will forget. They have pity for us, but no respect. When the tumult dies down, they will feel all the more that Jews are a degraded people. Our tree is more bent than ever.”

Instinctively, Cahan found himself speaking of “we,” as if he accepted in reality what he hesitated to acknowledge in theory: the existence of a Jewish community transcending class lines.* It took courage for a leader calling for mass demonstrations to acknowledge how uncertain were their probable results. A few weeks later Cahan wrote still more stringently in an editorial entitled “Are We Safe in America?”:

As the Jewish population increases, animosity grows with it. Nations love only themselves, not strangers. If we get too close to the Americans with our language and customs, they will be annoyed. The Americans can’t even get along with the Germans, so imagine the chasm between shtetl Jews and Yankees—it’s like two different worlds. When there are only a few Jews, gentiles go slumming to inspect the novelty. When the Jews fill up the streetcars and parks, we are resented.

Not many writers could have struck so fine a balance between the East Side’s new assertiveness and a recognition of its likely limits. In any case, this assertiveness counted more as a sign of inner feeling than as an estimate of actual strength. What it meant was that in response to an acute crisis—a pogrom thousands of miles away or an indignity on a nearby street—the immigrants could come together in a quick action, linking methods of radical protest with American styles of pressure. In the world as a whole, the gentile world, they remained of course a weak minority, unable to realize the claims of their rhetoric and still hemmed into the boundaries that all minorities find bruising.

New Tastes, New Styles

A growth of self-confidence need not stem entirely from bettered material conditions, but it is hard to imagine it occurring without them. Precisely how widespread or deep such improvements were during the opening years of the century is not easy to say. That there were, however, a good many signs of little indulgences and modest luxuries, a slow escape from the grind of mere subsistence, cannot be doubted. The Forward, that incorrigible student of immigrant mores, offers some useful clues. A new word, it reports in 1903, has entered the American Yiddish vocabulary: oysesn, eating out. This fashion, barely known among Jews either in the old country or the new, “is spreading every day, especially in New York.” Vacations in the country, we read a year later, “have become a trend, a proof of status … though many bluff about it.” “The Victrola Season Has Begun,” runs the head over another piece, written with pride and irritation: “God sent us the Victrola, and you can’t get away from it, unless you run to the park. As if we didn’t have enough problems with cockroaches and children practicing the piano next door.… It’s everywhere, this Victrola: in the tenements, the restaurants, the ice-cream parlors, the candy stores. You lock your door at night and are safe from burglars, but not from the Victrola.” As for children pounding on pianos, it has become a craze. “There are pianos in thousands of homes, but it is hard to get a teacher. They hire a woman for Moshele or Fannele and after two years decide they need a ‘bigger’ teacher. But the ‘bigger’ teacher, listening to the child, finds it knows nothing. All the money—down the drain. Why this waste? Because Jews like to think they are experts on everything.” Sad. Nevertheless, the money was there to spend.

A walk along Canal Street in 1903 or 1904 yielded similar signs of improvement. It was a street with burgeoning retail businesses, where “the powerful Louis Minsky had his store for ‘peddlers’ supplies,’ to which all the peddlers would come for goods on credit; there too were the large men’s store of Joseph Marcus (later a banker) and the Jewish banks of Yarmulowsky and others, where immigrants could buy ship’s tickets for their relatives on the installment plan.”

Charles Bernheimer remarked in 1905 upon “the formation of a well-to-do class in the midst of the Russian Jewish colony.… The sudden appearance of a dozen or more commercial banks, the well-furnished cafés of a type utterly unknown five or six years ago, the modern apartments ‘with an elevator,’ … all tell eloquently of this growth.”

A Forward reporter described the “clerks of the East Side, those working in the fifty or so dress-goods stores on Hester, Ridge, Stanton and Rivington streets.” They put in shameful hours, from 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM, yet

they have better manners than the young men who work in other trades. At the balls and weddings they make friends, which helps their sales.… When they save up a few hundred dollars, two or three get together as partners and open a store. Almost all storekeepers are former clerks, and once they become bosses they have plenty of time to go to affairs. Each belongs to seven or eight societies; this helps them with business and sometimes they meet a rich girl.

A clerk has to be very clever and know how to make a big sale. The liveliest time is at night, when the young shop girls come to buy fabrics for blouses and dresses. First a girl comes for a sample; the next night she brings her friends. They talk about balls, concerts, and other affairs, and the clerks find out what’s going on.…

When they decided to form a union, the clerks held their meetings after 11:00 PM, once the stores had closed.

To be an American, dress like an American, look like an American, and even, if only in fantasy, talk like an American became a collective goal, at least for the younger immigrants. “Today,” remarked David Blaustein in 1905, “English is more and more the language spoken on the East Side, whereas eight years ago it was rare to hear that tongue; today American clothes are worn, whereas in years gone by persons used to go to the East Side out of curiosity to see the foreign dress.” In earlier years “you could recognize a greenhorn a mile away, by his walk and behavior. Now a greenhorn looks and acts like the ‘yellows’ [half-Americanized immigrants].… Russia is much more civilized than before and its emigrants are more educated than the ‘yellow’ customer peddlers and realestatenicks of earlier years.” And Hutchins Hapgood observed that some of the immigrants talk not only “of the crimes of which they read in the English newspapers, of prize-fights, of budding business propositions, but they gradually quit going to synagogue, give up heder promptly when they are thirteen years old, avoid the Yiddish theatres, seek the up-town places of amusement, dress in the latest American fashion, and have a keen eye for the right thing in neckties.”

By 1905–1906 it was no longer rare for stores in the East Side, “even on Hester Street,” to be open on the Sabbath; Yiddish purists were groaning at the invasion of Americanisms into their language (vinde, floor, job); thousands of Jewish children, now forced to attend school regularly, besieged the Board of Health, at Fifty-fifth Street and Sixth Avenue, each summer to get “working papers.” “How touching it is to see these small, pale, exhausted boys lying about their age”—only those over fourteen were legally allowed to work.

The meaning of such changes was necessarily ambiguous. In the long view, they spoke of a culture cracking apart, its most energetic offspring taking the first steps toward flight and dispersion; but at the moment, in 1903 or 1906, there was good reason to see these changes as evidence of a growing social cohesion. Whatever might happen later to its young, the Jewish immigrant world kept thickening its communal life, encasing itself in layer upon layer of protective institutions, agencies of self-help, charity, education, mutual benefit, all designed to attain for the immigrants a maximum of assurance and all premised on the wary assumption that Jews could never come close to that maximum.*

Some of these institutions were started by German Jews and then taken over by the east Europeans; others, like Beth Israel Hospital, were the work of east Europeans from the very start. By 1903 the Hebrew Free Loan Society, which lent without interest sums between $5 and $50, had a capital of almost $75,000, and during that year turned over its money four times, lending out a bit more than $320,000. A day nursery on Montgomery Street, taking without (or at minimal) fees infants of women working in factories, survived on contributions from unions, Workmen’s Circle branches, charitable groups. The Romanian Jews set up their own aid association in 1898 to care for new immigrants; the Hungarian Jews had done so a few years earlier. Each year the Ladies Fuel and Aid Society held a banquet to collect funds for hospitals and provide coal for the indigent. Much East Side charity was informal, quite apart from institutions: “Mother had been collecting for a motherless bride.… She would come home with a large handkerchief quite heavy with money, a fitting result to her house-to-house canvass in the ghetto.”

Charity was one thing, mutual aid another and better. The first legally recognized Jewish credit union was set up in Massachusetts in 1909. Weak producers’ co-operatives, organized in the early years of the century by clothing, bakery, and seltzer workers, lasted awhile in New York and then faded away. In 1916 the Russell Sage Foundation put out a fifty-two-page booklet in Yiddish describing the principles of credit unions and co-operatives, and listing 107 of the former, among which some 20 or 30 were Jewish. About 1912 the small Jewish storekeepers of New York, as if emulating the Jewish workers, began to form trade associations. The German-Jewish merchants had established their own institutions as far back as 1882, but it was some thirty years before the east European Jews founded the New York Retail Grocers Union. Employers were slower to organize themselves than were workers; the Hebrew Printers Union was started in 1888 but had to wait for nineteen years before a Hebrew Printers League appeared on the scene for industry-wide collective bargaining.

Still, when a depression struck, none of these agencies, nor all of them together, could cope with the damage. In the 1908 depression, especially severe for the East Side, there were appalling scenes of hunger and destitution. On February 14 several hundred children crowded into Lorber’s Restaurant, drawn by the news that it would be serving free lunch to schoolchildren; since the dining room held only two hundred people, those on the outside began to fear they would not get any food and started to push their way in, grabbing food for themselves and for parents hungry at home. That same year a People’s Kitchen was established at 185 Division Street, offering a dinner for seven cents. The Yiddish writer Z. Libin described his visit:

It is a long room with two rows of long tables; the kitchen is in the back, separated by a low wall, and anyone can go in and see what’s happening.

The waiters are serious and courteous. No tipping is allowed.

One man wanted an extra portion of meat and wondered if he could ask the waiter to exchange his soup for meat. The waiter gave him extra meat and let him keep the soup.… Another man offered me his bread because he had been at a brith [circumcision celebration] that morning and was not very hungry. Still, he was afraid he would be hungry later, and he likes the soup in this place.

But there was never enough. The institutions providing help were themselves largely dependent on the kinds of people needing it, so that in a bad year like 1908 the Jewish tradition of self-help proved to be inadequate: the community simply did not have a large enough surplus to take care of its hungry. Yet without these charitable agencies, the years of depression would have been far worse; they prevented utter demoralization and made for a kind of order in an economy of want.

Spreading Across the City

Year by year the physical horizons of the immigrants kept expanding. The Williamsburg Bridge was opened in 1903 and the Manhattan Bridge in 1909, both enabling rapid connections with Brooklyn. In 1896 elevated cars started taking passengers by express from South Ferry to Bronx Park. In 1905 the first subway to the Bronx, through the Harlem River tunnel, began to operate; in 1908 the first subway to Brooklyn, through the East River tunnel.

By the 1890’s Jewish settlements had been established in Williamsburg, across the East River, and in Brownsville, a more distant quarter of Brooklyn. By 1900 there was a large Jewish colony in Harlem, mainly between 97th and 142nd streets. A decade later the Forward was calling Harlem “a Jewish city, inhabited by tens of thousands of Jews … as busy and congested as our East Side, with the same absence of light and air.” The Upper East Side, along Lexington Avenue between 72nd and 100th streets, became a “colony” for east European Jews shortly before and after the turn of the century.

The son of the great Yiddish cantor Yossele Rosenblatt recalled that when his family came to America in 1910, it settled in Harlem, “at that time the aristocratic Jewish neighborhood of New York.… But that was true only of the blocks between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, where the better private homes were located, not of the tenements between Fifth and Lenox Avenues, into one of which we moved.”

A 1905 issue of the Forward has a charming report on the gradual spread of immigrant Jews throughout the city:

The Jewish presence is strong in the New York parks: Mount Morris, Central Park, Bronx Park, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Fifteen years ago you seldom met Jewish strollers in most areas of Central Park; they only visited the zoo. This was because most Jewish park visitors got off there on their way back from Mount Sinai Hospital, then located at Lexington and Sixty-seventh Street, where they were either visiting a sick friend or taking treatment at the dispensary. The only thing that interested Jews in Central Park was the zoo. They were afraid to venture farther into the park lest they get lost. Even the Museum of Art on Eightieth Street was seldom visited by Jews. Immigrants couldn’t find it, and didn’t know enough English to ask for directions; but this summer two Jewish young men made an experiment. They sat at the museum entrance and studied the faces of the people entering—and more than 80 percent seemed Jewish.

On Saturdays and Sundays you will find entire companies of immigrant boys and girls sitting in a circle listening attentively as one of them reads aloud from the finest in modern Russian literature. This is much more pleasant than sitting alone among a group of strangers, stiff and starched and silent, as the Americans usually do.

Perhaps the most traveled route out of the East Side was to Brooklyn, especially the Brownsville, New Lots, and East New York sections. Brownsville was then regarded as a pastoral village in which “Jews could live as in the old country, without any rush or excessive worries. Jews there didn’t work on the Sabbath, and they went to shul three times a day.” By the early 1890’s some four thousand Jews had settled in and near the Brownsville area; by 1905, about fifty thousand. During the first four or five years of the century land values rose spectacularly, and immigrant Jews owning a few lots in Brownsville now became affluent realtors. “Only yesterday,” ran a 1903 account

everybody laughed when you mentioned Brownsville. But today business is booming. They are buying and selling real estate like mad. Lots are sold by the hundreds; houses are sold and resold every minute. You can buy a house for four thousand dollars with a down payment of eight hundred dollars. A few days later you can sell it and make a profit of a few hundred dollars.

Brownsville will never have tenements. The houses are three stories, apartments have four or five rooms, with a bathtub and other conveniences, and a yard for the kids.

Predominantly working-class in composition, the Brownsville Jewish community took on a distinctive character of its own, with strong religious and socialist segments: Pitkin Avenue, its major thoroughfare, would long be famous as a place where the Jewish socialists held street meetings and people buzzed about discussing politics.

Tempting as it was to escape the noise, heat, and congestion of the East Side, there were problems in moving to such outlying districts as Brownsville. Some people felt they were leaving the center of cultural life: it was like moving from Paris to Lyons. For workers who had to count every nickel, it brought the additional expense of carfares. Still another problem was that “it is easier to get boarders in New York than in Brooklyn,” a point made

by a member of a family that received $10 a month from four lodgers—three men and one woman—who occupied three rooms with the four members of the family.… The father earns $250 a year as a worker in the manufacture of smoking-pipes. The oldest daughter earns $150 as a milliner. The family decided to return to Manhattan, where they could get lodgers more readily and thus eke out their income of $400 by an addition of $120 a year. Out of the earnings of $520, $186—that is, $15.50 a month—had to be paid for rent.

A year or two after the trek to Brownsville, immigrant Jews started moving to the Bronx. Visiting the Bronx in 1903, a Yiddish journalist found it “a beautiful area … a suburb that could have sun and air and cheaper rents. But the greedy landlords, knowing the workers will have to move uptown, are putting up Hester Street tenements. Go take a look—the Bronx is becoming our new ghetto.” Only in part was this correct. Sections of the east Bronx, especially working-class streets like Simpson and Fox, were hardly more tolerable than the East Side, but other areas did provide better housing, mainly because the Bronx still had quantities of unused space and several new tenement laws restraining the greed of builders. During a visit in 1912, the English novelist Arnold Bennett found the Bronx harsh, materialistic, and enjoying an “innocent prosperity.”

The people whom I met show no trace of the influence of those older artistic civilizations whose charm seems subtly to pervade the internationalism of the East Side. In certain strata and streaks of society on the East Side things artistic and intellectual are comprehended with an intensity of emotion impossible to Anglo Saxons.… The Bronx is different. The Bronx is beginning again, at a stage earlier than art, and beginning better. It is a place for those who have learnt that physical righteousness has got to be the basis for all future progress. It is a place to which the fit will be attracted, and where the fit will survive.

With his shrewd eye Bennett saw that the cultural tone of the East Side could not be imported to the other Jewish neighborhoods, even when their residents had just come from there. What remained in these new neighborhoods was a still-pulsing sense of East Side hardship and a grim urgency to banish it as quickly as possible. It was as if, in the most unlikely corner of the world, Bennett had rediscovered the social atmosphere of his Five Towns.

An Experiment in Community

In 1908, just before the great outbursts of strikes in the Jewish trades, the immigrant community underwent a test of morale that caused difficulties both in its internal life and its relation to the power structure of the city. Theodore Bingham, the police commissioner of New York City, published in the September 1908 issue of the North American Review an article entitled “Foreign Criminals in New York,” which claimed that 50 percent of the criminals in the city were Jewish:

It is not astonishing that with a million Hebrews, mostly Russian, in the city (one-quarter of the population) perhaps half of the criminals should be of that race when we consider that ignorance of the language, more particularly among men not physically fit for hard labor, is conducive to crime.… They are burglars, firebugs, pickpockets and highway robbers—when they have the courage; but though all crime is their province, pocket-picking is the one to which they take most naturally.

That so harsh an accusation should be made by a police commissioner struck all the Jewish leaders in the city as a sign of danger.* For weeks the Yiddish press kept denouncing Bingham, charging anti-Semitic bias and offering an array of arguments and statistics to counter his. Statements poured out of every Jewish organization. Mass meetings of protest were held in the East Side halls. By mid-September, under severe pressure, Bingham retracted his charges “frankly and without reservation.” The incident seemed now to be closed and Jewish pride vindicated, but among the more thoughtful Jews it still rankled. They knew, for one thing, that there was a crime problem on the East Side, not so lurid as Bingham had painted, but serious enough. And many felt that in responding to the crisis provoked by Bingham, the Jewish organizations had gone off in all directions, un-coordinated, often ill-spoken, and sometimes merely grabbing publicity. A number of Jewish leaders felt it was time to create a disciplined community structure or Kehilla, as it had been called in the old country.

The Kehilla, sometimes thriving, sometimes dormant in eastern Europe since the late Middle Ages, had been both necessity and burden, serving as the organ of Jewish communal self-rule and accepting the onerous task of administering decrees imposed by repressive governmental agencies. Often falling under the control of the wealthier Jews, it naturally became an object of contempt among the poorer ones. Most Jews had no very happy memories of the Kehilla as an institution, and many immigrants looked with distaste at the idea of reconstituting one in America.

Nevertheless, as a reaction to Jewish difficulties in coping with the Bingham incident, a movement grew up to create a New York Kehilla. Supporting this idea was a loose alliance of groups in the political center of the East Side, the nationalist, fraternal, and religous societies that wanted to carve out a position for themselves apart from the socialists on the left and the extreme Orthodox on the right. The German Jews, through the American Jewish Committee, also became interested—they had a taste for organization. An alliance was thereupon formed between men like Louis Marshall and Jacob Schiff from uptown and Joseph Barondess from downtown.

In 1909 a founding conference was held of representatives from synagogues, landsmanshaftn, Zionist branches, religious societies, and educational institutions. (The Jewish socialist and labor groups boycotted the meeting.) The Kehilla was proclaimed, with vague authorizations of power and a complicated relationship to the national office of the American Jewish Committee. It was fortunate, at the least, in finding as its leader a talented young Reform rabbi, Judah Magnes, whose energy and candor helped him to serve as a bridge between the German and the East European Jews.

Under Magnes, the Kehilla plunged into ambitious activities. A Bureau of Jewish Education was set up, which began to publish excellent modern textbooks, issue pedagogical materials, and offer aid to Hebrew teachers—this was probably the single greatest accomplishment of the Kehilla. Other bureaus were to deal with community problems, especially that of crime, and during William Gaynor’s administration as mayor, the Kehilla provided confidential information about gambling and prostitution on the East Side, forcing these operations, which had been protected by the police for some years, to shut down at least temporarily.

The Kehilla flourished briefly, mostly because of Magnes’s personal qualities and Jacob Schiff’s financial generosity, but it never established its authority among the east European immigrants. The extreme Orthodox groups were hostile to any communal structure that claimed to transcend religion, while the socialists were hostile to any that claimed to transcend class interests. Even the sympathetic chronicler of the Kehilla, Arthur Goren, admits that “it did not fulfill its founders’ goals,” which, he says, were mostly “to control the unruly ghetto.” Mordecai Kaplan, the leading Jewish theologian who worked for a time in the Kehilla, wrote in his journal that its essential role was that of a “Jewish social pacifier” trying to soothe the excitable East Side masses; but still far from ready to accept any sort of “social pacifier,” they mostly ignored the Kehilla.

Even those East Siders who were not suspicious on ideological grounds felt the Kehilla to be something distant and aloof. Magnes, Schiff, and Marshall might be great men, but they were not one’s own, not close to the streets and the shops; they might merit respect in general, but they did not need to be listened to in particular. Perhaps the lesson of this ambitious failure was that by the time it came on the scene the immigrants no longer really needed it. They had worked out agencies of their own—the unions, the landsmanshaftn, the Workmen’s Circle—which made no claim for communal or ideological inclusiveness and for that very reason seemed more palatable.

The Failure of the Banks

A curious, if decidedly painful, sign of the gradual betterment of immigrant conditions was the rise of “private” Jewish banks. Neither the federal nor state governments were strict in the supervision of banks during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. What is surprising is not that unscrupulous persons declared themselves bankers, but that only a rather small number did—perhaps because most immigrant Jews still held the very idea of banking in awe.

One of the earlier Jewish bankers, Joseph Marcus, began his career as owner of a clothing store at 102 East Broadway, where he opened his bank by setting up a cashier’s desk and putting an advertisement in the Yiddish papers. Known as an honest man, Marcus simply announced that his word was the guarantee of his reliability. From this unimposing start grew the Public National Bank, of which Marcus was the first president, and then the Bank of the United States, run by his sons and in the early thirties the victim of a spectacular collapse.

Other popular banks on the East Side during the years before the First World War were run by M. and L. Yarmulowsky, Adolf Mandel, and Max Kobre. The methods of these men were unorthodox by American standards: they would themselves be present almost every day at their banks, reassuring depositors and assuaging the uneasiness that many East Side immigrants felt at the thought of putting their money in someone else’s hands. Sometimes, recalls a Yiddish journalist, “they would try to prevent their customers from withdrawing money.… A shopgirl would want to take out a hundred dollars to get married, and the banker would say, ‘What’s the hurry? You’re still young, you can wait a few years.’” How some immigrants felt about the whole unnerving matter has been described by the Yiddish novelist I. Raboy, whose protagonist Jacob, becoming prosperous in the shirt business,

brought his money to two banks. He brought the larger sums to the big “National,” which was purely American. Every time Jacob walked in there he was filled with fear. He gives them the money, they make a record of it, and Jacob leaves with the feeling that he is making the bank rich, and yet he has to thank them.… Jacob loves to bring a small amount of cash into the Jewish bank on Rivington Street. The president of the bank himself stands behind the table, greets him cordially, and smiles. Jacob doesn’t have as much respect for this bank, and deposits only as much as he needs to run the shop.… It is good to have money in two banks.

By 1912–1913 the East Side banks had accumulated considerable assets, but rumors began to spread that they were not in satisfactory condition. “Runs” were frequent, though not yet catastrophic. The outbreak of the war, however, led many Jewish depositors to withdraw their money, partly out of a general sense of alarm, and partly because they wanted to send help to relatives trapped in Europe. This time, the “runs” were uncontrollable, and on August 4, 1914, the state superintendent of banks ordered the Yarmulowsky and Mandel banks closed: they were, he said, “in an unsound and unsatisfactory condition.” A day later the Kobre bank was closed. Thousands of immigrant depositors, some openly weeping, milled around the doors of the banks, trying to get their money or at least hear some reassuring word from the presidents who had always been so cordial. It was too late.

Their records showed that the banks had managed investments poorly. Too large a portion of their assets was frozen into real-estate holdings that had gone down in value and could not be liquidated without large losses. The assets of Mandel fell $1,250,000 below liabilities; the assets of Yarmulowsky were $654,000 and his liabilities $1,703,000; the assets of Kobre $3,041,000 and his liabilities $3,844,000.

For the East Side, these closings came as a shock: some fifty thousand people had put $10,000,000 of savings, mostly the fruits of working-class self-denial, into these banks. On August 5, two thousand people demonstrated in front of Yarmulowsky’s bank; three days later riots broke out in front of Kobre’s Brownsville branch, and one hundred policemen were called to restrain a mob of fifteen hundred enraged depositors. Kobre took out an advertisement in the Forward saying, “Your friend Max Kobre still lives … and as long as I do, no one will lose a penny. Just have patience. This misfortune will not last long.” On August 30 another demonstration of five thousand people ended in a riot.

Grief, anger, a growing militancy, perhaps merely despair. On September 27, five hundred people gathered in front of M. Yarmulowsky’s apartment, forcing him and his family to flee—they climbed up to the roof and escaped from an adjoining house. The next day about a thousand demonstrators massed in front of Mandel’s house, and the reserves had to be called out. Three hundred depositors stormed the office of District Attorney Whitman on October 10 and were ejected by the police. At least half a dozen suicides occurred among the depositors, and both the Forward and the Tageblatt ran heart-rending accounts of suffering among depositors left penniless.

In May 1915 Mandel was convicted of having accepted a deposit after he knew the bank was insolvent; crowds of his victims stood in front of the courthouse and cheered the jury’s verdict. As for Yarmulowsky and Kobre, the former received a suspended sentence and the latter committed suicide in 1916. In time, the depositors received partial payment of their money.

Burned by their experiences, immigrants soon learned to be skeptical of home-grown operators casually setting up banks. Yet this episode of the Jewish banks testified not merely to inexperience and shady dealings but also to mounting social and economic strength. Thousands of immigrants were able to put aside a few dollars in the banks; they did not accept the debacle passively, as they might have a few decades earlier; they fought back, demonstrated, rioted, made life miserable for the district attorney; in short, learned the rules, and how to go beyond the rules, of group pressure in America.

Beginnings of a Bourgeoisie

By about 1912 the East Side was still a badly overcrowded area, but, together with some economic betterment, there were the beginnings of physical improvement. Asphalt replaced rougher paving materials in the streets; along the East River, piers were built that could be used for recreation; little parks—there would never be enough of them—were opened; and new schools and libraries, some strikingly handsome in design, were erected.

How substantial was the improvement in the conditions of Jewish immigrant life? Was there a genuine rise in the standard of living, or was the easing of life mostly the result of bettered public facilities? Such questions are as difficult to answer as they are essential to ask. Comprehensive and authoritative statistical studies would be immensely comforting, but we do not have them. A scrutiny of what we do have persuades one that reliance on fragmentary statistics can be quite as misleading as the use of such “soft” data as contemporary journalism, memoirs, historical narratives, and sociological studies. In any case, there is little choice. We have to employ these materials, even as we remember the Yiddish proverb that “for example is no proof.” And enough examples may approximate a proof.

All accounts of the East Side during the early 1900’s stress the rise of an immigrant bourgeoisie—small, far less powerful than that of the German Jews, very distant from the centers of American wealth, yet fiercely energetic and ambitious. The classical work on this theme is Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, a novel in which the moral costs of success are measured with a stringent irony; this book is matched, at least thematically, by some hasty sketches Cahan wrote in 1906 and 1907 about the alrightniks, immigrants who had just become wealthy and were enjoying their ill-suited luxuries. In his memoirs, Cahan recalls searching for a word that might evoke their absurd qualities. Reminding himself of the colloquial expression, “he’s all right,” Cahan coined the term alrightnik—thereby adding a word to two languages simultaneously.

One of Cahan’s sketches is entitled “Mr. Burek [Beet] Learns to Make a Speech”: A real-estate operator, as he grows wealthier, finds himself invited to give more and more speeches. Alone before a mirror, he practices addressing the audience, coughing (to make the speech more of a speech), and talking about America: “It is a country where one does business, and not like in Europe, oh no, ladies and gentlemen! Europe don’t come up to America in real estate and competition and pinochle. I have been in this business for only a short time but have already crushed all my competitors.” Another sketch is called “He Pretends Not to Know Him,” and describes a meeting between Mr. Lifshitz, skirt manufacturer, and Yoine, skirtmaker. They are landslayt, and in the old country their roles were quite reversed. But here, in the land of alrightniks, poor Yoine has to plead for a job: “For a long time his old pride struggled with his present need. Need won out.” When he goes to Lifshitz’s office, the latter pretends he is trying to remember who this Yoine is. “Yoine smiled to himself.” A third sketch, “The Living Tunnel,” ridicules the pretensions of alrightnik wives. Two of them meet in the street, and are dressed in what an American comedian calls the latest style: the kind of dress that resembles a mountain in the rear and juts out in front, so that if half of the woman is near you, the other half is in the next block. As they talk, two little boys pass by, pulling a wagon they pretend is a train. Suddenly one of the little boys cries out, “Look, a tunnel,” and drives the wagon between the two ladies.

Cahan was reacting to the fact that a segment of immigrant manufacturers and contractors, digging itself into the garment industry, had begun to adopt a style of ostentation that evoked both the annoyance and the laughter of the East Side. By 1900 Jewish dominance of the garment industry was all but complete; over 90 percent of it was in Jewish hands. The east European Jews were taking long strides toward driving their German cousins out of the industry—this was not a milieu notable for delicacy of relations. “Several well-known [German-Jewish] firms, Meyer Jonasson & Co., Blumenthal Bros., F. Siegel & Co., Friedlander Bros. and others left the field to become bankers, wholesale cloth merchants, or department store owners. The Moths of Division Street, as the Russian contractors were called, had forced the German giants of Broadway to retreat.” Between 1900 and 1912 the number of women’s garment shops in New York and its environs increased from 1,856 to 5,698; the number employing up to nineteen workers, from 898 to 3,828; and there can be no question that the vast preponderance of these employers was now made up of east European Jews.

Some of the immigrants grew rich. Samuel Silverman, beginning as a sweatshop worker, became a cloak manufacturer with a fortune estimated at $500,000. Harris Mandelbaum, starting as a peddler, worked his way up to a cool million by the steady purchase of tenement houses. Harry Fischel, penniless on arriving in New York, became a millionaire through the building industry and real estate, constructing a $60,000 residence for himself a block away from Andrew Carnegie’s Fifth Avenue mansion. Nathan Hurtkoff, starting with a tiny glazier’s shop on Canal Street, ended as one of the largest plate-glass merchants in New York. Israel Lebowitz moved from peddling to a modest “gents furnishing shop” on Orchard Street and by 1907 was one of the largest shirt manufacturers in New York. There were dozens, perhaps scores, of other newly rich east European Jews.

Impressive as these achievements were if placed against the backdrop of immigrant life, they remained inconsequential in comparison with the wealth of either the German Jews or the American elite. The east Europeans shied away from the mainstream of American economy, or, to be more precise, had no chance to approach it. They had nothing to do with the major industries and very little with Wall Street; they were confined to light manufacturing, distributive industries, and real estate.

Of greater consequence for the East Side as a whole, though impossible to measure with exactness, was the growth of a middle class of independent businessmen, small traders, storekeepers, and the like—much of it hand-to-mouth in character. A rough indication: Trow’s Business Directory for 1899 lists about 175 cleaning stores in Manhattan and the Bronx, a fair minority of which seem to be owned by non-Jews. By 1909 the same directory lists about 500 such stores, with the names of owners overwhelmingly Jewish.

Such pursuits having been central to the Jewish economy of eastern Europe, it was only natural that they be transported across the ocean. But it was not merely custom that led many Jews to feel that owning their own little business was better than seeking posts in larger enterprise. “The American Jew,” writes Nathan Glazer, “tries to avoid getting into a situation where discrimination may seriously affect him.… [He] prefers a situation where his own merit receives objective confirmation, and he is not dependent on the good will or personal reaction of a person who may not happen to like Jews. This independent confirmation of merit is one of the chief characteristics of business as against corporate bureaucracy.”

There was little occasion in 1905 or 1910 for Jews to worry about the problems of working in a corporate bureaucracy, yet Glazer’s explanation for the attractiveness of running one’s own business, no matter how burdensome, is very much to the point. To shake loose from the domination of a boss, to be free from the stares and sneers of gentiles, to take the risks of using one’s own wits and gaining the rewards of one’s own work—this became a commanding desire among the immigrant Jews, as indeed, among Jews everywhere and no doubt for the same reasons.

In 1904 William English Walling, then a worker at the University Settlement, wrote a fine paper entitled “What the People of the Lower East Side Do.” Basing his conclusions on Census Bureau statistics, Walling found that “the favorite pursuits of the East Side after as before Americanization are, first, the professions, second, business, and third, manual labor.” The second generation, he wrote, “leaves the sweatshop.”

The boys of the second generation do not work with their hands. This does not of course apply to all, but it does apply to a majority. Perhaps the principal occupations of the second generation are commercial and clerical. Especially numerous are the salesmen; many young boys under 21 are traveling all over the United States.…

Next come the professions. The teachers are numbered by the thousand, the lawyers by the hundred and the doctors by hardly a smaller number.… In some of the law schools almost nine-tenths of the students are said to be Jews. In the College of the City of New York, which prepares for all sorts of professional studies, the proportion is not much less.

Of those who do remain at manual labor, a considerable proportion go into the skilled trades. So we find among the plumbers, steamfitters and others of the more advanced building trades a large number of immigrant Jews. But a far greater number go directly into business—real estate, insurance and all forms of retail and wholesale trade. In the matter of preference, professional pursuits stand first and commercial second.

Walling’s opening generalization that “the second generation leaves the sweatshop” requires more amendment than he provides; nevertheless, his perception of the over-all long-range trend was accurate. Other studies point to similar trends. In a paper entitled “Religious and Occupational Mobility in Boston, 1880–1963,” Stephan Thernstrom has drawn on a range of statistics for comparing members of the three major religious denominations in Boston with regard to occupational status and mobility. In the Jewish group for 1860–1879, most of them German Jews, 73 percent started with white-collar jobs; in the 1880–1889 Jewish group, the percentage starting to work at white-collar jobs dropped to 43, no doubt because the sample included a large number of recently arrived immigrants from eastern Europe who lacked both language and skills for clerical employment; but by the 1900–1909 group, the percentage of Jews starting with white-collar jobs had risen to 71. Thernstrom concludes:

Popular folklore concerning the mobility achievements of the Jews is indeed well-founded. Not only did an unusually high proportion of Jewish youths in Boston start their careers in the upper reaches of the occupational structure; those who were forced to work in blue collar callings at the outset were extraordinarily successful at moving into the white collar world later. Only about half of the Jews who began their careers as laborers … were still employed in manual work at the time of the last job. The Jewish rate of upward mobility was double that of other groups.

As we shall see, the sparse evidence we have concerning occupational mobility of New York Jews for the same decades would seem to indicate that their social ascent was not as rapid or steep as in Boston, perhaps because the immigrant population of New York was more heavily working-class than in other cities. Nevertheless, the main elements of the picture—admitedly, a roughly drawn picture—seem clear: a very thin crust of wealthy people, the beginnings of a substantial middle class, a considerable number of petty tradesmen often no better off than shopworkers, and a majority continuing to earn their livelihood as workers, about half of them in the garment trades. These, we may say with reasonable assurance, characterize immigrant Jewish life in New York, though not perhaps in some other cities and certainly not in small towns, during the years immediately after 1900.

What the Census Shows

A social profile of the East Side immigrants emerges from a body of statistics gathered in the New York State 1905 census and sifted by Herbert Gutman and his associates. The 1905 census takers asked a number of useful questions, though it is a pity they did not ask more. All members of a household were listed, from its male or female head through its youngest members, extended relatives, and boarders. Their ages, occupations, countries of origin, and length of stay in the United States, whether as aliens or citizens, were also provided. It thereby becomes possible to gain a partial but relatively precise view of the socioeconomic conditions of some immigrant Jews at a crucial point in their history.

Sifting the data for a number of tenement houses—from 232 to 244, six houses in all—on Cherry Street, one of the poorest streets on the East Side, we have a population of about 675 people, living in three- and four-room apartments—that is, an average occupancy of 5.6 people per apartment. The occupational scale is heavily weighted toward blue-collar work. Of 118 heads of households, 52 can be categorized as garment workers, 36 as other manuals (ranging from day laborers to building-trade workers), and 15 are peddlers. This comes to a total of 103 heads of households in proletarian or sub- and semiproletarian occupations. Of the remaining 15, there are 6 small-business men, 3 rabbis, 5 housewives (widows or deserted wives), one professional (a teacher), and not a single white-collar worker. Living with these 118 families are 92 boarders, some apartments containing as many as 3. Of these 92 boarders, 75 live with families headed by garment workers and other manual workers; the boarders themselves do similar kinds of work. The overwhelming majority of wives stay at home, whether for immediate socioeconomic or received cultural reasons; only 2 out of the 118 are listed as employed (both as housekeepers).

The majority of these families in Cherry Street are young, in their twenties and thirties, and consist of immigrants who have recently arrived—the bulk within the previous six years. As a consequence they are mainly one-income families—about 60 percent of them have one income, about 40 percent more than one. Those with multiple incomes include, of course, parents in their middle and later years.

Among adults over forty, 16 are citizens while 62 remain aliens, apparently indicating that there is a considerable correlation among immigrants between economic improvement and the taking out of citizenship (a point to be confirmed later). Checking the occupations of those heads of households who have been in the United States more than five years, we find 15 garment workers, 11 other manuals, 5 peddlers, 5 businessmen, and 18 housewives—which would seem to indicate that there is no decisive correlation between length of time in the United States and economic improvement, as well as the equally suggestive conclusion that, at least in this poorer segment of the East Side, there is a persistence over the years in the blue-collar occupations.

Perhaps the most interesting figures have to do with the occupational status of the children. Those under fifteen are all listed as “At School,” while almost all in their later teens work. It is a striking fact that, at this point, few children of these Jewish workers can be said to be rising economically: three are bookkeepers (a rise to white-collar status), one is a clerk, and one a hat saleslady. Some of these young people may be going to night school or college; unfortunately, the census does not tell. But as far as the information provided goes, there is no sign of the expected pattern of immigrant sons entering white-collar occupations, becoming businessmen, or going to college. Most sons continue to work in trades like those of their fathers; and there are even a few occupational changes that can be regarded as a drop in social level, the son of a teacher becoming a garment cutter and the daughter of a rabbi a garment operator (though if the teacher is a Hebrew teacher and the rabbi receives the salary most immigrant rabbis can expect, their children are probably bringing home more money than the parents).

One crucial factor in regard to the children of immigrants is whether they themselves are native or foreign born, since the former are more likely to rise socially and economically than the latter. And indeed, on Cherry Street, of the 85 children (under twenty-one) who work, mostly in blue-collar occupations, 72, or almost 85 percent, are foreign and only 13 native born.

What these figures about the Cherry Street tenements suggest, though they cannot be said conclusively to demonstrate, is that among the immigrant Jews there was forming a social segment that could be described as a semipermanent working class: its members did not themselves rise in economic or social level and apparently their children did not rise quite as rapidly or in as large numbers as has commonly been supposed, or as the Thernstrom study shows for Boston. Now, it is true that some of these adolescents and young people who began their work careers in blue-collar occupations probably did rise economically in later years, by becoming small-business men, finding jobs that freed them from the more onerous aspects of being a worker, or completing a part-time education so as belatedly to enter professions. But it seems safe to say that during the early years of this century any assumption of a direct and large-scale social ascent from an immigrant generation of workers to a second generation of doctors, lawyers, and teachers needs to be treated with caution. Probably it was the sons and daughters of those young people remaining in blue-collar occupations who, a quarter of a century and more later, did make the leap into the middle and professional classes.

In striking contrast to Cherry Street is East Broadway, the most prosperous thoroughfare on the East Side. In a group of buildings containing 260 people—buildings 204 through 216, or seven in all—there are 37 families. Only 18 boarders live with them, coming to a much smaller percentage of the population than on Cherry Street. The average occupancy per apartment is 7, decidedly greater than on Cherry Street, but we know the East Broadway apartments were more spacious and had more rooms than those on the surrounding streets. Of the 37 heads of families in the East Broadway houses, there are 4 garment workers, 5 other manuals, one peddler, one rabbi, one city employee, 2 retired, 2 white-collar, 7 professional, and 11 businessmen. (This last category, in regard to all streets, is very loose, since it includes both garment manufacturers and small candy-store keepers.) Living in the East Broadway houses are 12 servants, approximately one to every third apartment—clearly a sign of middle-class styles of life. Most of these servants are young girls who have recently come over from Europe; many of them will marry or find other occupations.

In the age group twenty-one to forty, among those living in these East Broadway houses, there are 55 citizens and 21 aliens; in the age group of forty and above there are 25 citizens and 10 aliens. Here, the correlation between citizenship and economic betterment seems more visible than on Cherry Street.

Most significant of all is the evidence that on East Broadway children of immigrant Jews do rise economically. Among the sons and daughters living at home with their parents are two lawyers, two typists, two nurses, two salesmen, six bookkeepers, one teacher, two doctors, two dentists, one real-estate man, two girls attending “normal schools,” and five other students, three of them at CCNY. Here we do find the pattern that has come to be assumed as prevalent in immigrant Jewish life: a rather sharp social ascent within the space of two generations.

Between East Broadway and Cherry Street there is a considerable social distance; it may therefore be worth examining the statistics of streets that lie, socially, somewhere between them. A close inspection of several groups of tenement houses on Rutgers, Rivington, Madison, and Henry streets, the first three of which are the usual residential slum streets, and the last, still containing a few town houses, is a somewhat “better” street, shows a pattern fairly close to that of Cherry Street, though with a somewhat more fluid mobility from generation to generation. On Rivington Street we find a Jewish fireman with a doctor son; on Madison, a tinsmith with a pianist daughter; on Henry, several families with servants. The number of young people on these streets working in white-collar occupations is notably higher than on Cherry Street. Again, however, no evidence can be found for the commonly held notion that there occurs a sudden and massive ascent of the children of immigrants to professional and middle-class status; the process, though it will occur over the subsequent decades, seems to be more gradual and difficult than has usually been supposed.

A Slow Improvement

To what extent, we may finally ask, was there an improvement in the socioeconomic conditions of the immigrant Jewish workers during the years of the great migration? There have been two major studies of real wages in the United States for the years between 1890 and 1914, the first by Paul Douglas (1930) and the second by Albert Rees (1961). Since they diverge on crucial points, it is worth examining them in order.

According to Douglas, “until 1914 the wage earners in the clothing industry had received no increase in real wages and were on about the same footing as during the period 1890–1899.” Using 100 as the base average for 1890–1899, Douglas calculated the “relative real hourly earnings” in the clothing industry as 95 in 1890, 101 in 1895, 98 in 1900, 103 in 1905, 102 in 1910. The first major increase, says Douglas, occurred in 1913, when the figure rose to 126; the next major increase came in 1920, when it rose to 166. “The relative increase in the money earnings of the clothing workers prior to 1914 was approximately the same as that obtained by employees in manufacturing as a whole.” But the comparative position of clothing to other industries was poor. In 1890, weekly earnings in the clothing industry averaged $7.97, as compared with $9.78 for lumber, $10.46 for meat packing, and $15.39 for iron and steel. By 1910 weekly earnings in the clothing industry averaged $10.32, the money increase over the previous thirty years being about the same as in other industries.

Albert Rees’s study, while not seriously challenging Douglas on money wages, takes issue with the assumption that “real wages from 1890 to 1914 were essentially stationary.” The crucial difference between the two is in their ways of estimating the cost of living. Rees uses more refined indexes of retail prices for clothing and home furnishings than Douglas, as well as “an index of rents based on newspaper advertisements. The inclusion of rents and the correspondingly lower weight given to food account for the largest part of the differences between [the Rees] cost-of-living index and the Douglas index.” Hence, “our index of the cost of living rises appreciably less than Douglas’s,” and in consequence, “we find that the real earnings of manufacturing workers rose 37 percent from 1890 to 1914, or at an annual compound rate of 1.3 percent.” Yet Rees is careful to add that “the finding of an increase in real wages in no way denies the importance of immigration” as a factor “holding down the rate of increase in real wages during this period when compared with equivalent periods before and after.”

It would be imprudent for a nonspecialist to pass judgment as to the relative merits of these two studies, though the consensus among economists appears to be that Rees’s work significantly supplants that of Douglas. What seems beyond dispute is that the historical, anecdotal, and memoir literature supports the conclusion that in the years between 1890 and 1914 there occurred among immigrant Jewish workers a modest rise in the standard of living, such as Rees’s study indicates.*

We may say, then, with a fair degree of probability, that in the two decades between 1890 and 1910 facilities and amenities for a good many (not all) residents of the East Side did improve slowly and moderately; that, as a result of legislation, inspection, and unionization, there was a slow and moderate improvement in conditions of work in the garment and other Jewish industries (with working hours zigzagging erratically, in some years dropping to a humane level but in the “busy” season rising to sixty per week and more—as late as 1910 the union in the women’s garment trade was “demanding” a forty-nine-hour week); and that because of the strenuous efforts by Jewish immigrants to rise on the socioeconomic scale, conditions of life did improve for a good many of them, but again slowly and moderately. A sharp rise in real wages did not, however, come until shortly after the First World War, due to the mutually reinforcing factors of economic boom and strengthened unionism. Until then, life for the great mass of Jewish immigrants remained hard.

* “There may be an inverse relationship,” writes Stephan Thernstrom, “between the ‘institutional completeness’ of an ethnic community—the degree to which ethnic organizations can perform all the services its members require, whether religious, educational, political, recreational or economic—and the likelihood that members of the group will be upwardly mobile in the larger society.… It is of course true that a cohesive, disciplined group can act in concert to attain certain objectives—a classic example is the Irish take-over of the big city political machines in the late nineteenth century. But what is too often overlooked is that such a victory—winning control of 3000 jobs in the Public Works Department, let us say—may involve seizing one kind of opportunity at the expense of other opportunities. The success of the Irish in the political sphere was not matched by comparable gains in the private economy.”

* An unpleasant side effect: the victims sometimes became victimizers. In 1905 the Forward deplored incidents in which “hooting Jewish boys” threw stones at a Chinese man and “Jewish boys and girls spattered mud over the snow-white dress of a little Irish girl going to confirmation.… We are responsible for the disgraceful things our children do. We Jews, more than others, must teach our children to respect people with different customs.”

* The Yiddish writer S. Niger offers a valuable citation: “The profound effect of the Kishinev pogrom upon the minds and hearts of the radicals can be seen from the rancor with which Herz Burgin, one of those who remained true to their former extreme radicalism, speaks about it in his book about the Jewish labor movement. He writes, ‘This was a veritable nationalist epidemic.… The radicalism of the Jewish masses practically disappeared before the nationalist wave.’” A similar response can be seen in the memoirs of I. Kopeloff, an anarchist of long standing. “The Kishinev pogrom upset me.… My previous cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and similar ideologies vanished at one blow, like the contents of a barrel with the bottom knocked out.”

* The number and variety of institutions is astonishing. Let us name only a few: the Sheltering House for Immigrants and the Hebrew Free Loan Association, the Workmen’s Circle and the HIAS, the Beth Israel Hospital and the Free Burial Society, the United Hebrew Charities and the Jewish Maternity Hospital, the Hebrew Free School Association and the Educational Alliance, the Talmud Torahs, the yeshivas, the Provident Loan Society, the Baron de Hirsch Fund and the Aguilar Free Library, the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls and the Lake-view Home for unmarried Jewish mothers, the Jewish Prisoners’ Aid Association, the Jewish Consumptive Association in Denver, the East Side Civic Club. And then, still more numerous, the synagogues, the landsmanshaftn, the trade unions.

* A feeling reinforced by the fact that only a few months earlier they had gone through a severe conflict with the New York commissioner of immigration, William Williams, whom they also suspected of hostile sentiments toward Jews (see p. 55).

* A few additional factors, special to the clothing industry and the condition of the immigrant Jews, may be cited:

1. Douglas’s statistics take into account only hourly wages, the dominant mode of payment in the garment industry; they do not consider salaried employees. In the men’s clothing industry alone, according to the 1914 census of manufacturers, the number of salaried employees increased from 33,245 in 1904 to 61,919 in 1914, with total salaries going up from $31,600,000 to $76,400,000. In the women’s clothing industry, the number of salaried employees increased from 10,900 in 1904 to 22,200 in 1914, with total salaries going up from $9,900,000 to $26,100,000 in the same period. Even if Douglas were right about the general trend of real wages, the rise in status from wage to salaried employment for 40,000 people in the garment industry, many of them surely immigrant Jews and employed in New York, would be a significant factor in improving the socioeconomic conditions of the Jewish community.

2. Douglas’s figures for real wages refer to the clothing industry as a whole and do not take into account the trend toward increased specialization within the industry—which means that there would be an increasingly wide range of earnings. Dr. Jesse Pope, in his 1905 study of the garment industry, reported that cutters, the most skilled workers in the trade, enjoyed an increase of between 20 and 42 percent in real wages between 1883 and 1902—the variation in percentages being caused by place and kind of employment. Vestmakers, a much less skilled group of needle-trade workers, earned, by contrast, about the same real wages in 1901 as in 1894, again according to Pope.

3. It seems probable, as is suggested both by the Immigration Commission Reports and by Isaac Hourwich in his 1912 study, Immigration and Labor, that with the influx of new immigrants, the inferior jobs fell to them while older, more experienced workers rose in skill, rank, and income. The Immigration Commission reported that with the exception of those earning less than $10 a week, there was a very general tendency for the proportion of each race earning each specified amount per week to increase with years in the United States.

4. By the turn of the century, a considerable number of Italian immigrants, many of them women, had started to work in the needle trades. Almost all of them received rock-bottom wages and performed the least skilled work. By contrast, the more skilled jobs in the industry, especially the cutters’, were held by Jews. Therefore it seems reasonable to say that even if Douglas were right in his conclusion that real wages in the garment industry did not increase between 1890 and 1914, they probably did for a significant portion of Jewish garment workers.

5. For the above conclusion there is some statistical warrant. When the Immigration Commission study on wages was begun, in 1907, the average weekly wage in the garment industry for males over eighteen was $13.30. At that time only 23.9 percent of east European Jewish males resident in the United States for less than five years were earning well over the average ($15 or more), while 45.2 percent of those in the United States from five to nine years and 64.1 percent of those here for over ten years were earning more than the average in the garment industry.

John Dyche, a leader of the garment workers’ union, wrote in 1909: “There is not a cloak or a skirt shop where one cannot find one set of workers making $30 to $40 a week, while the majority makes only from $10 to $12 a week.”

CHAPTER FIVE. Slum and Shop

Even when life eased a little, even when husbands worked regularly and there was enough food on the table, the physical conditions of the slums were appalling. This was the one major element of their lives about which the immigrants could do little or nothing, at least until they had enough money to leave the East Side or, a bit later, Williamsburg and the east Bronx.

A 1908 census of 250 typical East Side families showed that fewer than a quarter of them slept two in a room; about 50 percent slept three or four in a room; and nearly 25 percent, five or more in a room. Toilet facilities, two to a floor at best and foul privies at worst, allowing neither the simplicities of nature nor the conveniences of civilization, added to the sense of people intolerably packed together. So did the clutter of buildings, the lack of ground space, the clamor of drays, refuse carts, grocery wagons. Perhaps worst was the assault of smells: the odors of human waste only intermittently carted away from back-yard privies by a careless sanitation department, the stench of fish and meat starting to rot on pushcarts, the foulness of neglected sewers and gutters. Life was abrasive, clamorous. Even if the immigrants had arrived with impeccable sanitary habits, they could not have won the battle against dirt and decay. By 1898 the Tenth Ward, only a bit more than a half square mile, bulged with a population of 82,000. As late as 1910 Manhattan had 2,500 six-story walk-ups, 14,797 basement apartments, and 25,753 tenement rooms without windows—of which the East Side had a good deal more than its share.

Only gradually did a tradition emerge in the American cities of taking public responsibility for the health of the poor. Though New York did not have a Board of Health until 1868, its first commissioner, Dr. Stephen Smith, was an admirable man who did whatever he could to alleviate suffering in the slums. He founded training schools for visiting nurses and wrote the first bill for state care of the insane; he arranged for free smallpox vaccinations; he inaugurated, in 1892, New York’s first public campaign against tuberculosis. Following in his footsteps were such dedicated people as Lillian Wald, responsible for the hiring of nurses in the public schools; Nathan Strauss, instrumental in providing clean and cheap milk for children; George Waring, who from 1890 to 1898 built a street-cleaning department equipped to handle even the East Side, “a region entirely neglected in previous years.”

Immigrant Jews were most susceptible to illnesses caused by overwork—neurasthenia, hysteria, breakdown. Suicide, infrequent in eastern Europe, became a serious problem in the new world, apparently an outcome, in extreme cases, of dislocation and an inability to adapt to new circumstances. On the East Side the most feared of all diseases was tuberculosis, or, as it was then called, “the white plague.” Encouraged by overcrowding and lack of sanitation, tuberculosis by 1906 was afflicting twelve out of every thousand Jews living on the East Side. It came to be regarded as “a Jewish disease,” or “the tailors’ disease”—not only was it the disease that Jews feared most and could imagine most strongly, but the whole culture seemed to have a consumptive flush, trembling with that overwrought sensibility Thomas Mann would take to be one of the “positive” signs of the disease.

Though it would remain a serious problem until well after the First World War, tuberculosis caused fewer deaths among Jews than non-Jews. In the early 1900’s, east European Jews in the United States showed a death rate from tuberculosis of about half that of the native-born population, and from half to a third of that among the non-Jewish groups immediately surrounding them. In hardly any other branch of social service was the Jewish community as active or emotionally involved as in the effort to care for its tuberculars. Early in the century there were established a number of Jewish sanitariums, the major ones being those of the Workmen’s Circle in Liberty, New York, and the Denver Sanitarium, organized in 1904 by a committee of immigrant and native-born Jews. For many years one could find pushkes (collection boxes) for the Denver Sanitarium in stores, meeting halls, and homes in Jewish neighborhoods. The Denver Sanitarium was perhaps the best known of these tuberculosis hospitals,* but by 1922 there were places for over 1,100 patients in Jewish sanitariums throughout the country. Even so, the demand for beds was so great that most applicants had to wait several months before being admitted.

Despite the weight of these troubles, the immigrant Jews seem to have ended with a better health record than did other immigrant groups. In an 1890 New York census of vital statistics, death rates in predominantly gentile areas west of the Bowery are higher than death rates in predominantly Jewish areas east of the Bowery. The same pattern is repeated with regard to serious diseases, like pneumonia and diphtheria, and diseases attacking children under five.

Why this should have been so is mostly a matter of speculation. Perhaps because the Jews had behind them a long tradition of self-denial which had prepared them for still another ordeal; perhaps because their habits of abstinence spared them the ravages of alcohol; perhaps because kashruth protected them from certain diseases carried by pig’s meat; perhaps because their training in self-help quickly prompted them to establish clinics, hospitals, and sanitariums; perhaps because their closely knit family structure brought them to a quicker concern for symptoms of illness (as well as to a certain shared hypochondria); and perhaps because Jews have had an overwhelming reverence for doctors, which made them regard medical aid as their first need.

The most visible threat to the health of the Jewish immigrant was the tenement, a mode of housing that in New York goes back to the earliest decades of the nineteenth century, when the raw and rapidly expanding metropolis of less than 200,000 people began to absorb waves of Irish and German immigrants. Many of these people settled in the Wall Street area and on Cherry Hill, a once attractive East Side neighborhood reduced to a slum by the end of the Jackson administration. With the further arrival of thousands of immigrants in the 1840’s, row after row of single-family residences were transformed into multiple-dwelling units. No New York building proved too grand to be spared this fate. The house quartering President Washington during his first years in office was reduced to a squalid tenement well before the Civil War. The Walton House on Pearl Street, with interior columns made of solid mahogany and regarded in colonial days as the most handsome in the city, was packed by the 1860’s with Irish immigrants.

Throughout the nineteenth century, few building standards or regulations controlled tenement construction. A mushrooming of slums in Manhattan created filth and squalor equal to the worst in Europe or Asia. Even before the East Side became a Jewish quarter, tenements spread through its streets—as also in Cherry Hill, Five Points, and Mulberry Bend to the south; the “Bloody Sixth” west of the Bowery; and the Negro sections of Greenwich Village to the north. By the Civil War these areas had begun to take on a uniform cast, with gray brick boxes three stories or higher replacing colonial structures. Some faced the streets; others, often no more than a yard or two away, rested on rear lots.

The first Tenement House Act of 1867, riddled with loopholes, mattered mainly as a promise of things to come. All tenements were required to have fire escapes—or some other means of exit; cesspools were forbidden—except where unavoidable; water closets and privies had to connect with sewers—where such existed; a landlord was obligated to provide only one privy or water closet for every twenty inhabitants. Worst of all, insufficient funds were provided for enforcement, thereby establishing for the next half-century a pattern of failing to live up to regulations that were inadequate to begin with.*

The next important push for tenement reform occurred in an unlikely place: the pages of Henry C. Meyer’s trade journal, The Plumber and Sanitary Engineer. In 1878 Meyer announced a prize competition for a tenement on a 2 5-by-100-foot lot, with the award going to the design that best combined maximum safety and convenience for the tenant with maximum profit for the investor (a formula always likely to lead to disaster). First prize was awarded to the dumbbell design of James E. Ware, which soon would become synonymous with the worst features of New York slum housing.

It is [wrote Jacob Riis] the one hopeless form of tenement construction. It cannot be well ventilated, it cannot be well lighted; it is not safe in case of fire. It is built on a lot 25 feet wide by 100 or less in depth, with apartments for four families in each story. This necessitates the occupation of from 86 to 90 percent of the lot’s depth. The stairway, made in the center of the house, and the necessary walls and partitions reduce the width of the middle rooms (which serve as bedrooms for at least two people each) to nine feet each at the most, and a narrow light and airshaft, now legally required in the center of each side wall, still further lessens the floor space of these middle rooms. Direct light is only possible for the rooms at the front or rear. The middle rooms must borrow what light they can from dark hallways, the shallow shafts, and the rear rooms. Their air must pass through other rooms or the tiny shafts, and cannot but be contaminated before it reaches them. A five-story house of this character contains apartments for eighteen or twenty families, a population frequently amounting to 100 people, and sometimes increased by boarders and lodgers to 150 or more.

The dumbbell tenement did offer a few advantages by comparison with older tenements—fireproof stairways, more privacy of halls, and better ventilation of water closets. The New York Times nevertheless concluded in 1879: “If one of our crowded wards were built up after these designs, the evils of our present tenement house system would be increased tenfold.” This warning ignored, the dumbbell became the characteristic design for houses erected on the East Side between 1880 and 1901.

Jewish immigrants were ill-equipped for coping with the tenement problem. Many were too frightened, most too inexperienced in American ways to go and fight City Hall. The religious Jews were too withdrawn from the grime of pressure politics, the socialist Jews too superior to it. The growth of a new tradition of winning practical gains would have to wait upon younger American Jews throwing themselves into reform politics or learning to squeeze favors out of Tammany Hall. Meanwhile, it was fortunate for the immigrants that native reformers and muckrakers found in the East Side an outlet for their wish to ease the lives of the oppressed. Jacob Riis, a reporter for the New York Sun, published in 1890 his classic study of tenement life, How the Other Half Lives, and for the next two decades, through a stream of articles and books, he kept forcing upon middle-class readers an awareness of the horrors of the slums. Lawrence Veiller, a patrician radical, began as a naïve University Settlement House worker in the early 1890’s and then became an agitator for tenement reform. Veiller and his friends hammered at this theme until finally, in 1901, a law was passed in Albany that put an end to further construction of the dumbbell tenement. The narrow dumbbell shaft was superseded by a court that could not measure less than four and a half feet in width. A separate water closet was required in each apartment, to replace the two-to-a-floor system dating back to 1879. The height of nonfireproof tenements was limited, with few exceptions, to five stories, and previous laws requiring that halls and stairs be fireproofed were strengthened.

On paper all this seemed impressive. In practice the new requirements were a good deal less so, especially on the East Side. Much of the damage had already been done. In the Tenth Ward the number of tenements had more than doubled in the preceding few decades, increasing from 534 in 1864 to 1,196 in 1893. By 1900 there was a building on almost every available East Side lot. And given the effective resistance to tearing down “old-law” structures, little opportunity remained for “new-law” tenements after 1901.

Still, improvements were introduced after 1901 by applying some of the “new-law” regulations to “old-law” buildings. To meet minimal standards, windows had to be installed in the walls of windowless rooms, and backyard privies, of which 6,763 still served the poor of Manhattan in 1903, had to be replaced by water closets. Lighting in hallways had to be improved somewhat; cellar floors had to be waterproofed. And a large enough municipal staff was provided to insure more than token enforcement.

The New York Tenement House Act of 1901 was not replaced by another major act until after the First World War. Structural changes were made in older buildings, but no mere modifications of the dumbbells could begin to cope with the pouring in of immigrants. In the 1890’s the population of Manhattan grew by approximately 400,000; in the 1900’s, by approximately 500,000. To have begun to handle the problem according to humane standards would have meant to rid the city of the Tammany machine that, except for a few intervals, ruled it during all these decades; would have meant to stir up, somehow, a sense of collective responsibility in the hearts of the native population; would have meant to institute serious urban planning and public housing; would have meant to break with the American distaste for government intervention.

All through the decades of mass migration there were some Americans, men and women with a sense of social responsibility, who knew that housing in the cities was a scandal. As for the immigrant Jews themselves, their attitudes were complex and barely accessible to anyone beyond their cultural orbit. Over the centuries the Jews had learned to keep in mind two measures of response: the first, an austere balance sheet of the outrage to which they had been subjected and which, even without a final reckoning on earth, they did not propose to forget; and the second, a readiness to rejoice in the smallest gains that might nevertheless come to them. The immigrants suffering in East Side tenements knew that by American standards they were victims of an outrage, and that good will and imagination might have gone far toward remedying it. But they also remembered that in the old country many of them had lived in hovels, fearful of stray peasants and drunken policemen who might wander by and break windows. So they responded to both the American immediacy and the European memory, submitting as best they could to their daily burdens, determined to escape as quickly as possible, and meanwhile finding solace—it was a genuine solace—in the fact that even in the short time since they had arrived in this country there had been improvements: a workable fire escape, a lighted hallway, a toilet for each family. Only people who have never known the absence of these rudimentary amenities would be inclined to minimize their value.

Working in the Shops

In 1890 the Baron de Hirsch Fund conducted a survey of more than 100,000 Jews on the East Side. Of the roughly 25,000 gainfully employed Jews among the respondents, more than 12,000 were listed as garment workers. During the decades to come, the number of Jewish workers in this industry would increase steadily. In 1900 over 40 percent of 35,000 female workers classified by the census as “Russian-born” and close to 20 percent of 191,000 male workers classified in the same way were listed as garment workers. Three decades later a much larger work force in the garment trades was still “predominantly Russian Jewish.” The fate of the east European immigrants was to be crucially intertwined with the development of the garment trades.

It was a development almost entirely dependent on the rate at which hand sewing was replaced by machine manufacture, individually fitted by ready-made garments. As early as the 1850’s machine-sewn vests, coats, and pants were being manufactured in the United States, but as late as 1890 the bulk of women’s clothes, except for cloaks and mantillas, was still being sewn by hand, either at home or in small tailoring establishments. The women’s clothing industry did not complete its transformation to machine manufacture until about the turn of the century. Meanwhile, garment centers were becoming part of America’s rapid industrialization, particularly in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, all major places of Jewish settlement.

New York took and kept the lead. By 1870 it had a product value for men’s clothing of over $34,000,000. Its large supply of cheap Irish and German labor, its rail connections, its tradition of hard work, all signified decisive advantages. In 1880, with a product value of $60,000,000 for men’s clothing and $18,000,000 for women’s (a sixfold increase over the 1870 figure), New York had outstripped the combined production of its four closest urban competitors.*

From 1889 to 1899 the growth of the garment industry in the United States, measured by number of workers and value of product, was two or three times as rapid as the average for all industries. For the women’s clothing industry, the years of sharpest growth were during this period, one that coincided with the upsurge of Jewish immigration. In 1900 the product value for women’s clothing in the country as a whole came to $159,000,000, with New York’s share a massive $107,000,000. By 1914 the American clothing industry consisted of nearly 15,000 establishments employing 510,595 wage earners and 61,919 salaried employees; its yearly payroll came to $326,605,102 and its product value to well over $1,000,000,000.

By the time east European Jews started to arrive in large numbers, a good part of the clothing industry was owned by German Jews, who had come here in the 1840’s and 1850’s and started their upward climb with clothing stores along Baxter and Chatham streets on the East Side. As early as 1851 Jewish “pullers-in” were sardonically called “Baxter Street merchants,” and Chatham Street was called Jerusalem, “from the fact that the Jews do most of the business on this street [with] a Yankee stuck in now and then by way of variety.” In an 1863 edition of the New York Herald Jewish names appear in twenty-three out of twenty-five advertisements for firms handling ready-made and secondhand clothing.

Finding it easier to deal with a German-Jewish employer than a gentile one, the east European immigrants moved into the garment trades. Other factors reinforced this trend: many of the immigrants had some experience in tailoring; jobs were not hard to come by in an industry that doubled its size with each decade of the Jewish migration from eastern Europe; and, perhaps most important, as the work became increasingly routinized, no very great skills were required for most of the available jobs.

This had not always been true, especially during the earlier years when the Germans and the Irish came over in large numbers. Under the family system of production that then prevailed, precut material was assembled at home into garments, with the head of the family, a skilled craftsman, doing the difficult work, while wife and children lent a hand with such easier tasks as basting, finishing, and buttonhole making. Gradually this inefficient method was replaced by one in which the job of putting together a single garment was divided among several semiskilled workers. The machine work would be given to an operator, the needle work to a baster and a finisher, and minor tasks, such as sewing on buttons, felling, and pressing, to still others. In one leading garment shop in New York at the turn of the century, no fewer than thirty-nine tasks were carried on by the same number of workers in order to manufacture a single garment.

Somewhat greater skill was required in the dress and women’s cloak trades, at least until they caught up with advances in machine manufacture. But there were other women’s garments, such as shirtwaists, which a newcomer could learn to work on in a short time. “As a rule, it takes 10 persons to produce the waists in the factories.… As a result of these divisions in labor, Jewish immigrants are able to master their jobs … usually in less than a month.”

Such improved systems of production were at first conducted in large lofts, but with the arrival of masses of east European Jews the industry spilled over into sweatshops, unventilated tenement rooms packed with teams of eight to twenty who pored over worktables and sewing machines. With the growth and rationalization of the industry, conditions improved—but only a little. By 1911 foot power was still prevalent in women’s garment shops, as were twenty-five-pound hand-operated pressing irons (a common cause of spinal curvature), leaky illuminating gas tubes, high temperatures, and bad light and ventilation. Shop walls and floors were grimy, separate washrooms an exception, lunch areas either nonexistent or in “a dark and dirty corner of the shop, or in the janitor’s apartment on another floor.” Water closets were often located in yards or halls; the legal minimum of one for every twenty-five workers was not met in many shops, some having only one for eighty-five workers; and many, lacking windows, passed odors directly into the work areas. “The adequate flushing of the closets,” reported a shocked inspector, “suffers from their location and neglect, and their condition is, in many cases, scandalous.”

In the shop itself the garment worker was plagued by a tyrannical “task system,” a rudimentary kind of speed-up that increased his work load faster than his pay check. The evils of this system are explained by an Industrial Commission report:

The contractor … would go to the manufacturer. Finding that there was but little work to be had, he would offer to take the coats cheaper than the price theretofore paid. When he came home, he would tell his men that there was not much work and he was obliged to take it cheaper, and since he did not want to reduce their wages and pay them less per day, all they would have to do would be to make another coat in the task. That is, if they were accustomed to make 9 coats in the task, they would be required to make 10, and then 11, and so on. The wages were always reduced on the theory that they were not reduced at all but the amount of labor increased. In this way intense speed was developed. The men who had been accustomed to making 9 coats in a task would make 10, and so on, up to 15, 18, and even 20, as is the customary task at the present time [1901]. The hours began to be increased, in order to make the task in a day.

Over the next decade the task system was to be one of the major targets of attack by the garment unions, but it was not until after the historic settlement of 1910 that it was significantly modified. The kind of life created by this work system is suggested by a few statistics in a 1911 Immigration Commission report on the clothing industry. A very small percentage of female garment workers, even those in the country more than ten years, were earning over $10 a week by 1911. Only 29.6 percent of the male garment workers of east European Jewish extraction who had been in the country less than five years were earning over $12.50 a week. Among east European Jewish immigrants in the garment industry who were over sixteen years of age at the time of their arrival, one out of two was earning more than $12.50 a week—compared with fewer than one out of three south Italian males, two out of three German males, and one out of twenty Russian-Jewish females. Jewish heads of families in the garment industry averaged $502 a year; most worked between nine and twelve months a year. Fully a third of Jewish heads of families earned less than $400 a year. What kept these people going was that most families had more than one worker, that they were well trained in the arts of self-denial, that they lived by a goal of expectation that gave some meaning to deprivations of the moment.

The pivotal figures in the garment industry were the contractors, a tough breed of underfinanced adventurers who sought out the owners of cloth (usually German Jews) in their Broadway showrooms and arranged to convert bundles of precut material into ready-to-wear clothing for a set price. Returning with these bundles to the shops, they would often work alongside their men, immigrants like themselves, into the far hours of the night.

Jacob Riis describes one such marginal “boss,” visited in 1890:

A sweater, this, in a small way. Five men and a woman, two young girls, not fifteen, and a boy who says unasked that he is fifteen, and lies in saying it, are at the machines sewing “knee-pants.” … The floor is littered ankle-deep with half-sewn garments.… The faces, hands, and arms to the elbows of everyone in the room are black with the color of the cloth on which they are working. The boy and the woman alone look up at our entrance. The girls shoot sidelong glances, but at a warning look from the man with the bundle [the contractor] they tread their machines more energetically than ever.… They are “learners,” all of them, says the woman, who proves to be the wife of the boss, and have “come over” only a few weeks ago. They turn out 120 dozen “knee-pants” a week. They work no longer than to nine o’clock at night, from daybreak.

Since the New York Tenement House Act of 1892, contractors had been forbidden to carry on manufacture in the home, but the law was slow to take effect and some years went by before garment production was actually confined to shops and lofts. (As late as 1911, thirteen thousand tenement houses in New York were licensed for home work by the Bureau of Factory Inspection, and that on a not very rigorous factory inspection.)

Wages in the garment industry remained low, even by contemporary standards, throughout the period of migration. In 1914 the average hourly wage of male clothing workers was about 35¢, a figure that exceeded only the rate for common building workers. By 1930 garment workers were receiving an average of $24.51 a week, $1.50 less than the pay of workers in stockyards and slaughterhouses.

A typical turn-of-the-century East Side sweatshop required the “inside” services of thirteen Jewish workers in addition to six Italian women who did felling (turning over the rough edges of a seam and sewing it down flat) in their own homes. The “inside” group comprised three operators of foot-powered sewing machines, three basters, three finishers, two pressers, one trimmer and busheler (in this case, the contractor himself), and one button sewer. In an average seventy-two-hour, six-day work week, three hundred coats were assembled for a contracted price of $225 (75¢ a coat). Out of this amount the contractor paid weekly salaries of $15 to each operator, $13.30 to each baster, $10 to each finisher, $12 to each presser, $18 to himself as trimmer and busheler, $9 for button work, and $2 apiece to the Italian home workers. After deducting his weekly rent of $6 and the $3 cost of oil and repair, the contractor was left with a neat profit of $38.10, more than double the wage paid to his most skilled workers. During prosperous times thousands of contractors made good returns on their tiny capital investments, often no more than $50 to $100—the cost of a few used sewing machines. But with the inevitable slack season, or, still worse, an economic depression, thousands of contractors, as many as one third of them in a typical year, went under: some because they agreed to prices lower than they could meet, others because their manufacturers went bankrupt, and still others as a result of exhaustion and ill health.


Young sweatshop workers

Rising in the World

A very few rose, quite literally, from rags to riches, from some obscure shtetl to a Fifth Avenue business address.

Even before reaching his bar mitzvah, Louis Borgenicht (1861–1942) had already earned a few pennies by selling fertilizing material (mostly old bones collected in abandoned fields) to peasants, delivering mail to the few landlords near his shtetl who could pay for the service, and peddling soda water at village fairs. “It boiled down,” he would recall some sixty years later, “to a question of what storekeeper—what tobacco, notions, or dry-goods man—I could persuade to take me as an apprentice.” Born in Austria-Hungary, Borgenicht became an apprentice in a village tobacco shop at which peddlers would gather to discuss the ins and outs of their trade: where the best shawls could be bought at lowest prices, how to persuade a peasant woman to make a purchase. To these peddlers the boy once announced, “Piece goods will take me out into the world.” The next week he was working in a drygoods store half a block away. He had by then mastered a valuable business technique: after clinching a bargain with a peasant woman for a shawl, he would snatch a slightly cheaper one from a shelf beneath the counter. “A little sleight-of-hand and it was the cheaper shawl which, wrapped and tied, was handed to the woman.” Moving on to a better job at a drygoods store in the city of Jaslow, Borgenicht immersed himself in the clothing industry. “Days and nights,” recalled this Jewish Kipps, “I pored over goods. I’ve always felt that it was impossible to sell something you don’t believe in yourself.”

Borgenicht soon recognized that he was caught in a backwater. “I saw those others … all the same men sitting behind counters and over desks … treading the same worn steps day by day, impervious to new ideas, unaware of the world moving around them, stifling in an ancient society where a man’s life was determined by his birth.” Impatient, nervous, Borgenicht opened a piece-goods store in a Hungarian town—but it was the same story, no manufacturing, everything made by hand, no demand for anything, a world frozen with boredom.

In 1888 Borgenicht and his wife sailed for America. Operating out of an eight-dollar-a month apartment on Eldridge Street, he tried his hand at peddling; frightened by stories of peddlers left dead on lonely country roads, he stuck close to home. He sold herrings out of a barrel on an East Side street corner. Business was good, the first week’s profit eight dollars and the second, thirteen dollars. Taking a pushcart, he sold notebooks, bananas, socks, crockery—whatever he could buy for a nickel and sell for a dime.

A driven man, he understood that step-by-step improvements in income would never bring him to the place he dreamed of. He walked the streets, studying what people were wearing and what was being sold in stores, until one day he noticed a little Slavic girl with an apron utterly common in Central Europe but still unknown in America. This, thought Borgenicht, might be the item to make his fortune.

He bought 150 yards of material in a Hester Street store, and, with the help of his wife, he manufactured forty children’s aprons in one day. Within three hours he had sold them all, realizing a profit of $2.60. He then invested all his remaining capital in gingham and white goods, and he and his wife labored six days a week from seven in the morning until late into the night, converting uncut material into enough aprons for him to peddle from house to house. Soon an eighteen-year-old apprentice was hired for six dollars a week. A bit later the Borgenichts rented a store on Sheriff Street and lived in its back rooms. Then a few girls were hired to work on machines in the store. In 1890, two years after his arrival, Borgenicht gave up peddling and concentrated on the manufacture of children’s dresses. By 1892 twenty girls were employed in the back room of a large store, with dresses being sold to Bloomingdale’s and Ridley Brothers.

Borgenicht still felt dissatisfied, restless, hemmed in. “I wanted to grow, to employ crowds of people. And here I was, cramped in a little retail-wholesale shop, dealing with customers who wanted one dress or two petticoats. At night I lay awake and thought of my frustration.” Longing to break into “the real downtown merchants’ district,” Borgenicht gave up his East Side establishment and moved nearer to Broadway, where, by cutting expenses, he began to compete successfully with the German Jews. They paid an outside subcontractor to sew and finish precut materials, but Borgenicht followed the example already set by the Yiddish-speaking “Division Street moths” and acted as his own subcontractor. He did his own cutting, hired girls fresh off the boat at low wages, and made do with an inexpensive loft on Canal Street, off Broadway.

Though this operation prospered at first, a combination of unfortunate circumstances—overexpansion, an injudicious partner, uncollectable bills, an economic recession—drove Borgenicht into bankruptcy. Unbroken, he and his wife scraped together a few dollars, went back to Rivington Street, opened a small shop, moved on to a larger shop on Division Street, and then to a still larger one on East Broadway. In 1900 the East Broadway operation showed a ten-thousand-dollar profit.

Borgenicht expanded rapidly. By 1910 he was being called the “king of the children’s dress trade.” He now had a work force of 150, a yearly product value of $1,500,000, and a sales staff of 14 receiving orders from the country’s largest stores. By 1913 Borgenicht employed 1,500 workers. A rich man, he divided his life between his office on Broadway, his uptown residence, and his summer estate in the Catskills, replete with stables, gardens, orchards, a tennis court, and a swimming pool. Later, looking back on his life, Borgenicht saw himself as a brilliant opportunist: “Starting from scratch in a strange land, I had established what was to all intents and purposes a new line. In twenty years I had watched it develop into a significant industry.… The concept was overwhelming to a man who had come to the U.S. with bare hands.”

In the years of his wealth Borgenicht remained attached to the culture from which he had come; he served on the boards of synagogues, he contributed to HIAS, he gave food to poor Jews on holidays, he kept his factory closed on the Sabbath, he sent his sons to Hebrew school, he maintained a kosher home, he read the Yiddish papers until the day of his death. But gradually, with the drift of the years, there occurred subtle changes of stress and style. Borgenicht began to show concern for narrowing the social gap between himself and his more hochwohlegeboren coreligionists. At the plush family residence a fraulein was employed to teach the little Borgenichts German speech and manners. Upon joining an uptown Hungarian synagogue, he struggled to replace his coarse accent with more refined and mellifluous sounds. Even his appearance changed. Still driven, still restless, he nevertheless began to sport a carefully trimmed beard, and donned striped pants, cutaway jacket, and top hat for holidays and special occasions. The New York Staats Zeitung and the Metropolitan Opera were now taking almost as much of his time as the Yiddish press and theatre. Torn between the social possibilities created by his wealth and the pieties he still felt toward the East Side, Borgenicht ended as a man not quite comfortable in any world, visibly a success but uncertain where to register its impact, a stranger, perhaps, even to himself.

Like Borgenicht, the majority of east European Jews who succeeded in business did so in the garment industry. Oscar Berman, born in a wretched little Lithuanian village, worked his way up from traveling salesman in neckwear to head of the Crown Overall Manufacturing Company; Samuel Messing came out of an impoverished Warsaw childhood to reach the presidency of Messing-David Corporation, manufacturer of lingerie; Ben Pauker escaped an Orthodox family in Austria to become head of Pauker Brothers, manufacturer of sportswear; Louis Saffer left Vilna at the turn of the century and ended his life as a manufacturer of men’s clothing. Of the two hundred or so prominent Jewish businessmen of east European extraction mentioned in the 1947 edition of American Jews, Their Lives and Achievements, most are clothing manufacturers of one kind or another. If they remained in the garment industry, it was unusual for such men to become extremely rich—multimillionaires, say. The really big money was elsewhere, in real estate and liquor, the movies and junk. This was the path of the Lefcourts, from rags to real estate, as also of the owners of one of the largest scrap-iron and steel companies in America, Luria Brothers and Company.

There were a number of other industries in which relatively large numbers of Jewish immigrants worked for a living. In the early 1900’s 20 percent of the fifteen thousand cigar makers in New York City were Jewish. In 1909 a recently established union of butcher workers estimated that it needed to organize “at least a thousand men.” Even before the turn of the century enough Jews were entering the building trades to cause resentment among better-paid carpenters, painters, and paper hangers:

We are knocked out of the work of fitting up flats in the Harlem district [reports the secretary of a local building trade union] by lumpers who hire the cheapest labor in the market … from the other side … Swedes, Hungarians, and Polish Jews. They work for $1.50 to $2.50 a day.…

We have lost all the work done east of Third Avenue, from the Battery to the Harlem River. The work there now is done entirely by Polish Jews … 1500 men … Polish Jews have injured our business. They are not good mechanics, and they will work for $1.15, $1.25, and $1.50 a day (compared with from $2 to $5 a day paid to union members).

Finding work in alteration and repair jobs, over 8,000 Jewish building workers formed a union in 1913. An Inside Iron and Bronze Workers Union, organized in 1913 under the United Hebrew Trades, reported a membership of 2,000 in 1918; a similarly sponsored Bakers Union numbered 2,500 in the same year. The United Hebrew Trades also sponsored a Bed Spring Makers Union of 150 members, a Chandelier and Brass Workers Union of 275, a Milk Wagon Drivers Union of 1,000, as well as small locals of shoe fitters, bag makers, metal workers, umbrella makers—even an East Side Newspaper Deliverers Union that met, appropriately enough, in the Forward building.

Wages and working conditions in most of these trades were often no better than those in the garment industry; sometimes they were considerably worse, as among Jewish butcher workers who, if we can believe a pioneer leader of their union, earned a mere $1.50 a week plus “board”—“a pallet or a narrow cot, in the back room of the foul-smelling, unheated butcher shop … and what the butcher’s wife cared to send down to him.” Nor were bakers better off. As late as 1912 the great majority of New York’s 2,500 bakers were located in rat- and roach-infested cellars in which working conditions were appalling. Conditions in the cigar industry were hardly better, with the work unsteady, the pay equal to that of an ordinary semiskilled garment worker (in 1905 from four to seven dollars a week for women, twelve dollars a week for men), a sixty-hour week, and a serious child-labor problem.

In time, the East Side industries began to move upward and outward. After the First World War the clothing industry, now the fourth largest in value product in the United States, with close to 95,000 garment workers employed in Manhattan alone, graduated out of the ghetto into more sumptuous uptown surroundings. By 1930, with few exceptions, Manhattan’s garment workers labored within a 150-acre area bounded on the east by Seventh Avenue, on the north by Times Square, on the south by Pennsylvania Station and on the west by Ninth Avenue. Surrounded by skyscrapers built on garment-earned money by Abe Lefcourt, Saul Singer, Mack Kenner, and other Jewish builders, the streets at noontime would be filled with hordes of Yiddish-speaking Jews shouting in an informal employment market, reading Yiddish newspapers, munching sandwiches and dill pickles. The Jewish workers, together with a growing number of Italians and blacks, benefited from improved physical conditions, labored five to ten hours less a week, and received real wages 20 to 30 percent higher than before the war.

Many immigrant workers could now experience the small pleasures of life—better food, clothing, housing. Of close to a thousand pensioned clothing workers interviewed in 1950, well over half reported having moved out of the East Side by 1930 to higher-rent areas. Many moved into three- to six-family apartment houses in Brooklyn and the Bronx, a notable distance from what they had left behind.

Ways to Make a Living

A good portion of the earnings of Jewish workers remained within the Jewish economy, paid out to landlords, storekeepers, and venders of services. Almost everything the immigrant needed, and some he did not, could be found within that economy. Listed in the 1890 Baron de Hirsch census of the Jewish East Side are 413 butchers, 370 grocers, 307 drygoods dealers, 120 restaurant keepers, 83 shoe dealers, 80 coal dealers, 31 hardware dealers, 58 booksellers.

The first decades of the century also showed a notable increase in the variety of East Side retail establishments and offices. During this period the Forward mentions an East Side photography business, a Jewish milk business, and a plethora of East Side drugstores and barbershops. Another source estimates that in 1907 200 physicians, 115 pharmacists, and 175 dentists served New York’s downtown Jews—figures that appear somewhat high. By 1913, near the peak of its development, the East Side was bursting with sizable numbers of shops, offices, professional services. A survey in that year of only a fraction of the Jewish community, covering 57 blocks, lists 112 candy stores and ice-cream parlors, 70 saloons, 30 lunchrooms, 78 barbers, 40 dentists, 16 doctors, 38 drugstores, 2 optometrists, 3 piano teachers, 12 photographers, 23 lawyers, 43 bakeries, 93 butcher shops, 20 laundries, even a veterinarian.

One major route for social advancement was real estate. Though tenement properties on the East Side were expensive, ranging from $35,000 to $50,000 each, “thousands of humble immigrants” from eastern Europe, wrote one investigator, had become owners by 1907. This figure is probably exaggerated, but the description of how it happened remains valuable:

First they become lessees. By constant saving the East Sider gets together $200 or $300, with which, as security, he gets a four or five years’ lease of a house. He moves his own family into the least expensive apartment. He himself acts as janitor; his wife and daughters as scrub-women and housekeepers. He is his own agent, his own painter, carpenter, plumber, and general repair man. Thus he reduces expenses to the minimum. He lets out apartments by the week, always calling promptly himself for the rent. By thus giving constant attention to his work he has perhaps a few hundred dollars every year as profit. By the time his lease expires, this has swollen to a few thousand. With this he buys a tenement outright. He puts down from $3,000 to $5,000 on a $45,000 building, giving one, two, three, sometimes four mortgages in payment.… Then he repeats his old operation.… When the third or fourth mortgage comes due, he has invariably made enough out of the building to pay it off. He keeps on hard at work and likewise pays off the third and second. Then, as his rents still come in, he invests them in more tenements; until, as a monument to a life spent in the hardest sacrificial toil, he may own a string scattered all over the town.

Perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most colorful, of the immigrant businessmen were those who would later be known as the Hollywood Moguls, a dozen or so Yiddish-speaking Tamerlanes who built enormous movie studios and for nearly half a century satisfied the world’s hunger for fantasy.

They began arriving in America during the 1880’s, penniless boys who drifted restlessly from job to job. Carl Laemmele, who would head Universal Pictures for twenty years, went through a succession of youthful wanderings: furrier’s apprentice in New York, errand boy in Chicago, supernumerary in an Edwin Booth production of Julius Caesar, farm hand in the Dakota plains, clerk in a jewelry store, bookkeeper in a stockyard. The others—Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, the Warner brothers, the Schenks, the Selznicks, Harry Cohn, Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor—all followed pretty much in Laemmele’s footsteps. Bored with sitting in classrooms, too lively for routine jobs, clever in the ways of the world, they were on the lookout, these luftmenshn in God’s country, for a key to wealth and power.

They found it in the nickelodeon. Renting cheap stores in immigrant (mostly Jewish) neighborhoods, they charged a nickel a head for a showing of early movies to patrons who sat on rows of wooden chairs. The immigrants, like everyone else, loved these simple, flickering pictures, and soon the young entrepreneurs were making money—a little bit of money. It was a business that appealed to them: strictly cash, a minimum of goods and apparatus, and brand new. A bright young Jew could get in at the start without having to trip over established gentiles along the way.

By 1910 some of these young businessmen were already owners of small chains of moving-picture parlors that boasted whitewashed exteriors, uniformed ushers, and male vocalists. But the take from nickel-a-head shows was, after all, limited—the real money, it seemed, lay in distribution. They moved into the distribution of movies, and found that even there they had not yet reached the real money; so they moved into the production of movies, setting up pioneer studios in Hollywood and buying up whatever talent they could find. Banks lent them money; the capitalization, at first, was modest; and the economic boom of the First World War eased their way up. By the twenties, they had risen to become heads of empires employing thousands of actors, stagehands, writers, publicity men, and all-purpose flunkies. A decade later they were earning some of the largest salaries in the country—Louis B. Mayer’s income was $1,296,503 in 1937.

The Moguls were mostly semiliterate men, ill at ease with English, but enormously powerful in their intuitive grasp of what American—indeed, international—audiences wanted. They were soon dining with heads of state, traveling among the international set, winning and losing fantastic sums at Monte Carlo, realizing their wildest personal fantasies, satisfying their every whim, amiable or sadistic. The marks of immigrant Jewishness remained on their every feature and every gesture, and the shrewder among them made no special effort to erase those marks. Some discarded worn Jewish wives for fresh gentile beauties, but except for Harry Cohn, who died a baptized Christian, that was as far as they cared or were able to go in shedding the past. They remained Jews, of a sort.

Often vulgar, crude, and overbearing, they were brilliantly attuned to the needs of their business; they commanded and used to the full a profound instinct for the common denominator of taste; and they left a deep imprint on American popular culture. Trusting their own minds and hearts, shrewd enough not to pay too much attention to the talented or cultivated men they hired, the Moguls knew which appeal to sentiment, which twirl of fantasy, which touch of violence, which innuendo of sexuality, would grasp native American audiences. It was something of a miracle and something of a joke. They had come from the Ukraine and Poland and Austria-Hungary; they still spoke with Yiddish accents; but it was they, more than anyone else, who reached the fantasies of America, indeed of the entire world—a universalism of taste which shaped the century and which they could shrewdly exploit because they innocently shared it.

An especially difficult path to economic advancement was to become clerks and salesmen in the “outside world.” Accents, gesticulations, lack of familiarity with American manners, distrust of gentiles, religious habits—all combined with that world’s well-rooted preconceptions about Jews to make it difficult at first for immigrants to obtain even the simplest clerical job in a municipal office or behind a department-store counter. It is hardly surprising that in 1900 only 2.3 percent of a sample of New York State’s 73,000 Russian-born workers were employed as clerks, and only 3.2 percent as salesmen. Slowly the percentages rose in both fields. In the 1920 census, out of a sample of 400,000 foreign-born workers, 13,000 Yiddish speaking males held positions as store salesmen (though many, no doubt, in stores operated by Yiddish-speaking employers). While forming only 5.7 percent of the group studied, the Yiddish-speaking salesmen comprised 20 percent of those employed in the field. Yiddish-speaking women also ranked high in white-collar work, with close to 4,000 (over two fifths of the total) handling clerical jobs. By 1920 a major economic rise toward middle-class status had been begun—but no more than begun.

By 1912 enough second-generation Jews had entered the civil service to warrant notice:

Twenty years ago the Irish occupied not far from ninety percent of all the positions in the city departments of New York. That was the period of the spoils system.…

Now, however, nearly all of the 6,500 positions in the city government are awarded on the basis of competitive civil service examinations. As a result, the Jews are rapidly driving out the Irish, the Germans and the native Americans. The East Side branches of the public libraries find themselves unable to supply the demand for books that are supposed to prepare one for civil service examinations. The Jews study hard and long, and their examination papers are so immeasurably superior to the average offered by representatives of other races that they invariably secure preferred places.… They fill nearly all medical and laboratory positions.… They hold most of the minor legal positions. They are the city’s searchers, process-servers, and law examiners. Most of the municipal office-boys are youngsters from the East Side; the stenographers and typewriters are nearly all Jewish girls.

The move toward the professions was, if anything, still more direct and massive. In 1891 only a few dozen east European Jews were doctors or lawyers in New York, and there were no more than a handful in dentistry and teaching. By the next decade, these few grew “into hundreds,” though statistically they amounted to a mere 2.6 percent of the immigrant Jewish working population. By 1907

of 2,979 foreign-born male students in American colleges and universities, 37.1 percent were Jews. Moreover, of 6,652 native-born male students of foreign-born parents in such schools, 16.1 percent were of Jewish descent. In brief, the Jews constituted almost one fourth of these two groups of students, a percentage which was several times higher than the proportion of Jews to non-Jews in the general population.

This trend accelerated in the following decades, as larger numbers of second-generation Jews reached college age. In the early twenties Jews numbered 14,837 out of a total of 153,085 students in 106 institutions. Making up over 9 percent of the entire student body, Jewish representation in colleges had grown to three times their proportion of the general population. The New York figures were still steeper. During the scholastic year 1918–1919 the total number of Jewish students in a group of New York colleges and universities came to 7,148 out of a total of 18,552. About a quarter of the Jewish students attended courses in finance; in medicine and law the proportion of Jews was double that of non-Jews; in dentistry, almost triple. Only in teaching, among the professions to which Jews have customarily been attracted, was the gentile percentage larger. Studies in the mid-twenties placed between 9 and 10 percent of gainfully employed Jews in the professions, as many as 16 percent in clerical positions, and less than 50 percent in manufacturing and mechanical industries.

The trend that has since become the central socioeconomic fact of American Jewish life was well under way by the 1920’s—toward the professions, toward small and medium entrepreneurship, and away from blue-collar occupations. A study of Jewish graduates of medical schools in ten American cities shows that from 1881 to 1885 there were 25; from 1891 to 1895, 153; from 1901 to 1905, 460; from 1906 to 1910, 716; and from 1916 to 1920, 1,273. In a thirty-five year period the number of medical graduates increased fifty times. A study dealing with the occupational distribution of first- and second-generation immigrants from Russia living in New York in 1900, most of whom can be assumed to have been Jews, shows that 61.2 percent of the first generation of male immigrants worked in manufacturing industries and 27.5 percent in trade (a category including peddlers). For the second generation the percentages are strikingly changed: 32.6 percent in manufacturing and 57.8 percent in trade.

Some cautions should be noted. Large segments of the American economy remained shut to the Jews, either immigrant or native-born. Corporations, banks, and other institutions kept Jews out of crucial managerial posts, not so much through formal decision as through informal understandings. Companies like the New York Telephone Company had a clear policy of discrimination. And at no point did the Jews really approach, let alone participate in, the central concentrations of wealth and economic power in the United States.

The Jews did make remarkable socioeconomic progress, a progress mirrored in the new neighborhoods to which some of them would move in the 1920’s: Borough Park in Brooklyn, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the west Bronx. Yet, it should be remembered, this was a move that left behind a majority of the Jewish immigrants, who remained workers and petty tradesmen to the end. Only in the second and third generations—native-born, well educated, and free of many of their parents’ constraints—would the climb out of poverty and subjection be largely completed.

* In the early twenties the Denver patients published a monthly magazine in Yiddish and English entitled Hatikvah (“hope” in Hebrew) which contained news items, gossip, health reports, jokes, and even bits of verse:

He’s a lunger

Awfully pale,

Thirty years old

Thin as a rail.

One eye black

One eye glass,

One leg wood

The other brass.

Teeth all out

Ribs caved in,

He’s a darn good scout

For the shape he’s in.

* Some sense of how difficult it was to enforce regulations is given in an 1896 letter from Jacob Riis to Lillian Wald:

My Dear Miss Wald,

Over 10,000 orders to light dark hallways have been issued since spring by the Board of Health, and probably 50,000 more will have to be issued before the landlords trouble. I took a trip with Mr. Wilson (the President of the Board) early in the summer, through Eastside tenements to show him that the trouble was with the policeman who didn’t know a dark hall when he saw it. Orders were then issued to the police to recognize the fact that they could not see whether the floor was dirty or not, or whether they were running a baby down, as evidence that the hall was dark in the meaning of the law.… I think we shall get the best of the evil in your section by degrees, for this is one of the things which may be reformed and unreformed again in five months.

* The rapid growth of the garment industry was stimulated by the ingenuity of clothing pioneers like Moritz Goldenson, credited with the “invention” of the alluring undergarment. In the 1870’s he came out with a “bridal set” featuring a “bridal nightgown of the princesses and the brides of the Austro-Hungarian nobility and imperial court.” His success in popularizing styles in women’s underwear earned him an honored place in the history of American advertising.

CHAPTER SIX

The Way They Lived Then

For about thirty or forty years, a mere moment in history, the immigrant Jews were able to sustain a coherent and self-sufficient culture. It was different from the one they had left behind, despite major links of continuity, and it struggled fiercely to keep itself different from the one they found in America, despite the pressures for assimilation. Between what they had brought and half preserved from the old world and what they were taking from the new, the immigrant Jews established a tense balance, an interval of equilibrium.

Traditional faith still formed the foundation of this culture, if only by providing norms from which deviation had to be measured. The influence of Russian intellectual styles, in their moral gravity and self-conscious idealism, remained strong, especially among younger men and women aspiring to the life of the spirit. Secular Jewishness became a major source of ideas, blending with elements of religion to create a culture that served as surrogate for nationhood: a structure of values neither strictly religious nor rigidly skeptical. And then of course all things American kept pouring into the Jewish streets: ideas, styles, manners, language, more or less transformed by their absorption into the culture of Yiddishkeit.

Released from the constraints of Europe but not yet tamed by the demands of America, Jewish immigrant life took on a febrile hurry of motion and drive. After centuries of excessive discipline, life overflowed—its very shapelessness gave proof of vitality. Moral norms, while no longer beyond challenge, continued for a time to be those implanted by Orthodox Judaism, but manners changed radically, opening into a chaos of improvisation. The fixed rituals that had bound the east European Jews broke down under the weight of American freedom. The patterns of social existence had to be remade each day. The comedy of social dislocation gave edge and abundance to life.

Richer in morals than manners, stronger in ideals than amenities, the world of the immigrant Jews could not, in any ordinary sense, be called a “high” culture. It lacked an aristocracy to emulate or attack, it lacked a leisure class that could validate the pursuit of pleasure, it lacked an aesthetic celebrating the idea of pure art. It had no symphonies or operas, no ballets or museums; its approach to the treasures of the West was decidedly tentative. There were many persons of native courtesy and refined bearing in the immigrant world, but the aesthetics of behavior, a matter of deep moral consequence in traditional Judaism, could hardly be a prime concern on the East Side. The nuances flourishing in a society secure with its economic surplus and political strength had yet to appear; visions of life exalting the supremacy of play seemed distant; the European cult of the gentlemen was barely recognized. It was a society in which the energies of moral aspiration had not yet become settled, or dissipated, into a system of manners.

There had been rigorous, even rigid systems of manners governing every moment of life in the old world, but these had broken down with migration to America. Gradually, as they rebuilt the foundations of their life, the immigrant Jews re-formed its surface. David Blaustein lectured them on the need to “knock at the door” before going into someone else’s room—a courtesy that would have more point once “someone else” had a room of his or her own. Abraham Cahan wrote in the Forward that table manners should not simply be dismissed as bourgeois adornments: “Not all rules are silly. You would not like my sleeve to dip into your soup as I reach over your plate to get the salt; it is more reasonable for me to ask you to ‘pass the salt, please.’” And Marie Ganz remembered a striking incident when her landlord, Mr. Zalkin, barged into the apartment of Mr. Lipsky, demanding “de rent.” “Never mind de rent,” answered Mr. Lipsky, “What right you got to come in without being told ‘come in’? … Take off your hat, go outside, knock on the door, and when I say, ‘come in,’ and not before, you can come in.”

What the East Side lacked in sophistication, it made up in sincerity. It responded to primal experiences with candor and directness. It cut through to the essentials of life: the imperative to do right and the comfort of social bonds. Torn apart, as it soon would be, by insoluble conflicts of value, it lived out its inner struggles and confusions to the very brim of its energy.

At the Heart of the Family

An old man remembering his East Side childhood would say that on coming home from school he had a recurrent fear that his cot in the dining room would again be occupied by a relative just off the boat from Europe and given shelter by his parents. How many other Americans could share, even grasp, this order of experience? Space was the stuff of desire; a room to oneself, a luxury beyond reach. “Privacy in the home was practically unknown. The average apartment consisted of three rooms: a kitchen, a parlor, and a doorless and windowless bedroom between. The parlor became a sleeping-room at night. So did the kitchen when families were unusually large.… Made comparatively presentable after a long day of cooking, eating and washing of dishes and laundry, the kitchen was the scene of formal calls at our house and of the visits of friends and prospective suitors.” Cramming everything into the kitchen during the evenings had a practical purpose: it saved money on gas and electricity. During the 1890’s desperate families had put “three boarders in the front room and two borderkes [female boarders] in the kitchen, but today the rooms are too small,” noted the Forward in 1904. Once boarders could be assigned separate rooms and neither kitchen nor dining room needed to be let, a major advance had been registered in domestic economy.

Only in the kitchen could the family come together in an approximation of community. On most days everyone ate helter-skelter, whenever he could, but on Friday nights, in the mild glow of the Sabbath, the whole family would eat together. Decorum reigned again, the pleasure of doing things as everyone knew they should be done. When a son failed to show up for Friday-night dinners, that was a signal of serious estrangement—not the least use of rules being that they lend clear meaning to violations.

Sitting around the wooden kitchen table that was covered with a white or checkered oilcloth, fathers read newspapers, mothers prepared food, children did homework, boarders gobbled meals. The father’s eyes “often fell on the youth at the table who is studying ‘Virgil’ or on the girl seated in the rocking chair with the big geography on her lap serving as a desk. The atmosphere of the room was not altogether pleasant … due to the pail of refuse under the burning stove, which must remain in the house over night by an edict of the janitor.”* When families took in work, perhaps “finishing” dresses, it was done in the kitchen. Night after night landslayt from the old country, recalls Sophie Ruskay, would come to sit in the kitchen, “waiting uncomplainingly until Mama was at leisure.… In Yiddish and with eloquent gestures they told the stories of their hardships.” For the kitchen was the one place where immigrants might recall to themselves that they were not mere creatures of toil and circumstances, but also human beings defined by their sociability. The kitchen testified to the utterly plebeian character of immigrant Jewish life; the kitchen was warm, close, and bound all to the matrix of family; sometimes of course it could also be maddeningly noisy and crowded—“my own private Coney Island,” Zero Mostel has remembered—and then the sole escape was behind the locked door of a toilet or down the steps and into the streets.

In the kitchen the Jewish mother was sovereign. “My mother,” recalls Alfred Kazin in his lyrical memoir,

worked [in the kitchen] all day long, we ate in it almost all meals except the Passover seder.… The kitchen gave a special character to our lives; my mother’s character. All my memories of that kitchen are dominated by the nearness of my mother sitting all day long at her sewing machine, by the clacking of the treadle against the linoleum floor, by the patient twist of her right shoulder as she automatically pushed at the wheel with one hand or lifted her foot to free the needle.… The kitchen was her life. Year by year, as I began to take in her fantastic capacity for labor and her anxious zeal, I realized it was ourselves she kept stitching together.

Every recollection of Jewish immigrant life that is concerned with more than the trivia of “local color” notices that as soon as the Jews moved from eastern Europe to America there followed a serious dislocation of the family. Patterns of the family had been firmly set, indeed, had been allowed to become rigid in the old country: the moral authority of the father, the formal submission of the wife together with her frequent dominance in practical affairs, the obedience of children softened by parental indulgences.

An old-world mother—prototype of thousands who would come to America—is sketched by one immigrant:

She was nervous, clever, restless, obstinate, quick-tempered and very active. She was capable of working from early morning until late at night for her husband and children.… Like most Jewish women of those days, she had not been educated.… She knew and observed, however, in every particular, all the rules and laws pertaining to the Jewish religion.…

The name of God was always on her lips. Always when she was about to start gossiping with other women, she would begin, “May God not punish me for what I am about to say.…”

To her children she was a loving despot. For the slightest offense she would curse, threaten, and quite often emphasize her indignation with slaps in the face … but soon after she would quietly ask God to forgive her.…

“Poor innocent lambs,” she would whisper, “it is my fault, not theirs, that we are so poor and they do not get enough to eat.…” And so it would go on and on.

In a culture where men were supposed to be—and sometimes were—concerned mainly with the rigors of learning, the mother often became the emotional center of the family, the one figure to whom all turned for comfort and with whom constraints might safely be discarded. Whenever social arrangements demand a harsh discipline, there is likely to be a sanctioned outlet for the overflow of feeling. Among the east European Jews it was the mother. Her mixture of practical sense and emotional abundance was classically celebrated in Jacob Gordin’s Mirele Efros, a Yiddish play enormously popular in both eastern Europe and America—half culture-myth and half tear-jerker in which errant, ambitious sons come finally to recognize the wisdom of the triumphant matriarch.

Not all or even most Jewish fathers in eastern Europe were learned, nor were all wives prepared to take on the burdens of breadwinning. Still, such families did exist and, more important, they set a standard honored even by those who could not live up to it. Some immigrants tried for a time to continue the old ways. “In our home,” remembered Elizabeth Stern, the daughter of a rabbi, “the father was the head, revered and honored. One did not speak to him, nor of him, lightly. He represented an ancient civilization.” So he did; yet in the new civilization of America it was to her mother, not her father, that the young Elizabeth turned for practical guidance.

In the turmoil of the American city, traditional family patterns could not long survive. The dispossession and shame of many immigrant fathers has been a major subject for fiction about immigrant Jews, both in English and Yiddish. For the Jewish wife the transition seems to have been a little easier. Having sold herrings in the market place of her shtetl, she could sell herrings on Orchard Street—and then, if a little more ambitious, open a grocery or drygoods store. Never having regarded herself as part of a spiritual elite, she did not suffer so wrenching a drop in status and self-regard as her husband. She was a practical person, she had mouths to feed, and, by and large, she saw to it that they were fed.

It was by no means typical of immigrant life that wives should continue to be or become the breadwinners. On the East Side only a tiny fraction of wives worked full time—though most girls did or tried to. If the husband was a responsible man and children began to arrive, the wife usually stayed home, sometimes earning an extra dollar with piecework taken from a garment subcontractor. Not only tradition but practical sense enforced this choice: it was so hard to maintain any sort of decent life in the tenements, it took so much energy just to cook and clean and shop and bring up children, that the immigrant wives, who in any case seldom possessed marketable skills, had to stay home. For both husband and wife, even if there were no children, to spend sixty hours a week in a shop would have made family life all but impossible. Nor did staying home mean leisure or indulgence for the wives. It meant carving out an area of protection for their families, it meant toil and anxiety, which all too often left them worn with fatigue, heavy and shapeless, prematurely aged, their sexuality drained out.

It was from her place in the kitchen that the Jewish housewife became the looming figure who would inspire, haunt, and devastate generations of sons. She realized intuitively that insofar as the outer world tyrannized and wore down her men, reducing them to postures of docility, she alone could create an oasis of order. It was she who would cling to received values and resist the pressures of dispersion; she who would sustain the morale of all around her, mediating quarrels, soothing hurts, drawing a circle of safety in which her children could breathe, and sometimes, as time went on, crushing her loved ones under the weight of her affection. The successful entry of the immigrant Jews into the American business world would require a reassertion of the “male principle,” a regathering of authority and aggression—at least outside the home. But in the early years of a family’s life in America, it was often the mother who held things together and coped best with the strange new world:

They were able [reads one account] to maintain the traditional, patriarchal structure. Pauline [the mother], a sensitive woman, declared that the children should not give their household contributions to her, even though she did the shopping and spent most of the cash. She understood the humiliation of Isaac [the unemployed father] and worked to preserve his old role and status, declaring that “Papa should be the manager, he being the head of the household.” Thus the forms, if not the entire substance, of family relationships were maintained at the Jacobson home.

To preserve a portion of customary deference to her husband while acquiring the scrappiness demanded by the streets; to gratify her idea of what was morally right while yielding an inch or two to her children; to sustain her personal modesty while beginning to recognize that she was also a woman with desires of her own—it took strength, sometimes an excess of strength, to deal with these conflicting demands.

Quantities of time had to be consumed in finding out where a piece of fresh fish might be gotten for a penny less, or which butcher threw in a few extra bones with a pound of meat. The diet the immigrant mother provided her family was, at the outset, mostly an adaptation of what they had eaten in the old country; poor families were known to subsist for days on herring, bread, and tea, with potatoes and cheap meats like lung among the other staples. Except for horse-radish, carrots, cabbage, and beets, the early immigrants had little fondness for vegetables, though fruit was greatly liked. With time, lettuce and tomatoes came to be “good for the children”—the cult of the vegetable being transmitted to the immigrant kitchen by both the Yiddish newspaper and the American school. (The one provision that was usually delivered to immigrant homes was the plebeian bubbly known as seltzer, in white or blue bottles with a spray on top.)

For both the immigrant mother and her family, food remained at the center of existence. It would be a long time, certainly more than a generation, before one could take for granted having as much food as one might want. Fat meat, the bane of later Americans, seemed a privilege. “The sight of the roast sputtering with hot grease stirred me to ecstasy. In the old home [Europe] I had never had enough meat.… Now fat meat was mine for the asking, and what was more I learned that it was cheaper than lean meat, a strange subversion of good taste.” To the immigrant mother these words of a young man from the East Side were a matter of course, barely requiring articulation.

If her allotted task was to be a berye (efficient housewife), worrying about food, rent, and runny noses, the immigrant mother also had some ideas of her own. In the earlier waves of immigration, many of the women were illiterate, but after 1904 or 1905 a good number could read and a few had even brushed against Russian literature, either directly or through Yiddish translations. It bears remembering that this Jewish housewife absorbed with the minutiae of domestic life had only a few years earlier been a girl working in a sweatshop where she had heard the exhortations of union organizers and sometimes responded to socialist appeals. If she now stayed at home, she learned a little, perhaps a little more than she let on, from Yiddish articles read aloud after dinner, from the religio-moral discussions held at the Passover seder, from the arguments of her menfolk, and from the scraps of knowledge her children brought home about George Washington’s rectitude, the advantages of free enterprise, and the vital importance of clean fingernails.

She often had an eye for little amenities. Not always, of course—some Jewish mothers were shlimazolnitses (sloppy housekeepers). But, as a rule, once there was bread on the table, she grew eager for those social improvements that could brighten and refine life. She yielded happily to the craze for herding children to music lessons. She learned about American-style manners. She began to grasp the mysteries of balanced diet. And if she seldom shared the passion of her Italian counterpart for flowers, she soon came to enjoy keeping potted plants, especially, for some reason, the rubbery kinds. Rarely was there space, time, or inclination for domestic pets,* but many kitchens were graced with canaries, a bird for which Jews have had a special fondness.

Jewish folklore had elevated the mother to a figure of sanctioned tenderness, and now, together with a somewhat abrasive capacity for battling whatever might threaten her family, she became an object of sentimental veneration. By certain readings, the Oedipal romance was peculiarly Jewish, perhaps even a Jewish invention. Seldom has maternal adoration found so lyrical an expression as in Call It Sleep, Henry Roth’s novel about the East Side. The mother, Genya, talks to her little boy, David:

“It is summer,” she pointed to the window, “the weather grows warm. Whom will you refresh with the icy lips the water lent you?”

“Oh!” he lifted his smiling face.

“You remember nothing,” she reproached him, and with a throaty chuckle, lifted him in her arms.…

“There!” she laughed, muzzling his cheek, “but you’ve waited too long; the sweet chill has dulled. Lips for me,” she reminded him, “must always be as cool as the water that wet them.”

Open sensuality of this kind was no doubt rare in the immigrant milieu, as in any other of the time, but what Roth rendered could be found elsewhere, muffled and shamefaced. More characteristic perhaps is a recollection of Samuel Chotzinoff in which his mother comes through as a shrewd manager whose

resourcefulness in moments of economic crisis appeared unlimited. Some situations, like the purchase of clothes, seemed to demand the brashest of tactics. Others, like the ever-recurring crisis of the gas meter when there wasn’t a quarter in the house, called for quiet diplomacy. Of an evening one of my sisters might be entertaining a gentleman who would, perhaps soon, we hoped, reveal himself as a suitor, when suddenly the gas would begin to flicker and go out. At such moments my mother would strike a match, reach for her purse, open it with her free hand, peer in it closely, and announce laughingly that she could find nothing but bills. The gentleman, hastily fumbling in his pocket, would produce a quarter, and the light would come on.

Time brought changes. Learning to relish the privileges of suffering, the Jewish mother could become absurdly, outrageously protective. From that condition, especially if linked, as it well might be, with contempt for her husband, she could decline into a brassy scourge, with her grating bark or soul-destroying whine, silver-blue hair, and unfocused aggression. Nor was it unusual for her to employ ingenuity in order to keep her brood in a state of prolonged dependence, as she grew expert at groaning, cajoling, intimidating. Daughters paled, sons fled.

Yet even behind the most insufferable ways of the Jewish mother there was almost always a hard-earned perception of reality. Did she overfeed? Her mind was haunted by memories of a hungry childhood. Did she fuss about health? Infant mortality had been a plague in the old country and the horror of diphtheria overwhelming in this country. Did she dominate everyone within reach? A disarranged family structure endowed her with powers she had never known before, and burdens too; it was to be expected that she should abuse the powers and find advantage in the burdens. The weight of centuries bore down. In her bones, the Jewish mother knew that she and hers, simply by being Jewish, had always to live with a sense of precariousness. When she worried about her little boy going down to play, it was not merely the dangers of Rivington or Cherry Street that she saw—though there were dangers on such streets; it was the streets of Kishinev and Bialystok and other towns in which the blood of Jewish children had been spilled. Later, such memories would fade among those she had meant to shield and it would become customary to regard her as a grotesque figure of excess.

Venerated to absurdity, assaulted with a venom that testifies obliquely to her continuing moral and emotional power, the immigrant mother cut her path through the perils and entanglements of American life. Everyone spoke about her, against her, to her, but she herself has left no word to posterity, certainly none in her own voice, perhaps because all the talk about her “role” seemed to her finally trivial, the indulgence of those who had escaped life’s primal tasks. Talk was a luxury that her labor would enable her sons to taste.

Boarders, Desertion, Generational Conflict

Composites, by their very nature, omit a wide range of eccentricity and variation. If the Jewish family was a major force making for stability in the immigrant world, it was also peculiarly open to the seepage of alien values. So many demands were made on it that sooner or later it had to show signs of strain and coming apart. No social arrangement as inherently delicate as the family could withstand the assaults that came from all sides—from the school, the street, the theatre, the gangs, the shops, the gentile world, all seemingly united in trying to rip apart the fabric of Jewish life.

If the memories of countless sons and daughters were of sustenance and warmth, the memories of others were of harshness, bickering, nastiness. Anyone reading through the “Bintel Brief” (“Bundle of Letters”) column in the Forward, where readers declared their troubles with unnerving candor, might suppose that thwarted loves, broken homes, soured marriages, and heartless children were the norm of immigrant life. The Yiddish press of the early 1900’s is filled with articles, some serious and others mere persiflage, concerning the damage wrought by boarders in immigrant homes. The sheer piling in of bodies into small spaces was itself enough to create psychic problems. Samuel Cohen has remembered how his brother Joseph rented a “large two-room flat” for ten dollars a month in order to be able to sublet the bedroom to four boarders, all of them drygoods peddlers, who kept their stock in the same room.

Each boarder paid seventy-five cents a week, which was to include coffee in the morning and laundering.… Each would contribute six cents for a half pound of meat, thus making it two pounds in all, and two cents additional for vegetables in which the meat was cooked.… Every morning one of the boarders went down to the grocery store and bought four five-cent rye loaves. They would all breakfast on that with coffee. The remainder of each loaf was laid away for the evening meal. But my sister-in-law could not cut in on the loaves, for they all bore their owners’ private marks!

What could happen in such a setting was described by one immigrant, Jacob Rosen, in a letter he sent to a Yiddish newspaper in 1903:

My wife took in a boarder, a landsman who had a wife and three children in Europe. Soon he became chummy with my wife. She told me he wanted to buy her a hat and a skirt. At first I couldn’t believe my ears, then I became jealous.

One morning after I had left the house to go to my laundry, the boarder tried to attack my wife, but she escaped and locked him in the apartment. She came running to the laundry; I was furious but waited till I had calmed down. Then we went home. I took two sticks and we beat him so hard he couldn’t go out for eight days. He gave us $80 and made us promise not to write to his wife.

Young wives might be stirred by visions of a more poetic or exalted mode of life—and how could husbands back from ten or twelve hours over a sewing machine satisfy such yearnings? No one will ever know how many Emma Bovarys lived and died on the East Side; but if we suppose Emma to represent an eternal possibility of human nature, there must have been a good many wives like her, restless and discontented, responding to the first tremors of Jewish romanticism. The majority of immigrant wives were, of course, committed to the sanctity of nurture and the ethic of self-sacrifice. Yet it is hard to suppose that without some deep-going disturbance in private life there would have been so many serialized novels in the Yiddish press about broken families, so endless an outcry of woe in the “Bintel Brief,” so many nervously jocular references to the boarder’s sexual exploits in Yiddish fiction, theatre, and folklore.

The most severe sign of disturbance was the persistent desertion of families by immigrant husbands. Records of the United Hebrew Charities in New York for the fiscal years 1903 and 1904 show that 1,052, or about 10 percent, of the applications for relief came from deserted women. In Chicago it was 15 percent. The Committee on Desertions of the Conference of Jewish Charities reported that in the period between October 15, 1905, and May 1, 1906, it handled 591 cases of desertion. Fifty-four of these were taken to court, with 33 agreeing to support their families, 18 serving a prison term, 2 released at the wife’s request, and one simply destitute; 63 cases were settled out of court, with the husbands either returning to their families or agreeing to support them; 48 cases were pending; and the remainder, somewhat more than half, were “awaiting further information”—that is, the husbands could not be found. In 1911 this work was consolidated on a national scale through the establishment of the National Desertion Bureau. In 1912 it reported 561 cases among Jewish immigrants in New York alone. The reasons given for desertion were: 120, another woman; 47, bad habits; 134, insufficient dowry; 4, wife immoral; 3, another man, and so on. Because many deserted wives, out of shame or fear, failed to report their husbands, many of the men never were in fact discovered. The figures can therefore be taken as, at best, an approximation of how serious the problem was.

For years the Forward ran a feature, “Gallery of Missing Husbands,” that contained photographs of men who had deserted and pleas that they get in touch with their families. The paper received letters from distant places, from abandoned wives in Russia and Galicia asking that their husbands be located in America, and, in one instance, from a black woman pleading for help because she had been left with a baby. Here are a few notices from a 1910 issue of the Forward:

Sarah Solomon is searching for her husband who is now uptown, 38–40 years old, solid build, medium height, black eyes, black mustache, left me 2½ years ago. I offer $25 to anyone who will notify me of his whereabouts. He doesn’t have to be afraid of divorcing me. Notify me at 132 Ludlow Street, in the restaurant.

I am looking for my husband Nathan Cohen, known as Note Moshe Mendele Shenker’s from Nashelsk, Russia-Poland, umbrella peddler, 22 years old, the little finger of his right hand is bent. He abandoned me and a 5-month-old baby in great need. Whoever knows of him should have mercy on a young woman and infant and get in touch with Bessie Cohen, 1415 Snagman Street, Chicago.

Jewish agencies pressed for legislation that would make desertion a felony rather than a misdemeanor (in 1905 such a law was passed in New York State) and that would prevent deserters from evading their responsibilities by crossing state lines. The Yiddish world was full of discussions as to the reasons for desertion, and an article in a 1910 Forward by M. Baranov offered an explanation about as good as those that trained sociologists would later provide. Baranov wrote that most of the desertions occur among “the mass of uneducated young Jews.” The old ones come to America “with sacred traditions; the middle-aged Jews have rigid outlooks; the youthful istn [political activists] have principles. But the young men without spiritual roots are defenseless against American life.” And then, quite in the spirit of Durkheim, he continued:

In Europe they were not responsible for their lives; they lived within the framework of police regulations, religious ritual, teachings of relatives and neighbors. Every step was decided beforehand. Their road of life was narrow, but they could not get lost.… In America young Jews are hurled into a world of freedom—no fences, no police, no communal judgment. It’s every man for himself. Nothing sacred; you can buy or sell everything for money. The aim of life is amusement; conscience and honor fall by the wayside.… Such a young man gets married. In three or four years he has several children, who are a nuisance. His wife grows sickly. His wages are too low to allow him any fun. He fights with his wife, who doesn’t let him out of the house. There are gay young girls out there, and carefree bachelors. The anarchists preach free love; the freethinkers guarantee there is no God and no punishment in the afterlife. The young man thinks, “I’m a free person, who cares what they say,” and one fine day he leaves home and forgets to come back. He becomes a missing husband.

An extreme symptom, the desertion of husbands aroused abhorrence among all segments of the immigrant world; but it did not really threaten life at its center, certainly not as much as the friction between parents and children. If conflicts between generations are central to the experience of all immigrant groups, among the Jews these became especially severe because of the persuasion that, at almost any cost, it was necessary to propel sons and daughters into the outer world—or, more precisely, to propel them into the outer world as social beings while trying to keep them spiritually within the Jewish orbit. Morris Raphael Cohen, who grew up on the East Side, saw the conflict between generations mostly as a struggle of ideas: “We called upon the old religion to justify itself on the basis of modern science and culture. But the old generation was not in a position to say how this could be done.… What ensued was a struggle between old and new ideals. Homes ceased to be places of peace and in the ensuing discord much of the proverbial strength of the Jewish family was lost.” Cohen was surely right in the long run, but it is arguable that during the years when the immigrant culture was at its strongest the clash between generations lent it a kind of vitality, an inner tension generating new energy.

Neither side could have known, nor gained much consolation if it had, that in the cramped precincts of the ghetto they were re-enacting tests of conscience that had shaken European intellectual life throughout the nineteenth century. Denounced as “a daughter of Babylon” when she first brought home earnings from her literary work, and excoriated by a father who cried out that “in America money takes the place of God,” Anzia Yezierska was trapped in a heart struggle much like that of George Eliot with her father. The classic war to the death between father and son in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh would find a small-scale replica in the fictional memories of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?:

“I hadda chance to make a dollar,” Sammy said.

“Sammy!” his father bellowed. “Touching money on the Sabbath! God should strike you dead!”

The old man snatched the money and flung it down the stairs.…

“You big dope!” Sammy screamed at him, his voice shrill with rage. “You lazy son-of-a-bitch.”

The old man did not respond. His eyes were closed and his lips were moving. He looked as if he had had a stroke. He was praying.

This conflict between generations had to be unbearably fierce. Lincoln Steffens, for some years closely involved with the immigrant community, saw

an abyss of many generations.… We would pass a synagogue where a score or more of boys were sitting hatless in their old clothes, smoking cigarettes on the steps outside, and their fathers, all dressed in black, with their high hats, uncut beards, and temple curls, were going into the synagogues, tearing their hair and rending their garments. The reporters stopped to laugh; and it was comic; the old men, in their thrift, tore the lapels of their coats very carefully, a very little, but they wept tears, real tears.

It was a struggle beyond conciliation, and the more it raked up old affections the more bitter it grew. Responses that few could allow themselves to recognize or name, responses of embarrassment, guilt, and shame, were brought into the open. One’s parents were to be cherished yet kept in the background; to be loved yet brushed aside. Among one’s friends, especially if they had some pretensions to culture, it was understood that parents were a cause for uneasiness—a reason, by the way, that so much of the younger generations’ social life moved toward the streets. Arthur Goldhaft, son of an immigrant, has expressed with a rare honesty feelings of shame about parents he also loved:

The [immigrant Jews] themselves seemed ready to accept the idea that they were nobodies. They were so scared that they even dropped the pride of a family name. Or maybe they had something deep in them that was a greater pride, that made all this name business a trifle … which we, their American children, didn’t catch on to. This perhaps is the first key to what disturbed so many of us as we grew up—the feeling that our folks were just nobodies.

How could the younger people understand why their fathers felt that identity rested not in a name—Weisenberg or Weiss or Wiss or even White—but in unbreakable membership in a sanctified people? And even if sons and daughters could understand this, as Goldhaft struggled to, of what earthly use would it be when they began to push their way into American society?

The immigrant leaders and intellectuals tried to cope with the problem, but they were helpless. In 1903 Abraham Cahan printed a Forward editorial on baseball, a subject that until then had eluded his public scrutiny. A father had written in bemoaning his son’s fondness for baseball: “What is the point of this crazy game? It makes sense to teach a child to play dominoes or chess.” But baseball?* “The children can get crippled.… I want my boy to grow up to be a mensh, not a wild American runner.” Poor Cahan, trying to cope with problems beyond the wisdom of a Solomon, replied cautiously that Jewish boys should be allowed to play baseball—as if anyone could stop them!—“as long as it does not interfere with their education.” Chess was good, “but the body needs to develop also. Baseball is played in the fresh air. The really wild game is football, the aristocratic game in the colleges. Accidents and fights occur in football, but baseball is not dangerous.” Even for Cahan there had to be a limit, his Jewish fright and socialist rectitude drawing the line at “aristocratic” football. He ended, however, with his usual good sense: “It is a mistake to keep children locked up in the house.… Bring them up to be educated, ethical, and decent, but also to be physically strong so they should not feel inferior.”

Suspicion of the physical, fear of hurt, anxiety over the sheer “pointlessness” of play: all this went deep into the recesses of the Jewish psyche. It was a price, hardly the largest, that Jews had paid for the conviction of specialness. They could no more suppress their true feelings about the frivolities of street or gymnasium than they could deny the shudder that passed through them on walking past a church. A sensitive writer remembering his childhood in Brownsville would conclude that “intellectual and spiritual independence came easily to the Brownsville child … but the right to breathe freely, to use one’s arms and legs and voice forcibly … these privileges had to be conquered inch by inch.” Decades would have to go by before the sons and daughters of the immigrants could shake off—if they ever could!—this heritage of discomfort before the uses and pleasures of the body. What they were struggling for was nothing less than the persuasion that they had as much right as anyone else to feel at home on this earth, and what their parents were saying was no, Jews could not feel at home on this earth. Seemingly trivial or comic disputes over matters like playing baseball released profound clashes of world view, perhaps nothing less than whether Jewish messianism still mattered in the new world.

Several years after Cahan’s defense of baseball, the Yiddish poet Abraham Liessen published a lament, not the first and surely not the last, over the growing estrangement of Jewish youth. Writing in the summer of 1910, Liessen noted the growing number of Jewish graduates from schools and colleges but then went on to ask: “What has the Jewish quarter gained from all these intelligent young Jews?” Not much, apparently. The recent cloak-makers’ strike, in which “priests and Fifth Avenue ladies are interested,” was “ignored by intellectual Jewish youth.… These are the children of the workers who sacrificed themselves to give them an education. You see these workers every day, exhausted, pale, slaving over the machines. Why don’t their intelligent children feel a debt?”

By 1910, according to Liessen, one could see an important social change in the East Side. A decade or more earlier, the usual kind of generational clash had occurred between Orthodox parents and radical children, while now it took place between radical parents and worldly, ambitious children. A cruel kind of justice—perhaps the sole answer to Liessen’s question “Why don’t their intelligent children feel a debt?”

While the generational struggle continued for decades, it would be some years before it seriously threatened the coherence of the immigrant community. Until the First World War large numbers of new immigrants kept arriving, with each new wave forced in part to re-enact the experience of the preceding ones. The institutional structure of the Jewish community kept growing in strength, a barrier against disintegration. And the struggle between old and young continued to be acted out mainly on immigrant territory, even the most rebellious sons still forced by circumstance and feeling to remain within the cultural orbit of their fathers. What would finally doom the immigrant Jewish culture was not any internal development at all, but the ending of immigration in the twenties—for that would signify a decisive tipping of strength in the struggle between old and new.

The Inner World of the Landsmanshaft

The old persisted, stubborn, rooted in the depths of common memory. As if to re-create in miniature the very world from which they had fled, the immigrant Jews established a remarkable network of societies called landsmanshaftn, probably the most spontaneous in character of all their institutions, and the closest in voice and spirit to the masses. While the Jews had seldom felt much loyalty to Russia or Poland as nations, they brought with them fierce affections for the little places they had lived in, the muddy streets, battered synagogues, remembered fields from which they had fled. The landsmanshaft, a lodge made up of persons coming from the same town or district in the old country, was their ambiguous testimony to a past they knew to be wretched yet often felt to be sweet.

The landsmanshaft began in the simplest ways. Immigrants, feeling themselves lost in American cities, would seek out old-country neighbors—the phrase di alte heym, the old home, keeps reverberating through Yiddish speech, writing, and plays. Coming together, they formed modest little organizations that kept alive memories and helped them fit into the new world.

Many of the landsmanshaftn formed during the last few decades of the nineteenth century were also anshe, congregations established according to place of origin or by occupation; but by about 1900 the majority of the landsmanshaftn were secular in character, some even adorning themselves with English names like the First Kalisher Benevolent Association, signs of a wish to hasten the process of oysgrinen zikh, ceasing to be greenhorns.

Why were the landsmanshaftn started? A 1938 survey by the Yiddish Writers Group of the Federal Writers Project yields replies by old-timers:

The men here felt miserable, they left their wives or brides back home, so they used to get together in the house of a married landsman to drink tea or play cards.

A landsman was about to be deported because he was sick, so the landslayt realized the importance of having their own organization for self-help.

A landsman died in the factory. People think he is a Greek and bury him in Potter’s Field. Landslayt hear about it, his body is dug up, and the decision taken to start our organization with a cemetery.

Before the First World War some of these secular landsmanshaftn had a semisocialist flavor, bringing together craftsmen from an old-country trade who had lived together in a town or neighborhood. But soon the kinds of immigrants who aspired to political action drifted away, either into the various parties or into the socialistic Workmen’s Circle. The landsmanshaftn would experience two phases of looking outward, during the First World War, when they would send money to help their people back home, and during the thirties, when they would join the entire Jewish community in trying to help the victims of Nazism. But in the main, the landsmanshaftn were jealous of their self-contained character—that impulse to social inwardness which brought a member to the monthly meeting in an East Side hall, away from family quarrels, troubles of livelihood, and the noise of Jewish politics. When the political types dropped away, the remaining members seem to have been relieved, for they preferred not to be bothered by all those orators and intellectals. What they wanted was the closeness of familiars, the pleasures of smallness regained.

Societies from various east European regions would come together to set up a loose farband, or federation. A Galician federation of landsman-shaftn was formed in 1904, a Polish federation in 1908, a Romanian federation in 1909. By pooling resources, these federations were able to establish hospitals, convalescent centers, and old-age homes. But only seldom did these larger structures affect the inner life of a particular landsmanshaft.

In a good many of the landsmanshaft constitutions—and their founders were ferocious writers of constitutions—there is a proviso that as long as seven or ten members survive it is forbidden to change the name of the society, quite as if the name, token of an unrecoverable past, has taken on a sacred character. These constitutions reflect the pleasure the founders must have felt in setting up their own rules, perhaps the only place where they could set up their own rules. Most of the constitutions require that the books be kept in Yiddish, though one, that of Anshei Grodno, says that while business may be transacted in Yiddish, the constitution itself must be accorded the dignity of Hebrew. The Independent Mogilnitser provide that if anyone wishes to speak at a meeting in a language other than Yiddish he must first gain the permission of the chair.

Some constitutions offer homely statements of purpose, as the Ershte Turower: “This organization exists to help sick and needy brothers, also to pay expenses of death cases and endowments.” More ambitious is the preamble of the Ershte Shendishower Galitzianer Khevra: “The goal of the society is to maintain the spirit of fraternity.… That ideal has to be kept alive among the younger generation born in this land and [as if to anticipate the outcry of every Jewish organization during the coming decades] an attempt must be made to plant in them an awareness of our origins.”

The rules of the landsmanshaftn are like pocket mirrors to a culture. The Kolomeir constitution refuses admission to saloonkeepers. The Narevker declares that if a member marries, a committee of seven will be chosen to grace the wedding, with “hat check … on the account of the organization.” The Pukhoveritser is strict as to decorum, insisting that “at the funeral of a member or his wife every member has the duty to dress neatly and arrive on time.… Every member must line up and is not allowed to smoke during the funeral, and when someone disobeys he will be fined fifty cents.” With the Narevker Untershtitsung Fareyn, a member who marries is to receive a five-dollar gift, but only if he has belonged a full year; and the present must be given personally by the vice-president at the wedding. Virtually all the constitutions declare that if a member marries a gentile, he will be stricken from the rolls.

Marriage regulations are strict. Paragraph 13 of the First Kalisher Benevolent constitution specifies: “When a member gets married he must propose his wife to the society, the society will then appoint a committee, which will go to the doctor with her to obtain a statement about her health. In case the doctor declares her health to be unsatisfactory, the concerned member will remain single, or if he marries will not get any death benefit for his wife.” The Anshei Kaminets di Lita offers meticulous instructions: “When a member marries off his child, he will get the khupe [bridal canopy] free and also the gas illumination in the shul. On the shabes after the wedding, he has the right to stand next to the president on the bime [stage].”

Constitutions provide for benefits, from those for sitting shive (mourning for the dead), usually five or seven dollars, to special sums for members stricken with tuberculosis. In the latter regard the Turower constitution is exemplary: “When a member gets ill from consumption he will receive one hundred dollars extra, besides the twenty-dollar-a-week benefit, which will be paid for five weeks.… When it will be found necessary to support him further, this will be discussed at a special meeting.”

Some constitutions require that a member suffering from an “immoral disease” be denied sick benefits. Others specify the rights of the dead, “a hearse and two carriages” at the funeral. Anxieties sometimes break out concerning Americanization, as in the Krasilaver clause insisting that “a ba’al tefilla [prayer leader] who prays on High Holy Days in front of the lectern must not shave or cut his beard and must not be a desecrator of the Sabbath.” How extraordinary a change in the nature of Jewish life is suggested by the mere thought that a ba’al tefilla might be a desecrator of the Sabbath!

In the constitution of the Sanover landsmanshaft, almost as if it had undergone a Masonic infusion, there are rules for elaborate rituals (“When you enter and the meeting has already started, you have to greet the president with the right hand on the left breast.”) At least in this respect, the landsmanshaftn were not very different from lodges the world over, with their hocus-pocus and improvised designations of rank. “The raw elements among the immigrants who were working their way up,” writes Borukh Rivkin in a thoughtful study of the landsmanshaftn, “accepted this theatricality with the lust for honor characteristic of those who had never had any. The lodge ceremonial supplanted the synagogue ceremonial. When could such Jews have imagined becoming head of a synagogue? But here they could even be a president!”

Moral refinements brighten up these constitutions, as in the Ponevesher rule that “a member who reproaches another with having accepted help [from the emergency fund] will be fined one dollar. The second time he will be turned in to the court.” An equally delicate adjustment is proposed by the Ershter Turower Untershtitsung Fareyn: “If there are any misunderstandings between the Yiddish [of the constitution] and the English translation, the Yiddish must be given priority.”

It would be foolish to suppose that all was kindness and light in the landsmanshaftn. How could it be? They shared in the narrowness of culture that marked the early years of the immigration, and frequently they helped to perpetuate it. In 1896, for example, the Khevre Khokhmes Adam Merplinsk stubbornly refused to pay a death benefit to a member’s wife because of a rule that anyone whose husband died while residing above Houston Street was ineligible for such a benefit. The New York Times, not always amiably inclined toward the grubby folk below Houston Street, reported this news under the headline “Died Too Far Uptown.” The Times also noticed that the same society was being sued by Mrs. Nathan Greenstein because it refused to pay a death benefit for her deceased husband, on the ground, as the Times slyly headlined, that “When He Fails to Pay an Assessment, Because He Is Dead Is No Excuse.” In later years there would be a softening of spirit and a polishing of manner among the landslayt, yet those who could not pay their dues would still face expulsion.

The greatest difficulties of these societies usually arose from financial innocence. Most of them worked by the “assessment system,” which meant that as members grew sick or died the others were taxed to pay the cost of benefits. Seemingly in accord with traditional Jewish ideas of equal sharing, it was a system that worked well enough when members were young and not likely to die in large numbers; but once the average age reached the fifties, the number of assessments increased so rapidly that they placed an alarming burden on the remaining members. Had the landsmanshaft founders known about actuarial tables … but if they had been the kind of people who knew about such things they would probably never have founded landsmanshaftn. After a few decades many societies faced financial disaster through a multiplication of assessments. Some turned for rescue to the national orders, like the Workmen’s Circle, while in other instances, younger members split away to form their own societies, often with such prefixes as “The Young Men’s” or “Progressive” in their names.

Rickety yet durable, the landsmanshaftn satisfied many needs. A member could assuage his nostalgia for the old country by listening to reports at the meetings from newly arrived immigrants or those who had gone back for a visit. He could share in the deeply rooted Jewish tradition of communal self-help, which in practice might mean sending money back home for Passover matzos or to repair the shul. The society would provide help for unemployed members, usually in confidential ways, and once the wives started their ladies’ auxiliary, this task was often turned over to them, as appropriate to their superior sense of delicacy.

Landslayt tended to congregate in distinct parts of the East Side, the northeast corner of Clinton and Rivington streets, for example, being the hangout of those who had come from the Galician town of Lemberg. There were corners for those from Chortkov, Boiberik, Tarnopol, Prszemisl, and Kolomei, where “matchmakers come to make appointments, bosses look for hands, and people find relatives they haven’t seen for ages.” As things got a little better, the various societies would congregate in their own cafés:

… you don’t need a passport.… A Jew from Vilkomir can enjoy the chopped liver in the Minskers’ café.… Landslayt in the cafés boast about their societies.… A young man from Minsk says his is the best, another jumps up to say his gives a hundred dollars to each member who marries, so a third one yells out, “Sure, but you don’t take in bachelors.…” On the whole, the landslayt cafés live in peace with one another. If there is a fire in a shtetl, everyone sympathizes; if a spinster finds a husband, everyone is happy; if a rabbi dies, even the heretics weep.

With its meager resources, the landsmanshaft ventured on a modest anticipation of social security: it provided sickness and death benefits, and it hired a doctor, himself often an immigrant just out of medical school, who for a small retainer, sometimes no more than a hundred dollars a year, would treat members at reduced rates. In fact, many a Jewish doctor began his practice as a “society doctor,” a term that meant something very different from what it would come to suggest in later years. One of them recalls:

With pull you’d get the job. If you were a doctor for a small landsmanshaft, one day you’d run to Brooklyn, the next day to the Bronx to treat a society patient. The society would pay me a certain amount for coverage for a certain number of patients—fifty cents for a single member every three months, seventy-five cents or a dollar for a family. Every member had a right to come to my office and ask me to call at his house. I took the job because in that way I was sure of being able to pay the rent for my office. On my own I took in very little.

Some doctors were devoted, many not. Some patients took advantage of the system and it wasn’t always very pleasant. Most society members treated their doctors with respect, but some said, “A society doctor? What can he know?” For more serious illnesses, they’d go to another doctor.

I delivered babies in the house and would get a practical nurse to follow up for a week or so. The society member paid extra for the delivery of babies, something like ten or fifteen dollars, as I remember.

The society member would recommend the doctor to his friends, and in that way you could build up a practice. But it was hard, lots of running up and down tenement stairs. When I moved my office to the Grand Concourse, I gave up the society.

For many members, the most important function of the landsmanshaft was that it ensured proper burial. As the Jewish historian Salo Baron has remarked, “The cemetery appeared as second only to the synagogue among communal institutions [in the life of European and Asian Jews]. In view of the possibility of private congregational worship, many communities sought burial plots even before erecting a house of worship.” One of the first things every landsmanshaft did was to purchase a plot of land in a Jewish cemetery. The necessities of life might force a Jew to spend his days among strangers, but even if no longer Orthodox he wanted to spend eternity among Jews.

At meetings the members took care of practical needs. Insurance agents were notorious for belonging to many landsmanshaftn; so too young doctors and lawyers looking for a bit of income. Unemployed garment workers might soften the heart of an employer if he happened also to be a landsman. Yiddish poets sometimes managed to persuade their societies to finance a thin volume: you didn’t have to read the stuff to be proud of publishing “a famous writer.”

There were other, less tangible, benefits. At the meetings or just after, you could relax over a game of pinochle, get caught up in an intrigue over who the next president would be, enjoy the solemnities of parliamentary ritual, and once in a while share the excitement following a treasurer’s departure with the funds.

Best of all, there were seldom outsiders. Seldom union officials, seldom politicians, seldom “community spokesmen,” seldom rabbis (except for a eulogy when a member died). In a community always in danger of becoming overideologized, the landsmanshaft served as a nonideological oasis. Is that not one secret behind its persistence—the need felt by ordinary people to be at home among themselves? Ideologues and intellectuals in the Yiddish world were always uneasy with these societies, sometimes mocking them as uncultured or deficient in the higher idealism. The founders of the early Jewish unions saw the landsmanshaft as a paternalistic barrier to class unity: it was hard to organize shops where workers came from the same town as the boss. The men who wished to create a self-conscious Jewish community saw the landsmanshaft as a provincial impediment. The men who dreamed of a rich Yiddish culture saw the landsmanshaft as a bulwark of parochial narrowness.

They were often right. Yet the masses of immigrants, though in time a good many would join the unions and the parties, remained faithful to their societies. In the landsmanshaft, through the very transparency of its ends, the immigrant Jews released their wish simultaneously to cling to the cultural tokens of the fading past and bend a little to the bruising present. The ranks narrowed; societies that had once proclaimed themselves “Young Men” from such-and-such a place had no members under sixty; minute books were lost or carelessly thrown away.

Estimates of the number of landsmanshaftn vary widely, from about three thousand to perhaps twice that number. Eighty percent of the societies sprang up between 1903 and 1909, and as late as 1938 there were still half a million members of landsmanshaftn in New York City alone, with another quarter of a million in the remainder of the country. Eighty-five percent of them were foreign-born; efforts to recruit sons never really succeeded.

Provincial as they were, and perhaps just because they were provincial, the landsmanshaftn would perform one last service for the immigrant Jews. After the Second World War, when the news of the Holocaust reached the United States, the landsmanshaftn began to issue yizkor bikher (memorial volumes) in memory of the shtetlakh from which they had come. Hundreds of such volumes have been published, some threadbare, merely listing names and printing photographs, but others, like the books issued by the Brainsker and Bialystoker societies, offering local histories of Jewish settlement. Some of these yizkor bikher are heartbreaking: here is one from the town Volkovisk, which in 1910 had 14,500 inhabitants, of whom 8,000 were Jews. It is a 990-page book rich with sociological and historical materials, with excellent pictures of Jewish activities, not only those of rabbis and merchants but also of boxers, cyclists, firemen, even skiers. Themselves harassed and driven out decades ago, and their relatives taken from these little towns directly to the ovens, the immigrant Jews nevertheless cherished memories of the mud and sticks in the places where they had been born.

Long after the landsmanshaftn entered their decline, an interviewer asked the president of the Ponevesher society about its ultimate purposes. The answer came as unadorned as the landsmanshaftn themselves:

To die but not to die off … everybody in his place tries not to die off but to prolong his memory.… Our khevra kadisha [burial group], besides taking care of the grave in accordance with the law of Israel, immortalize the name of each member by reciting it at yizkor. It is to be wished that our young members will join us so that this important institution will exist forever. Because we are all mortal.

Shul, Rabbi, and Cantor

In the communal life of the immigrants, the synagogue, or shul, remained the single institution everyone took for granted. Despite the rise of secularist ideologies and the spread of a weary indifference among the masses, few could envisage a time when the shul would cease to be at the center of Jewish life. God could easily be neglected in New York, it was probably not His favorite city, yet He was not at all forgotten. While only a minority continued to follow the rituals with literal exactness, the aura of faith, which is also to say, the particulars of old-world Jewish culture, remained strong in the nostrils of the immigrants.

The shul formed an integral part of immigrant Jewish life, clearly so for those who believed, but also, in part, for those who did not. For the folksmasn, the great mass of ordinary people, the shul served as a visible reminder of God: it did not command daily attendance as in the old country, it could no longer claim to be an exclusive arbiter of morals and manners, but it remained a large presence, registering Jewish continuity and coherence. The connections between shul and immigrants were not necessarily formal—statistics relating to synagogue membership or attendance never tell us very much about the religious sentiments of Jews. The bulk of the immigrants simply assumed that it was desirable for the more fervent among them to keep the shul alive, providing the daily minyan, or quorum of worshipers, and maintaining the facilities that the majority could use on occasion.

Ordinary immigrants went to shul at least several times a year, especially on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, having so sacred a resonance that they felt that to go then was to confirm one’s identity as a Jew. In their homes they observed the rituals of kashruth, assuming as a matter of course that major ceremonials, bar mitzvah to marriage, would take place under the aegis of the shul.

Were they believers, these masses of immigrants? Perhaps not entirely, probably less so as the years went by, and certainly not with the rigor of their fathers.* Were they disbelievers? By no means, and surely not with the fanaticism of the more extreme radicals. “Many of the irreligious immigrants,” remarked a keen American reporter in 1896, “relax their atheism on … Yom Kippur.… ‘It is safe and does no harm,’ said a non-believer who scorned the ignorance of the Orthodox and laughed as he told what his people do.” To the immigrants God was a presence in Jewish life, just as the shul was the place where one reknit one’s ties with Him, or at least renewed acquaintance. In the writings of Sholom Aleichem there is precisely the same inclination to dissolve formal issues of belief into an acceptance of custom and sentiment: God is someone to whom Jews must keep talking, and as for whether He “exists” or not, that is a problem for philosophers.

In principle, the shul claimed the whole of its members’ attention, quite as it had in eastern Europe. It tried to provide a range of activities to rival that of the immigrant culture itself, for the believers feared, reasonably enough, that this culture was a threat to their hegemony. In the years shortly after 1900, the Forsyth Street synagogue, for example,

has a khevra kadisha consisting of over twenty members who perform all the rites connected with the burial of the members: the khevra is social, for it gives banquets very often; on certain Sabbaths its members are accorded privileges at the reading of the law. The same synagogue has organized a khevra schas or mishnayoth. This society has forty or fifty members, and there are no dues; the members study the Talmud every evening in the vestry rooms of the synagogues. The Ladies Benevolent Society consists of over 150 members; the dues are paid monthly, and are devoted to charity.

Not many synagogues succeeded in maintaining these structures; competition from the secular institutions of the East Side was severe.

Some synagogues were fairly imposing; most were ramshackle and improvised. During the 1890’s and 1900’s the East Side had numerous tenement synagogues, often several of them occupying neighboring apartments and consisting of members who in the old country had lived in adjacent towns. Here, at 125 Rivington Street, is the Golden Rule Hall. [On Yom Kippur] five separate congregations worship on its five separate floors, and worship for twelve hours at a stretch. Crowds of young, middle-aged and old go in and out, up and down the creaky stairs, in intermittent unending streams. Grandsires gray, puling infants, tired women and struggling men, to whom Yom Kippur is more than Sabbath, are all there for this one day.… Within each steaming room some men chat and some women gossip at intervals, children are sleepily quiet, and devotees in grave habiliments occupy the corners. Wild is the recitative of the hazan [cantor].… Conviction speaks from the depth of his being, and passionate devotion in his vibratory tones. His memory is marvelous. Not a syllable escapes that of one blind patriarch.


In shul

Somewhat less exalted is Samuel Chotzinoff’s recollection of the crush at Yom Kippur worship:

At least 100 men and boys were packed in a room that could not have accommodated 50. Like every Yom Kippur I had known before … this one was unbearably warm and humid. I had taken the precaution the day before of buying a tiny phial of “Yom Kippur drops” for a penny, and whenever I grew faint I would take a whiff and feel better for a while. But in the late afternoon there came a moment when the men removed their shoes and prayed in their stocking feet. Inured to individual odors only, I was unable to tolerate the massed onslaught. I fainted dead away.

The capacity of Jewish worshipers to combine disorder and fervor, odors and exaltation, was difficult for outsiders, even for children of the immigrants, to understand;* perhaps it had something to do with a feeling that matter and spirit, far from being split by a Protestant dualism, should dwell together. In any case, the High Holy Days soon became a major religio-social occasion for the immigrants, graced with such aesthetic adornments as virtuoso cantors and trained choirs. The adoration that worshipers gave a brilliant cantor was like the adoration opera enthusiasts shower on a brilliant tenor. When a famous European cantor arrived—Israel Cooper or Pinkhas Minkovsky in earlier days, Zavl Kwartin or Yossele Rosenblatt later on—the Yiddish press offered lengthy articles with expert scrutiny of their cantillation.

There was also a strong business aspect to the competition for cantors:

The net proceeds from the sale of seats are in many instances the main source of the congregation’s income. Hence, the hiring of a good cantor is generally viewed in the light of an investment.… Some celebrities are paid for the four principal services of the Days of Awe as much as $1,000 [in 1897], but such virtuosos apart, $200 would be a fair average of the cantor’s fee, although the humbler congregations cannot afford to pay more than $50 for the season.

When Yossele Rosenblatt, whose voice was pure, high, and nimble, came to America in 1909 to sing at Ohab Zedek Congregation in Harlem, he was paid the astonishing salary of $2,400 a year. “There were occasions,” his son recalled, “when an admission charge limiting the size of the crowd seeking entrance to the synagogue, was imperative.… As early as 2 AM the entire block of 116 Street would be black with men and women, some of whom had traveled great distances to hear Yossele Rosenblatt.”

Observance among the immigrants was essentially Orthodox, few of them being tempted by the “flavorless” innovations the German Jews had introduced as Reform Judaism during the nineteenth century. But if they clung to traditional modes of liturgy, they could not avoid changes in synagogue organization. Rabbis imported from Europe found it hard to adapt to the styles of American congregations and quickly had to confront a crisis in authority. Laymen in America, especially those who had grown wealthy and upon whom congregations depended, were likely to be more assertive—sometimes more vulgar—than in Russia or Poland. For the rabbis, this often meant grief and humiliation. So-called reverends, without rabbinic authority or competence, sprang up like parasites, quick to make a dollar by performing marriage ceremonies. In the early years “it was not the rabbi but the hazan who was considered the important functionary of the Orthodox congregations.… The rabbi, unless he was a popular preacher, was considered a somewhat superfluous burden; he received only a small salary, or none at all, having to rely for a living on the emoluments of the rabbinical office.”

Gradually the governance of the synagogue shifted toward something like that of late Congregationalism, with decisive power in the hands of the “businessmen” and the rabbi regarded as an employee who might minister to the “spiritual needs” of his congregants but had best be cautious in making spiritual demands on them. “They let me be frum [pious] and I let them be free”—this sardonic epigram comes from a rabbi of a later decade, but if not entirely applicable to the years before the First World War it certainly points to a growing trend.

One major attempt had been made in New York to impose a quasi-theocratic framework on Orthodoxy. In 1888 a number of congregations, calling themselves the Association of the American Hebrew Orthodox Congregations, proposed to appoint a “chief rabbi,” whose tasks would include ruling on matters of ritual and belief, raising the spiritual level of the faithful, and bringing order to the sale of kosher meat. A scholar of unimpeachable piety and sweet temper, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, was brought over from Vilna and installed with much enthusiasm. But once he actually tried to regulate the kosher-meat business, notorious for its strong-arm methods, he became entangled in a mesh of business interests he could not begin to cope with. The butchers and ritual slaughterers, as well as some rabbis, had repeatedly been locked in disputes over the income from kashruth: “fist fights were not uncommon and disregard for Jewish law and Board of Health ordinances was rampant.” Rabbi Joseph and his Orthodox Association now proposed a penny tax upon poultry as the minimal cost of strict rabbinical control: “From this day forward,” he proclaimed in the fall of 1888, “every bird slaughtered in the abbatoir under our supervision will be stamped with a plumbe [lead seal].”

This plumbe became a weight dragging Rabbi Joseph to depths of indignity. It reminded many Jews of the karobka, or Russian government tax on kosher meat—had they not fled the czar in order to avoid such impositions? The Jewish radicals started an agitation against the American karobka, as they called it; so did many butchers and slaughterers, who believed that inspection best which inspected least. Congregations drawn from Galician and Hungarian Jews, always discomfited by the intellectual superiority of the Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews), started looking for a “chief rabbi” of their own, and in 1892 appointed Rabbi Joshua Segal to the post. What followed was a squalid competition between the two “chief rabbis” and their partisans over the supervision of kosher meat and the issuance of decrees through their respective bet din, or rabbinical courts. In 1893 a third “chief rabbi” was added to the roster in New York, Rabbi Hayim Vidrowitz, who had come from Moscow, gathered a few Hasidic shtiblakh [prayer rooms], and hung out a sign reading “Chief Rabbi of America.” Asked who had given him this title, Rabbi Vidrowitz replied “The sign painter.”

Reduced to shame and parody, the whole project of declaring a chief rabbi collapsed, the Orthodox Association declined to a paper organization, and Rabbi Joseph, a child in the American wilderness, fell sick with paralysis, suffering neglect and poverty in his last few years. “It was unrealistic to expect to transplant the organizational form of religious life of the European community to American soil. There the rabbi was spiritual head of a community; in America a rabbi’s authority extended only to the congregation he was elected to serve.”

Versions of Belief

Orthodoxy survived this fiasco, just as it managed to overcome its incapacity to set up the kinds of centralized institutions that helped the Reform and Conservative wings of American Judaism adapt themselves to native circumstances. The Orthodox congregations in America tended to be jealous of their local rights and disinclined to build up elaborate national structures—though by the turn of the century Orthodox Jews in New York and Chicago had established seminaries that could train teachers and insure rabbinical continuity. What held the Orthodox Jews together was a conviction that they alone represented legitimate Jewish faith and that this faith should be maintained by holding fast to traditional patterns of ritual and worship. As long as the mass migration from eastern Europe continued, there were also new recruits to the synagogues in which Orthodoxy prevailed. In 1881 only 8 out of some 200 major synagogues in the United States were Orthodox, the majority then being committed to or verging upon Reform. By 1890 the number of synagogues had risen to 533, with the bulk of new ones set up by Orthodox Jews recently arrived from eastern Europe.

Of the major innovations in Jewish religious thought and practice that have occurred in the United States, only a few began among the east European immigrants. Neither believers nor agnostics saw much need for innovation. The minority of immigrants who had adopted the surrogate faith of radicalism was hostile to all religion, though in practice the skeptics often retained warmer sentiments toward Orthodoxy than to either Reform or Conservative Judaism. Before the First World War and often enough in later years too, the Orthodox congregation was likely to be both Yiddish-speaking and largely plebeian in tone and composition, thereby striking a Jewish skeptic as much more congenial than either Reform, disdained from a distance as the pallid voice of rich German Jews, or Conservative, regarded with some puzzlement as neither fish nor fowl. If our skeptic was moved on his deathbed to attend the word of the Lord, he would turn to an Orthodox rabbi, who represented “the real thing” and spoke in a tongue he understood. If, earlier in life, he had backslid so far as to want a religious wedding for his daughter, he would have sought out the same kind of rabbi, perhaps the only kind he had ever known. In a curious but significant way, the radicals and skeptics among the immigrant Jews contributed for a while to the stability, perhaps the stagnation, of Orthodoxy.

Among Orthodox communicants themselves, the incentive to innovation was equally small. The actively pious, a shrinking minority, rejected change in principle or wanted to confine it to a few external forms: that, as they saw it, was the major point of difference between themselves and the “deviant” branches of the faith. A larger fraction consisted of what Charles Liebman has called “the residual Orthodox”: those who kept their membership, came to the services on the High Holy Days, and observed some rituals, though more out of cultural inertia than religious decision. Still less concerned with religious matters were “the nonobservant Orthodox,” those for whom the faith had gone dead but who lacked the courage or clarity to acknowledge it.

The Orthodox rabbis from eastern Europe, loosely banded together in 1902 in a national organization (Agudath ha-Rabbanim), began to see quickly enough that they would have severe difficulties in trying to reach American-born Jewish youth, even the small segment of it that remained firm in Orthodox belief. “Very early, they began to labor for the creation of yeshivot in America of the old type, to produce not only learned laymen but also rabbis who would be as pious and as learned in the Talmud as their fathers, [and] who would also possess sufficient American education to be able to lead in the new land.” Inevitably, the rupture between generations that was causing so much pain on the East Side also had to occur, though in less extreme ways, among the Orthodox Jews. In the early 1900’s moods of discontent began to appear among younger Orthodox communicants, especially those who had been born in America; they grumbled over what they regarded as the rigidity of their parents’ synagogues, sometimes over the gradual emptying out of faith among those who still went through its motions. In a good many synagogues run by older immigrants, the young people were kept from conducting services simply because they were clean-shaven and spoke English. Forming a self-conscious minority intent on creating an Orthodoxy suitable to American life, a handful of second-generation Jews on the East Side organized in 1912 the Young Israel movement, perhaps the one major religious innovation to be enacted primarily in the immigrant world.

At this point in the history of the immigrant Jews, the Orthodox synagogues regarded themselves as under mounting assault from what one chronicler calls the threat of “Reform, gangsterism, and anti-religious Socialism.” In 1911 Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a spellbinder from uptown who advocated a freewheeling ethical religiosity which he proposed to board with Reform, came to the East Side on a mission of conversion. Reform, or anything like it, had never been able to make a dent among the immigrants, but the charismatic Wise, holding meetings in Clinton Hall, “attracted many sons of Orthodox parents who had never before heard religion discussed in English.” In the eyes of the Orthodox, both old and young, Wise “preached a foreign religion—and he passed a basket through the audience on Friday nights for contributions. Some Jews threw in buttons, others real money.” The older generation of pious Jews was largely deaf to the fads of the faithless; it was the sons who feared Wise’s invasion, perhaps because they were a trifle drawn to his eloquence and sophistication. Uncomfortable in the old-style shul yet determined to reject the watered-down beliefs of men like Wise, the Orthodox youth decided on a religious-intellectual assertion of their own. They formed Young Israel.

At first it consisted mainly of a program of public lectures held on Friday nights, at which an Orthodox “revivalism” was preached in English—itself a sufficient innovation in the eyes of the older people. Speakers of intellectual distinction, like Dr. Judah Magnes, who had abandoned Temple Emanu-El because he judged Reform Judaism to be “empty,” Professor Israel Friedlander of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Mordecai Kaplan, the distinguished theologian not yet in his heterodox phase, offered arguments in behalf of religion more sophisticated than the traditional Yiddish-speaking rabbis could summon. Gradually Young Israel became a religious tendency committed to Orthodoxy but, because its founders saw themselves as part of American society, rejecting “many of the folkways of their parents” and regarding old-style services as “without melody or emotion.” They shaved their beards, dressed in modern style, listened to English sermons, and replaced the customary buzz of talk in the Orthodox shul with an atmosphere of decorum.

Less notable for theological boldness than for institutional coherence, Young Israel developed attractive social programs, learning to overlook the scandal of mixed dancing which the older rabbis excoriated. It set more rigorous standards for the education of its members and insisted that officers be Sabbath observers. It was a movement led mostly by educated lay figures, second-generation Jews who remained on the East Side at least for a time and “refused to defer to an Orthodox rabbinate who, they felt, lacked secular training, sophistication, and community status comparable to theirs.” For its own reasons Young Israel continued within the synagogue that upheaval of power relations which wealthy immigrant laymen had begun somewhat earlier against rabbinical authority. The movement grew, becoming one of the strongest components of Orthodoxy. By the mid-sixties it was claiming 95 synagogues and 23,000 affiliated families. Over the years, like most groupings within American Jewry, it gradually lost some of the marks of its distinctiveness, but during the teens and twenties, within the East Side and then beyond it, Young Israel was the one successful effort to bridge the gap between the faith of the old world and the faith of the new.

By contrast, the relationship between the East Side and Conservative Judaism was a good deal more ambiguous. During the years of heaviest migration the Conservative movement never succeeded in establishing strong roots, certainly not a decisive organizational base, in the immigrant world; yet among the children and grandchildren of the immigrants, as they moved into comfortable neighborhoods in the cities and suburbs, Conservatism would become the dominant agency of worship, or at least affiliation, for those still wishing to maintain some identification with the faith.

In its origins Conservative Judaism goes back to nineteenth-century Jewish historicism, lodged mainly in Germany but with some intellectual branches in the United States. Like similar tendencies in the Christian world, the historical school proposed to examine Jewish religious experience as “an organic historical development based on ‘the revealed Bible.’” And again like similar tendencies in the Christian world, the historical school, while earnest in religious devotions and serious in scholarly interests, may have helped unwittingly to further the very disintegration of faith it wished to halt.

In America this outlook acquired force and coherence when Solomon Schechter, a gifted religious scholar, became president in 1902 of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Gradually the Seminary established itself as the intellectual center of the Conservative movement, which in 1913 organized itself as a formal grouping. Both in its main line of development and its quasi-Tillichian offshoot, the Reconstructionism of Mordecai Kaplan, Conservative Judaism has been led by some of the most scholarly and intellectually serious figures in Jewish religious thought.

What such Conservative thinkers as Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg, and Israel Friedlander hoped to find was a way of “defining a non-fundamentalist theology … that was convincingly traditionalist.” All of these figures came out of the milieu of east European Orthodoxy, but all were also influenced by the German Wissenschaft des Judentums. Schechter summarized the leading themes of Conservatism:

The theological practices [of the historical school] may be thus defined: it is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words as it is interpreted by Tradition.… Since, then, the interpretation of Scriptures or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which … is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning. This living body, however, is not represented by any section of the nation or any corporate priesthood or Rabbinhood, but by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel.

The very flexibility of this position, as it tried to yoke tradition and change, led to grave difficulties, not least of all “the practical difficulties of reconciling a corpus of law having no effective sanctions with the proclivities of modern man.” Conservative Judaism has always been torn by internal divisions, with a “right wing” trying to hew closely to the injunctions of halakha, or Jewish law, and a “left wing” arguing that the need for change cannot be satisfied by strict adherence to Jewish law. The result has been a movement rich at its upper level in controversy and reflection while religiously eclectic, if not indifferent, in its ranks. Or, as one Seminary professor is supposed to have remarked, the rabbis deliberate and the laity decides.

What gave urgency to these problems of belief and made them seem relevant to some of the immigrant Jews was the difficulties that Orthodoxy had experienced in adapting itself to the American setting. During the earlier immigrant days, writes Marshall Sklare, Orthodoxy “functioned as a cultural constant in the life of the disoriented newcomer, as a place of haven in the stormy new environment.” But as immigrants began to find a place for themselves, the claims of Orthodoxy to regulate Jewish life in all its essential moral aspects and social relations grew increasingly difficult to sustain. Orthodox synagogues did, of course, make some adaptations to American circumstances, but the clash, both in substance and in style, between the requirements of traditional Jewish observance and the requirements of American urban life was still severe. A pattern of Orthodoxy emerged, in Sklare’s words, “which for all practical purposes overlooks certain requirements of the sacred system. While synagogue procedure has been kept intact, a strategic compromise has been effected by disregarding the degree to which the congregant adheres to the sacred system while outside the sanctuary.”

Difficulties of this kind among the Orthodox helped prepare the way for the growth of Conservatism as the religious agency to which a good many descendants of the East Side chose to adhere. An indeterminate faith retaining essential portions of the remembered Orthodox ritual; a strong adherence to Hebraic worship with considerable English admixtures; a rabbinate able to bend with the winds of the twentieth century yet hoping not to break under their pressures—all this has suited the needs of second and third generations. Temperamentally and sociologically, Conservative Judaism came to represent the controlled thinning out of the religious fervor many immigrants brought from eastern Europe to the East Side. An intelligent rabbinical adherent has asked: was it “merely a stopover for Jews on the way from Orthodoxy to Reform and thence to whatever lies beyond? To borrow Emerson’s wittily descriptive phrase about Unitarianism—‘a featherbed for falling Christians’—is Conservatism a featherbed for falling Orthodox Jews? Will Conservatism be able to reproduce itself once the reservoir of human material reared in an Orthodox environment has vanished?” Such questions could be put to a great many other offshoots of the immigrant world as well.

From Heder to Secular School

The generational clash that kept erupting throughout the immigrant milieu was especially painful, and often rather squalid, in the dingy little heder (Hebrew school) that an unhappy melamed (elementary-school teacher) kept in a tenement flat or basement. Usually an elderly man who feared and despised everything he had found in the new world, the melamed turned to the teaching of children, whom he often also feared and despised, because he had a bit more learning than other immigrants and because he shared with them a need to eat regularly. Some were

earnest, medieval men, zealously trying to impart unwished-for knowledge to unwilling youngsters.… [Others] are ignorant men who spend their mornings in peddling wares and evenings … selling the little Jewish knowledge they have to American children.… The usual procedure is for a group of boys to gather in the home of the self-appointed “Rabbi,” and to wait their turn or “next.” While one pupil drawls meaninglessly the Hebrew words of the prayer book, the rest play or fight.

Thousands of pupils would remember the melamed with a cordial hatred, though later, in the coolness of time, some Jewish historians would judge him to have been as much a victim of circumstances as were his victims. The sardonic Hebrew poet Menakhem Dolitsky recalled his stint as a melamed:

A Jew rents a room, hangs up a gilt sign reading, “Expert Teacher, Alphabet, Bar Mitzvah”—and he’s in business as a teacher. He doesn’t make enough out of just teaching, so he takes on a few side lines, either because of their sacred or their beneficial character and he puts on his sign: “Expert Mohel [circumciser], Expert Marriage Performer, Expert Matchmaker, Expert Evil-Eye Exorciser, Expert Hemorrhoid Remover,” etc.

Always on the alert for the mischief the young devils might invent, and with a stick in hand for admonitory persuasion, the melamed begins his class. First he drills his pupils, through mass repetitive chanting, in the alef-bet, or Hebrew alphabet, sometimes writing the letters on the blackboard or, if that luxury is lacking, on the wall. After the alphabet comes the recital of prayers from the Pentateuch, meant to prepare the child for the liturgy of the synagogue, though only a small number of pupils ever learn to read Hebrew passably well and fewer still to understand it. On occasion the melamed paces the youngsters through the kaddish, or prayer for the dead, though it is rare indeed for any effort to be made that might bring all this into a living relation with either the Jewish tradition or the American experience. Restless after a day in public school, where discipline has to be taken seriously, and bored by the rasping drone of the melamed, the pupils resent the heder as a theft of time that might better be used in playing stickball; soon they come to see it as a theatre of war in which their aim is to torment the melamed as ingeniously as possible.*

For the melamed, the whole experience is an indignity. Driven wild by the malice and indifference of his pupils, the melamed in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep cries out: “May your skull be dark! … and your eyes be dark and your fate be of such dearth and darkness that you will call a poppyseed the sun and a caraway the moon.… Away! Or I’ll empty my bitter heart upon you!”

In a Yiddish novel by Joseph Opatashu, Friedkin, the head of a heder on the East Side, goes one afternoon to give a private lesson to the son of the school’s president. The boy, Harry, comes into the apartment, sweaty from playing baseball:

Running through Friedkin’s mind was the thought that the piano teacher probably did not have to wait for his pupil. Friedkin categorized people and things strictly according to rank. He understood that piano playing occupied a higher rank than Hebrew; therefore the piano teacher was entitled to better treatment than the Hebrew teacher. In turn, he was treated better than the old man who had to instruct the girls in prayer-book reading in the kitchen.…

“Come on, come on,” barked Friedkin at his pupil.…

“Suppose I haven’t prepared my lesson?” Harry lifted his shoulders with a pitiful look and a silly smile on his face.

Friedkin did not know what to do. Punish him? He was afraid to tangle with the boy. What could he do if Harry didn’t want to study? Disregard the boy’s negligence? Again he was afraid—of the president. If the latter saw Harry was not making progress, he might change teachers.

Friedkin judged he’d better side-step the issue and opened the Bible to a passage Harry knew almost by heart. He calculated that if the father happened by, he’d hear how the boy swam through the text like a fish through water.…

Friedkin pretended not to see this. He felt nervous, as before an examination, and wanted to leave as soon as possible.

A veteran of the heder wars remembers his melamed as a man with “a straggly gray beard and reddish eyes and a fly-specked coat. I lasted only a few days in his class, because on the third or fourth day he caught me making some kind of trade, maybe with those cards with pictures of baseball players.” Out comes the pointer to whip the miscreant’s palm, but this one yells, “Don’t hit me or I’ll hit you.” The infuriated melamed keeps coming, the boy climbs out of a window, jumping down to the roof of a shed, and so ends his time in heder. Others, of course, have greater capacities for endurance and submission.

The Yiddish press during the early years of the century constantly laments the condition of Jewish education. Under the headline “Jews Neglect Jewish Education and Blame America,” the Tageblatt writes: “They are accustomed to sending their children to public school where they receive free books and education, and then expect the same from Jewish schools. But this is to forget that public schools also cost money.” True enough; but for the immigrant wage earner it is a heavy burden even to pay his one dollar a month to the melamed, and sometimes, when he sees how little his child has learned or wants to learn, he throws up his hands and curses America as a treyfene medine (infidel land).

In 1909 a survey of Jewish education in New York by Mordecai Kaplan and Bernard Cronson found what most East Siders already knew: that equipment was lacking, discipline poor, attendance irregular, and qualified teaching rare. “The demand for Jewish education is comparatively small. Small as it is, the means and equipment which we possess at present are far too inadequate to meet the demand. Wherever that demand is met there is a lack either of system or content.” Nine years later a comprehensive survey by Alexander Dushkin found that only 65,000 out of an estimated 275,000 Jewish children of school age were receiving Jewish instruction at any given time, and of these, 24,000 were being taught in a heder or by itinerant melamdim at home; that records were barely kept; that only about one eighth of the Jewish children given instruction were accommodated in school buildings, the remainder going to synagogue basements and rented rooms which the Health Department had condemned in 1915 for often being “filthy fire traps”; that most of the schools were losing more than half their pupils each year; and that average salaries of full-time teachers barely reached those paid to the lowest ranks in the New York public-school system.

The heder turned many Jewish children away from areas of knowledge they would later regret having missed. The immigrant Jewish community knew only too well that most of what passed for Jewish education was a disaster. Indeed, if there was one problem the Jewish cultural leaders tried seriously to cope with, it was that of finding better ways to educate children in Jewish subjects. They set themselves to learn about modern methods of pedagogy; they created special institutions for the training of teachers; they raised large sums of money to improve the synagogue schools, and in 1918 Dushkin could say that in contrast to the degeneration of the heder (which was privately run), the Talmud Torah (communally owned) had improved. In 1905 a National Hebrew School for Girls was started in Brooklyn, attempting to synthesize Hebraism, Jewish nationalism, and modern approaches to teaching. On the East Side a number of yeshivas were established as day schools to offer intensive traditional learning, usually with a thin smattering of secular subjects.

Inevitably there developed within these yeshivas conflicts parallel to the conflicts troubling every Jewish school—between those who wished to cleave unquestioningly to the methods of old-country instruction and those who saw a need for adapting at least minimally to American conditions. In May 1908, for example, an open struggle erupted in the Yeshiva Yitzkhok Elkhonen (later to become Yeshiva University) when fifteen students were “locked out” by the faculty. The Tageblatt reported that “the yeshiva students plan a mass meeting in order to demand elections of a new board of directors. They claim the entire subject matter must be changed so that the school can produce rabbis suited to American Jewry.” These rebellious students did not prevail, but the complaints they expressed were to be heard repeatedly in the Jewish world.

Starting in 1910 the Yiddish secular movements organized their own schools. They were persuaded that neither traditional nor modernized Hebraic instruction could reach Jewish children in America and that, in any case, they should develop their own curriculums. The Labor Zionists, through their fraternal order, the Jewish National Workers Alliance, set up in Harlem the first of their Yiddish-Hebrew schools, de-emphasizing Hebraic traditionalism and stressing the contemporary values of the two Jewish languages. In 1912 a group of fervent Yiddishists, indifferent to religion and committed to a secular nationalism, founded the Sholom Aleichem Folk Schools, never to be large in number or student enrollment but steadily maintaining a high level. And in 1916 the Workmen’s Circle began its own secular schools, quite the most ambitious of those devoted to Yiddish, with careful training of teachers, regular preparation of pedagogical aids, and the issuance of Yiddish books composed for American children.

Such schools could not, of course, be introduced without a buzz of ideological contention. In the eyes of religious Jews it seemed little short of apostasy to confine the education of children to secular Yiddish subjects; they claimed, with some justification, that even these subjects could not be understood apart from the context of classical Judaism. To such Hebraists as Nachman Syrkin, the theorist of Labor Zionism, setting up Yiddish secular schools seemed an act of cultural surgery that deprived children of their tradition. The intellectual leader of the campaign for secular Yiddish schools was Dr. Hayim Zhitlovsky, for whom Yiddishism had become a kind of national creed; what enabled him to gain converts was the wish of Yiddish-speaking radicals and Zionists to create for themselves a cultural haven, at once Yiddish, secular, and socialistic, that would survive between the Jewish past and the American future.

The work of these secular institutions was impressive. Their supervisors were serious men who frequently proved to be inventive at coping with American conditions and who showed an admirable readiness to learn from modern educational theorists. Their schools succeeded—but only in limited ways that they themselves would find dismaying. To a small remnant of young people the secular schools gave a portion of learning and often a strong attachment to Yiddish. But as first conceived, these schools were supposed not only to keep alive the ideas of secular radicalism but also to ward off the tide of Americanization threatening to wash away Yiddish culture. In these larger ends, the Yiddish schools did not and could not succeed. Twenty years after their inception, when they seemed still to be thriving, a Yiddish educator would write: “We thought we could raise our children according to our spirit, and through our schools insulate them from the community in which they grew up. Today we know that we cannot control the intellectual development of our children, and that both the home and community have a much greater impact on their education than we do.” The Yiddishists had finally no choice but to scale down their expectations; yet they kept on with their work, determined to leave behind a few young people who would love their language and remember their ways.

Dreamers of a Nation

There were other dreamers on the East Side, those who dreamed, not of preserving Yiddish culture, but of re-establishing a Jewish nation. In the immigrant community Zionism was the slowest and the last to take root among all the major twentieth-century Jewish movements. During the most fervent years of East Side political-cultural life, between, say, 1900 and 1914, the Zionist organizations remained marginal and precarious, seldom rivaling Jewish socialism in active strength or intellectual influence. Zionism was still an ideological sect, quite unable to become the mass movement toward which it aspired.

Throughout the nineteenth century there had been pre-Zionist stirrings in America, some of them as a response to proclamations by European visionaries and occasionally in answer to Christian philo-Semitism which took a warm view, as in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, of a Jewish return to Palestine. Lonely figures like Moredecai Noah and Warder Cresson issued appeals for Zion revived; the once-famous poet Emma Lazarus shared these visions; there was even, in 1884, a fragile American branch started of Hoveve Zion (Lovers of Zion), a Hebraist society that paved the way in eastern Europe for political Zionism. But these were isolated figures and groups, barely touching the masses of immigrant Jews. Hoveve Zion broke up into competing factions two years after its formation, along lines that would plague American Zionism for decades. One group, the activists, wanted immediate colonization and sought to prepare those few “who wish to settle in Palestine,” while the other group, let us call it the sympathizers, saw its purpose “as the mitzvah (good deed) of aiding the colonization of the Holy Land by our poor persecuted Yehudim,” that is, other Jews. Not until 1898, a year after Theodor Herzl convened the first International Zionist Congress, did some one hundred fraternal societies meet in New York to form a Federation of American Zionists, a very loose alliance of fraternal lodges, Hebrew-speaking clubs, and synagogue societies.

Until the First World War in 1914, writes a historian sympathetic to Zionism, the movement in America remained

a small and feeble enterprise. It provided an outlet for some thousands … who met in their societies like votaries of some bizarre cult. They discussed the latest developments in the nerve centers of the World Movement, sold shekolim [shares], made collections for the Jewish National Fund and sang Hatikvah. The Movement remained an “East Side affair,” which meant that it had no money or influence or social prestige. True, its leaders were not “East Siders,” they were [German Jews] from the right side of the tracks, but they were like British officers in an army of “natives.”

Nor were these leaders, in the formative years of American Zionism, very competent; few of them could hold their own in the rough tournaments of immigrant debate.

By 1905 the total Zionist membership (mostly on paper) came to 25,000, representing a tiny fraction of American Jews. Of these, only a few hundred were at all active. When Herzl sent requests from Switzerland for financial help, the Federation of American Zionists could rarely satisfy him. It could barely support a small staff and a monthly journal, the Maccabean. As a Labor Zionist memoir would later recall, perhaps with a touch of exaggeration: “The Zionist office had little contact with the Jewish masses. When General Zionism [the moderate wing of the movement] occasionally descended upon the Jewish ghetto, it appeared like a ghost wearing a silk topper.”

It seems probable, though of course it cannot be proved, that among the immigrants there was a greater fund of latent sympathy for the idea of a regathered Jewish nation than the condition of early Zionism might suggest. Anyone walking through the Jewish streets, then as later, would have encountered a great many little blue-tinted boxes into which people dropped a penny to help the pious Jews of Eretz Yisrael. But the idea of a re-established homeland, let alone a Jewish state, seemed so utterly utopian that it could hardly form the basis for a viable politics within the immigrant milieu. At best it struck even sympathizers as a dream beyond the reach of a broken and scattered people.

Early American Zionism nevertheless served a number of positive functions within the immigrant community, less because of its ideological distinctiveness than those traits it shared with other immigrant movements. Zionism played the role of a maskilic (enlightening) force among those it reached, giving them a coherent view of the world and a sense of collective purpose; it resisted “the vulgar acculturation typical of the alrightnik … It laid the basis for Westernized Jewish culture in English.” And it kept insisting that nowhere in the gentile world, not even in America, could the Jews find comfort or security. One of the more successful spokesmen for early Zionism, Joseph Zeff, made a specialty of hammering at this theme: “Don’t fool yourselves that you are Americans. You are not counted as Americans and never will be.… The Russians will be assimilated with the Poles; the Germans with the French—all will become as one nation—but not the Jews.… The Jew will always be alone. Against his own wishes, he will remain loyal to his race and to his past.”

In this formative period American Zionism was undergoing a process of inner division that largely reflected developments within the world Zionist movement. The religious Zionists, or Mizrachi, formed their own group in 1903 and the Labor Zionists, or Poale Zion, in 1905; there followed years of fruitful co-operation-and-conflict. Neither group was anywhere near a mass movement, but from the Zionist point of view each performed a useful role. The Mizrachi broke down some of the hostility to Zionism among Orthodox Jews, and the Poale Zion tried, mostly in vain, to breach the solidly anti-Zionist front of the Jewish labor movement. New leaders began to appear, talented speakers and writers like Judah Magnes, Stephen S. Wise, and Louis Lipsky, though on the East Side the first two suffered from being regarded as “outsiders.”

Yet Zionism could not gain the mass response it would later command among the immigrant (or native-born) Jews. Nor is it hard to understand why. It struck most Jews as an exotic fantasy nurtured by litterateurs. The first Aliyah, or settlement in Palestine, during the 1880’s had been far from a success, had indeed, been marked by extreme hardships; the Jewish community there, consisting mostly of pious town-dwellers, was supported mainly by donations from abroad; and there was hardly much reason to suppose that many Jews would want or be able to settle in a land notoriously despoiled and ill-ruled.

Zionism ran head-on against the opinions and sensibililties of most American Jews. A good number of Orthodox Jews regarded it as “Torahless,” a heretical effort to transpose messianic expectation from the transcendent to the mundane sphere. The German Jews disliked it as a romantic-nationalist ideology that could threaten their increasingly secure position within the United States. Many Jews, admitted the Maccabean in 1908, “resent the idea of national interests apart from the general interests of the country.” A few years earlier the Reform rabbis had passed a resolution declaring themselves “unalterably opposed to political Zionism” and, in a startling sentence, had added, “America is our Zion.” The Jewish socialists regarded Zionism as a troublesome competitor, a bourgeois delusion that could only distract the masses from struggling for their liberation. The Yiddishists were enraged by the Zionist depreciation of the whole Diaspora experience. (Actually, the two groups shared certain judgments about that experience, such as the view that Jews ought to turn increasingly to “productive labor.” The Zionists, however, were inclined to see galut mostly through images of deformation, whereas the Yiddishists saw it as a rich historical epoch.)

No Jewish movement encountering so many organized opponents among the immigrant (and nonimmigrant) Jews could have won easy victories. But there is another, perhaps deeper, reason for the early troubles of Zionism: by its very nature it was antipathetic to the whole Jewish migration to America. Hundreds of thousands of people had uprooted themselves at great cost from their accustomed life in eastern Europe; they had suffered in the new world; they were still—by, say, 1905 or 1910—finding it hard to establish themselves in the American cities. And then came a band of Zionists, luftmenshn of ideas, who told them in effect that they had journeyed in the wrong direction, America was not the answer to their problems, they must look elsewhere, to a land that seemed very distant and inhospitable. For most immigrants this was simply too much to accept: not even in imagination could they bear the thought of “another voyage.” Few Zionist spokesmen were urging the immigrants to undertake “another voyage” immediately—but if they were not, what then did Zionism come to except fine sentiments, and how could it compete in the daily life of the immigrants with those socialists who kept urging concrete and immediate actions for improving their conditons? Even in later years, when Zionism became a powerful sentiment among American Jews, they would still be reluctant to accept Aliyah as an objective for themselves. Just as in their early poverty they could not bear to suppose they had come to the wrong place, so in their later comfort they could not take seriously the idea that their task was to leave it.

All of these difficulties found a temporary solution when Louis Brandeis, already a well-known lawyer and public figure, took over the leadership of American Zionism in 1914. Gathering around him a group of talented intellectuals and public men, so that the movement escaped the “stigma” of the East Side, Brandeis shrewdly emphasized the democratic and humanitarian aspects of the Zionist appeal. To counter the argument that Zionism was incompatible with American loyalties, he wrote that it “is the Pilgrim’s inspiration and impulse over again.… And what have been made the fundamentals of American law, namely, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are all essentially Judaistic and have been taught by them for thousands of years.” This was a rhetoric with little precedent in the writings of American Zionists, and, more important, it came from a figure whose authority was unprecedented. The most qualified spokesmen for Zionism, men like Nachman Syrkin and Shmarya Levin, bore the stamp of Europe, having come out of Yiddishist and Hebraist traditions; but Brandeis, though deficient in personal Jewish culture, was the sort of public figure who commanded the respect of people whom Syrkin and Levin simply could not reach.

Brandeis kept quietly assuring American Jews that support for Zionism did not mean they would have to go to Palestine themselves—being a Zionist, to recall a phrase from a Hoveve Zion faction, was a mitzvah, a good deed, and few Jews could resist the claims of a good deed. “The place,” wrote Brandeis, “is made ready; legal right of habitation is secured; and any who wish are free to go. But it is of the essence of Zionism that there shall be no compulsion.” To older Zionists, especially those of Poale Zion, Brandeis’s way of putting things seemed a dilution of principle. But in the short run it brought a new influence to the Zionist movement, not only in the Jewish community but in American politics as a whole.

In 1917 the movement reorganized itself as the Zionist Organization of America, now based on individual rather than group membership and thereby more effective than the earlier Federation. A women’s affiliate, Hadassah, had been started in 1912; abstaining from inner polemics, it took on a broad humanitarian character and grew rapidly. Zionism now became a significant force, perhaps more so in American Jewish life as a whole than in the immigrant neighborhoods. Its great coup internationally was its success in persuading Great Britain in 1917 to issue the Balfour Declaration, which declared that His Majesty’s Government “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Through the part they played as a pressure group helping to bring about this declaration, the American Zionists gained prestige both among their comrades abroad and the Jews at home. Their mitzvah was under way.

A Bit of Fun on the East Side

It will not do to be too serious: immigrant Jews also liked a bit of fun, even those high-minded ones who yearned for a religious or secular transvaluation. Their possibilities for amusement were limited, but with a long experience at “making do,” the Jews improvised a scheme of pleasures ranging from those available within the East Side to those requiring forays beyond its limits.

From its earlier Irish and German days, the East Side had had its share of saloons; by 1899 there were still about 150 in the Eighth Assembly District alone, mostly between Allen Street and the Bowery, a distance of four blocks. Saloonkeepers regarded Jews as poor customers, but soon enough the immigrant community sifted out its share of what it called “the bums”—a layer of petty politicians, grifters, hangers-on, sporting enthusiasts, and gamblers. Others also found a home in the saloon, even some ordinary workers like the bakers whom Morris Hillquit, in the severity of his socialist youth, had noticed to be fond of their beer after quitting the cellars in which they worked. Still, drink was rarely a temptation for the Jews, most of whom turned to other kinds of amusement and relief.

Subsisting on a scatter of pennies, the candy store came to serve as an informal social center in the immigrant streets. It attracted adolescents who found their parents’ apartment too stifling and dreamed of moving on to the glamour of Broadway or the big money of uptown business, prize fights, and rackets. It served a purpose somewhat like that of the barbershop in small-town America, harboring the gritty wisdom of street people, the undeluded “realism”—prey neither to social ideologies nor the mystiques of learning—that would flourish among Jewish cab drivers, fight managers, ward heelers, and the like. In the candy store these men could find coziness, gossip, tips about the big time; they could assert the commonplaces of human nature, talking about baseball instead of socialism, boasting about Jewish middleweights instead of philosophers, looking for tips at the races rather than paths to utopia. It was a relief, for young and not so young, occasionally to waste an hour or two near a soda fountain. The delicatessen also became an important place in every immigrant Jewish neighborhood, helping to maintain ethnic distinctiveness through tastes in food when other, more important signs of distinctiveness began to fade; but somehow, the delicatessen seldom served as the center for either adolescents or grownups that the candy store did. Perhaps—about such mysteries we can only speculate—the average candy-store keeper was so desperate for a penny or two of business that he was readier than anyone else to put up with the sorts of people who made his store their hangout.

Still, saloon and candy store were no more than marginal to the social life of the immigrants, serving mainly as recruitment centers for di proste (the common ones) as they prepared to slip off to the corners of American society where one might make a fast, or sleazy, dollar. A large part of immigrant social life centered, rather, on family and home, not merely on ceremonial occasions but also through the sharing of simple pleasures, like entertaining over a glass of tea and walking together to the park on warm evenings. Precisely this coherence of kin provoked young people to seek escape, and during the early years of the century a common way of escaping was to visit the dance hall.

There were, by 1907, thirty-one dance halls in a ninety-block district between Houston and Grand streets, east of Broadway. Eliminate park space and unused lots, and there remains a dance hall for every two and a half blocks! Here, in “the winter picnic-grounds of our district,” fraternal societies staged their “balls,” families celebrated weddings, and young people came in large numbers for an hour or two of dancing.

“Every once in a while there were scandals about the dancing schools.… The press and the reformers would pound the drums that these places were breeding grounds for white slavers. East Side girls, eager for recreation, would sneak out to the dance halls without telling their parents. Not having a hat, they would check an apron and pay ten cents.” The Forward, forgetting its occasional recognition that even class-conscious workers needed some fun in life, would denounce evil “professors” who misled Jewish girls by teaching them “unbridled Coney Island and Haymarket dances.” Some of these “professors” were guilty of routine commercial deceit, others were procurers. In either capacity they would rent a hall for thirty-five dollars a month, on the understanding that they could use it for midweek evenings only, since family celebrations took place on weekends. The usual cost of a three-month dancing course (two lessons a week) was six dollars. Long a favorite among Jews even in the old country, dancing became for the younger immigrants one of the few easily accessible pleasures: it enabled them to meet other young men and women, it brought a few moments of release.*

Accommodating between five hundred and twelve hundred people, the most popular East Side halls—the New Irving, the Progress, and the Liberty—were booked up in the winters for weeks in advance. “New Irving Hall can be rented for $30 a night for wedding or ball, and if the receipts from the box office are satisfactory on the night of a ball to the management, the same organization may have the hall free of charge for its next celebration.” A young woman observing immigrant customs took a walk in 1904 along Grand and Clinton streets, where she “counted 19 different posters advertising 19 different balls in the near future.” She transcribed a few of the posters:

Full Dress and Civic Ball

given by

YMHA

Grand Central Plaza

214–20 Broom St.

March 25

Music by Prof. L. Uberstein

Brass Band

And

Bob Adams will sing between dances

Reception and Ball

Turquoise Social Club

At Lenox Association

Saturday Night March 26

Music by Professor L. Fischer

Annual Forward balls, held in the Grand Central Palace and later in Madison Square Garden, were major East Side events. The Yiddish anarchist paper, the Freie Arbeiter Shtime, held poyern balln (peasant balls), which started with

a parade of the “priest” holding a crucifix and the “judge” with a lawbook, followed by “peasants.” After the march the “peasants” supervised the arrest of the “bourgeois” guests and dragged them to the “judge.” The “judge” had to act drunk, but since he was usually played by the anarchist leader S. Yanovsky, who loved his glass of whisky, this wasn’t hard. Anarchist justice was then dispensed: fines for kissing a virgin, or for not kissing a virgin; for standing about too quietly, etc. All this was a way of raising money for the cause. “Marriage ceremonies” were performed by the “priest” in Latin and Yiddish, and paid for by a couple of nickels. The “marriages” lasted till midnight, and then you were free. If you didn’t have your own girl you were out of luck, since the anarchist girls attached themselves to the leaders of the movement.

There were other sources of pleasure: efforts to fix up East River piers so that boys could dive off them in the summers; a few pathetic ventures in back-yard gardening, through the removal of layers of debris and the nurture of tomatoes and radishes in the shadow of the tenements; the construction of roof gardens for summer play on settlement houses.

More important were the East Side parks, few in number and always heavily crowded.

On hot summer nights [we would] seek relief from the heat in Jackson Street Park. The park, innocent of grass and trees, was a large asphalted area close to the East River, with many lanes of benches … and a stone pavilion like a Greek temple, where a small brass band occasionally played and milk was dispensed at a penny a glass. The park was always crowded. The men were in their undershirts. The women, more fully dressed, carried newspapers for fans. Hordes of barefoot children played games, weaving in and out of the always thick mass of promenaders.

A Forward reporter made a tour of the few parks used by Jewish immigrants: Seward Park, where “older people come who have worked all day and want some fresh air, though you wonder, looking at the skimpy little trees, where they expect to find it”; Jackson Park, where “whole families lie on the ground and couples sit on the benches in the dark and where Jewish and gentile bums molest passers-by”; Hamilton Fish Park, where “I saw the same tired faces and bent backs, though it is quieter than the other two”; and the Williamsburg Bridge, “mobbed with families, ten customers to every seat, abounding in contrasts; elegant ladies and proletarian boys in dirty nightshirts, bearded Jews and clean-shaven Jews.” New and wonderful, the bridge “is international—you hear all languages. The air is clean and sweet, and people run there.”

By about 1908–1910 large numbers of Jews had moved out of the East Side, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in Manhattan had become favorite gathering places. Conflicts of the kind that would later trouble other alien communities broke out between the Jews and the park authorities, whose zeal for enforcing rules seems to have sharply increased when the violators proved to be greenhorns. As the Forward remarked, “The commissioner of parks wants to preserve the flowers; the Jewish mothers want to preserve the health of their children.” Many immigrants could not read the signs saying “Don’t Touch the Flowers,” nor grasp the norm of restraint that park authorities wanted to impose. Going to the park and opening themselves to its beauty, some immigrants would want to take home a branch or a flower; it was hard to understand that everything was to be enjoyed but nothing kept. There were, of course, immigrants who brought habits of sloppiness and destruction. In 1908 more than one hundred Jews were arrested in Prospect Park after Inspector O’Reilly charged that “they were turning the park into a garbage pail.” Many were forced to spend the night in jail and then, before a cruel magistrate, fined ten dollars each. The Forward raged against police brutality and official harshness while also lecturing its readers on the need for decorum: “It is very wrong to litter the park with garbage, step all over the grass, tear the flowers, break the branches, and make noise.” To minority groups, who suspect it may be a subtle device for their belittlement, the civic sense does not come very easily; but with time the Jewish immigrants learned to live by the rules, or how to change and bend them, so that tensions could relax.

Among the Jews themselves there could never be any doubt as to their most popular amusement: it was the Yiddish theatre, the central institution of their secular culture, speaking to their needs and gathering their fantasies. Whatever was noble, and much of what was coarse and decadent, in their culture found reflection on the stage. As a sort of grubby side show, the Yiddish music halls enjoyed a few years of prosperity. A contemporary account, reflecting the puritanism of the settlement-house worker who wrote it, yields a picture:

[About 1900] the possibilities of the present Jewish vaudeville first dawned upon an East Side saloon keeper. He set aside the rear end of his establishment.… Here he constructed a small stage for the cheap talent he found. The rest of the place was utilized for chairs and tables where the patrons enjoyed their beer.…

The performers are an ignorant lot.… Those actors who do a “turn” either sing and dance, or conduct a dialogue. There is a marked effort to imitate the poor English vaudeville actors; but the vulgarities are so exaggerated that they make the performance positively filthy. The songs are suggestive, the choruses are full of double meanings.… Children learn these ditties and often in all their glee sing them in the streets.

There are a number of small music halls that seldom, if ever, have enough patronage to pay for running expenses. Still, these places keep open.… They are the rendezvous of well-known East Side Fagins, and of the moral leeches that fatten on the virtue of innocent womanhood.

When the Yiddish press wasn’t campaigning against dance halls, it might turn to the obscenities of the music halls, but no outcry of reform could have stopped East Siders from frequenting them. What brought about their downfall was technology, not morality—the appearance of motion pictures in 1906 and thereafter. “Most music halls have shut down,” reported the Forward in 1908,

Yiddish theatres are badly hurt, and candy stores have lost customers. For only a nickel you can see a show, hear a song, and watch a dance. There are now about a hundred movie houses in New York, many of them in the Jewish quarter. Hundreds of people wait in line. A year ago there were ten Jewish music halls in New York and Brooklyn; today there are two.… The movies are not feeling the depression, for people must have entertainment, and five cents is little to pay. A movie show lasts half an hour. If it’s not too busy, you can see it several times. They open at one in the afternoon, and customers, mostly women and children, gossip, eat fruit and nuts, and have a good time.

Six years later the Forward returned to the same theme: “Everybody loves the movies. Our Jews feel very much at home with the detectives, oceans, horses, dogs, and cars that run about on the screen.” When it rained, Jewish customers tried to persuade the owners of the outdoor theatres that the rain would soon stop and the show should not be canceled.

People come in raincoats and with old newspapers to cover their heads.… Small boys sell old papers for two cents to be used as umbrellas. The people sit with the rain pouring down their necks; when the seats get too wet, they sit in the back; when it gets very bad, they gather under the operator’s tent. The movies have candy nights, grocery nights, and chicken nights. At intermission the audience draws lots and the lucky ones win a present. You can pay a nickel or a dime and go home with a whole chicken.

These were all pleasures within the safety of the East Side itself, but for some, perhaps many, the thought of breaking out seemed still more exciting. What the old residents of New York might take for granted—Coney Island, the Bronx Zoo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the immigrants had first to discover, savoring the fact that Jews were not officially barred from public places of amusement, as they often had been in the old country. Museums were a novelty, few immigrants having ever seen one; but when Lillian Wald headed a campaign in 1891 to persuade the Metropolitan Museum of Art to stay open on Sundays, the one day workers might attend, fifty thousand of the eighty thousand signatures on the petition came from the East Side.

Jews are commonly supposed to be indifferent to the charms of nature, yet the truth seems to be that whenever they were able to, they stretched out their hands for a bit of grass. One old woman, no longer able to name the places of her remembering, tells us that “for entertainment we would walk over a bridge every Sunday where there were cows in the open air. This was in the Bronx. It was a place like an island. We used to go by an old train.” A son of immigrants has written of the “excursions” Jews loved to take, in the early days up the East River and later on the lordly Hudson. Tammany Hall understood these longings and every fortnight in the summer would organize

a dilapidated ferryboat filled with as many persons as it would hold. It left at the foot of Montgomery Street and plodded heavily, uneasily, and sagging on one side with its overload of people, up the East River, into Long Island Sound, and after three or four hours pulled up at some rural wharf. There the passengers were let loose in the adjoining fields for an hour, after which several long blasts of the ship’s whistle brought them back.

Political groups were zealous in organizing such outings: it was a way of attracting converts while also indulging in a little pleasure. On hot Sundays the socialists

would take the Grand Street ferry to Williamsburg, and then the horsecar to Prospect Park. It was a long ride, through sparsely populated sections with views of beautiful cottages and wide lawns with flowers.…

There were other pleasures, the ride on the Staten Island ferry.… The ride lasted twenty minutes in each direction. We would remain on the boat, generally making two round trips.

Perhaps the most tender evocation of these pleasures is a memoir by Michael Gold of his family taking the long trip by elevated train one Sunday to Bronx Park. The train was “a super tenement on wheels,” with “excited screaming mothers, fathers sagging under enormous lunch baskets, children yelling, puking and running under everyone’s legs, a gang of tough Irish kids in baseball suits who persisted in swinging from the straps.” Gold’s mother, usually settled in kitchen and stoop, took her children into the woods, “smelling out the mushrooms” she had loved in her native Hungary, poking under trees and lifting her skirt to make a bag for the mushrooms, telling her children, as she never had before, that “birds talk to each other,” and suddenly flinging her arms around Michael and his sister Esther to cry out, “Ach, Gott! I’m so happy in a forest. You American children don’t know what it means. I am happy!”

Mrs. Gold, like other Jewish women, whose sons would not trouble to put their memories to paper, had gone to the woods with the hope of khapn a bisl luft (catching a bit of air), as they said in Yiddish. There was a whole philosophical persuasion in that phrase.

Up into the Catskills

As soon as the immigrants could break free of the crush of the tenements, they fled—people who have lived with poverty are rarely foolish enough to find it glamorous. In the years when they had no choice but to remain in the slums, they tried each summer to squeeze out a week or two away from the city, at least for wives and children. Most could not manage even that, but some did go to “the mountains”—which meant the Catskills. They went there because it was nearby and inexpensive, and because the German Jews had already cut a trail through gentile resistance in Ulster and Sullivan counties.

As early as 1890 a handful of east European Jews had begun to trickle into the Catskills. By 1893 the Rand McNally Guide to the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains reported that Tannersville “is a great resort of our Israelite brethren, who love to gather where they can be together,” the Israelite brethren no doubt being German Jews. By 1899 the Ontario and Western’s annual Summer Homes listing carried its first report of Jewish boardinghouses, though the earlier presence of Jews is suggested by an 1892 announcement of the Carpenter Boarding House: “No Jews Allowed.” In 1900 the High View Farm of Mountaindale restricted its clientele to “a good class of Hebrews only,” presumably German Jews. That same year The Jewish Agricultural Society began to finance Jewish settlers in Sullivan County, with the hope that they would become truck or dairy farmers. (A hope not always realized, since some of the settlers, as a veteran hotelkeeper has recalled, would borrow money from the society’s Ellenville office on the pretext that “it was for farming, but actually we used it to put up a resort.”)

The local people were not enthusiastic. In the summer of 1899 the Ellenville Journal reported that residents of the Sandbergh valley were “seeking legal advice” because the increase of Jewish hotels had turned the Sandbergh River into a “mere sewage channel.” Genuine as this concern over pollution may have been, “it was given added muscle by the hostility of many of the older valley people to the proliferation of Jewish boarding-houses which brought with them a way of life conspicuously different.” By 1906 the Journal reported that in the previous six years twelve hundred farms had been sold to Jews, mostly in a ten-mile strip embracing parts of the valleys of the Sandbergh and the Neversink and also parts of Ulster County near Ellenville. “Nearly everyone of the purchased farm houses is used as a summer boarding house … the presence of these [Jews] does much to put money in circulation.… Their coming has enabled many a poor farmer to get rid of land from which he could not get a living.” Such economic considerations were not, however, enough to put an end to prejudice: “There were cases of cruel harassment, there were fist fights, there was much concealed hostility.” Still, Jews kept pouring in, a significant minority of them tuberculars seeking cures at the sanitariums in Liberty. Local railroads offered special fares to vacationers, the Hudson lines sold cheap river trips, but what finally opened “the mountains” to floods of New Yorkers were the automobile and the bus.

The Yiddish press started carrying advertisements for Catskills resorts as early as 1902, when three hotels, with special emphasis on “fresh-grown food,” announced their custom in the Forward. Until then, apparently, guests had been recruited through relatives and by word of mouth. For the next ten or fifteen years most of the Jewish hotels were quite modest in what they could promise or provide, the High View optimistically advertising “no mosquitoes,” and the Grand Mountain House boasting that “we have our own waterfall.” These places were really no more than renovated, or unrenovated, farmhouses partitioned into small rooms for summer boarders. But even in the years before the First World War there began to emerge the kind of plush hotel for which the Catskills would become notorious. In 1904 the Evergreen Farm House offered facilities modest by later standards but decidedly more sumptuous than those of most competitors:

Elevation, 2000 feet. Baths, toilets, cold and hot water on every floor. Fresh milk, butter and eggs from our own farm. Kosher. 500 fruit trees. Piano and other entertainment. Books and newspapers. Playground for children.

By 1906 the Park House informed Jewish readers that it had

Electric lights in each room (something new), bells, hot and cold water. Stables, carriages, telephone and telegraph, bowling, billiards, a dancing pavilion, nightly concerts, a Ladies Orchestra. $10–15 weekly, children half price.

In 1920, flush with postwar prosperity, Schindler’s Prairie House announced in the Day that it had hired “a special pastry chef” and now had six thousand chickens on its farm, perhaps as good a sign as any of the mixture of pretension and innocence characterizing such establishments.

For some immigrant Jews “the mountains” were an unqualified blessing. In 1907 the gifted Yiddish poet Joseph Rolnick became ill and was advised to go to Liberty. Since he was destitute, an “evening” was held for him at Clinton Hall with admission charges of 25¢ and 35¢; it brought in $123. Rolnick then spent ten weeks in Liberty

at a hotel that stood on a high hill. I slept in a tiny room on the third floor. It was the first time in my life that I was so close to hills and clouds.… Room and food cost eight dollars a week.…

We ate at two long tables. There was ample and delicious food. We had meat twice a day. Big pitchers of milk stood on the table at all three meals. The guests ate and drank more than they needed, because we all believed that the more we ate, the sooner we would get well. In ten weeks I gained thirty-eight pounds.

By contrast, a sardonic view of “the mountains,” perhaps prompted by anxieties that affluence might undermine socialist conviction, emerges in a series the Forward ran in 1904:

It is a pleasure to breathe sweet air for a few weeks, see real grass and trees and birds. But the pleasure is not an easy one. Nothing the worker enjoys comes easily. One of the main drawbacks of the vacation is that a woman needs a lot of pretty summer dresses; if not, her enjoyment is spoiled. In many of the boardinghouses the women sit on the porch like a fashion show, each one showing off her clothes and jewelry. Instead of enjoying the fresh air, they try to make each other jealous.

These farms and hotels look more like hospitals than pleasure resorts. Every room has as many beds as it can hold … four or five in a room is not considered too much.

There are twice as many children as adults. A child is always crying; another is getting slapped. When it rains four or five dozen women, girls, children, and a handful of men are crowded into a small porch. The crying, cursing, and slapping remind you of the Yiddish theatre. If one of the girls volunteers to sing you have to stick it out because you can’t insult her by leaving, and she sings while the children are crying, the mothers are cursing, husbands and wives fighting, and women are insulting one another.

The only good thing in the Catskills is the fresh air, but this is not the fault of the farmers. No matter how hard they try, they can’t spoil the air. But the boarders don’t take advantage of the fresh air. They sit either on the porch or under a tree nearby.

When the husband of one of the women does come for a few days, she is very proud—and besides, it makes the other women jealous. They in turn can’t stand it and send for their husbands. The visiting husbands set up pinochle games and play all day, forgetting their wives.

The girls are bored and try to find boys; when a young man wanders onto a farm they do their utmost to hold him there. Life in the Catskills is free; ceremonies are ignored, although the girls remain honorable. If a boy doesn’t come along, the girls go to look for one, ostensibly paying a visit to another farm. There are twelve girls to every boy in the Catskills.

Some of the hotels have dances. They are free and people come from miles around. There are Chinese lanterns strung up half a mile from the hotel. The crowd in the dance hall is really happy, more than if it were a wedding.

On hayrides, which are very popular, the noise becomes deafening. They sing. “Let Us All Be Happy” from Libin’s play Broken Hearts was popular this summer.… There are no seats on a hayride; the girls and women and few boys are all tangled up and every few minutes a girl “loses a leg.”

In a few decades these plain boardinghouses would be replaced by the pretentious hotels—with their Miami architecture, Broadway entertainment, and piles of lox and bagels—which would make the “Borsht Belt” a convenient symbol of vulgarity, often mocked most bitterly by comedians whose careers had been launched in its casinos. As with so many other aspects of immigrant life, the Forward was there first, registering embarrassment before crudities it had to acknowledge as familiar.

But some fellow feeling ought to be possible for the people who flocked to the Catskills. They were tired; they had worked hard all year; they possessed no articulate tradition of nature romanticism; and a plenitude of food was still, in their eyes, a cause for wonder. Many of the men preferred to play pinochle, and many of the women to sit around gossiping, rather than commune with the famous beauties of nature; but it cannot be excluded that some Jewish vacationers did take walks in the woods. A few Yiddish-speaking boarders may even have stumbled upon words of praise for the countryside’s “sweet air.” The unadorned boardinghouse and the nameless kokhaleyn (where guests did their own cooking) were not the most refined of places, certainly not the most elegant; they were just farmhouses where ordinary people came for rest and diversion.

Matchmakers, Weddings, Funerals

As—or was it because?—the hold of Orthodox religion weakened, the immigrant Jews seemed to care more about traditional customs. Religion now began to require conscious assent, a sure sign of trouble; but custom, received and modified, could seem spontaneous, the “natural” way things were supposed to be done. Perhaps, too, religious energies, somewhat cut off from religious worship, were now being displaced onto all those modes of conduct and biases of value that made one a Jew no matter what one believed. Traditional styles, even as they were transformed in the new world, could thus be reaffirmed at the very moment when traditional beliefs were under assault. For the immigrants there were ceremonial occasions—the rituals marking turning points in life, such as weddings and funerals—that enabled an outpouring of emotions seldom permitted in daily existence.

“‘What,’ said a shocked father” to the ever sympathetic Lillian Wald, “‘let a girl of seventeen, with no judgment whatsoever, decide on anything so important as a husband?’” Brushing aside the mockery of the young, many older immigrants still regarded the matchmaker, or shadkhn, as a useful figure; to rely on his arrangements seemed more sensible than to wait for the incomprehensible vagaries of their children. As late as 1916 a Yiddish reporter, S. P. Kramer, found that “hundreds or even thousands still use matchmakers, but the majority of people wait for love.… It is not so ‘impersonal.’” The marriage broker customarily received 5 percent of the dowry in addition to a flat fee, neither one nor both enough to make him rich. Kramer found one

shadkhn in a tenement house. After I gave him details about my job and background, he took a dollar registration fee and said, “I have Galician, Russian and American girls. Here’s one who says she has five thousand dollars. Why waste time? I’ll give you the address and you can go right over.…” When a young couple has a few dates they let the matchmaker know if they want to keep seeing each other or if he should find them new prospects. Many happy marriages are arranged, but there is a practical side to it all: bankbooks have to be shown, the boy and girl are very realistic.

Affecting an ecclesiastic bearing, the matchmaker wore a somber black suit with a half-frock effect, a silk yarmulke (skullcap), a full beard. A once legendary matchmaker, Louis Rubin, who claimed to have arranged over seven thousand marriages—“very few of them cut-rate”—was interviewed at the end of his career: he would never, he said, “take less than a hundred dollars a case.” If clients had photographs Rubin would clip them to the folder, but he didn’t insist on pictures unless the subject was unusually attractive. “In most cases it’s just as well not to have pictures.” Throughout his career Rubin advertised only through discreet handbills in Jewish neighborhoods and a modest notice in the Day. Less than 40 percent of his business, he said, came from young people wanting directly to get married; usually the parents started negotiations and, it need hardly be added, preferred college men as sons-in-law.

With the single exception of the birth of a son, the wedding was the most joyous moment in immigrant life. A Yiddish novelist, I. Raboy, has left a vivid picture of a wedding on Ludlow Street:

From the butcher they ordered two hundred chickens and fifty calves’ livers; two hundred pounds of beef. From the baker on Essex Street white rolls and cakes; and they told him to bake sugar and honey cakes, fruitcakes and tortes topped with nuts. They went to the saloon on Suffolk Street and ordered twenty casks of beer, twenty gallons of wine and countless bottles of slivovitz.

A phaeton with two horses bedecked with ornamental trappings raced down the length of Ludlow Street bearing the groom to the house of the bride.… First the groom went into the bride’s house. Both sides of the staircase were jammed with people. Soon the bride and groom emerged. A small boy and girl carried the long train of the bride’s white dress.…

When the bride and groom entered the dimly lit hall, the electric lights came up with great brilliance. The bride and groom were seated at the head table and received the blessings of guests and relatives amid much kissing and happiness.

At the other end of the hall, on a balcony, sat the musicians with clarinets, trumpets, and two violins. There was a little Jew who played a tall bass, and there was a drum. When the bride’s family entered the hall, the musicians played a freylakhs [a Jewish dance, very gay and lively].

The family in Raboy’s story was more prosperous than most, but even the poorest Jews somehow found the money for a good wedding. Here are a few recollections of immigrant weddings, taken from conversations at a Jewish old-age home:

Everybody and his cousin were invited because my mother-in-law had a grocery store and it was good for business. We were married in the New Hennington Hall on Second Street and Avenue A. With the presents we practically furnished an apartment. Her mother gave us a thousand dollars, and in those days that was a real head start.

I had one dress and one pair of shoes to go out with until a cousin started making dresses for me, so you see I ended up dressed as nice as the next one. I had a good figure then. When I had a few dollars saved up I had a wedding on Essex Street. Fancy it wasn’t, but still we had it in a hall. We had music. They danced Russian dances. But it wasn’t a swell wedding.

I was married in 1904. I was still living on Houston Street. When people married and they invited guests to the wedding, they had to pay twenty-five cents for hat check, to go to the bride. These weddings were held in Liberty Hall on Houston Street. The people were usually very poor. But the food was good because Jewish people know how to outdo themselves.

I was married in Clinton Street. It was a big hall. The nicest wedding you could have. I was eighteen. I had about twenty carriages standing by the door and my husband kept paying but he didn’t have enough so he had to ask my uncle to lend him fifty dollars. He had to pay the cook, pay this one and that one. To stop all this paying we had to leave the wedding early.

Nothing, it seems, can survive in a state of innocence: not even the Jewish wedding, with its rumbling sociability, its wail of clarinets, its scurrying hordes of children, its amiable vulgarity. Refined immigrants began looking down their noses at weddings in halls, especially as these became more expensive and ostentatious. The Victoria Hall at 80 Clinton Street advertised an “electric khupe” (bridal canopy) in 1900, and the Grand American Hall (“strictly union”) featured “thousands of electric lights” three years later. A Yiddish memoirist recalls that “the aristocrats and radicals preferred ‘private weddings’ without a big fuss,” but ordinary people were not “satisfied with this. They wouldn’t forgo the opportunity of dancing at their own children’s wedding. My parents and my wife’s parents insisted on a traditional wedding, and later I was not sorry.”

A poor man’s funeral was much like a poor man’s wedding: rapid, explosive, and with a large residue of bills. One estimate of funeral expenses on the East Side that appeared in the Evening World in 1897 comes to a bit more than $140, with the casket costing $70, five coaches $30, the hearse $10.50—a staggering sum for most immigrant workers. Michael Gold once coaxed a Jewish funeral driver to let him come along:

at the tenement of the corpse … there was a crowd gathered. Weddings, sewer repairs, accidents, fires and murders, all are food for the crowd. Even funerals.… They made an awful hullabaloo. It pierced one’s marrow. The East Side women have a strange keening wail, almost Gaelic. They chant the virtues of the dead sweatshop slave.… They fling themselves about in an orgy of grief. It unpacks their hearts but is hell on the bystanders.

Hell especially on younger bystanders. One of them, Marcus Ravage, chanced to come back to the East Side after some years of absence and heard

a horrible wailing and lamenting on the street. A funeral procession was hurrying by, followed by several women in an open carriage. Their hair was flying, their faces were red with weeping.… The oldest continued mechanically to address the body in the hearse: “Husband dear, upon whom have you left us? Upon whom, husband dear?” … The frightful scene, with its tragic display, its abysmal ludicrousness, its barbarous noise, revolted me. I had seen the like of it before, but that was in another life.

In his entangled feelings toward the funeral Ravage compounded two ways of life, the way of outpouring and the way of restraint. Young people like Ravage and thousands of others raised on the East Side had to live by both responses, as heightened consciousness and nervous strain.

Old-world Jews were quite capable of experiencing embarrassment, but rarely in regard to their own emotions. As immigrants, they could be embarrassed by their failures with English, their awkwardness with American friends, and the incongruities they might sense between the kind of personal relations they took for granted and the prevailing romantic ethos of the new world, especially when it was declared by their children. But toward the primary, root emotions of their life—toward the joy of bringing children into the world, the gratification of seeing them securely married, the grief of persecution, the despair of death—they felt no embarrassment. Life was conceived in elemental categories, overpowering absolute moralities. Happiness came, misery followed. It was mostly a matter of fate, perhaps God’s will, and in any case, beyond ready comprehension or control. The disciplines that sophisticated cultures impose on themselves, as mediating forces between man and the ultimate facts of his existence, had of course been present among the east European Jews, mainly as commandments and prohibitions. Their experience had been anything but carefree, their conduct too often bound by harsh constraints. But precisely because they felt themselves so helpless before the venom of the world, the Jews had established occasions that sanctioned the release of emotion in all its fullness or, if you prefer, excess. They were not controlled by the visions of the Gentleman, the Protestant, the Intellectual. Mostly their lives consisted of long stretches of denial and once in a while an outburst. If they laughed, it was with sardonic glee; if they cried, it was to the heavens. Letting loose their grief was, in Gold’s wonderful phrase, a way to “unpack their hearts.”

To the Brim

This emotionality, ranging from a rich abundance to wanton excess, permeated the whole of immigrant Jewish life. Coming to America, the immigrants brought with them a historically complex and deep culture. It was by now a culture mostly in fragments, brilliant particles in disarray. It was a culture that no longer had the inner principle of order—the assumption that God had stamped a unique destiny upon the Jews—which had once kept it in severe control. Freed from this discipline, the culture of the east European Jews gained in energy but lost in coherence. Nevertheless, the memory of what it had once meant still smoldered in the minds of the immigrants, more perhaps as sentiment of loss than formal idea.

To think of the culture brought over by the immigrant Jews as a “mere” folk culture is a patronizing error, though an error often indulged in by later generations of American Jews. There was, of course, an abundance of folk materials as these had arisen in eastern Europe—dances and jokes, proverbs and songs, legends and superstitions. There were also the lullabies like “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”), the holiday songs, the songs of courtship (“Mirele, Mirele, zing mir a lidele, vos dos meydele vil”—“Mirele, Mirele, sing me a song, what does the girl want?”), transported and sometimes transformed from shtetl to tenement. Some of these were, in the strict sense, folk songs, others were theatre songs or verses of Yiddish poets set to music which became so popular as to be all but indistinguishable from folk songs. There were the anecdotes about Hershel Ostropolier, the Yiddish scamp with a sharp tongue, “a man without respect,” who mocked and scathed all Jewish institutions. There were the stories about Chelm, the legendary town (based on a real place in Poland) populated by fools and innocents, a kind of reverse mirror of the Yiddish world, in which all the strains and excesses of intellectuality were mashed into amiable nonsense. There were legends of the dybbuks and golems, through which Jews could symbolize the powers of the uncanny, powers for which they might lack a vocabulary in common discourse. There were dances, almost always, like the freylakhs (a round dance), meant for a group, or for a social enactment, like the broyges tants (dance of anger), performed at weddings by father and daughter. There were the proverbs, crisp and scathing—“Send a lazy man for the Angel of Death”; “When a poor man eats chicken, one of them is sick.” And there were the jokes criticizing, as Clement Greenberg notes, “the Jew’s habit of explaining away or forgetting the literal facts in order to make life more endurable”—jokes that survived the transatlantic journey but could not escape the mauling of Hollywood and the Catskills.

Attractive as these elements of folk culture may appear to strangers, both gentile and Jewish, it would be a mistake to see them apart from the encompassing discipline of the Jewish past. For every folk story there was a Biblical legend, equally immediate but with far greater historical resonance. For every folk song there was a cantorial melody tied to rituals of worship. For every folk witticism there was a passage of rabbinical commentary, speaking for the obligation to make moral distinctions.

All this—the heritage, the burden, the debris of centuries—the Jews brought with them. In America images of piety remained in the imaginations of even the most ignorant and grubby, since the mere fact of being a Jew imposed a distinctive consciousness. Stories of Jacob and Joseph, of Esther and Ruth, may have become garbled, but they were still alive. Anecdotes of fearful massacre, centuries back, were repeated at night in kitchen conversation. Judas Maccabeus, Maimonides, Khmelnitsky the butcher, the Baal Shem Tov, such looming figures of the past were brought over too.

But the most urgent force in Jewish tradition, the force that could send a quiescent people into moments of transport and even collective frenzy, was the idea of messianism. The Messiah had not come, he might never come, but he must come! This fervor, deriving at its purest from the tradition of prophecy and at its most debased from the tradition of apocalypticism, would flame in the immigrant world, a blazing secular passion appearing first as socialism, then as Zionism, or the two together. The Messiah would be replaced by the messianic principle, the grandiose solitary figure by a collective upheaval. The vocation for sacrifice, the pursuit of martyrdom, even that strain of madness which has coursed through Jewish life for centuries—none had yet reached exhaustion. Passed on from grandfathers to grandsons, sometimes through an apparently inert middle generation, the messianic impulse continued to burn in Jewish immigrant life; indeed, the first rush of free air from the new world caused it to flare still higher.

The emotionality of the Jews, often regarded with distaste by sophisticated gentiles and embarrassment by emancipated Jews, was a sign not merely that they had behind them a long history of tumult and woe; it was the psychic shadow of a great idea—the idea of messianism as sacred burden—which must surely be at the heart of any attempt to explain Jewish survival, if indeed it can be explained at all.

* Is this perhaps unjust to janitors? One of them poured out his heart in the Forward: “Janitors aren’t born with a broom in their hands. Janitors are the most unhappy people in the world. They work hard for a pittance.… The tenants want to ‘rule.’ They are oppressed in the shops, but when it comes to the janitor, every pauper is a boss himself.… And our heartache when we keep begging the women to separate the garbage from the ashes.… The janitor has a soul like everyone else.”

* “Some time ago,” wrote a Forward reporter in 1903, “I was walking on Henry Street. A wet snow was falling. I saw a crowd of boys chasing another boy, who was hiding something under his torn coat. Some of the boys ran into the hall of the building where I was visiting, others remained outside holding a sort of open-air meeting. It was about the small dog which the boy had been hiding and which now lay in his lap. The boys were discussing what to do with the puppy. No one dared take him home, because his mother would surely throw both of them out. The boys examined their new pet, touching his paws, ears, face, and tail. I left them in the middle of their discussion, suddenly recalling my own childhood in Europe, where we used to steal a dog from a rich gentile lady and play with him secretly for weeks, teaching him tricks and snatching food from our plates in order to feed him.”

* “‘Stop! You—you—you baseball player you!’ scolded grandma, hurrying after us into the hall. That was the worst name,” recalls Eddie Cantor, “she could call me. To the pious people of the ghetto a baseball player was the king of loafers.”

* “The Orthodox Jewish faith,” reflected Abraham Cahan’s protagonist in The Rise of David Levinsky, “is absolutely inflexible. If you are a Jew of the type to which I belonged when I came to New York and you attempt to bend your religion to the spirit of your new surroundings, it breaks.… The very clothes I wore and the very food I ate had a fatal effect on my religious habits.”

* “To look at this whispering, gesticulating, nodding, ecstatic crowd, it was almost hard to imagine them in any other role than holding communion with their Maker.… But Minha over, each at once assumed a work-a-day air, and as they kissed the mezuza parchment on the door-post in haste to get out into the noisy street, there was again a cluster of tailors, peddlers, store-keepers, each with the seal of worldly care on his face.”

* Cf., in Great Expectations, Pip’s education at the school run by Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt: “The pupils ate apples and put straws down one another’s backs, until Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt collected her energies, and made an indiscriminate totter at them with a birch rod. After receiving the charge with every mark of derision, the pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand.… When the fights were over, Biddy gave out the number of a page, and then we all read aloud what we could—or what we couldn’t—in a frightful chorus … none of us having the least notion of, or reverence for, what we were reading about.”

*In 1912–1913 George Burns, later to become the well-known comedian, got a job as dance instructor at Bennie Bernstein’s Dancing School at Second Street and Avenue B. Admission was ten cents for gentlemen and five cents for ladies.

“At the beginning of the evening, all the men would be seated on one side of the hall and the girls on the other. Bernstein would open the dancing by ringing a bell and announcing loudly, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, when I give the signal, the gentlemen will cross over and ask the ladies to dance—no running, please.… Professor Heller’s Double Brass Band will now play the mirror dance.’

“Professor Heller’s Double Brass Band consisted of a piano player, drummer, and two trumpets. The mirror dance was an invention of Bernstein’s. A girl sat in a chair in the middle of the hall with a mirror in her hand. A man crossed the room and looked over her shoulder into the mirror. If she liked his looks, she nodded yes, and got up and danced with him. If not, she nodded no, and the poor dope had to go back to his own side.”

CHAPTER SEVEN. The Restlessness of Learning

No matter how cramped their lives might be, the immigrant Jews struggled against the assumption that they were locked into settled cultural molds. All the ideas and myths surrounding them—whether the traditionalism of their own past, the lure of American individualism, or their improvised culture of Yiddishkeit—helped arouse new energies of aspiration and discontent. It was inevitable that these energies should have no precise focus. In the early 1900’s there was just not enough living space or time to make the kinds of distinctions between the life of the mind and a place in the world, between the ideal of universal justice and the thrust of ethnic striving, which later generations would find it easy, perhaps a little too easy, to make. Uneducated, ill-educated, narrowly educated, or educated according to premises that seemed not to bear on American life, the immigrant Jews now wanted to learn at least a fraction of what had long been denied them. The hunger for knowledge was widespread, and among a few it rose to a fierce and remarkable passion. Whatever time was left after a long day in the shop or store they often spent, sometimes misspent, in groping to discover what they did not know.

The immigrants had first of all to work out some relationship with the surrounding American culture. Learning the new language turned out to be difficult, partly because they had little experience in the methods of modern learning. “There are many intelligent people,” bemoaned the Forward, who “spend their lives in a candy store on Ludlow Street, or a paper stand, wasting away” because they cannot master English. Still others did learn to read and write but found it a torment to speak: “Jewish young people know their English grammar, but they can’t speak fluently. There is some hope for the youngsters, but the old people will never learn.”

Between Yiddish and American English there rapidly developed an overlap that purists on both sides deplored but could do nothing to prevent. The Yiddish literary people, trying to discipline and chasten their language, feared that a mass invasion of English vocabulary would overwhelm them. Hayim Zhitlovsky spoke angrily of “the wild-growing Yiddish-English jargon, the potato-chicken-kitchen language”; but he was forgetting that the vividness of folk speech owed something to “the kitchen.” Hundreds of English words—some because there were no Yiddish equivalents, some because they served so efficiently, some because they symbolized a rapid absorption into American life—invaded Yiddish speech in the early years of the century. Hello, all right, good-bye, please, shut up (the universal sharrap), icebox, paint, landlord, tenant, sale, haircut, teacher, pants, graft, bum, crook, gangster, dinner, street, walk, floor were quickly taken, with whatever twistings of pronunciation, into immigrant Yiddish and accepted by Yiddish editors with varying degrees of tolerance.

Perhaps a little more slowly, loanwords from Yiddish came pouring into English with equal force and color. Mencken listed many Yiddish words that were quickly accepted into American English: makher, mamzer, shleper (especially the verb to shlep). There are numerous others: kibitz, ganev, pisher, shnorer, shpritz, as well as idioms that are literal or twisted translations of Yiddish phrases, such as “I’m going on a marriage,” “My liver is in the oven,” “You should live so,” and “He doesn’t know from nothing.” Yiddish vulgarisms, often used as a semiarcane mode of reference by Jews in the company of gentiles, also became popular in English, such as “futz around,” “AK,” “pisherke,” and a rich variety of synonyms for the male sexual organ. There were still more complicated transpositions from Yiddish to English and English to Yiddish. The English term “pay day” was twisted in Yiddish into payde, meaning not the day one gets paid but the money one gets on that day.

An interesting group of words consists of those that are partly analogical creations, partly the result of folk etymology, and partly the result of contaminations. Thus afodern, “to afford,” in American Yiddish is apparently the Yiddish fodern contaminated by the English afford. The adverb oysayd is the English “outside” contaminated by the Yiddish oys, “out.” The word oysgen in American Yiddish means “to take a walk,” while in European Yiddish it means “to expire.”

A whole sublanguage or patois grew up in the immigrant districts, neither quite English nor quite Yiddish, in which the vocabulary of the former was twisted to the syntax of the latter. Even those who tried systematically to learn English tripped over the cruelties of idiom: who, in truth, could explain or grasp the mysteries of English prepositions? In the Jewish quarter English took on a new inflection, with the voices of speakers allowed a wider melodic range than was customary among those who used “correct English.” Yiddish phrases taken to be uniquely penetrating were imported into English, sometimes, it seemed, especially by those most determined to become English speakers. Words like chutzpa and shlemiel brought not only verbal richness but new slants of observation, curious intimations of irony. With enrichment came debasement, troubling lovers of English quite as it troubled lovers of Yiddish. But there was no stopping a process so deeply rooted in common experience, and in fact, English penetrated not only American but also European Yiddish. Writing in the Forward in 1930, Max Weinreich noted that such words as business, bluff, peddler, and greenhorn had become naturalized in European Yiddish, with Der Bluffer even used as the title of a humorous Yiddish paper in Warsaw.

The difficulties experienced by immigrants in learning English were not merely technical, like mastering the “th” and “w” sounds or coping with the chaos of English spelling; they were basically cultural. To plunge, however tentatively, into a gentile culture raised the fear of religio-ethnic abandonment: who could not remember his father’s warning that a single step from the true path meant the risk of complete apostasy? Nor was it always easy for an immigrant six or nine months in this country to be persuaded that, out of genuinely benevolent motives, a government might really provide free schooling at night.

Nevertheless, thousands of immigrants took themselves off to the night classes that the Board of Education ran three and four times a week in the public schools. If one takes into account all those who passed in and out of these classes, often disoriented and discouraged, the number must have been enormous. (Yiddish journalists claimed that the majority of adult Jewish immigrants attended night schools at one point or another, but there is of course no way of verifying this claim.) In the popular histories, oral legends, and comic fiction (Leo Rosten’s The Education of Hyman Kaplan), the night school has been endowed with an aura of tenderness and charm as an agency that helped ease immigrants into American speech and customs. For a lucky few it did. “The night school,” wrote Boris Borgen, an immigrant who became an influential social worker, “brought me into another life. I discovered an evening school.… The teacher was Henrietta Szold, a quiet earnest young woman, absorbed in her work with an almost painful intensity.” To have had as one’s teacher so remarkable a woman as the American pioneer of Zionism, was of course a privilege; but for most immigrant students the experience of night school proved a good deal more abrasive. All too characteristic is Edward Steiner’s complaint: “If our teacher had met us as men and not as children, if into that weary hour he had thrown a grain of humor to relax us, if someone would have sung a simple tune in English, more might have remained after a week than fourteen out of a class … ten times that number.”

East Side spokesmen frequently charged that night-school teachers were patronizing, negligent, and overworked. The first two complaints were at least sometimes, and the last almost always, true. A sober student of the problem, not inclined to the exaggerations that kept flaring up in the Yiddish press, painted a depressing picture of what the night schools would be like once they opened in the fall:

The immigrants will be pushed into school benches intended for eight year old children, their knees reaching to the very desks. They will be uncomfortable and sorely puzzled. And then a teacher, in all probability tired from a day’s hard work, will undertake the task of teaching them English. For a few days perhaps he may have patience with pupils who are exhausted after their ten-hour day. He will treat them gently, sympathetically. But after a while his own fatigue will show its effect, and he will become capricious and unduly exacting. The students will lose heart.… One by one they will cease to come until barely a third of the original number is left. Then there will be talk in a different tone—censure, this time, of the laziness of the foreigner, of his unwillingness to make sacrifices to learn English.

The problem went beyond poor facilities and overworked teachers; as in later decades, there was a kind of cultural opacity, not always the result of ill will, in the efforts of educational authorities to “straighten out” the immigrants. An elementary reader often used in night classes—The New American Citizens, published in 1909 by Frances Sankstone Mintz—offers a muddle of baby-talk history, mindless civic lessons, anecdotes about American inventors, some insipid poems, a few patriotic songs, but nothing that touches on the experience or feelings of the immigrants themselves. With such texts the process of Americanization could only be a kind of cultural bleaching.

Still, many immigrants tried. At one point, for example, the Jewish bakers’ union organized classes in the public schools for its members, mostly in the daytime so as to accommodate nightworkers. Hundreds came, dozens stayed. Perhaps no one was really at fault; perhaps the classes were organized on mistaken principles; perhaps the sheer circumstances of life were too hard (a grown-up man, worried about bread for his children, breaking his head over alien ABC’s …).

The Orthodox religious groups did not care very much about learning English, and the Yiddishists were necessarily ambivalent, but those immigrant leaders who understood that their future lay in America kept pressing for English instruction. No one was more persistent in this demand than Abraham Cahan, who devoted many Forward editorials to the need for mastering English. Cahan, whose influence on this score was enormous, pressed his readers very hard: he was like a father thrusting a child into the water in the hope it will be forced to swim. In regard to the immigrant young there was perhaps something to be said for this approach, but with the older people it often meant prodding them into a shock of cold.

Might there not have been more humane arrangements that accepted the reality of bilingualism, a reality, after all, that encompassed the lives of most immigrants? Paul Abelson, a sensitive East Side educator who began as an immigrant boy and went on to earn a Ph.D., wrote in 1906: “It may be questioned whether to teach him the English language is the first and only requisite to assimilate the immigrant, and that, if he has not shown a readiness to acquire the language according to our methods, the task of assimilation is hopeless.” Neither the well-meaning people at the Board of Education nor the immigrants themselves could quite grasp the point of such a remark: the one believed cold plunges were good for foreigners and the other accepted cold plunges as a fatality of existence.

“Americanizing” the Greenhorns

How to educate immigrants in both the English language and American customs became an issue that agitated the East Side for decades. A clean, ruthless sweep of everything they had brought with them? A last-ditch resistance to each and every new influence they now encountered? Not many people openly advocated either course, though there were a good many German Jews, well entrenched in American life, who wanted the first, and at least some Orthodox immigrants who favored the second. Step by empirical step, the immigrant community moved toward biculturalism, though its shrewdest spokesmen, like Abraham Cahan, understood that even if achieved, this equilibrium between past and present could not be maintained for very long.

Nor was it merely toward American culture that the immigrants had to work out some sort of relation. Between them and America stood the German Jews, for whom Judaism was more a faith than an encompassing way of life. With an ease the Russian and Polish Jews could not—indeed, seldom cared to—emulate, the German Jews had thoroughly Americanized themselves, many of them finding a road to the Republican party and bourgeois affluence. By the turn of the century, the tensions between the established German Jews and the insecure east European Jews had become severe, indeed, rather nasty—a glib condescension against a rasping sarcasm. The Germans found it hard to understand what could better serve their ill-mannered cousins than rapid lessons in civics, English, and the uses of soap. But even as they seemed maddeningly smug to the east Europeans, they were bound to them by ties they might have found hard to explain yet rarely wished to deny. A struggle ensued, sometimes fraternal, sometimes fractious, about the best ways to help the hordes of east Europeans find a place in the new world.

One focus of this struggle was the Educational Alliance, curious mixture of night school, settlement house, day-care center, gymnasium, and public forum. The Alliance represented a tangible embodiment of the German Jews’ desire to help, to uplift, to clean up and quiet down their “coreligionists.” Such conscientious leaders of the German-Jewish community as Isidor Straus and Jacob Schiff—men of wealth, men at ease in the new world, men who could pick up the telephone and get through to the mayor—brought about a merger in 1889 of three agencies, the Hebrew Free School Association, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and the Aguilar Free Library Society, into one large center located in a five-story building on East Broadway and Jefferson Street. Named the Educational Alliance in 1893, it became for several decades a major source of help to the new immigrants, as well as a major cause of contention between uptown and downtown Jews.

In forming the Educational Alliance the German Jews were influenced by the settlement-house movement of the 1880’s, through which such high-minded men and women as Charles Stover, Felix Adler, Jane Addams, and Lillian Wald hoped to provide the poor with cultural and moral aids that would train them to help themselves. That the motives of the German Jews were often pure seems beyond doubt. They poured money, time, and energy into the Alliance, and often were rewarded by the downtown Jews with fury and scorn. Yet neither can it be doubted that the attitudes of the German Jews were calculated to enrage. An uptown weekly, the Jewish Messenger, announced that the new immigrants “must be Americanized in spite of themselves, in the mode prescribed by their friends and benefactors.” The Messenger found these plebeian Jews “slovenly in dress, loud in manners, and vulgar in discourse,” and would have liked to “pull down the ghetto … and scatter its members to the corners of the nation.” Down on Rivington and Delancey streets there were people quite prepared with compliments in turn.

Throughout its life the Alliance was wracked by the question: to what extent should it try to “Americanize” the greenhorns? A historian friendly to the Alliance wrote that some of the “older Jewish settlers [a euphemism for German Jews] wished to effect a rapid change in the lives of these immigrants. Impatient with people with whom they were neither socially nor intellectually en rapport but whom they could not help acknowledging as their own, they advocated the immediate abandonment by the immigrants of their old world cultural patterns and the overnight transformation into full-fledged Americans.” Especially in the early years of the Alliance, this often meant that it aped such public—day and night—school routines as flag saluting and patriotic singing, which annoyed the stiff-necked immigrants, both Orthodox religious and orthodox radical, who felt they had a fair portion of culture on their own.*

The sponsors of the Alliance soon realized that the immigrant’s “spirit was not mute; that a great heritage lodged in him.… They therefore followed the wiser policy of … gradual adjustment.” Slowly, very slowly, they came to understand that assimilation had to be seen as a process to be eased rather than a program to be legislated. Yet even this formula was hard to enforce. For there were always passionately held differences as to whether the Alliance should stress the old or the new, traditional Hebraic and Yiddish or American culture and customs.

In its best years, between the turn of the century and the First World War, the Alliance threw itself into communal aid and popular education with a kind of frenzy. In 1898 its directorship was taken over by David Blaustein, himself an east European immigrant who had made his way through Harvard, served briefly as a rabbi, and was now one of the first to reflect seriously upon the problems of Jewish social service. An intelligent man, Blaustein gradually softened the “Americanizing” pressures of the Alliance and came to feel that people like himself might even learn from their “clients.” He was one of the first public figures on the East Side to move past the fixed rhetoric of Jewish ideology and, both in his practical work and in a series of sensitive essays, confront the particulars of immigrant experience.

Under Blaustein’s leadership the Alliance bristled with activity. There were morning classes for children needing preparation to enter public school; night classes for adults struggling with English; daytime classes for waiters, watchmen, and bakers who worked at night; classes in Yiddish and Hebrew; classes in cooking and sewing; classes in Greek and Roman history taught by Edward King, a Scotch Comtean with leftist politics and a passion for enlightening the poor; classes for Hebrew teachers who might want to learn English—alas, admits the Eleventh Annual Report, “sparsely attended,” even though held “on the lines laid down in Spencer’s Essay on Education”; enormously popular classes held in Yiddish by the spellbinding preacher Hirsh Masliansky, who combined Jewish uplift with a shrewd gloss on Americanism; classes in music and art (among the art students were Jacob Epstein, Ben Shahn, Chaim Gross, Moses and Isaac Soyer, William Zorach); classes at an offshoot called Breadwinners College, started by Thomas Davidson, a wonderfully zealous gentile teacher who created a sort of Ruskin College staffed by volunteers, to which, as the Eleventh Annual Report jubilantly noted, “belt-makers, button-hole makers, collectors, collar-makers, carpenters, cutters, cloak-makers, cigar-makers, embroiderers” came regularly, and where Morris Raphael Cohen taught the Book of Job on Monday and “Social Evolution” on Sunday.

The conductor of the children’s orchestra at the Alliance, Sam Franko, would recall:

My class was composed of about 35 members, ranging from 10 to 15 years of age, and distinguished more by ambition than by talent. Their parents, most of them immigrant Russian Jews, thought their offspring to be geniuses.… I have often reproached myself for the strictness and severity with which I treated these children, ill-clad and undernourished as many of them were.… When the rehearsals were over, everything was forgotten; the young students never missed an opportunity of accompanying me to the station.… It was a sight to see so many children marching in a body through the streets of New York, each armed with a violin case.

In turn, one of Franko’s students remembered:

The large room in which Sam Franko’s orchestra rehearsed in the evenings was in the daytime a studio where art students drew, painted, and modeled with clay. The walls were hung with unframed paintings.… Before and after our rehearsals … I used to examine the paintings and the sculpture with interest.… The portraits were mostly of East Side types.… There were figures of children, fat, shrewd-looking women, and young and old men of the Hasidic type, with curled earlocks and beards, their faces a bright unhealthy hue, their eyes shining with a kind of rapture.

The Alliance tried almost everything. A People’s Synagogue with sedate services in Hebrew and German was set up in 1900, never very successful. On the High Holy Days services were held for ten cents a ticket, “to combat … the opening of synagogues in dance halls and meeting rooms … presided over by officials imbued with mercenary motives only.” At one or another time the Alliance had an orchestra, a Halevy Singing Society, an Anton Rubinstein Muscial Society, a Children’s Choral Union. The passion for musical instruction, shared by even the least educated immigrants, was satisfied by low-cost lessons in violin, piano, and mandolin. In the 1890’s Tuesday-evening concerts “of a very high order”—as if the German Jews would ever sponsor anything that wasn’t!—were held for a five-cent admission charge. Art exhibitions; birthday celebrations of great figures ranging from Aristotle to Longfellow; a mass of literary clubs (the Carlyle, the Gladstone, the Tennyson), some of which, notes one Annual Report dolefully, collapsed into “mere social gatherings”; a roof garden opened in 1896 for the summertime use of children and mothers, where Nathan Straus established a depot for the sale of sterilized milk (average daily attendance in 1896 was 4,600); a boys’ camp and a girls’ camp in the summers; a school for physical culture; a Legal Aid Bureau to help deserted wives; endless theatrical performances—all this and more made the Educational Alliance into something like the “immigrant’s university and club” that one of its Annual Reports boasted it was.

Yet for all its good works, the Alliance could never settle into harmony, either within its own institutional life or in relation to the immigrant masses. With the latter there was always distance and misunderstanding, an obtuseness of good faith. A report prepared in 1902 by Bernard Ernst, superintendent of the Alliance’s camp for boys, catalogued the woes that East Side ragamuffins could inflict on social workers and camp directors:

It is a discouraging fact that the East Side boy despises manual labor.… Apart from intellectual exertion, all labor appears menial to him. The few duties at the camp—none of them irksome or onerous—were shirked and evaded with perplexing regularity. Boys had to be literally driven to make their beds.… Larger boys bribe the juniors to do their work.… When asked to help to remove rocks from the baseball field, the reply was, “What has the camp got the farmer for?” When one senior was asked about the “philosophy” of dishwashing, his reply was, “What are the women for?”

The East Side boy is accustomed to excessive over-feeding. He wants six thick slices of bread—over half a loaf at every meal. He loathes vegetables largely because he does not know them as food. Lettuce is called “grass” and not eaten; cauliflower is meant for cattle.… Table manners are woefully absent. Everybody puts his knife in his mouth.

It was probably no one’s fault, this long tradition of misunderstanding. How could Mr. Ernst get through to boys needing six slices of bread with each meal? How could he understand the underflow of anxiety in Jewish life that the fixation on food released, caricatured, and assuaged? And how could he have supposed that in the eyes of his charges he was anything but a rather stuffy comic figure?

From the moment of its birth the Educational Alliance came under attack. Orthodox Jews were aghast at its innovations in prayer, socialist Jews at its devotion to petty reform. In 1900 a group of Yiddish intellectuals, with the playwright Jacob Gordin at their head, set up a rival institution, the Educational League, declaring it was time “the people down town cut away from the apron strings of the German Jews.” A mass meeting brought together two thousand people in March 1903 at the Grand Central Palace, where Gordin presented a skit ridiculing uptowners and “social workers.” Called “The Benefactors of the East Side,” it has a pretentious German-Jewish philanthropist declare that he and his friends, “like Abraham Lincoln,” are working to liberate the slaves. “To be sure, the East Side people aren’t black, but they are Romanians. They aren’t Ethiopians, but they are Russians.” Gordin’s sketch was as effective as it was nasty, and his audience loved it.

Gradually the Alliance bent under such attacks, learning to show a bit more warmth and respect for the people it proposed to uplift. But where the rival Educational League soon collapsed, the Alliance kept doing its work: Gordin could write rings around the Schiffs and the Strauses, but when it came to the day-by-day work any institution requires for survival, he was not much in evidence.

Nor was the Alliance without intellectual defense. In a once-influential book called Jewish Philanthropy (1917), Boris Bogen charged that the “leaders of the East Side were, practically speaking, indifferent to the matters pertaining to their immediate neighbors. They were busy with higher ideals; they were engaged in the strife of world-wide movements.” This was a shrewd thrust, striking directly at a major weakness of the whole immigrant culture. Men dreaming of salvation, in this world or another, were seldom prepared for small, unglorious tasks such as the Alliance undertook.

The memories of those who read in its libraries and attended its lectures vary to an astonishing extent. Zero Mostel, who began to paint in its art classes, summoned his experience through an image of space: after the overcrowded apartment in which he grew up, “the Alliance gave me a new life—I had never seen such big rooms before!” Equally telling is the memory of a Yiddish poet, Joseph Rolnick, who in 1910 was living on Madison Street and each morning would walk to a garment shop on Chambers Street.

While it was still dark I used to stop at a column of the el, scribble a few rough lines that came to me.… Sunday mornings I would go to the Alliance and there finish the poem. In the large reading room I often dozed off, together with others who grew sleepy from the warmth. The librarian used to walk up and down waking the sleepers … but I learned to hear her steps before she came near my chair. Not once did she catch me dozing.

The memories of Eugene Lyons were bitter:

We were “Americanized” [at the Educational Alliance] about as gently as horses are broken in. In the whole crude process, we sensed a disrespect for the alien traditions in our homes and came unconsciously to resent and despise those traditions, good and bad alike, because they seemed insuperable barriers between ourselves and our adopted land.

The memories of Morris Raphael Cohen were warm:

It was [at the Alliance] that my father and mother went regularly to hear the Rev. Masliansky preach … in Yiddish. It was there that I drew books from the Aguilar Free Library and began to read English.… It was there that I first met Thomas Davidson who became the light of my life and of my intellectual development.… A window of my life opening on the soul-strengthening vista of humanity will always be dedicated to the Educational Alliance.

Who was right, Lyons or Cohen? Each in turn, both together, and neither alone. The German Jews, intent upon seeing that the noses of those East Side brats were wiped clean, surely proved themselves to be insufferable, and anyone raised in the clatter of Clinton Street or the denial of Cherry Street had good reason to rage against the uptown Jews. Yet, in a way, the latter were right: physical exercise and hygiene were essential to the well-being of their “coreligionists” and somehow, through prodding and patronizing, they had to be convinced of this. The east European Jews felt free to release their bile because they knew that finally the German Jews would not abandon them, and the German Jews kept on with their good works even while reflecting on the boorishness of their “coreligionists.” Out of such friction came a modest portion of progress.

A Visit to the Cafés

Keidansky, an immigrant Jew stuck away in Boston, decided one year in the early 1900’s to spend his vacation on the East Side. He wanted something exciting and new, not just to exchange the monotony of Boston for the monotony of the country. So he went to the cafés of the Lower East Side where, as he later told a friend, “people feel free, act independently, speak as they think, and are not ashamed of their feelings.”

In those “universities of the ghetto,” as he called the cafés, Keidansky found all social and cultural problems delightfully close to solution. The financial trusts? They are paving the way for socialism, explained a young man at his table, since industrial concentration is a prerequisite for the new society—otherwise, what would you do, run around the country organizing peanut stands? The future of war? Once the workers take over, no more war. Tolstoy? A great writer but a puerile philosopher, announced a red-haired fellow from behind a newspaper at the next table. Ibsen? There’s a man who knows the tragedy of life—and what’s more, our own Zangwill rates Ibsen higher than Shakespeare. But Shaw, isn’t he still greater? Conversation shifts to Shaw’s little book on Ibsenism, an astonishing number of the talkers claiming to have just finished it, and then to Georg Brandes, the Danish-Jewish critic. Brandes, says a pale-faced poet with a sweet smile, is the greatest critic of modern times. Thus far the talk has been mostly about the drama—but what about the novel, has it any future in these distraught times? Keidansky is somewhat alarmed at the news that the novel is in bad shape: it has proved unable to keep up with modern tempos. The short story of Maupassant, that’s the form of the future, chimes in a journalist who specializes in twelve-hundred-word feuilletons. Yes, adds a Yiddish actor, you mean the Maupassant who’s recently become a contributor to the Forward—a dig at the way Yiddish papers “borrow” European fiction. But what’s wrong with making Maupassant a Yiddish writer? asks someone who has kept quiet until now. After all, didn’t a nice Jewish man walk into the office of one of our magazines and ask to speak to Friedrich Nietzsche? Mention of Nietzsche brings the talk back to Wagner’s music, Gorky’s novels, Zola’s realism, “all these things decided upon,” observes Keidansky, “by people who understand them, more or less.”

His sharp eye for bluffers notwithstanding, Keidansky is enchanted. “Everywhere you meet people who are ready to fight for what they believe in and who do not believe in fighting.” It is getting late now, after eleven, and the intellectual stars begin drifting in—Alexander Harkavy, the Yiddish dictionary maker; Abraham Liessen, editor of the Tsukunft and a stirring, pure-spirited poet; Hillel Zolotaroff, the Kropotkin of the East Side; Jacob Gordin, the playwright, in all his dark stateliness; and others too: Hourwich the economist, Paley the editor, Louis Miller the acerb polemicist. Men aware of their place in the world, they make impressive entrances, some with thick Russian-style beards, others clean-shaven in the American fashion. This is their territory, and here they are treated with a well-deserved respect such as the outer world has yet to accord them. A little later Hutchins Hapgood drops in, the charming young American who is getting his education by listening intently to Abe Cahan, walking the streets of the East Side, and going to the Yiddish theatre.


In the café

Back home in Boston, as he again settles into the staleness of provincial life, Keidansky tells a friend, “Why, I have gotten enough ideas on the East Side to last me for ten years.”

By 1905 there were several score of these cafés, or, as they were sometimes called, coffee-and-cake parlors, on the East Side. Each café had its enthusiasts claiming it was the true center of Yiddish intellect. For the early playwrights and actors, it was Schreiber’s café on Canal Street. For the serious young poets of 1907–1908 who called themselves Di Yunge (The Young Ones), it was Goodman and Levine’s on East Broadway. For the radicals, as the veteran socialist Louis Waldman remembered, it was the Monopole at Second Avenue and Ninth Street, where Leon Trotsky once appeared in the flesh. But the most famous center for writers, actors, philosophers, and kibitzers who took pleasure in staring at the great, was the Café Royale on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street. For a dime (and a nickel tip) you could get a glass of tea and a piece of coffee cake while sorting out the celebrities of Yiddish culture and listening to the gypsy fiddler Ferenc Miklos, who played, said the critic Samuel Chotzinoff, “with a sumptuous tone that a great artist might envy.”

Sooner or later, unless he were unusually skillful at sliding from table to table, a customer had to buy something. But once he had made his ten- or fifteen-cent purchase he could sit endlessly, in a not always clean but reasonably well-lighted place. “The cafés were kept going not by what the writers spent, but by those more numerous patrons who liked to pass an evening where writers congregated.” And some glamour of the spirit apparently rubbed off on these onlookers, which made it a little easier for them to face the drabness of another day in the shops or streets.

A little easier too, it seems, for the Jewish women who frequented the cafés—not the sober housewives who would not have dreamed of wasting a minute on such frivolities, but the newly liberated young women dressed or draped in bohemian “Russian” styles and still either a little shy or inclined to be overassertive in their freedom.

The hall bedroom is such a dingy, dreary place … [but the café] is light and cheerful.… If they are not the objects of fine courtesies and considerateness, [these bohemian women] do not miss them; perhaps they never knew them.… They sit there in an atmosphere of tea-steam and cigarette smoke … pallid, tired, thin-lipped, flat-chested and angular.… The time of night means nothing until way into the small hours. When one must sleep in a hall bedroom there is no hurry about bedtime.

The talk bubbles harmlessly, sometimes wittily, like new froth on an old culture, and for some who have no other place to go, it helps pass the time.

A Passion for Lectures

To most immigrants the café seemed an exotic or frivolous place, appropriate perhaps for inteligentn and associated idlers, but hardly for working people who had to earn their bread. What many of them did take seriously was the endless lectures that filled the nights of the East Side, especially on weekends. There were the lectures scheduled by the Educational Alliance and the People’s Institute at Cooper Union. There were the Yiddish lectures arranged by Dr. Henry Leipziger for the Board of Education, which by 1915 were drawing 75,000 people a year. There were the lectures sponsored by the immigrant institutions themselves, the Workmen’s Circle, the unions, the socialists, the Zionists, indeed any group with the faintest pretension to culture. At such evenings one could feel at home, perhaps even venture to ask a question or speak up without embarrassment.

November 1897: the William Morris Club sponsors a lecture on astronomy at the Forward building. January 1898: Dr. Ingerman offers a series on “The History of Ancient Greece” for the Workmen’s Circle. September 1905: the anarchist Progressive Library features Dr. Hillel Zolataroff as its main speaker, flanked by Max Kornin reading from Sholom Aleichem, “Comrade Gorodetsky playing the violin,” and Sara Edelstadt, sister of the late poet David Edelstadt, reading from his work—“admission 15¢, proceeds to help a sick comrade.” In 1906 large crowds come to hear Dr. Isaac Daniely, delegate from the Russian Socialist Territorialist party, speak on the post revolutionary situation of his country; Dr. Shmarya Levin, a communal leader among the Russian Jews, draws “an immense audience at his first lecture in New York”; and the “Zionists find it profitable to send a Yiddish lecturer to New England towns.” In 1915 the Ladies Waist Makers Union sponsors a series of lectures and concerts every Friday night, attended by fifteen hundred people, mostly girls. So it would go into the winter weeks, through the passing decades: the tribute immigrant Jews paid, sometimes beautifully earnest and sometimes mere blank-minded ritual, to the sanctity of thought.

When young Marcus Ravage went to work as a shirt operator a few years after the turn of the century, he found that almost all his fellow workers brought books to the shop, mostly in Yiddish but some in Russian, German, and English. During their lunch hour, unless they succumbed to the lure of a discussion, “the entire lot of them had their heads buried in their volumes or their papers, so that the littered, unswept loft had the air of having been miraculously turned into a library.” One day a girl operator found Ravage glancing at her book and asked whether he went to lectures. A little ashamed, he said that he did not. “You know,” she told him, “Maxim Gorky is going to speak tonight.”

I began to buy newspapers and watch for the notices. There were scores of lectures every week.… One night it was Darwin and the next it might be the principle of air-pressure. On a Saturday night there were sometimes two meetings so arranged that both could be attended by the same audience. I remember once going to a meeting at Cooper Union to protest against the use of the militia in breaking a strike somewhere in the West, and then retiring with a crowd of others to the anarchist reading-room on Eldridge Street to hear an informal discussion on “Hamlet versus Don Quixote.”

For the East Side intelligentsia—a category hospitable enough to include immigrant workers, housewives, students, and storekeepers—these lectures were not merely a major outlet through which to release yearnings for mental growth, they were also one of the few kinds of recreation such people could afford or approve. “There would be ‘balls’ bearing no resemblance to any type of function usually designated by the name except that speeches would be followed by dancing and refreshments of tea and sandwiches—an obvious hang-over from the student ‘balls’ of Russia and Switzerland, each of which was dedicated to a cause. One might meet Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman unaccountably turning up at a social-democratic ball despite their anarchism.” Indeed, for the ideologically committed there was not much difference between learning and diversion—the weekend lecture became an occasion at which all of one’s deepest interests, intellectual and personal, could be engaged.

To young people like Ravage, eager to swallow the world’s culture at a single gulp, it hardly mattered whether a lecturer spoke on popular science or ancient history, German literature or Indian customs. “There was a peculiar, intoxicating joy in just sitting there and drinking in the words of the speakers, which to us were echoes from a higher world than ours.” The phrase is deeply revealing: “echoes from a higher world than ours,” as if somewhere in the distance there gleamed a true repository of learning, beyond the reach of mere immigrants, or mere Jews, or, for that matter, mere Jewish immigrant lecturers. Most of the lectures were on political and social, sometimes cultural, topics; but one of “the echoes from a higher world” the immigrants tried occasionally to reach for was that of elementary science, something their own tradition had been unable to cope with.

The lecturers were themselves often but a step or two ahead of their listeners. Morris Hillquit, later to become a distinguished socialist, began his career as lecturer by visiting a fraternal society of German-Jewish tailors in behalf of the United Hebrew Trades. Unexpectedly, the chairman asked Hillquit to address the meeting “on the Labor Problem,” and the young man, who had never before made a public speech, suddenly found himself talking in German to several hundred attentive tailors about ideas he had only a few days earlier picked up in Engels’s Socialism, Scientific and Utopian. “As I spoke on, I warmed up to my subject. I soon forgot my audience and overcame my stage fright. I was attempting to restate in simple language and largely for my own benefit the lesson I had just learned.… I spoke about half an hour, which seemed to be an eternity, and was warmly applauded.… Thus began my career as a public speaker. It has never ended.”

Among the scores of Yiddish lecturers there were some genuinely learned men. Hillquit himself had dipped into the social sciences and tried hard to avoid the pat formulas of his comrades. Shmarya Levin was a Judaist of wide culture, as was the Labor Zionist theoretician Nachman Syrkin. Moissaye Olgin, first a staff writer for the Forward and then the main Yiddish spokesman for communism, had a firm grounding in Russian literature. Hayim Zhitlovsky, advocate of an eclectic Yiddishist nationalism, won the admiration of the serious audiences.

How fearfully serious those audiences could be* is suggested by David Shub, a Yiddish writer, who recalls a series of ten lectures Zhitlovsky gave shortly after arriving in New York in 1904. Bringing with him the credentials of a leader of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary party (a populist radical movement) and intent upon creating a major impression, Zhitlovsky chose as his topic “Marxism and Synthetic Monism.” To stress the momentousness of his choice, he spoke in Russian, though he knew Yiddish quite well. Socialists, anarchists, the whole East Side intelligentsia, flocked to Clinton Hall.

Zhitlovsky spoke in “a fine literary Russian without a trace of an accent. He was a sparkling lecturer.… But I am certain,” admits Shub, “that I was not the only one there who failed to understand even half of what he was saying.” Zhitlovsky’s philosophical assault on Marxism caused anxiety among the Yiddish-speaking socialists, and to seal off this wedge of heresy they sent Abraham Cahan to the platform—also speaking in Russian—with a lecture entitled “Is Marxism Scientific?” Pragmatist by nature, Cahan declared that Marx was not a philosopher at all, but rather an analyst of society, and that the claim for Marxism as science rested on its economic analysis of capitalism. Zhitlovsky sat through Cahan’s presentation, and in the discussion period (where the two antagonists conveniently lapsed into Yiddish) he showed that Cahan had narrowed Marxism for his own polemical advantage and that, in fact, most of its European theorists did make philosophical claims. The bewildered young Shub, though a political ally of Cahan, had to admit that Zhitlovsky had gotten the better of the debate—as Cahan himself privately admitted several decades later.

Most of the Yiddish lecturers were neither as erudite as Zhitlovsky nor as sharp as Cahan. They lectured on the run, skimming fragments of knowledge from German or Russian books, scraping together tidbits from English magazines, and often relying on the rhetorical expansiveness of the Yiddish language. A good many of the lecturers were men who had been decently educated in traditional Judaism but who were ill at ease when it came to secular topics—and on the East Side it was secular topics that were mainly in demand.

It was not an easy life, being a Yiddish lecturer. When Benjamin Feigenbaum, the socialist propagandist, instituted a rule in the early 1900’s of charging a flat fee (five dollars from organizations that could afford it), this constituted a major step forward in the profession. In one of Z. Libin’s Yiddish sketches, a lecturer pours out his heart: After Rosh Hashonah, “the committees” are suddenly heard from, proposing engagements, but all summer long you might as well starve to death.

In her memoir of Nachman Syrkin, Marie Syrkin recalls being taken to endless public meetings by her father: “baby-sitters were an unheard of institution … the cost would have been prohibitive. Besides, I believe my parents felt that a bright ten-year-old should be able to appreciate political discourse at any hour.” An important figure in the Jewish world and a man of intellectual attainments, Syrkin would spend his days at the Astor Library, which he made into his “office,” writing essays and seeing associates. “Any crank or lunatic who wanted to find him—and the tribe was numerous—knew that he could discover Syrkin either at work in the Jewish Room or pacing up and down the corridor. To save the cost of lunch my mother would give him a sandwich cut into bite-size pieces which he would keep in his pocket and eat while reading.”

The Syrkins lived for a time in the east Bronx and later in Flatbush. “Paying the rent was always postponed to the last possible day; the landlord turned out to be an admirer of my father’s and was … elastic as possible in his construction of what date constituted the last day. The grocery storekeeper was apparently a less zealous reader of the Yiddish press.” When things became desperate, Mrs. Syrkin went to work in a hat factory and the theoretician whose ideas would serve as the basis for the Israeli kibbutz felt overcome by shame. “To be a hungry student or a chronically indigent intellectual was proper … but for my mother to seek work in a factory was as great a loss of caste as if my father had become a petty shopkeeper.” Nor was the condition of the Syrkins significantly better or worse than that of other Jewish intellectuals in New York during the years before the First World War. Writing for the Yiddish press, giving lectures, serving as leader of an organization—these were precarious ways to earn a living. And if the lecturer belonged to a political movement, he was frequently expected to speak without payment, sometimes without even recovering his carfare.

At home the rent might be overdue, but on the platform, summoning visions of universal justice or national liberation, the lecturer embodied a standard his audience respected. Marcus Ravage tells the story of a friend, one Wykoff, who planned to leave his job in the garment trades and become a dentist, so as to have “time to read and to think—to be a human being.” What had crystallized this desire was a lecture by Benjamin Feigenbaum. “Did you hear him on ‘Dominant Figures in World Literature?’ It made my heart sick. Goethe, Calderon, Racine, Dante, what do I know about them?” For that matter, what did Feigenbaum himself know about them?

For forty years Benjamin Feigenbaum (1860–1932) kept bustling through the endless meetings of the East Side, a ubiquitous figure in its political and cultural life: half scholar, half agitator, wholly lecturer. If you went to a protest meeting after the Kishinev pogroms, Feigenbaum was likely to be one of the speakers; when two thousand girls in the shirtwaist industry met in 1909 to plan their great strike, Feigenbaum was on the platform exhorting them with his homely Yiddish eloquence; and in any given season, he could be heard speaking for the Socialist Labor party, then the Socialist party and the Workmen’s Circle and the landsmanshaftn on topics ranging from the falsity of religion to the sanctity of culture. Earnest, winning, a little folksy, Feigenbaum was always at hand, more knowledgeable than most of his competitors but less so than his audiences may have supposed.

Feigenbaum was especially popular, wrote his old friend Abraham Cahan, “among those older socialists who in their youth had been educated in Holy Writ. With a passage from the Bible or the Talmud flavored by a preacher’s metaphor, Feigenbaum would make a socialist concept graphically clear,” for in his person and his thought he bridged the gap between the older maskilim (enlightened ones) and the younger socialists.

Born in Warsaw, Feigenbaum spent his youth in a strict Hasidic-rabbinical atmosphere, studying in yeshivas along traditionalist lines. At the age of twenty-two, like others of his generation, he saw the light of socialism and abandoned all he had been taught in order to become a relentless opponent of religion. Nimble in argument, he was soon the darling of the Yiddish-speaking radicals of Warsaw, who believed in him—the Yiddish novelist I. J. Singer would later recall—with the fervor that “Hasidim believed in their tsadikim [spiritual leaders].” Singer adds a story about Feigenbaum’s abandonment of the faith: “As a young man after his marriage he studied in the hall of the Grand Rabbi of Ger.… One day he was inspected [since rumors of heresy had begun to be heard] and found not to be wearing the prescribed undergarments with ritual fringes. The enraged Hasidim laid him out on a table and beat him mercilessly.” The memory of this humiliation remained an acute one for Feigenbaum, and, according to some of his friends, it kept spurring him to continued antireligious diatribes.

Fleeing Warsaw, Feigenbaum settled for a while in Antwerp, where he wrote for the Flemish socialist press, and then in London, where he became a correspondent for the New York Arbeiter Tseitung. In 1891 he arrived in New York, and gave his first public lecture in the New Everett Hall, where, as Cahan would remember, the crowd “was electrified with curiosity in the way a small town hears out a new cantor.”

A natural popularizer, Feigenbaum wrote articles for the Forward on innumerable topics, many with a rather thin smattering of knowledge. He could speak on almost anything, and he did; but his specialty was religion. His assaults on the Almighty, to whom he paid more attention than many an ostensible believer, were fierce and sometimes a little coarse. “Our Jehovah,” he wrote once, “showed a weak character in first creating man and then failing to hold him in check.”

Feigenbaum touched the older Jewish workers not merely because he knew his way around the Talmud but also because he shared their deep moral conservatism even while preaching socialism. For all his tirades against “our Jehovah” he insisted on the rightness of those Jewish ethical precepts concerning marriage and sexuality to which his audiences still clung; he even saw them, with some shrewdness, as precepts sustaining socialist belief. Whether or not he knew it, Feigenbaum was preaching a Yiddish version of the “religion of humanity” that had been advanced by English intellectuals a few decades earlier, that sense of ethical obligation which they wished to remove from its religious context.

Feigenbaum was a man with a hunger for knowledge and a readiness to share it. Sometimes he shared a little too quickly, but in the circumstances of East Side life this was probably a venial fault, if a fault at all. The service that he, and others like him, rendered the Jewish immigrants was to throw up a footbridge, shaky and perilous, to the outer world of knowledge. In the winter of 1908, for example, he was giving a series of lectures, with a five-cent admission charge, for the Tombrezhberger Young Men’s Educational Society, beginning with “Religion as Cultural History” and including such topics as “The Essence of Free Thought,” “Secrets of the Torah,” and “The God of Religion and the God of Understanding.” The contents of these lectures have been lost, but if one may judge by Feigenbaum’s articles and pamphlets, they were uneven mixtures of enlightenment and parochialism, firmly grounded in Jewish learning and somewhat less so in the popular agnostic tracts of his day. There is no reason to suppose they were any flimsier than a good portion of what would pass for higher education in America sixty years later.

The work of men like Benjamin Feigenbaum has been covered over by the dust of time; but every culture needs such men, those who sustain even if they also coarsen the tradition of learning.

The Self-Educated Worker

Like everything else on the East Side, the lectures came in for a share of caustic attack. “Knowledge among progressive workers,” wrote A. Litwin in the Forward, “is superficial.”

As objective observers we must admit that the instruction provided is bad.… Our people are getting a chaotic education; our lecturers seize on topics that do not require exact knowledge or explanation.… After the lecture, when the chairman asks for questions, no one responds. If someone does, the question has nothing to do with the lecture. Sometimes the questioner is a fanatic and the lecturer, who had been discussing the differences between the drama and the novel, has to make it clear that he did not mean to insult the Socialist party.

The Forward’s pretension to the mantle of Matthew Arnold might bring smiles to the lips of Yiddish intellectuals, but there was no denying the accuracy of its diagnosis. The hodgepodge of topics, the dubious qualifications of many speakers, the weariness of the audiences, the lack of systematic instruction, the temptation to use the platform for proselytizing rather than teaching—these were severe weaknesses. It was probably inherent in the lecture system that it should lead people to take a first step but rarely the second. Yet, by any dispassionate standard, all of these complaints seem finally beside the point. The ill-educated or partly educated immigrants who kept coming faithfully on Friday and Saturday nights to the lectures would surely have profited from better programs, as they would have profited from a whole range of conceivable benefits. But it was in the nature of things on the East Side that such benefits be out of reach, while the lectures, good, bad, and indifferent, were always at hand. The lecture was the one pedagogical activity the immigrants could arrange for themselves, through their own agencies and with their own resources. The lecture was their ticket of entry into the world of knowledge—a world, as they recognized in their sober moments, they would never succeed in making their own. It was easy to scoff at the foibles of the lecture system, as a half-century later it would be easier still; but historical perspective, which may be no more than another name for decency of feeling, should instruct us that a certain grandeur of aspiration is to be found in this spectacle of overworked and poverty-stricken men and women submitting themselves to the routine of lectures.

The values embodied in these lectures could be found all through immigrant life. Morris Hillquit came to his first intellectual stirrings on the roofs of the Cherry Street tenements during the 1890’s, inflamed by “the high themes which constituted [the] daily conversational fare.” John Cournos, at about the same time, became a regular visitor at the home of a Philadelphia family named the Mayers—in Russia, the Mayorskys—where people talked about Swinburne, Wilde, and Whistler. Israel Davidson remembered Wolfe’s drugstore as a “clubhouse” where East Side intellectuals, at least those he happened to know, gathered for discussions. “At Warschauer’s Russian tea-house I often heard Bacon mentioned respectfully as a philosopher alongside Spencer,” wrote Marcus Ravage. As a boy Samuel Chotzinoff stood enraptured in Katz’s music store on East Broadway listening to conversations concerning the respective merits of Toscanini and Mahler as symphonic conductors. Abraham Walkowitz started the Art Culture League in 1900 to bring art to immigrants. Melekh Epstein remembered “enormous crowds” traveling up to Lewisohn Stadium to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Recollections sweetened by the passage of time? Perhaps; but even with every discount of skepticism, these recollections turn us back to an impressive reality.

Out of this confusion of idealism and waste arose the most notable human type in the immigrant experience: the self-educated worker. What he or she learned from the Yiddish lectures, classes, rallies, and newspapers was incomplete, hazy, sometimes half-baked; but whatever remained was earned and felt. With a kind of passionate stoicism, these men and women struggled against the thickening of their capacities. They sensed that if they gave way to circumstances even once, they would be lost. They worked to open themselves to the world’s beauties, stumbling into simple aesthetic experiences for which their tradition had made little allowance. They hoped to re-create themselves according to an ideal image—if not wholly, for they knew it was much too late for that, then at least in bits and patches. This image had come to them from a strange confusion of sources: from the old Jewish respect for learning, from the heightened morale brought by the renaissance of Yiddish culture, from the socialist vision of a humane existence.

The self-educated worker was a child of the nineteenth century, perhaps the most persuasive evidence for its creed of progress. Liberating energies from popular education, positivistic thought, scientific advance, socialist idealism—all came together to stir into consciousness the masses of the oppressed. The self-educated worker made his first appearance in Europe, attending labor colleges in the industrial towns of England, listening to August Bebel in Berlin paint a dream of proletarian emancipation, reading Tolstoy and Chernyshevsky in half-clandestine study groups in Petrograd. He appeared in America as a foot-loose Wobbly or a craftsman who had responded to the voice of Eugene Debs and begun to read Haldeman-Julius’s Little Blue Books. Grappling to discover his sense of individuality, he wanted not merely to win some rights for his class but also to claim a modest share in the heritage of Western culture.

The self-educated worker was by no means unique to the Yiddish-speaking world, but as he came to the forefront in the Jewish quarters of Warsaw and Vilna, London and New York, he seemed a peculiarly intense figure—indeed, a peculiarly Jewish figure—who brought with him yearnings and capacities, aptitudes and inclinations that had been honed to sharpness by the pressures of ghetto life. It could not be said about the Yiddish-speaking worker, as it could about many of his European equivalents, that he had just emerged from centuries of illiteracy and muteness; his transformation was from a narrow but coherent religious culture to a quasi-secularized culture at once vibrant and amorphous. And not only was he a proletarian searching for articulation and dignity, he was also a Jew who had come to hope that by approaching Western thought he would both satisfy his own blossoming needs and help to remedy the disadvantages of the Jews as a people. All through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, learning came to seem an almost magical solution for the Jews, a people that has always placed an enormous faith in the sheer power of words. Learning in its own right, learning for the sake of future generations, learning for the social revolution, learning in behalf of Jewish renewal—all melted into one upsurge of self-discovery.

On the East Side, no matter what the political or communal distractions of the moment, Abraham Cahan kept prodding the immigrants: “In America a worker can sometimes even go to college and get an education. But it takes a long time. You must try to be an intellectual, not just a doctor or a lawyer.” One of Cahan’s colleagues wrote: “We know workers have little time or strength to read after a day in the shop. But a half hour of serious reading every day for several years can provide an excellent education.” A persuasion of restlessness moved these men—you must try to be an intellectual!—in behalf of a freedom they associated with the life of the mind. All gone now, almost forgotten, but the glory of the immigrant world.

They themselves would not have used such language, for in their quiet aspiration they kept more than a little of that sardonic spirit which seems inseparable from the Yiddish tradition. Here is a memoir of one such self-educated worker, characteristic in its blend of pride and resignation:

“Sometimes I think my life came to an end even before it began. I sit here talking to you this evening, a man of fifty-eight, with the feeling that there is little for me to look forward to. But that feeling doesn’t make me sad. I have learned to accept it as I have learned to accept other things.

“While I was growing up in Russia, I developed a tremendous hunger for learning. It’s a familiar story to you, and you’ve probably heard it many times—but all I can say is, it’s true. I went for some years to the heder and got from it what I could, but all my religious education did was to teach me how little it could give me. I wanted to drink from strange wells.

“When I was about sixteen or seventeen, just a few years before I came to America, people of my generation became very restless. We heard of the Bund, which had recently been started, and to us it meant not only socialism but the whole idea of stepping into the outside world. When a speaker from the Bund came to our town, we saw him not just as an emissary of the organization but also as a new kind of Jew, someone with combativeness in his blood and a taste of culture on his tongue. How cultured was he? By now, who can say? He was our lifeline to the outside world, and that was enough.

“I began to take an interest in books. Some were by Yiddish authors, and some were Yiddish translations of Russian classics. Since I had also gone a little to the Russian school, I began to swallow—I mean, really swallow-Russian books. I read everything I could get my hands on. Turgenev was my favorite, perhaps because there is such a sweetness to his voice. And then Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I read, of course, Sholom Aleichem, who made the ugliest things in life seem beautiful, and Peretz who, in his own way, taught me not to lose respect for myself.

“How can I describe to you, you who live with a mountain of books, the hunger that I and my friends felt? The excitement we shared when we would discuss Dostoevsky? The pleasure we took in going to a shabby little bookstore in our town? For us it was books and only books. We had nothing else. Here in America young people can choose from movies and music and art and dancing and God alone knows what. But we—all we had was books, and not so many of them, either.

“By the time I came to America, I had to pull my nose out of the books to get a job, but, thank God, things were not as bad for me as for others. I had a relative who broke me in as a garment worker, and after a while I became a cutter, which meant pretty good wages in those days. I was never a slave in the sweatshops. From the beginning I had a skill. What disturbed me most about my early years on the East Side—and this was after 1905—was not so much the physical suffering, but the feeling that I was lost, in a desert. My fellow workers weren’t always friendly. Cutters, you know, aren’t the most refined people in the world. So I learned to be quiet. I did my share of the work, no one had to prop me up, and what went on in my mind was my own business.

“I would go home in the evenings (I wasn’t yet keeping company with my wife) and read translations of Gerhardt Hauptmann and Charles Dickens and your Edgar Allan Poe. I went to night school, and picked up a little English, so I could read the easier books. But it never seemed enough. I was like a hungry man who gets fed but either the food isn’t right or it doesn’t agree with him or maybe it’s not what they call nowadays a balanced diet.

“And I went to lectures. God, those lectures of ours! The socialists by the dozens, the anarchists, the schools, everybody. I heard them all, and sometimes one of the poets would read, like Rosenfeld or Yehoash. They seemed educated men and they certainly knew more than I did. So when Zhitlovsky talked about Herbert Spencer—you can imagine how badly we needed Herbert Spencer on Delancey Street in those days!—I listened. And I thought to myself, maybe next time I can swallow it all.

“But I couldn’t. I didn’t know where one thing began and the other ended. What was the connection between Herbert Spencer and the Vilna Gaon? How did you bring together one piece of learning with another?

“I went to so many lectures that I began to wonder about them. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that anybody got rich giving lectures. But I noticed they were always introductions, introductions to this and introductions to that. If you want to be honest, that was really what we needed—but it made you feel as if you were in kindergarten all your life. And in unpleasant thought crept into my mind: how many listeners around me knew what the lecturer was talking about? Once I even began to wonder if he knew. Still, I kept going—what else was there to do?

“Sometimes I would see the Yiddish writers, on the street or in one of those cafés you Americans think were so wonderful. I would see Mani Leib and his friends, noisy and lively. I admired them. To be honest, I envied them. They seemed lucky in my eyes. I went to an occasional ‘evening’ where they read or talked, and I bought their books. The Yiddish word gave me pleasure, as it still does. Once or twice I looked into their magazines, but here I felt like an outsider. There were things they knew and talked about which shut me out. Even so, I kept reading and listening and squeezing myself.

“I got married, my wife was a sympathetic person with a mind of her own. Life became easier, I went into a business and while I never got rich—I wasn’t a pusher—things were comfortable after a while. When the Day started coming out and it seemed to have finer writers than the Forward—men like Koralnik and Margoshes—I took it instead, or sometimes both.

“Still, if life became easier in some ways, it also became harder in other ways. I had to chase after the dollar and take care of my family. Each passing day I felt a little more tired. As a result I couldn’t read as much as I had in my earlier years. It seemed more pleasant just to sit and talk with my wife. Even so, I kept on buying Yiddish books, because if people like me didn’t, who would? In my house you can find almost every Yiddish poet.

“I had always been a disbeliever. It was part of being, among us, an emancipated person. But as I got older, I found that I enjoyed going back to old things, dropping in at the local shul to listen to the Kol Nidre or occasionally a religious discussion among the old-timers. I didn’t change my ideas, you understand; but my mind seemed readier to take in things which in my youth it had shut out. After all, I was a Jew.

“What else can I tell you? My children went their own way. I am proud of them, but there are things we can’t talk about. Still, I have no complaints. My circumstances were what they were. My family has been a whole world to me. I still take pleasure in a page of Sholom Aleichem, and to me Bazarov and Raskolnikov are like friends of my youth. But to think of them is to be reminded that there was a door which, for me, was never opened.”

Fathers and Sons

Once the world of the shtetl began to crumble and the winds of the Enlightenment started to batter down its rickety frames, the Jews turned with a passion to the problems of secular history—to the idea of history—which they had scorned in the past. A culture that had never held great expectations in regard to tomorrow, since it knew that tomorrow could only bring the same injustice that had marked today, was now seized with orgiastic demands upon the dynamic of history. The Jews who in imagination had for so many centuries lived with the past now thrust their hopes and fantasies onto the future. Coming late, the Enlightenment struck the east European Jews with magnified force; gradually, a new secular utopianism infiltrated the old messianic desire; and the tradition of social passivity, a cost of Jewish survival over the centuries, now encountered the noisy impatience of the young.

The immigrant fleeing his shtetl and wearing out his eyes over piecework in the sweatshops would of course have spoken in less abstract terms. He would have used the vocabulary of his own needs and expectations. But it was characteristic of Jewish life that a sense of collective fate should become implanted in almost every Jew’s personal experience, no matter how ignorant he might be and no matter how commonplace his experience. One could not grow up as a Jew without having some sense of occupying a distinctive place in the scheme of things, without having to accept a destiny that for better or worse would affect every moment of life. Abraham Cahan has written in his memoirs:

Each new wanderer, ruined by a pogrom or seeking to improve his lot or caught up in the excitement of the exodus, thought he was trying to better his own condition only.… But soon every emigrating Jew moving westward realized he was involved in something more than a personal expedition. Every Jew, even the most ignorant, came to feel that he was part of an historical event in the life of the Jewish people. Ordinary Jews became as idealistic and enthusiastic as intellectuals. Even Jewish workers and small tradesmen who had managed fairly well sold their belongings and joined the … move westward to start a new Jewish life. They did so with religious fervor and often with inspiring self-sacrifice.

The social impatience that had seized the Jews of Russia and Poland toward the end of the nineteenth century was a major spur to the American migration. It drove them to hard work and sometimes blinded them with the vanities of success. Yet in their deepest feelings many people in this generation saw themselves as personally doomed*—indeed, one of the fascinating things about them was their underlying fatalism, the way even their social activism or personal ambition could sink back into a deep Jewish persuasion of the sheer recalcitrance of the world. They might prosper a little, but they could hardly feel at ease in the new world. “Home” remained a tiny speck of land in Europe, a place they would not see again. Journeying between worlds, they were not certain it would be a great blessing to reach port. In the language of a later time, they felt themselves to be a “transitional generation” for whom the pleasures of the new would come either too late or not at all.

Sholem Asch, in one of his novels, has a characteristically overstated yet pertinent passage:

The deprivation in Lederer’s youth had eaten into his blood and bones. He couldn’t enjoy life, even though he had the means for it. To this day Lederer weighed and measured his every step, to make sure it would not undo him. He begrudged himself a whole lump of sugar in his coffee, although sweet coffee was a great delicacy to him. He never spread butter heavily on his bread, although he madly loved lots of butter. He was miserly in small things; it was easier to get a thousand dollars out of him than a few cents.

The idea that they constituted a “transitional generation” was a major cause of that stoicism which colored the whole of immigrant life. And with gratifications postponed, the culture of the East Side became a culture utterly devoted to its sons. Onto their backs it lowered all its aspirations and delusions, expecting that the children of the new world would reach the goals their fathers could not reach themselves. In coming to America the immigrant Jews had brought with them visions of collective fulfillment and ambitions for personal ascent. Between vision and fulfillment there were complicated ties. By providing consolations of the ideal, their visions gave the immigrant Jews strength enough to survive the miseries of settlement. By releasing long-suppressed energies, their ambitions drove them to labor, sacrifice, obsession, and material conquest.

It would be a mistake to say that one group of immigrants held to visions, another to ambitions. Immigrant life was never so well defined. Almost everyone retained some strands of religious feeling, almost everyone regarded himself as something of a socialist, almost everyone hoped soon to improve the conditions of his existence. With time, visions of Jewish fulfillment grew more vague and ambitions of personal success more precise. As American society showed itself a good deal readier to accept the Jews than to indulge their programs, the immigrants learned to make their way into the alien precincts of business and professional life. Often enough it was the purity of their vision—the moral firmness induced by religion or set free by radicalism—that provided the energies for realizing their personal ambitions. Yet seldom did this transfer occur without guilt, and almost always it bore emotions of regret.

It was the unspoken hope of the immigrants that their visions and ambitions, the collective dream of Jewish fulfillment and the personal wish to improve the lot of sons and daughters, could be satisfied at the same time. They hoped, through earnestness and toil, to link spiritual fulfillment with material gratification, and at least some of them tried honestly to live according to both sets of values, the selflessness of a committed generation and the sober parsimony of a rising ethnic group. As life slowly became easier, the dream of liberation from the gentile yoke was to be realized through an immersion in the alien culture—but never a total immersion, always one that could be limited and controlled. The immigrant Jews would plunge into this alien world, they would gain its rewards, they would savor its pleasures and its wonders; but they would also make sure to keep their own standards and styles of life. It would take a long time and a good deal of pain before they could see that, in satisfying Jewish wants, America would show itself resistant to Jewish conceptions; that ambitions realized might mean visions abandoned.

Meanwhile, during the early years of the century, it was a common feeling among Jewish garment workers and bakers and storekeepers that, while they might succeed in working themselves up a little (zikh aroyfarbetn), they were still caught in the grip of the old world, the old ways. Many of them were fiercely proud of those old ways and ready to unleash attacks on anyone daring to question their value. Yet, personally, they felt trapped. They were trapped in the limitations of their skills, in the skimpiness of their education, in the awkwardness of their speech, in the alienness of their manners.

But the sons—they would achieve both collective Jewish fulfillment and individual Jewish success. Whether such a way of putting the matter would have occurred to many immigrants is hardly the point. They were seldom in a position to grasp the complex process by which ideas of collective fulfillment were transformed into goals of personal achievement. They simply lived it out in their own experience, only later coming to understand what had happened.

Gradually those messianic expectations that had colored the Jewish past—sometimes with feverish defiance and sometimes with subterranean faintness—were disciplined into personal values. Here is a passage from a manuscript autobiography* left by a Jewish immigrant who arrived in America in 1868 and became a banker in Boston, then a cattle dealer in Colorado:

I was the victim of a severe conflict. If the American spirit would conquer, it would spur my efforts and energies and I could accomplish a lot. If the Russian spirit would conquer, I would become dependent and go around with a dream of forcefully bringing the Messiah … who would free the world from slavery and exploitation. Then my hands would not be lifted to do business and the ambition to work myself up in the world would be stilled.

When a generation of immigrants told itself, “My son shall not work in the shop,” it was speaking from the bitterness of its parched days. In coming to America it had committed itself to what it saw as a materialistic society, and no matter what else might follow, it would first have to live by the code of that materialism. Yet these immigrants were still touched by ancestral emotions and prohibitions. That they had spent a few years in New York or Chicago did not mean that all they had inherited, the marks of their distinctiveness, had vanished.

The idea of shaking off the humiliation that had always been part of Jewish experience in the Diaspora was now to be realized in the Diaspora itself, the very land many Jews cursed with all their hearts, seeing it as a bastion of the Pharaohs. Orthodox Jews regarded the idea of fulfillment in America with anxiety, because it signaled both a heresy and a danger that the faith might collapse. Socialist Jews looked upon the idea of fulfillment in America with repugnance, because it signaled opportunism and raised the heretical thought that utopia might become irrelevant. But the masses of Jews, those both a little Orthodox and a little agnostic, acted out of a deep, common impulse: America was different from all other countries, America—land of sweat and swinishness!—meant that the sons could find a path such as Jews had never before been able to discover. The fathers would work, grub, and scramble as petty agents of primitive accumulation. The sons would acquire education, that new-world magic the Jews were so adept at invoking through formulas they had brought from the old world. And even those Jews who looked upon this idea with repugnance found they had to acquiesce in it when they thought of their sons.

Let us turn to homelier language. Max Gordon, a Broadway producer, has left a vignette of his East Side family:

Of culture in my house there was none. No one in my home had any impelling drive toward serious music, or art, or reading. Aside from the daily Yiddish newspaper that my father read after dinner, aside from the prayer books read by my father and mother, there was no other reading in the home. That seemed to have been left to me. As the baby in the family, with none of the responsibility for helping to support the household, I was the one whose schooling was important.… By my tenth year I had become an omniverous if indiscriminate reader, a regular visitor to the library on Grand Street and the happy discoverer of the Educational Alliance. [Emphasis added]

Gordon’s failure to enter imaginatively the life of his father, a man who read “only” the Yiddish paper (after how many hours of work in which sweatshop?), is no more obtuse than other failures of more distinguished sons. What is striking in this passage, however, is the sentence “That [getting an education] seemed to have been left to me.” This Benjamin of the slums was testifying to the decision of immigrant fathers that everything was now to be staked on their sons, a decision any Jewish father could share without even being aware of it, so deeply had it come out of the reserves of common desire. In behalf of its sons the East Side was prepared to commit suicide; perhaps it did.

When Hutchins Hapgood came to the East Side at the turn of the century, he saw how the Jewish family was being twisted into new shapes:

In Russia the father gives the son an education and supports him until his marriage, and often afterward.… The father is, therefore, the head of the house in reality. But in the New World the boy contributes very early to the family’s support. The father is in this country less able to make an economic place for himself than is the son. The little fellow sells papers, blacks boots, and becomes a street merchant on a small scale. As he speaks English, and his parents do not, he is commonly the interpreter in business transactions, and tends generally to take things into his own hands. There is a tendency, therefore, for the father to respect the son.

Writing in 1902, Hapgood focused on the East Side during its more difficult years, and even then he clearly exaggerated the extent to which the father had been dispossessed. Yet he did notice that one crucial result of the migration was that changes in Jewish family life often led to a flow of power toward the mother. If she often used this power with legendary selflessness, it could also seize her like a dybbuk, transforming her into the brassy-voiced, smothering, and shrewish mama upon whom generations of unsettled sons would blame everything from intellectual sterility to sexual incompetence. There followed also the gradual emergence of the daughters, some already among those fiery girls, the farbrente, who made Jewish socialism so brilliant an occasion, but more of them gliding into education, work, assertiveness, and independence.

Hapgood saw how the crisis set off in the Jewish family by its adaptation to American life produced unexpected troubles for the sons—a whole new load of Jewish woe lowered on their backs at the very moment they seemed on the edge of liberation.

While yet a child [the Jewish boy] acquires a self-sufficiency, an independence, and sometimes an arrogance which not unnaturally, at least in form, is extended even toward his parents.

If this boy were able entirely to forget his origin, to cast off the ethical and religious influences which are his birthright, there would be no serious struggle in his soul.… He would be like any other practical, ambitious, rather worldly American boy. The struggle is strong because the boy’s nature, at once religious and susceptible, is strongly appealed to by both the old and the new. At the same time that he is keenly sensitive to the charm of his American environment, with its practical and national opportunities, he has still a deep love for his race and the old things. He is aware, and rather ashamed, of the limitations of his parents. He feels that the trend and weight of things are against them, that they are in a minority; but yet in a real way the old people remain his conscience, the visible representatives of a moral and religious tradition by which the boy may regulate his inner life.

The sense of shame that Hapgood observed has been poignantly confirmed by a son of Jewish immigrants:

One morning my father took his box and started out. I followed. Maybe that was the first time in years that I had taken a good look at my father. As I had never grown very tall, but was in fact a shrimp, he still towered over me, but he seemed an old man now, bent, and I hated the discolored yellowish beard, and the general shabby air of him. With terrible anger I felt myself seeing him as an old sheeny peddler, too.

The complicated feelings with which sons could look back upon the hopes of their fathers has been well expressed by Alfred Kazin: “It was not for myself that I was expected to shine, but for them—to redeem the constant anxiety of their existence. I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being—what they were.”

The fathers had borne intolerable burdens and now the sons did too. The sons knew how great, how oppressive, was their debt and how little they could show by way of gratitude; they knew how enormous was the distance between the circumstances that had confined their fathers and the circumstances now opening to them. The distance between generations came to be like a chasm of silence which neither affection nor good will could bridge. Inner shame, outer irritation, a rare coming together in grief-life ripped people apart, and when fathers and sons could manage a little objectivity they might acknowledge that finally no one was to blame.

There is a haunting story by Jerome Weidman called “My Father Sits in the Dark.” A son speaks, troubled that each night his immigrant father “sits in the dark, alone, smoking, staring straight ahead of him.” The father sits in the kitchen, on an uncomfortable chair. “What are you thinking about, Pa?” “Nothing.” “Is something wrong, Pop?” “Nothing, son, nothing at all.” Coming home late one night, the son “can see the deeper darkness of his [father’s] hunched shape. He is sitting in the same chair, his elbows on his knees, his cold pipe in his teeth, his unblinking eyes staring straight ahead.” There is nothing to be said, neither quarrel nor reconciliation. “What do you think about, Pop?” “Nothing,” answers the father, “nothing special.”

* The Alliance’s First Annual Report breathes an astonishing condescension: “The importance of physical training for our downtown brethren cannot be overestimated. Our coreligionists are often charged with lack of physical courage and repugnance to physical work. Nothing will more effectively remove this than athletic training.”

The 1899 report of the Alliance’s Committee on Moral Culture solemnly warned that “within the contracted limits of the New York ghetto … medieval Orthodoxy and anarchistic license are struggling for mastery. A people whose political surroundings have entirely changed, who are apt to become intoxicated with liberty of action which has suddenly been vouchsafed to them … is apt to depart from its mooring and to become a moral menace.”

In later years the more sensitive leaders among the German Jews came to understand their errors in the Alliance and elsewhere. Louis Marshall wrote in a letter to a friend that the German Jews “held themselves aloof from the people.… They acted as Lords and Ladies Bountiful bringing gifts to people who did not seek for gifts.… The work was done in such a manner as not only to give offense, but to arouse suspicion of the motives.”

* Serious, but also wonderfully eager and warmhearted. One Yiddish lecturer tells the story of an engagement he had in Chattanooga. It was in the dead of winter, a tremendous snowstorm forced his train to stop for hours, and by the time he reached the city it was midnight. He assumed his audience had long ago dispersed, but to his astonishment, there, at the station, was a committee cheerfully waiting for him. They told him that, the hall having shut down, the audience had gone to the house of an old Yiddishist. There the lecturer found a few dozen people prepared to hear him even though it was now past midnight. He gulped a cup of coffee aand began. No one stirred, no one left. By the time he had finished speaking and had answered numerous questions, it was deep into the night. Still, no one left. A breakfast was improvised, people talked, laughed, and sang, preparing to go straight to their morning’s work. The committee then took the lecturer back to the station, and as he boarded his train, one of them said, “I bet you’ll never forget the Jews of Chattanooga.”

* Lincoln Steffens caught this note in a sketch he published in 1896 about East Side life. A tenement worker says of a young girl given to unseemly lightheartedness: “Let her labor long and be silent, that her son’s sons may sing songs.”

* It is one of scores of unpublished memoirs at YIVO, many of which keep returning to the theme of the retreat from political idealism to personal accumulation.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Growing Up in the Ghetto

The streets were ours. Everyplace else—home, school, shop—belonged to the grownups. But the streets belonged to us. We would roam through the city tasting the delights of freedom, discovering possibilities far beyond the reach of our parents. The streets taught us the deceits of commerce, introduced us to the excitement of sex, schooled us in strategies of survival, and gave us our first clear idea of what life in America was really going to be like.

We might continue to love our parents and grind away at school and college, but it was the streets that prepared the future. In the streets we were roughened by actuality, and even those of us who later became intellectuals or professionals kept something of our bruising gutter-worldliness, our hard and abrasive skepticism. You could see it in cab drivers and garment manufacturers, but also in writers and professors who had grown up as children of immigrant Jews.

The streets opened a fresh prospect of sociability. It was a prospect not always amiable or even free from terror, but it drew Jewish boys and girls like a magnet, offering them qualities in short supply at home: the charms of the spontaneous and unpredictable. In the streets a boy could encircle himself with the breath of immigrant life, declare his companionship with peddlers, storekeepers, soapboxers. No child raised in the immigrant quarter would lack for moral realism: just to walk through Hester Street was an education in the hardness of life. To go beyond Cherry Street on the south, where the Irish lived, or west of the Bowery, where the Italians were settling, was to explore the world of the gentiles—dangerous, since one risked a punch in the face, but tempting, since for an East Side boy the idea of the others, so steadily drilled into his mind by every agency of his culture, was bound to incite curiosity. Venturing into gentile streets became a strategy for testing the reality of the external world and for discovering that it was attractive in ways no Jewish voice had told him. An East Side boy needed to slip into those gentile streets on his own. He needed to make a foray and then pull back, so that his perception of the outer world would be his own, and not merely that of the old folks, not merely the received bias and visions of the Jews.

When he kept to the Jewish streets, the East Side boy felt at home, free and easy on his own turf. Even if not especially friendly or well mannered, people talked to one another. No one had much reason to suppose that the noisiest quarrel between peddler and purchaser, or parents and children, was anything but a peaceful ritual. Within the tight circle of the East Side, children found multiple routes for wandering, along one or another way:

• Toward Canal Street, “suit-hunting avenue,” as they called it, the stores bright with ties, mezuzas, hats, Hebrew books, taleysim, where you could jest with the hawkers, stare at the bowls shaped like hourglasses and filled with colored liquids which were kept in the drugstores, feast on windows, savor the territory.

• Toward Hester or, a bit later, Orchard Street, pushcart territory: shawls, bananas, oilcoth, garlic, trousers, ill-favored fish, ready-to-wear spectacles. You could relax in the noise of familiars, enjoy a tournament of bargains, with every ritual of haggling, maneuver of voice, expertly known and shrewdly appraised. “After a light diet of kippered herring I would wander among the pushcarts for my dessert. I developed a knack for slipping bananas up my sleeve and dropping apples into my blouse while the peddler was busy filling some housewife’s market bag. I used to pack a peach into my mouth with one snap of the jaws and look deeply offended when the peddler turned suspiciously upon me.”

• Toward Rutgers Square, with a stop in the summer to cool off at the Schiff Fountain, and then a prowl into the crammed adjacent streets: boys playing stickball or stoopball, and “on one corner the water hydrant turned on to clear the muck of the gutter. Half-naked children danced and shouted under the shower.… They pushed out the walls of their homes to the street.” At night Rutgers Square changed colors, and it was fun to sidle along, watching the intellectuals as they strolled on East Broadway, and street speakers variously entertaining, some with little more than lung power, others artists in low-keyed enticemént.

• Toward the East River, in warm months, with a dive off the docks, where a blue film of oil from passing tugs coated the water “and a boy who didn’t come out looking brown hadn’t bathed.” Once, after “washing away our sins in the water, we had to pass by gentile lumber yards, and the men there used to throw bricks at us. Then some of us got together and beat them up with sticks, and they never bothered us again.”

• Toward Allen Street, center of darkness and sin, “with its elevated structure whose trains avalanched between rows of houses and the sunlight never penetrated. I see the small shops, which somehow never achieved the dignity of selling anything new … a street which dealt in castoff merchandise. Even the pale children seemed old, second hand.”

These “ways,” while hardly as elegant as more celebrated ones in modern literature, tracked discoveries into the familiar and the forbidden, into that which stamped one as a true son of the immigrants and that which made one a future apostate. Learning the lessons of cement, one lost whatever fragments of innocence remained. The apartments were crowded, the streets were crowded, yet for boys and girls growing up in the ghetto, the apartments signified a life too well worn, while the streets, despite their squalor, spoke of freedom. Freedom to break loose from those burdens that Jewish parents had come to cherish; freedom, if only for an hour or two, to be the “street bum” against whom fathers warned; freedom to live by the senses, a gift that had to be learned and fought for; freedom to sin. Cramped or denied, shushed or repressed, sexual yearnings broke out on the streets and were expressed through their grubby poetry, in hidden corners, black basements, glowering roofs: wherever the family was not.

To be poor is something that happens to one; to experience poverty is to gain an idea of what is happening. All the evidence we have suggests that the children of the East Side rarely felt deprived. They certainly knew that life was hard, but they assumed that, until they grew up and got a grip on things, it had to be hard. Only later, long after the proper occasion had passed, did self-pity enter their psyche. In the actual years of childhood, the streets spoke of risk, pleasure, novelty: the future—that great Jewish mania, the future.

Legends of retrospect, woven from a wish to make the past seem less rough and abrasive than it actually was, have transformed every Jewish boy into a miniature scholar haunting the Seward Park library and, before he was even out of knee pants, reading Marx and Tolstoy. The reality was different. Scholarly boys there certainly were; but more numerous by far were the street boys, tough and shrewd if not quite “bums,” ready to muscle their way past competitors to earn half a dollar, quick to grasp the crude wisdom of the streets. Sammy Aaronson, who would rise to distinction as a fight manager, spent his boyhood as a street waif, sometimes sleeping in the Christopher Street public baths, sometimes at Label Katz’s poolroom in Brownsville, sometimes riding the subways all night for a nickel. His family was the poorest of the poor, his mother worked as a junk peddler, their furniture often landed on the street after an eviction, but “there was nothing particularly tragic about that.… We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves and nobody felt sorry for us.” Harry Golden, whose youth was softer, assures us that he too was no Goody Two-shoes. “I played hooky and went to the movies.… I was unconscionably capable of forging a note the next day to explain my absence. ‘My son Herschele was sick yesterday. (Mrs.) Anna Goldhurst.’ Instinctively I knew ‘Herschele’ and the parentheses would lend absolute verisimilitude to my forgery.” Eddie Cantor, before he began to appear in vaudeville skits in Chinatown, did come close to being a “bum.” By the age of thirteen, he had “socked a teacher,” lost a job through talking too much, perfected his game of pool, learned to hustle a few pennies by jigging and singing on a street corner, and taken up with an immigrant Russian girl, not Jewish, but with melancholy black eyes.

The streets were the home of play. Jewish boys became fanatics of baseball, their badge as Americans. In the narrow streets baseball was narrowed to stickball: a broomstick used as a bat, a rubber ball pitched on a bounce or sped into the catcher’s glove, the ball hit high to fielders pinched into the other end of the street, with quarrels as to whether passers-by or wagons (later, cars) had hindered (“hindoo’d”) the play. Or stoopball, with a rubber ball thrown smartly against the outer steps of a tenement—a game mostly for eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds.

We’d go to play ball in Tompkins Park. If we couldn’t afford a bat we’d bat a can around. The girls played jacks. We’d make a big circle and play marbles. The highly colored ones we called “immies.” I couldn’t tell my father I played ball, so my mother would sneak out my baseball gear and put it in the candy store downstairs.… Later, when I played semipro baseball I’d bring home five dollars and give it to my mother.

Jewish boys were said to be terribly competitive at games, as if already playing by adult norms: “You see it in the street where they delight in ‘spiking’ tops, playing marbles ‘for keeps,’ and ‘pussy cat,’ in all of which the sole idea is to win as an individual boy.” The East Side allowed no lingering in childhood; it thrust the ways of the world onto its young. In their middle teens the boys turned clannish, forming “social and athletic clubs,” partly to imitate American models.

Girls had their own games, since “the separation of boys and girls so rigidly carried out in the public schools also held for the street; boys played with boys, girls with girls.” Sophie Ruskay, who lived on Henry Street, continues:

Occasionally we girls might stand on the sidelines and watch the boys play their games, but usually our presence was ignored.… We knew it to be a boy’s world, but we didn’t seem to mind it too much.… Tagging after us sometimes were our little brothers and sisters whom we were supposed to mind, but that was no great hardship. We would toss them our bean-bags [to play with], little cloth containers filled with cherry pits.… Then we could proceed to our game of potsy. Mama didn’t like me to play potsy. She thought it “disgraceful” to mark up our sidewalk with chalk for our lines and boxes; besides, hopping on one foot and pushing the thick piece of tin, I managed to wear out a pair of shoes in a few weeks.

Neither my friends nor I played much with dolls. Since families generally had at least one baby on hand, we girls had plenty of opportunity to shower upon the baby brothers or sisters the tenderness that would otherwise have been diverted to dolls. Besides, dolls were expensive.

Regardless of season, the favorite game of both boys and girls was “prisoner’s base.” We lined up on opposite sides of the curb, our numbers evenly divided, representing two enemy camps. One side turned its back to invite a surprise attack. Stealthily a contestant advanced and either safely reached the “enemy” and captured a “prisoner,” or, if caught, “became a prisoner.” When a sufficient number of prisoners had been taken, a tug of war followed to rescue them. Trucks and brewery wagons lumbered by. We looked upon them merely as an unnecessary interference.

The streets meant work. Children, like nine-year-old Marie Ganz, went out to pick up bundles of sewing for her mother and was told they could bring in “maybe five dollars a week if she’s a good sewer.” But the full-time employment of children in shops and factories was rare on the East Side, partly because there was not much use for them in the “Jewish industries,” partly because the Jewish sense of family prompted fathers to resist with every ounce of their being the idea of children as full-time workers.

By about 1905 most immigrant Jewish families were trying to keep their children in school until at least the age of fourteen; but almost all of them worked in the afternoons, evenings, weekends. Henry Klein, whose story is quite ordinary, peddled matches at the age of six and a bit later, with his ten-year-old brother Isadore, shined shoes at the Houston Street ferry. When he became experienced, he peddled with a professional named “Sammy” Cohen, working after school and earning twenty-five cents an hour extra when he taught English to his boss. He sold vegetables, fruit, fish; he hauled coal and wood from the Rheinfrank coalyard at the foot of East Third Street and ice from the Fifth Street dock. While attending high school and, later, City College, he spent weekends selling lozenges in Central Park, fearful of the police because he had no license and making his sister Estelle sit on the benches with boxes of lozenges hidden under her skirt. He would average about two dollars a day, on good days as much as three.

Parents and Children

Between Jewish immigrant parents and the world of the streets there was a state of battle, not quite a declared war but far from a settled peace. To the older generations the streets enclosed dangers and lusts, shapeless enemies threatening all their plans for the young. The parents could not, nor did they really wish to, distinguish between their received sense of the gentile world and the streets to which their children fled. The older immigrants were too suspicious, too thoroughly under the sway of past humiliations, to believe there might really be some neutral ground, neither moral nor immoral, neither wholly purposive nor merely corrupting, for the years of adolescence. Immigrant parents feared the streets would lure their children from the Jewish path, would soften their will to succeed, would yield attractions of pleasure, idleness, and sexuality against which, they suspected, they were finally helpless.

“We push our children too much,” wrote a Dr. Michael Cohen, who lived on the East Side. “After school they study music, go to Talmud Torah. Why sacrifice them on the altar of our ambition? Must we get all the medals and scholarships? Doctors will tell you about students with shattered nerves, brain fever. Most of them wear glasses. Three to five hours of studying a day, six months a year, are better than five to twelve hours a day for ten months a year.” The Forward labored to explain to its readers:

There is no question but that a piano in the front room is preferable to a boarder. It gives spiritual pleasure to exhausted workers. But in most cases the piano is not for pleasure but to make martyrs of little children, and make them mentally ill. A little girl comes home, does her homework, and then is forced to practice under the supervision of her well-meaning father. He is never pleased with her progress, and feels he is paying fifty cents a lesson for nothing. The session ends with his yelling and her crying. These children have not a single free minute for themselves. They have no time to play.

The testimony we have on these matters comes from the sons and daughters, hardly a word from the older people. What might they have said? That they brought with them a bone knowledge of the centuries and that being born a Jew meant to accept a life frugal in pleasures? Or that, seeing opportunities for their children such as Jews had never dreamed of, they felt it was necessary to drive them to the utmost?

The costs were high. “Alter, Alter,” cried a mother, “what will become of you? You’ll end up a street bum!” What had this poor Alter done? He had been playing ball on the street. Later, when he broke a leg, his mother came weeping to the hospital: “Alter, Alter, do you want to kill me?” Trying to joke, he answered, “Wait, Mama, whose leg is broken?” But as he realized later, “to the folks from the old country sports always remained something utterly pagan.” A good many Jewish children would always suffer from a life excessively cerebral and insufficiently physical; they would always be somewhat unnerved by the challenge of the body and fearful before the demands of sports.

By their mid-teens, if not earlier, the children of the immigrants began to shift the focus of their private lives from home to street. The family remained a powerful presence, and the young could hardly have envisaged its displacement had they not kept an unspoken sense of its strength. But in their most intimate feelings they had completed a break which in outer relations it would take several years to carry through. This was, in part, no more than the usual rupture that marks the storms of adolescence, but among the immigrant Jews it took a peculiarly sharp form, a signal for a Kulturkampf between the generations.

The immediate occasions for battle were often matters of private experience. That sex could be coped with only through stealth and secrecy, and in accordance with norms appropriated from the outer world—most East Side boys and girls simply took this for granted. Sex was not merely a pleasure to be snatched from the meagerness of days, it was the imaginative frontier of their lives, a sign of their intention to leave behind the ways of their parents. Sex might begin as an embarrassed fumbling toward the life of the senses, but it soon acquired a cultural, even an ideological aspect, becoming an essential part of the struggle to Americanize themselves. Day by day, the wish to be with one’s girlfriend or boyfriend, modest enough as a human desire, brought the most exasperating problems. “On the East Side there was no privacy. Couples seized their chance to be together when they found it; they embraced in hallways, lay together on roofs. I passed them all with eyes averted.”

In this tangle of relationships, the young could rarely avoid feelings of embarrassment. One’s mother spoke English, if she spoke it at all, with a grating accent; one’s father shuffled about in slippers and suspenders when company came, hardly as gallant in manner or as nicely groomed as he ought to be; and both mother and father knew little about those wonders of the classroom—Shakespeare, the Monroe Doctrine, quadratic equations—toward which, God knows, they were nevertheless sufficiently respectful. The sense of embarrassment derived from a half-acknowledged shame before the perceived failings of one’s parents, and both embarrassment and shame mounted insofar as one began to acquire the tastes of the world. And then, still more painful, there followed a still greater shame at having felt ashamed about people whom one knew to be good.

There never seemed any place to go. The thought of bringing my friends home was inconceivable, for I would have been as ashamed to show them to my parents as to show my parents to them. Besides, where would people sit in those cramped apartments? The worldly manner affected by some of my friends would have stirred flames of suspicion in the eyes of my father; the sullen immigrant kindliness of my parents would have struck my friends as all too familiar; and my own self-consciousness, which in regard to my parents led me into a maze of superfluous lies and trivial deceptions, made it difficult for me to believe in a life grounded in simple good faith.…

So we walked the streets, never needing to tell one another why we chose this neutral setting for our escape at evening.

Delinquents and Gangs

When Alter’s mother grew fearful that her son would end as a “street bum,” she was not merely indulging a fantasy. All through the decades of immigration, the East Side and its replicas elsewhere in the country were harassed by outbreaks of juvenile crime and hooliganism, ranging in character from organized bands of pickpockets to young gangs half-social and half-delinquent. Crime had flourished in the Jewish immigrant quarters since the early 1880’s (see pp. 96–101) but the rise of a distinctive youth delinquency seems to have become especially troubling shortly after the turn of the century. The mounting congestion of the East Side drove more and more children into the streets, while the gradual improvement in economic conditions enabled them to acknowledge the extent of their desires.

By 1902, reported Louis Marshall, there were “upwards of 300 boys and girls of Jewish parentage” in the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island, the New York Juvenile Asylum, and other municipal and non-Jewish institutions. By 1904 the children’s courts, “which handle children under fifteen, are packed. Police courts are filled with boys over fifteen, second and third offenders who started at age thirteen-fourteen.” The Forward printed discussions as to whether erring children should be driven out, as they sometimes were by enraged Orthodox fathers, or kept at home; its editors favored the latter course, “since if you let them out they will go to the dogs completely. They have aggressive natures; if they can’t get to their sister’s pocketbook for a few cents, they’ll try to get the money by stealing. It is preferable that parents should suffer from a bad child.”

In 1906 the head of the New York YMHA, Falk Younker, reported that “between 28 and 30 percent of all children brought to the children’s court in New York are Jewish. There are three and a half times as many children among this number who are the children of recently arrived immigrants as there are of native born parents. Fifteen years ago Jewish prisoners were an unknown quantity.” The main reason cited by Younker was blunt enough: “home life is unbearable.”

So acute had the problem become by 1902–1903 that communal figures like Louis Marshall and Jacob Schiff—once relations with government were involved, German Jews still took the lead—started to apply pressure on municipal authorities. They proposed that Jewish children under sixteen committed for misdemeanors be sent, with a subvention from the city, to a reformatory organized by the Jewish community itself. A similar arrangement was already in effect within the Protestant and Catholic communities. Mayor Seth Low vetoed the necessary bill in 1902, but Marshall was a very stubborn man and he kept badgering city officials until the bill was passed a few years later. With a $110 annual contribution per child from the city, and a building fund of several hundred thousand dollars from wealthy donors, the Jewish Protectory Movement built the Hawthorne School, a reformatory in Hawthorne, New York, and supervised probationary work in the city. It tells us something about the magnitude of this problem that the Protectory Movement had to continue its work through and beyond the First World War.

In the gap between Jewish family and gentile world, the children of the immigrants improvised a variety of social forms on the streets. At one extreme were the good and earnest boys, future reformers and professionals, who organized the Social, Educational and Improvement Club of the late 1890’s, built up a treasury averaging $11.50 in any given month, and listened to talks by “Mr. Ordway on his experience in the Arctic” (it seems, the secretary archly noted, that “he received a warm reception in a cold climate”) and by Mr. Mosenthal on “the theory of our government.” At the other extreme were the “tough” gangs, made up of boys from six to twenty years of age, popularly known as “grifters,” or pickpockets. These gangs, devoted more to thievery than violence, were sometimes so successful that they could hire furnished rooms to shelter those bolder members living away from home. Their customary hangouts were street corners, alleyways, poolrooms. Crowded streetcars and parks were favorite arenas for “grifting.” A frequent strategy would be to start a fake street fight between two of the older members and then, as a crowd collected, the younger ones would go through to pick pockets.

Members of these gangs would later graduate into the ranks of Jewish criminality, such figures as Arnold Rothstein and Legs Diamond becoming masters of their craft; but in any sober light, these formed only a small, marginal group. Far more characteristic were the gangs combining an urge toward social ritual and a staking of turf with occasional forays into petty lawbreaking. Rough schools of experience, these gangs were seldom as violent as those that would later spring up in American urban life. On the East Side they gave a certain structure to the interval between childhood and independence—half-illicit, half-fraternal agencies for a passage into adult life.

Girls in the Ghetto

For girls in the immigrant Jewish neighborhoods there were special problems, additional burdens. Both American and Jewish expectations pointed in a single direction—marriage and motherhood. But the position of the Jewish woman was rendered anomalous by the fact that, somehow, the Jewish tradition enforced a combination of social inferiority and business activity. Transported to America, this could not long survive.

In the earlier years of the migration, few Jewish women rebelled against the traditional patterns—life was too hard for such luxuries. Early union organizers repeatedly found, Lillian Wald reported, that a great obstacle to organization was “a fear of young women that it would be considered ‘unladylike’ and might even militate against their marriage.” In the 1890’s, after the Council of Jewish Women was started, with a membership drawing only slightly on immigrant women from eastern Europe, Rebecca Kohut “was sent on a series of speaking tours, and I frequently had to face hostile crowds” in Jewish neighborhoods. For “Jewish women were expected to stay at home.… To have opinions and to voice them was not regarded as good form even in the home.”

A glimpse into the conditions under which immigrant shopgirls had to work is provided by Rose Schneiderman’s sober account of her teen-age years:

So I got a place in the factory of Hein & Fox. The hours were from 8 AM to 6 PM, and we made all sorts of linings—or, rather, we stitched in the linings—golf caps, yachting caps, etc. It was piece work, and we received from 3½ cents to 10 cents a dozen, according to the different grades. By working hard we could make an average of about $5 a week. We would have made more but we had to provide our own machines, which cost us $45.… We paid $5 down [for them] and $1 a month after that.

I learned the business in about two months, and then made as much as the others, and was consequently doing quite well when the factory burned down, destroying all our machines—150 of them. This was very hard on the girls who had paid for their machines. It was not so bad for me, as I had only paid a little of what I owed.

The bosses got $500,000 insurance, so I heard, but they never gave the girls a cent to help them bear their losses. I think they might have given them $10, anyway.…

After I had been working as a cap maker for three years it began to dawn on me that we girls needed an organization.

It made all the difference, growing up in the ghetto, whether a girl had come with her parents from Europe or had been born here. The Forward, with its roving sociological eye, noted that

When a grown girl emigrates to America, she becomes either a finisher or an operator. Girls who have grown up here do not work at these “greenhorn” trades. They become salesladies or typists. A typist represents a compromise between a teacher and a finisher.

Salaries for typists are very low—some work for as little as three dollars a week.… But typists have more yikhes [status] than shopgirls; it helps them get a husband; they come in contact with a more refined class of people.

Typists therefore live in two different worlds: they work in a sunny, spacious office, they speak and hear only English, their superiors call them “Miss.” And then they come home to dirty rooms and to parents who aren’t always so courteous.

Other kinds of “refined” work were even less lucrative, department stores paying salesgirls in 1903–1904 only ten dollars a month to start with, and rarely more than five dollars a week when experienced. Librarians in those years started at three dollars a week, even though special training was required. The most desirable job for a Jewish girl, then as later, was felt to be in teaching, but this meant that she had to be supported in her schooling until she was at least eighteen or nineteen. Many families could not do that. Or, if they had to choose between keeping a son in college and sending a girl to high school, they would usually prefer the former, both for traditional and economic reasons.

Even Jewish girls who had come from Europe as children and were therefore likely to remain fixed in the progression from shopgirl to housewife, found themselves inspired—or made restless—by American ideas. They came to value pleasure in the immediate moment; some were even drawn to the revolutionary thought that they had a right to an autonomous selfhood. Carving out a niche of privacy within the cluttered family apartment, they responded to the allure of style, the delicacies of manners, the promise of culture.

Hannah Chotzinoff, going out one evening to a ball at Pythagoras Hall,

looked radiant in a pink silk shirtwaist and a long black satin skirt.… [How had] Hannah obtained her beautiful outfit? There never seemed to be an extra quarter around the house.… If the pink silk shirtwaist was an extravagance, Hannah took measures to preserve its freshness. She had tied a large white handkerchief around her waist, so arranged that it would protect the back of her shirtwaist from the perspiring right palms of her dance partners.… To [those who placed their hands above the handkerchief] Hannah said politely: “Lower, please.”

Girls like Hannah were close to the small group of young immigrants who tried to model themselves on the styles of the late-nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. Tame enough by later standards but inspired by a genuine spiritual loftiness, the style of these young immigrants might be described as a subdued romanticism, a high-minded bohemianism. One of the topics in the air during these years was

the double standard of morality. The Russian author Chernyshevsky had written a novel on the subject, and the book, though not new, was enjoying a vogue on the East Side.… It posed for its heroine and, by extension, to all women, the question of the acceptance or rejection of the hitherto unchallenged promiscuity of males.… It was earnestly debated in my own house, on the sidewalks, and on the benches by the Rutgers Square fountains.… The male arguments against a single standard appeared to lack force, and almost always capitulated to the sterner moral and spiritual convictions of the opposition.

Though snatches and echoes of such debates occasionally reached them, the double standard could hardly have been a major preoccupation of most immigrant shopgirls. Their lives were too hard for anything but the immediacy of need—especially those who, because they had come to America by themselves or had lost their parents through death, were now forced to live alone in hall bedrooms and support themselves over sewing machines. Lonely, vulnerable, exhausted, these girls were the lost souls of the immigrant Jewish world, rescued, if they were “lucky,” by marriage or solaced by political involvement. In the years slightly before and after 1900, the Yiddish press carried reports of such girls taking their lives—“genumen di gez” (“took the gas”) ran the headlines.

For the Jewish girl who had been born in America, or had come here at an age young enough so that she could learn to speak English reasonably well, there were other difficulties. Jewish boys faced the problem of how to define their lives with relation to Jewish origins and American environment, but Jewish girls faced the problem of whether they were to be allowed to define their lives at all. Feminism as a movement or ideology seems to have touched no more than a small number of Jewish girls, mostly those who had already been moved to rebellion by socialism. (The fiery socialist Rose Pastor became famous only after, or because, she married the millionaire Graham Stokes; the idea of a red Yiddish Cinderella made its claims on the popular imagination as the idea of a brilliant rebel girl could not.)

What stirred a number of young Jewish women to independence and self-assertion was not so much an explicit social ideology as their fervent relation to European culture, their eager reading of nineteenth-century Russian and English novels. One such young woman, Elizabeth Stern, recalls how her father

had come to look with growing distrust on my longing to know things; upon my books especially.… He discovered me with Oliver Twist bulging from the covers of my prayer book where, with trembling hands, I was trying to hide it. He flung the novel on top of the book case. He told me in his intense restrained angry voice that my English books, my desire for higher education, were making me an alien to my family, and that I must give up all dreams of continuing beyond the grammar school.


A subdued romanticism

An intelligent woman who wished to be just toward her own memories, Elizabeth Stern remembered that her father later spoke in “a voice of rare tenderness” when he told her that “he wished me to grow up a pride to our people, quiet, modest.… I was to marry; I too could be another Rachel, another Rebecca.” Her father “would joyfully sacrifice himself for any of his children, that they might follow the path he believes the ideal one. He could not see that I might have ideals different from those held by him.”

When the moment came to decide whether Elizabeth would continue with her studies, her father kept repeating “impossible”—though all the poor girl wanted was to be allowed to enter high school! Finally her mother intervened with a memorable remark: “Let her go for a year. We don’t want her to grow up and remember that we denied her life’s happiness.”

So it was with many other Jewish girls. Golda Meir, growing up in an immigrant home in Milwaukee, had to run away in order to assert her independence. Anzia Yezierska (1885–1970), for a time a well-known novelist, was locked in a struggle with her father that lasted for years. Her story, quite typical in its beginnings, turned at its end into an American legend:

She arrived in New York in 1901, sixteen years old. Her first job was as a servant in an Americanized Jewish family “so successful they were ashamed to remember their mother tongue.” She scrubbed floors, scoured pots, washed clothes. At the end of a month she asked for her wages, and was turned out of doors: “Not a dollar for all my work.” Her second job was in a Delancey Street sweatshop kept by “an old wrinkled woman that looked like a black witch.” Anzia sewed buttons from sunup to sundown. One night she rebelled against working late and was thrown out: “I want no clockwatchers in my shop,” said the old witch.

Her third job was in a factory where she learned a skill and, luxury of luxuries, “the whole evening was mine.” She started to study English. “I could almost think with English words in my head. I burned to do something, be something. The dead work with my hands was killing me.”

She began to write stories with heroines—Hannahs and Sophies—who were clearly projections of her own yearnings. They were not really good stories, but some streak of sincerity and desperation caught the fancy of a few editors and they were published in magazines. By now, she was no longer young—a woman in her mid-thirties, trying to make up for years of wasted youth.

A first novel, Hungry Hearts, won some critical praise. Like all her books, it was overwrought, ungainly, yet touching in its defenselessness. No woman from the immigrant Jewish world had ever before spoken with such helpless candor about her fantasies and desires. In one of her novels, Salome of the Tenements, a young immigrant girl named Sonia says of herself: “I am a Russian Jewess, a flame, a longing. A soul consumed with hunger for heights beyond reach. I am the ache of unvoiced dreams, the clamor of suppressed desires.” Sonia meets and marries a Yankee millionaire, the elegant Manning, and for a moment she thinks that she has won the world; but it all turns to dust, as in such novels it has to, and in the end what remains is the yearning of a Jewish girl, far more real than anything else in the book.

All the while, in the forefront of her imagination, loomed the figure of her father, a stern pietist who regarded her literary efforts with contempt. “While I was struggling, trying to write, I feared to go near him. I couldn’t stand his condemnation of my lawless, godless, selfish existence.” There were bitter quarrels. “He had gone on living his old life, demanding that his children follow his archaic rituals. And so I had rebelled … I was young. They were old.”

Her first book published, Anzia confronted her father. “What is it I hear? You wrote a book about me? How could you write about someone you don’t know?” Words of wrath flew back and forth, but Anzia, staring at her father in his prayer shawl and phylacteries, “was struck by the radiance that the evils of the world could not mar.” He again threw up the fact that she had not married: “A woman alone, not a wife and not a mother, has no existence.” They had no meeting ground but anger.

One morning a telegram was delivered to her room: ten thousand dollars for the movie rights to Hungry Hearts! She went to Hollywood, Yiddish accent and all; she wore expensive clothes, enjoyed the services of a secretary, met the “greats” of the movie world. But alas, not a word came out of her. The English she had worked so painfully to master ran dry.

Back home, defeated, she drifted through years of loneliness and poverty again. A few books published but little noticed: all with her fervent signature, pitiful in their transparency. At sixty-five, quite forgotten, she wrote an autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, summoning memories of the time when she had been a young immigrant woman locked in struggle with her father. By now she shared his view that the fame and money of her middle years had been mere delusion, and for the title of her book she chose a phrase from an old Jewish proverb: “Poverty becomes a wise man like a red ribbon on a white horse.” In some groping, half-acknowledged way she had returned to the world of her fathers—a final reconciliation, of sorts.

The case of Anzia Yezierska was an extreme one, in that she had to confront, at their stiffest, the imperatives of both Jewish and American culture. Most Jewish girls of her day were neither wholly submissive nor wholly rebellious; within the bounds of the feminine role they found stratagems for cultivating their private interests and developing their private sensibilities. By 1914 a growing number of girls from East Side homes were going to high school and a small number to college; by the mid-twenties, about a generation later than the daughters of the German Jews, a good many girls from east European Jewish families had begun attending Hunter College and, in smaller numbers, Barnard.

A check of the graduating classes at Hunter—admittedly imprecise, since it is difficult to know whether certain names are Jewish, let alone German-Jewish or east European–Jewish—confirms this trend.

Year of Graduation

|

Number of Graduates

|

Estimated Jewish Graduates

|

Estimated East European Jewish Graduates

|

1906

|

156

|

43

|

13

|

1910

|

186

|

40

|

25

|

1912

|

155

|

36

|

25

|

1913

|

295

|

85

|

56

|

1914

|

273

|

102

|

66

|

1916

|

245

|

71

|

58

|

If these figures are at all indicative, it would seem that by the years immediately before the First World War, the girls from east European Jewish families had become the majority within the graduating Jewish population at Hunter. Since there is no reason to suppose that the number of German-Jewish girls going to college declined, it would follow that at about the same time numbers of German-Jewish girls started going to private colleges like Barnard.

With eager if shy determination, the Jewish girls were redefining their lives. Elizabeth Stern, having won the battle for high school, found that she “wanted a room in which one simply sat. I had no clear idea of what I would do in it. But I had no room of my own yet.… Neighbors and relatives laughed in amusement at my wish.” Like thousands of others, this young immigrant woman struck intuitively upon the demand that Virginia Woolf would voice in another setting: a room of one’s own, a room with a view.

Going to School

As a young woman Myra Kelly worked for a few years teaching first-graders at P.S. 147 on the East Side; apparently she was a good teacher and a warmhearted person who felt affection for the immigrant “scholars” she kept drilling in English reading, writing, and spelling. Irish girls and young men, often themselves the children of immigrants, were pouring into the school system, and over the next several decades would become its dominant group. Myra Kelly differed from the others in one respect—she wrote quasi-fictional stories about her experiences as a teacher. Little Citizens, published in 1904, has as its heroine Constance Bailey, also Irish, also a first-grade teacher, also sparkling with lace-curtain wit and trim shirtwaists. The “long-suffering” but loving Miss Bailey melted before the eagerness of her Jewish boys and girls to please and to shine, though as a realistic teacher she could also regard them as “a howling mob of little savages.” She “delivered daily lectures on nail-brushes, hair-ribbons, shoe polish, pins, buttons, elastic, and other means to grace. Her talks on soap and water became almost personal in tone.”

Myra Kelly’s ear for Jewish accents was atrocious, but it would be hard to expect someone raised with the beauties of Irish speech to be sympathetic to the way East Side children mangled the English language. What won her heart was their brightness of mind and softness of emotion. In one of her stories, set just before Christmas, all the children are planning ingenious gifts for Teacher, while her special darling, Morris Mogilewsky, lacks even a nickel for a ribbon; but then, with a smile of triumph, he brings Miss Bailey a present his father had gleefully given his mother: “the receipt for a month’s rent for a room on the top floor of a Monroe Street tenement.”

Remembering her days of the three R’s “and deportment,” Sophie Ruskay evoked a scene in which an equivalent of Miss Bailey ruled with firm kindliness:

When teacher called out in her sharp, penetrating voice, “Class!” everyone sat up straight as a ramrod, eyes front, hands clasped rigidly behind one’s back. We strived painfully to please her.…

Beautiful script letters across the huge blackboard and a chart of the alphabet were the sole adornments of the classroom. Every day the current lesson from our speller was meticulously written out on the blackboard by the teacher who, whatever else she lacked, wrote a lovely, regular hand.…

We had to learn our lessons by heart, and we repeated them out loud until we memorized them.…

The window was opened a fraction of an inch and the teacher, standing on her little platform, snapped, “Breathe in! Breathe out!” The hissing sounds as we “exhaled” must have reminded the teacher of a school of porpoises at play.

The bulk of memoirs dealing with East Side childhood contain warm, sometimes remarkably tender descriptions of the years in school. That many of the Irish and Yankee teachers, as well as the growing number of Jewish teachers, were kind to immigrant children and that some of these teachers were excited by the potentialities of the children’s intellect and the pathos of their striving, seems entirely credible.* Old-line Americans teaching in the schools often brought with them a fine sense of rectitude; Irish teachers with memories of how their own people had suffered upon coming to America were likely to be affectionate, though sometimes a bit condescending toward Jewish speech and manners. Still, one wonders, were there no petty tyrants, no mean-spirited bigots teaching school in the immigrant Jewish neighborhoods? Very few, if one goes by the pupils’ remembrances.

Perhaps, in gratification at having escaped from the hardships of their youth, the writers of such memoirs indulged in a certain romanticizing of their days at school—though with regard to other youthful experiences they could be caustic enough. And perhaps they were still captive to the view their parents had often taken toward the American school. For on this matter there was a firm if unspoken consensus among immigrant Jews. It appeared first as the familiar Jewish respect for institutions of learning, with the sheer architectural impressiveness of the newer school buildings helping occasionally to induce a sense of awe; and it emerged a bit later as a kind of idealistic calculation, with the school commonly taken to be a sure path to advancement. If one’s children had to put up with some taunting, even a little abuse, from gentile teachers or classmates, well, that was a price worth paying. Hadn’t Jews put up with far worse in behalf of far less?

At least in the earlier years of the migration, Jewish parents were decidedly reluctant to visit the schools. They felt uneasy before intellectual authority, abashed at having to use their broken English—but most of all, they assumed it was probably necessary for the children to accept an irksome discipline. Those Jewish children who did progress in school often decided, at some level beneath explicit speech, that it was best to hide or suppress resentment at whatever slights or slurs might come their way. And in the classroom itself many were so earnest and obedient that they won over teachers whose preconceptions about Jews had not been of the kindliest. Myra Kelly might make fun of her pupils’ speech and feel embarrassed at their surging emotionality, but after visiting their homes she gained a strong respect for immigrant parents. Better still, she found herself “densely puzzled and pondering as to whether she could ever hope to understand these people.”

Not all teachers could be expected to show this breadth of response, nor did they. A gentile teacher is quoted as saying about her Jewish pupils: “They are mentally alert, colorful, intelligent, the backbone of my class, but they can be an insufferable nuisance because of their constant desire to distinguish themselves.” This eagerness to excel—to excel publicly and conspicuously—softened the hearts of some teachers, hardened the hearts of others. A school principal is quoted as saying of his Jewish pupils: “Their progress in studies is simply another manifestation of the acquisitiveness of the race”—a remark by no means unusual, as witness reformer Jacob Riis declaring that the aptitude of Jewish children for “mental arithmetic” showed “how strong the instinct of dollars and cents is in them.” And a study of Jewish teachers in the years of the First World War speaks bitterly of bias in hiring and promotion, the deprecation of Jewish students by gentile instructors, a growth in racial antagonisms, all the result, perhaps, of an increase in the number of Jewish students and teachers to the point where they were seen as threatening gentile dominance.

The experience of immigrant children in the public schools was surely a little less rosy and more abrasive than most memoirists acknowledge. (Writing in their adult years, they may have felt an impulse to join in that nostalgia about childhood which has been so powerful an element in American culture, as if wanting to show that “we too” could have idyllic memories.) There was the pleasant side recorded by Mary Antin: “What a struggle we had over the word ‘water,’ Miss Dillingham and I … and when at last I could say ‘village’ and ‘water’ in rapid alternation, without misplacing the two initials, that memorable word was sweet on my lips. For we had conquered, and Teacher was pleased.”

But there was also the aspect recorded by another child of immigrant parents, who grew up in the east Bronx in the twenties:

At the age of five I really knew Yiddish better than English. I attended my first day of kindergarten as if it were a visit to a new country. The teacher asked the children to identify various common objects. When my turn came she held up a fork and without hesitation I called out its Yiddish name, a goopel. The whole class burst out laughing at me with that special cruelty children can have. That afternoon I told my parents I had made up my mind never to speak Yiddish to them again, though I would not give any reasons.

The pained embarrassment that seeps through this recollection was due less to anyone’s malice or ill-will than to inherent difficulties in making the transition from immigrant home to American school. And about that there was little parents, teachers, or children could do.

Jewish Children, American Schools

For the New York school system, the pouring in of these immigrant Jews—as well as Italians, Germans, Poles, Slavs—seemed like an endless migraine. Language, curriculum, habits, manners, every department of the child’s life and study had to be reconsidered. While the educational system was mostly in the hands of the Irish, there were a good number of German Jews among both administrators and teachers, and it was they, “progressive” in educational thought and eager to speed the assimilation of their east European cousins, who developed new educational strategies for the immigrants. Given the poor conditions—overcrowding in the schools, fear and suspicion among the immigrants, impatience and hostility among some teachers, and an invariably skimped budget (often worse during reform administrations than when Tammany dealt out the spoils)—a summary conclusion would be that the New York school system did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help.

In 1905, a peak year of immigration, the Jewish pupils on the East Side were concentrated in thirty-eight elementary schools. These contained 65,000 students, of whom some 61,000, or almost 95 percent, were Jewish. Certain schools, like P.S. 75 on Norfolk Street, were totally Jewish. That condition which a half-century later would be called de facto segregation did not deeply trouble the Jewish immigrants—on the contrary, they found a certain comfort in sending their children to public schools overwhelmingly Jewish. Children who knew a little English served as translators for those who a week or two earlier had stepped off the boats. In the years between, say, 1900 and 1914 there were sporadic efforts by Jewish groups to pressure the Board of Education with regard to overcrowding of schools, released time for religious training, and the teaching of foreign languages; but we have no record of major objection to the racial homogeneity of a given school or district.

“The school personnel,” writes a historian of New York education,

considered it easier to teach English to a class in which all the youngsters spoke the same foreign language.… Only the social workers raised questions about the ethnic homogeneity of the schools. The assimilation of the immigrant would be retarded, they feared, and the learning of English impeded when the children used their native tongue everywhere but in the classroom.… But even the settlement house workers concentrated their fire on the methods of Americanization they saw [in the schools].… They commented angrily on the gulf the teachers were creating between the foreign born parents and their native born children. Grace Abbott, Jane Addams, and Sophinisbe Breckenridge exhorted the schools to recognize the importance of foreign cultures.

From the immigrant spokesmen there were similar complaints, often furious in the Yiddish press and stiff even in the writings of so reasonable a man as David Blaustein. “Respect for age,” he noted, “is certainly not an American characteristic, and this is an upsetting of all the immigrant’s preconceived idea of society.… The children are imbued with the idea that all that is not American is something to be ashamed of. It is an unfortunate but indisputable fact that cheap and superficial qualities are the more likely to be assimilated.”

But segregation of Jewish pupils failed to arouse any concerted protest among immigrant parents. It was a condition to which they had long been accustomed; it helped make the first years of settlement somewhat less frightening; and it also seemed, in its distinctive American form, a social springboard for plunging into the new world. The immigrants were prepared, indeed, eager, to have their children Americanized, even if with some psychic bullying, but they did not want to see themselves discarded in the process. As time went by, however, they came close to accepting even this fate as a price that had to be met.

Not without some dragging of feet—a mode of locomotion endemic to educational bodies—the Board of Education began to restructure the New York schools in order to “connect” with immigrant children. Good and even imaginative work was undertaken. Bilingualism in the schools was rejected out of hand: the authorities never saw it as a serious option, the immigrants would have been deeply suspicious of it. But an effort was made by such East Side superintendents as Gustave Straubenmuller, a specialist in teaching English to foreigners, and Julia Richman, an enthusiast for “progressive” education, to make their teachers sensitive to the special problems of Jewish pupils. One study of these problems, after listing the familiar virtues of Jewish students (“idealistic, thirst for knowledge,” etc.), is candid enough to mention “other characteristics” that teachers might find disturbing: “occasional overdevelopment of mind at expense of body; keen intellectualism often leads toward impatience at slow progress; extremely radical; many years of isolation and segregation give rise to irritability and supersensitivity; little interest in physical sports; frank and openminded approach in intellectual matters, especially debatable questions.”

Public school curriculums were revised to place a smaller stress on the memorizing of fixed materials (e.g., dates and names in American history) and a greater stress on what Julia Richman called “practical civics,” study of the actual workings of American government and society. Schools and playgrounds were opened for afternoons, evenings, and weekends, to provide social centers for children and to lure them away from the streets. (Nothing could finally do that …) Emphasis was placed on manners, grooming, little courtesies, often annoying to immigrant pupils but which in later years they would be wryly grateful for. Miss Richman, ruling her school district with a stern hand, instituted a range of practical reforms, from regular eye examinations for children to the organization of parent groups.

The main problem, of course, was to teach children to read, write, and speak a new, a second, language. Good sense, even imaginative sympathy, is shown in a 1907 syllabus designed for special English classes for immigrant children:

Spoken language is an imitative art—first teaching should be

oral, have children speak.

Teach children words by having them work with and describe

objects.

Words should be illustrated by means of pictures, toys, etc.

Presentation of material should keep pace with the pupil’s

growth in power.

A bright pupil should be seated next to one less bright, one

should teach the other.

In copying, the purpose is language, not penmanship.

Until 1903 immigrant children had been placed in classes together with much younger American-born children, and as the English of the immigrant pupils improved they were promoted into classes with children nearer their own age. But by 1903–1904 the Board decided, in accord with a plan developed by Straubenmuller, that this method no longer worked, since it tended to humiliate the immigrant children and slow down the American ones. Special classes were therefore set up to teach pupils of foreign parentage whose intellectual condition was in advance of their ability to express themselves in English. Pupils would remain in these special classes for a period of four or five months and then, having gained the rudiments of English, be assigned to regular classes.

Of the 250 special classes organized in 1905, 100 were held on the East Side. Most were smaller in size than normal classes, containing 30 to 35 pupils rather than the usual 45 to 50. The peak year for these special classes was 1912, when 31,000 pupils attended them; after that, the number steadily declined.*

Once immigration came to a stop with the outbreak of the First World War, these problems, though still unsolved, seemed less acute. Yet as late as 1914 a law was enacted in New York stipulating that children under sixteen who left school would have to complete at least the sixth grade—indicating, it would seem, that a good number were still failing to get through grammar school. It is chastening to note that in 1910 only some 6,000 out of 191,000 Jewish pupils in New York were attending high school. One out of three pupils in New York was Jewish, but only one out of four high-school pupils was Jewish. Allowing for the probability that the proportion of Jewish children under high-school age was greater than among the rest of the population, these figures still suggest that the dropout rate among Jewish children at or before the end of grammar school was not significantly better than for the remaining two thirds of the school population taken as a whole. It was better, however, than for other immigrant segments such as the Irish and Italians. A 1908 study of laggard students in the New York schools showed that no simple correlations could be established between command of English and classroom performance: children of German-born parents did better than children of American-born parents, the latter better than children of Russian-born parents, and the latter better than children of Irish-and Italian-born parents. The bulk of Jewish immigrant children, studies indicate, were not very different in their capacities or performances from the bulk of pupils from most other ethnic groups.

During the years between 1900 and 1914 the Board of Education published quantities of material on these matters, some of it notable for flashes of insight and sympathy in regard to immigrant children, but still more for honesty in grappling with problems of handicapped, ungifted, and recalcitrant children. Conscientious efforts were made to provide the rudiments of learning to immigrant children, within the financial constraints imposed by the city and the intellectual limits of a culture persuaded that a rigorous, even sandpapery Americanization was “good” for the newcomers. To read the reports of the school superintendents is to grow impatient with later sentimentalists who would have us suppose that all or most Jewish children burned with zeal for the life of the mind. Some did, seemingly more so than among other immigrant communities, and these comprised a layer of brilliant students who would be crucial for the future of the American Jews. What made the immigrant Jewish culture distinctive was the fierce attention and hopes it lavished upon this talented minority.

Immigrants and the Gary Plan

Despite their tacit policy of maintaining a respectful distance from the school system, the immigrant Jews tried occasionally to exert pressure upon it. Rabbis were outspoken in asking that distinctly religious (in practice, Christian) ceremonies be removed from the schools, and in 1907 the Board of Education did prohibit further singing of sectarian hymns and the reading of religious books other than the Bible. Around Christmastime disputes would flare up over the singing of carols, but not very violently, since most Jewish parents seem to have taken an attitude of pragmatic neglect toward such matters. The Yiddish press raged intermittently against abuses, denouncing in 1906, for example, proposals to bus Jewish children from East Side schools to less crowded ones on the West Side. In 1911 the Forward launched a campaign against the high-handedness of Superintendent Julia Richman, regarded as fair game since she was herself a German Jew. (“When she visits a school, it is like Yom Kippur.”) And throughout these years the immigrant Jews were bothered by the fastidiousness, and often rather worse than fastidiousness, of the school system with regard to the English pronunciation of candidates for teaching jobs—many a Jewish boy and girl had hopes destroyed because of an inability to pronounce the “ng” sound in “Long Island” quite the way the examiners insisted. Once in a rare while, the Yiddish papers would take an uneasy glance at the school curriculum, wondering, cogently enough, why teachers gave their pupils no reason “for multiplying a fraction in just this way.… The children get rules, they do examples, and that’s it. They have to finish in the allotted time, and then it’s ‘pencils down.’ Like soldiers, they are made to stop at exactly the same moment, even though some children are naturally faster and others slower.” In the main, however, the immigrant Jews looked up to the school system as an agency meriting respect and a little fear—since it was a power that, through incomprehensible edicts, could satisfy or destroy all one’s hopes for one’s children. The Yiddish press often had to urge immigrant parents to draw a little closer to the schools, advising them, for instance, to pay attention when children brought home notes from school doctors recommending dental care, eyeglasses, and operations for tonsillitis.

Not until the appointment of Joseph Barondess to the Board of Education in 1910 did the east European Jews gain formal recognition as a constituency that had to be heeded by the educational bureaucracy. From about that time onward, the immigrant Jews felt free, or at least somewhat freer than in the past, to intervene in the politics of education. Their first major intervention, in the struggle that took place over the Gary Plan between 1913 and 1917, was of an urgency which in this area they had never been able to release before.

It was a struggle that aligned a group of high-minded but obtuse patrician “reformers” against a range of immigrant and plebeian communities fearful of cultural dispossession. In 1914 Mayor John Purroy Mitchel, a wealthy lawyer elected as an anti-Tammany reformer, became intrigued with a new educational approach pioneered in Gary, Indiana. The Gary Plan, writes a historian of education, “discarded the old progressive tenet of ‘a seat for every child’ as an inefficient use of classroom space and the teacher’s time.” It also relied on departmental teaching; instead of one teacher instructing the same group of children all day, each class moved to a different classroom for major subjects. To put the plan into effect, a school had to be equipped with extensive shops, laboratories, and recreational facilities. The plan had special appeal to New Yorkers because it made possible the accommodation of nearly twice as many students in one school building as there were classroom seats.

Intellectuals like Randolph Bourne wrote admiringly about the Gary Plan as a partial fulfillment of John Dewey’s educational ideas; the Mitchel administration also admired the plan, but mostly as a way of saving money. From the outset, the plan met with resistance among teachers, students, and parents, in part because of ingrained fears of anything that seemed novel, in part because of cultural distaste for the kinds of people now in City Hall, and in part because of suspicion that the plan would mean that the children of the poor would linger on a vocational track rendering them unable to compete with the children of the rich. Benevolent in intent but elitist and parsimonious in approach, the people who began putting the plan into effect in several New York schools quite ignored these signs of popular uneasiness. But Tammany Hall did not ignore them. On the lookout for an issue that would help it regain power, it saw here the possibility for playing on the prejudices and fears of large segments of the population.

In the 1917 election, when Tammany ran a dismal hack named John Hylan against Mayor Mitchel, it pledged to “banish the imported Gary system, which aims to make our public schools an annex to the mill and factory.” Hylan stumped the city crying that “our boys and girls shall have an opportunity to become doctors, lawyers, clergymen, musicians, artists, orators, poets or men of letters, notwithstanding the views of the Rockefeller Board of Education.”

The Gary Plan became a central issue in the campaign, and the Jewish community responded strongly, with a new self-confidence though not with complete lucidity. During the previous year or two Jewish groups ranging from the B’nai B’rith to Orthodox rabbinical associations had been applying organized pressure on the Board of Education to drop the plan. Now, a few weeks before the elections, riots broke out in a number of schools, most of them in such Jewish neighborhoods as the East Side, Harlem, and Brownsville. The majority of students arrested were Jewish, for by this point, under the incitement of both Tammany and the Socialists, many immigrant Jews believed the plan was a scheme to cut their children off from routes to professional advancement. And it was much too late for the mayor and his supporters to say anything that might dissolve these fears. Hylan won the election overwhelmingly and the plan was scrapped.

Was the Gary Plan, in intent or likely consequence, a device for choking off the ambitions of immigrant and lower-class communities? Certainly not in its original formulation by William Wirt, the Gary school superintendent hired to advise the New York schools, nor even in the minds of the New York officials who proposed to adopt it. But the actual introduction of the plan into the New York schools was a fairly shoddy business, since the idea of a richer curriculum soon faded, while the scheme for doubling up on class space kept the interest of city officials. Even this vulgarization of the Gary Plan need not have brought quite so fierce a reaction in the poor neighborhoods, both Jewish and non-Jewish, nor need it have allowed Tammany so brilliant a political advantage. What was finally at stake was the relationship between rulers and ruled, patricians and plebeians, those who “knew better” and those nominated to be the beneficiaries of that superior knowledge. When the immigrant Jews lined up, most of them, with the forces attacking the Gary Plan, they fell prey to political demagogy; yet they were also expressing an oblique insistence that their voices be heard by the city’s educational authorities, their opinions consulted and prejudices taken into account.

City College: Toward a Higher Life

By the 1890’s a small trickle of boys from east European–Jewish families had joined the several dozen German-Jewish boys entering City College each year. The great Jewish inpouring to the college would not really begin until after the First World War, but the deep attachment felt toward the college among the immigrants was firmly established by the first years of the century. Of all the institutions they or their children might encounter in the new world, City College came closest to fulfilling Emerson’s promise that “this country, the last found, is the great charity of God to the human race.”

It is far from clear, however, that in the eighties and nineties City College wholly deserved the affection of the Jewish immigrants. Located at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street, it was by no means a distinguished college. Staffed by a mediocre faculty and headed successively by two presidents, Horace Webster and Alexander Webb, who had both come from West Point, City College maintained a semimilitary discipline in its treatment of students. In the 1880’s and 1890’s the average graduating class was about fifty, though several times that number passed through each class in a given year. Many boys entered at fourteen or fifteen and graduated at nineteen or twenty; in both curriculum and atmosphere, City College was actually a combination of high school and college. Upon graduating from grammar school, boys could take an entrance examination and those scoring at least seventy would be admitted to “the sub-freshman class” in which they were expected to cram somewhat less than an equivalent of high school into one year’s work. High-school students who had done well in their first year were also allowed to transfer to “the sub-freshman” or freshman classes. This meant a fairly liberal policy of admissions and a high rate of casualties—by 1906 the graduating class contained 140 boys, though it had begun five years earlier with close to a thousand. Many dropped out for financial reasons, others because of academic failure. But for the gifted and hard-working the college meant opportunity, and to the Jewish boys that seemed quite enough. By 1903, when Dr. John Finley took over the presidency and began to raise the academic level of the college, more than 75 percent of the students were Jewish; in the graduating class of 1910 at least 90 of the 112 students were Jewish, and of these the great bulk came from east European families.

In the earlier years, especially the eighties, life at the college was not always pleasant for the handful of Jewish students. The professors maintained a tone of Protestant moralism, with slight allowance for the distinctive backgrounds and interests of their students; and anti-Semitic incidents, while not condoned, were not rare. In 1878 the Greek-letter societies barred Jewish students—a slight that for years would rankle such Jewish alumni as Bernard Baruch. In 1881, when a student paper called the Free Press started to campaign for internal college reforms, it was denounced by the College Mercury on the ground that its editors, Rosenberg and Rothschild, “of the Semitic race,” had gotten their material about college affairs “from a certain Jewish library.” Rosenberg and Rothschild answered: “Why this particularization? It smacks strongly of the student persecution of the Jews in Germany.” (Besides, added the Free Press editors, they stood close to the top of their class while the gentile lunkhead editing the Mercury was at the very bottom!) Two years later there occurred a more serious incident. Professor Charles Anthon made anti-Semitic remarks in his classroom, Jewish students instituted a boycott of his classes, a formal investigation followed, and the professor was granted “a leave of absence for two months, on account of ill health.”

As the number of Jewish students increased and “the Semitic influence” settled in, the college took on an atmosphere of greater tolerance. Even in its early days, the distinctive character of City College was more the work of its students than its faculty. Bernard Baruch, the park-bench financial wizard, who graduated from City College in 1889, set down impressions that could easily have been written by a graduate fifty years later: “Each year the College Athletic Association sponsored a track and field meet.… My class would talk a blue streak in the debating forums but we couldn’t run very fast.” Morris Raphael Cohen, remembering his student days in the late 1890’s, was caustic about the faculty: “Rigid discipline and pursuit of marks were more important to most of the teaching staff than love of learning. But what the professors lacked in love of learning, the student body made up.” That, too, could have been said, though with greater qualifications, by a graduate of the thirties.

Yet the Jewish students loved the place, loved it utterly, hopelessly, blindly. What Bernard Hershkopf, ’06, wrote could and would be repeated by innumerable others:

The classrooms were bare, the chairs and desks of the plainest. The blackboards were grayed over with the chalk dust pressed into them over many years. The library was crowded and old; it had not really been well kept up for a number of years.…

The physical properties and appearance of the old City College were not in any sense beautiful or inspiring.

But, as against that, there were the students. Scores of them thirsted for learning as men long lost in the desert must thirst for water. None could halt or defeat such deep-rooted determination to learn. We knew it as gospel truth that this plain College was for each of us a passport to a higher and ennobled life.

Jewish boys excelled in mathematics, history, and literature, but other subjects, like shop and “mechanical drawing,” they often regarded as meaningless burdens that alien powers had lowered upon them:

The drawing lesson was the bane of his existence. He just could not draw, and besides was still not very familiar with the language. The instructor one day demanded, “go to the blackboard and draw a carrot.” He was nonplussed. He did not know what a carrot was.… The class, realizing his embarrassment, tried to help him by whispering, “Draw something round.” So he drew what he thought was a circle. It turned out to be elliptical enough to look like a carrot and the day was saved. By dint of much torture, he managed to receive 40 percent in the course, hardly a passing mark.

Such were the ways in which Jewish boys stumbled through the non-academic portions of the curriculum, turning out clumsy breadboards in shop, struggling with parallel bars in gym, and often even learning to swim. In the years between world wars, City College took on a legendary character, a school at once grubby and exalted: the passionate alcoves where revolutionary position-takers argued “the correct line”; the triumphs in basketball “based on the principle of a weave around a flexible pivot”; the somber classrooms where overburdened teachers and bristling students found “the world of knowledge and meaning and commitment … there for us to explore.” City College became the haven of Jewish minds, and none shone more brightly, triumphing over pretension and murk, than the mind of Morris Raphael Cohen (1880–1947).

At the beginning his story is quite like those of other East Side boys. He was born in Russia, speaking Yiddish as his first language and tasting in childhood the bitter fruits of poverty. In 1892 he came to New York with his parents, and as he grew up he almost left school in order to help support the family, worked for a while in his father’s soda-water stand in a pool room, and savored dreams of intellectual distinction and self-sacrificing public life. He wrote in his diary at the age of seventeen: “My principal characteristic is a love for books. Every cent I can lay my hands on goes to buy some book.… The next principal characteristic is my great desire to do good, in the full sense of the word, and my impotency to comply with this desire.… I am not only a reformer but a revolutionist. I detest customs that are shams.”

Delicate, bookish, quick-witted, the boy made his way through City College in the late nineties, learning more on his own than he could from the not very glittering faculty, and reading with that concentrated rapacity that would remain with him throughout his life (Mommsen, Gibbon, and Green as a freshman; the classical French playwrights as a sophomore; the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle in his last two years). That he was remarkably gifted soon became obvious, but he retained enough critical realism to measure his faults: “Am too conceited in argument … My natural tendency to conquer my opponent is stronger than reason.” In his own aggressive way, Cohen was driven by a Jewish eagerness to break into the knowledge of the world, “to possess the fruits of the Age of Reason.” His youthful socialism, he later wrote, “was a protest against economic conditions,” but it was “also directed primarily to the conquest and democratization of the things of the spirit.”

What first inspired Cohen to think of himself as an intellectual, a philospher living for the disinterested pursuit of truth, was a chance encounter with Thomas Davidson, a free-lance educator devoting himself to the irregular teaching of poor boys and girls on the East Side. From Davidson, Cohen learned the beauties of skepticism, the pleasures of reflection. At a summer school Davidson ran in the Adirondacks in 1899, where Cohen earned his keep by doing odd jobs, the pupils studied the Divine Comedy, struggling through the Inferno in the original Italian. The nineteen-year-old Cohen read Plato systematically, discussed Parmenides with Davidson, and studied Latin. Mary Rypshin, soon to become his wife, studied beside him and wrote letters home date-lined “Paradise.”

The Cohens scraped together their pennies and sent Morris to do graduate work in philosophy at Harvard, where from 1904 to 1906 he worked with William James, Josiah Royce, Hugo Münsterberg, and Ralph Barton Perry. From all of these remarkable men he learned, but of none did he become a disciple. As a mature man Cohen would call himself “a stray dog” in philosophy, alien to systems, indifferent to converts, forever a man of questions.

With some difficulties, Cohen began his career in 1912 as teacher of philosophy at City College, where he would remain until close to the end of his life. Lacking, he said, verbal facility, Cohen started to teach according to the Socratic method, with one question chained to another, and all of them devoted to testing, or assaulting, the coherence of the philosopher under discussion. In a typical session, the assigned text might be a Santayana essay on aesthetics, in which that philosopher had offered a wonderfully inclusive definition of “the aesthetic.” A student, picked at random, would have to answer: what does Mr. Santayana mean by “the aesthetic?” The student knew his lesson. Did he agree with Mr. Santayana? The student, also knowing his part in the unfolding ritual, answered hesitantly, y-e-s. Cohen would then begin to shred Santayana’s statement, question after question driving toward a demonstration of how difficult it would be to see anything as other than “aesthetic” if one accepted Santayana’s definition of it (a method similar to the one Cohen notably employed in attacking John Dewey’s use of the term “experience”). A few minutes before the end of the class, the exhausted but still pugnacious student had been led into a definition of “the aesthetic” completely at variance with the one by Santayana which he had endorsed forty-five minutes earlier. “So who is right?” Cohen would ask. The bell rings, students rush up to find out Cohen’s opinion, and with a wicked grin he says, in the Yiddish accent he kept throughout his life, “What does it matter what I think?”

Cohen became the culture hero of the City College boys, at least the brighter and tougher ones, who learned not to fear (too much) his probing, combative style, “a kind of smiling struggle to the death. The room was electrified, we jumped to the defense of our fellow-student, but our teacher took us all on, in a razzle-dazzle of knowledge, of analytic power, of fighting intellect. Truth was the quarry, and we were really fellow-participants in the hunt.”

It was a terrifying, sometimes even a sadistic method of teaching, and only the kinds of students that came to Cohen could have withstood it-Jewish boys with minds honed to dialectic, bearing half-conscious memories of pilpul, indifferent to the prescriptions of gentility, intent on a vision of lucidity. “He never let us down, we always left a bit more confused, a bit wiser, always more hopeful, even giddy with hope, for he was a living example of the power of reason.”

Cohen’s ferocity in the classroom was quite impersonal. “For most of us,” recalled the historian Richard Morris, “to be corrected by Socrates seemed neither a surprise nor a disgrace.” To some it even seemed a reason for pride, signifying acceptance into a superior realm where all that mattered was the clash of minds and the hunger for truth. Formidable as he seemed on the lecture platform, everything about Cohen testified that he shared with his students common origins, common experiences, common values. He might pummel them in the classroom, but they knew that in conflicts with the college authorities, a rather common occurrence at City College, they could count on his sense of fairness, even compassion. “I could not feel that the defects of our boys in point of manners,” he wrote in a characteristic sentence, “were as important as their extraordinary attachment to the values of spirit.”

After his death, in 1947, little remained of Cohen’s influence—a fate he was to share, in the age of analytic philosophy, with other, more productive, American philosophers, like Santayana and Dewey. Cohen founded no school, left no central or easily popularized idea, failed to publish a great book. Even Reason and Nature, his most distinguished volume, was little read. He was not among the “one-eyed men,” those thinkers who pursue a single idea with ruthless exclusion and thereby end with at least a familiar tag dangling from their names; he was a “two-eyed man,” stressing the principle of polarity, by which he meant the need for examining claim and counterclaim, subjecting both to the razored test of logical analysis, and not allowing the philosophical passion for truth to decline into an ideological passion for system.

Cohen himself had foreseen his decline of influence and even noted his own limits of creativity. His mind, he wrote late in life, had “none of the vitality and flare of genius of James or Santayana, the fruitfulness of Peirce or Royce, or even the solid substantiality of Dewey. Yet withal [it showed] a tenacious clinging to truth.” This characteristic suspicion that, for all his erudition and critical powers, he was a philosopher characterized by a certain dryness—his opponents would say aridity—of mind, clearly troubled Cohen, yet in the end, with his mixture of Jewish stoicism and philosophical resignation, he came to accept these limitations as intrinsic to himself. Was there perhaps a sense in which these were also limitations of his culture, or at least of its secular-rationalist segment? Pride in argument, vanity of dialectic, a gleaming readiness for polemic—if these traits sometimes characterized Morris Cohen, so too might they be found in the culture from which he emerged and in the younger philosphers he helped to shape. Yet his poignant codicil, “a tenacious clinging to truth,” spoke for the antiseptic virtues of criticism, the bracing disdain of pretension. And these virtues, too, were not Cohen’s alone, even if he gave them a dramatic rendering that none of his contemporaries could equal.

To Jewish boys who had come from the East Side, Brownsville, or the Bronx to study at City College, there were no doubts or qualifications: Cohen was a great figure. What did he leave them? A vision of mind, a style of quest. And a storehouse of anecdotes, hundreds of them, either true or apocryphal, about his scathing rigors of mind. Nor does this seem, upon reflection, a scant legacy. The anecdote has always been a favorite among sages, and those students who, in Sidney Hook’s phrase, bore “the mark of Cohen” often responded to their teacher as if he were a tsadik and they Hasidim hanging on his words. But with one crucial difference: they had been taught by Cohen not to expect anything so commonplace as answers.

At one of his classes, a student insisted to Cohen that “a thing isn’t real unless it can be touched, tasted, and worked with.” Cohen responded by telling a story about three businessmen confronted by the Devil. “You three have had too good a time,” he told them, “and you’re coming below with me.” When they pleaded for mercy, the Devil agreed to give them a chance—if he could not do what they asked, he would let them go. The Frenchman challenged the Devil to turn a nearby lake into Burgundy wine—flash, the Frenchman disappears. The Irishman challenged the Devil to turn a nearby mountain into gold—flash, the Irishman disappears. The Jew thought and thought, and suddenly he began to whistle “Dixie.” “Sew a button on that,” he told the Devil.

Another story has a student bursting into Cohen’s office and crying out that he is very upset. “What is the matter?” “It’s just been proved to me that I don’t exist.” “Why are you coming to me?” “I want you to prove that I do exist.” “Well,” said Cohen, “it is not impossible, but tell me, young man, to whom should I address the proof?”

A third story has Cohen replying to someone who had said that he, Cohen, was merely a critic in philosophy: “Hercules cleaned out the Augean stables—should I fill them up again?”

The ideal audience for such anecdotes, what Paul Goodman once called “wisdom stories,” extends through time from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Hasidic teller of tales, to Hershel Ostropolier, the legendary Jewish scamp, to Sholom Aleichem and Peretz, the major Yiddish writers, and then to those students at City College who felt that, for reasons they could not always express, these anecdotes brought grace to their lives.

* Arriving in America at the age of eighteen, Israel Davidson entered the first grade, sat patiently with small children, climbed from grade to grade as he began to understand a little English, and in a year had completed the whole elementary curriculum. Here is a letter he wrote to one of his teachers:

Dear Sir and instructor.

As I found out that you take much interest in helping those who languish for help, I encouraged my heart with a few days before, to impart to you some of my inner thoughts about study, but on account of your words spoken to me; “don’t speak about things but do them” I changed my mind and now I thank you for telling me of my misdoings, because they are my faults and I have to be gratitude to their corrector who is in the same time my benefactor. I have courage enough to look straight in the face of truth even if she blames me. I know that men surely gain by being blamed and perhaps lose by being caressed.

Your obeydient

Israel Davidson

* To deal with varying abilities of the immigrant children, a complex system of special classes was elaborated in 1905–1906. “C” classes were held for immigrant pupils between eight and fourteen years old who could speak no English. After a few months of intensive work they were either sent to regular classes or shifted to a special “E” class. The “E” classes were for pupils over the normal age who were enabled to advance rapidly through a modified course of instruction that relaxed the usual demands with regard to English. Most children in “E” classes were between eleven and fifteen. Finally, “D” classes were organized for children approaching fourteen who had no prospects of finishing the eighth grade; they were given the bare elements of literacy so they could get working papers. Over the years, the “E” classes became the most numerous and important, while “D” classes were gradually eliminated.

This system worked with a certain rough effectiveness—best, as usual, for the best students. In a little while, however, it began to decline into an informal track system, especially in schools with the least sympathetic principals: slow pupils and those for whom English formed a hopeless barrier were allowed to linger, or waste, in the “E” classes. One East Side principal, Edwin Goldwasser of P.S. 20, complained about this trend in 1912 and proposed that “E” classes be abolished; he wanted immigrant children to be either transferred quickly from special to regular classes or directed toward entering the labor force in their mid-teens.

CHAPTER NINE. Jewish Labor, Jewish Socialism

By the opening years of the century Jewish socialism had become a vigorous strand of thought within immigrant life, but as an organized movement it was very weak. After twenty years of meetings, groupings, splits, regroupings—all the busywork of left-wing politics interrupted by desperate strikes in “the Jewish trades”—there was still no mass socialist movement on the East Side or its replicas in other cities. Nor did it matter much whether the Yiddish-speaking socialists belonged to the increasingly sclerotic Socialist Labor party or the livelier Socialist party, which Eugene Victor Debs and Morris Hillquit formed in 1901: they were boxed into “discussion circles,” handfuls of people distant from the center of either the Jewish community or American socialism.

There was, by now, an immigrant Jewish proletariat of considerable size in the American cities, a proletariat intensively exploited and inclined every few years to outbursts of extreme discontent. There was an immigrant community numbering at least a million and a half Jews, gathering its strength, finding points of sociopolitical power in the municipalities, and developing its own fairly complex class structure. The “objective conditions” for a mass socialist movement, about which left-wing theorists kept writing, seemed surely to have become ripe. Yet, despite their intellectual aggressiveness and their strength in the garment unions, the Jewish socialists could not find a path that would lead them out of the miseries of sectarian life.

When the Yiddish socialist monthly, the Tsukunft, resumed publication in 1902 after a lapse of four years, its editor, Abraham Liessen, had to admit that “many of our best people have disappeared. Once, even our older comrades were youthful in spirit, but now our young people seem spiritually aged. And this is true not only for individuals but for the movement as a whole.” A Chicago comrade described the situation of these years: “In the Jewish quarter there was such benightedness, you had to feel your way like a blind man. Socialist movement? What movement? The word ‘socialism’ became a term of contempt. Our Jewish workers were dead souls.”

So it remained until about 1908. “The Jewish socialist branches, few in number, neither discussed major issues nor undertook large activities.… The more active branches distributed socialist literature in English, since we had hardly any Yiddish material. Once in a while there’d be a street meeting.” In 1904 the Socialist party hired the ubiquitous Benjamin Feigenbaum as its Yiddish-language secretary; he made a national tour, lecturing in his familiar manner, but nothing changed. Among the Yiddish-speaking socialists there spread a mood of profound discouragement, leading some to propose that they abandon the Jewish arena entirely and try to join the ranks of native American socialism—if only they could find a way of slipping past the linguistic and cultural barriers that rose between themselves and the English-speaking comrades.

To unburden “the bitterness of their hearts,” the Jewish socialists in the New England region organized a conference in 1903 in Providence, Rhode Island. This modest gathering decided to set up an “Agitation Bureau,” which would prepare Yiddish leaflets; but at the same time, and characteristically, it rejected a proposal from a minority of delegates that “the Jewish question” be put on the agenda. It seemed pointless to discuss this question, since most of the delegates were convinced that the only solution to the Jewish problem was socialism and anything else was either diversionary or a retreat to “Jewish nationalism.” In opposition to this view, Morris Winchevsky, the Yiddish labor poet, remarked at the conference that “we’d be more successful in our propaganda if we took some real interest in the problems of our fellow Jews, and did so as socialists.” But then, as later, such sentiments were looked upon with suspicion by many of the Jewish socialists—which may explain why the “Agitation Bureau,” and a nationwide equivalent started four years later, turned out to be so feeble.

Early Weaknesses

Why were the Jewish socialists unable to form an organization of strength? If they could lead enormous strikes, why could they not also bind their followers into a compact movement?

Organization, especially that which looked outward toward the native American milieu, was always difficult for the immigrants. (The landsman-shaft, perhaps their most stable grouping, largely drew minds away from America and back toward the security of nostalgia.) Life in the American cities was hard, work exhausting, the imperative of daily need overwhelming. Suppose you thought of yourself as a socialist—which, in one or another sense, a considerable minority of Jewish immigrants did. That meant going to an occasional lecture, being prepared to join a strike when it erupted, reading the Forward, joining the Workmen’s Circle (the socialist fraternal order) and, much less often, joining “the party.” But to be active in a Socialist branch, to pay dues, attend meetings, hand out literature, speak at street meetings, all this signified a disciplined commitment that in the nature of immigrant life, and perhaps the nature of humanity, was hard to come by. Most people, especially if they have labored throughout the day, find regular “party work” tiresome; add the disputations of ideologues who may not have to get up early the next morning, and it is not hard to understand why even left-leaning immigrant workers failed to participate in the Jewish socialist groups as intensely as their leaders desired.

There is another reason for the organizational weakness of Jewish socialism, one that touches rather deeply on the immigrant psyche. Modern Jewish life has been characterized by a mixture of idealism and skepticism and, at its extremes, yearnings for apocalypse and drops into nihilism. The fervor for socialist revolution could be very high among some of the immigrants, yet this fervor was often undercut by a nagging pessimism as to the possibilities of any Jewish politics. Even if the entire Jewish working class were converted to socialism tomorrow, how would that change anything fundamentally in the country? Such doubts had already led young Jewish revolutionaries in eastern Europe to abandon their own people and try to lose themselves in the Russian movement. For all their readiness and volubility, Jewish radicals did not matter enough insofar as they remained Jews; they could fulfill themselves as revolutionists only through the self-denial of assimilation. So had argued Jewish leftists in Warsaw and Moscow, those who opposed the Yiddishist orientation of the Bund; and so argued (or felt) many immigrants who sympathized, yes, with Jewish socialism but wondered what it could lead to beyond noise and self-agitation on “the Jewish street.”

Even the Jewish unions, on which the socialists rightly staked so much, found it terribly difficult to survive as stable institutions. By 1904, when there were about 200,000 workers in the New York garment industries, the vast majority was unorganized and few of the unions were more than skeletal groups. Heroic effort in strikes, followed by a partial victory won at great cost, and then a leakage of these gains through carelessness and lassitude—this pattern among immigrant workers led to a disillusionment with the whole idea of unionism. It was surely a fine idea in general, but the personal cost was so high and the long-run benefits so far off.… Within the unions some people began to say that, by injecting their ideological concerns, the socialists stood in the way of small but solid gains; and while this view, represented by such early union leaders as John Dyche and Abraham Bisno, was not yet prevalent, it would win adherents over the years.

Perhaps, thought some observers, the very enterprise of unions ran counter to the “Jewish spirit.” Among American unionists, by no means eager to get caught up with contentious immigrants, and also among scholars like John Commons, a notion became popular that the Jewish workers, lacking discipline and susceptible to petty-bourgeois moods, did not provide good material for unionization.* That such questions could even be raised in the early 1900’s was deeply discouraging to the Yiddish-speaking socialists.

A large share of the trouble came from the Jewish socialists themselves. Their politics was often marked by a dogmatic absolutism ill-adapted to the needs of the masses. Too much of it derived from a ferocity of denial, the trauma that only a decade or so earlier had accompanied their rebellion against religion. They had seized upon the categories of Marxism, but often what excited them most was the polemic against theology.

The socialism of the immigrants in New York and Chicago, probably still more so in the smaller cities, was in good part an émigré movement, emotionally focused on the old country and finding its intellectual sustenance in European traditions. When the Bund, the Jewish socialist group in Poland, withdrew in 1903 from the Russian Social Democratic party to declare itself an autonomous party, this event shook the Yiddish-speaking left of the East Side far more than anything happening in this country. And insofar as Jewish socialism in America resembled an émigré movement, it bore many of the scars of such movements: cramped isolation, ugly internal quarrels, soured romanticism.

Rebelling against the parochialism of traditional Jewish life, the Jewish radicals improvised a parochialism of their own—but with this difference: they called it “universalism.” In one leap they hoped to move from yeshiva to modern culture, from shtetl to urban sophistication, from blessing the Sabbath wine to declaring the strategy of international revolution. They yearned to bleach away their past and become men without, or above, a country. To show any sensitivity, let alone fellow feeling, for the religious or cultural sentiments that immigrant workers had brought from Europe, was to open oneself to ridicule for still being under the sway of Jehovah. To recognize that Jewish socialists had to write and speak in Yiddish not merely because it was the only language the immigrants understood but also because there were urgent Jewish problems touching all Jews, including the “emancipated” radical ones—this led to insinuations of “nationalism.” And before the charge of “nationalism,” courageous men quailed, as their grandfathers might have quailed before charges of heresy.

A Chicago witness offers an anecdote about the “cosmopolitanism” of the Jewish socialists:

Once I came to a lecture at our La Salle Club. The lecture was on a deeply Jewish subject and was held in Yiddish. Afterward, the chairman spoke in English, appealing to the audience to join the party. So I got up to ask a question: My God, all of us here are Jews, you make your appeal to Yiddish-speaking workers, so why don’t you speak Yiddish? They answered me that they had been speaking Yiddish for a long time and it hadn’t done any good, so now they were going to try English.

The need to shake off the common Jewish past which, unbidden, still hovered over them obsessed the older Jewish socialists—those like Feigenbaum, who wrote that “all true socialists without exception are opponents of nationalism”; or those like Michael Zametkin, a veteran of the eighties, who bemoaned the fact that immigrant workers, not knowing English, had to use “the mishmash of the Russian-Hebrew-German jargon” that went under the name of Yiddish; or those like the Forward editorialist who wrote, “We will consider our task done when we have so awakened our readers’ interest in socialism, literature, and science that they will turn to other languages, and most of all to English.”

In the pages of the Tsukunft there kept winding a heated but inconclusive debate between the “cosmopolitan” socialists and those sympathetic to Jewish sentiments. When Feigenbaum, an uncompromising assimilationist, sardonically inquired, “What kind of Jewish ‘cultural’ independence is it that ‘enlightened’ socialists wish to maintain?” he was answered by a comrade: “To be national means to possess national self-consciousness—that is, the recognition that certain individuals belong to my nation, and that my nation is no better and no worse … than all other nations, and has the same right to exist as all other nations. ‘National’ and ‘international’ are not opposites, but concepts that complement each other.”

In turn, the “cosmopolitans” argued that once religion was discarded, Jewishness had no real substance, becoming a mere indulgence of nostalgia: “What special demands can [Jewry] present as a nation? What do Jews have in common besides a synagogue, a mikve [ritual bath], a hazan [cantor], a shokhet [ritual slaughterer], and a solemnizer of weddings? Give Jews civil rights and what remains of the national demands?”

There was no inherent reason why this debate could not continue indefinitely—and, insofar as it raised issues of lasting concern to Jewish radicals, it has. By about 1910, however, the issues were resolved decisively in favor of the “more Jewish” Jewish radicals, primarily because a large number of Bundists reached New York in the years after the collapse of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Experienced, self-confident, and with an aura of revolutionary sacrifice,* the Bundists brought with them a worked-out ideology, and a sophistication in expressing it, that old-timers like Feigenbaum and Zametkin could not cope with. The Bund had maintained a structure of sympathizing branches in America, some sixty of them by 1906; their three thousand members considerably outnumbered the enrollment in the Jewish branches of the Socialist party. Bundist leaders like Mark Liber and Raphael Abramovitch made extended lecture tours in America, raising funds for their movement. During the 1905 revolution, the Bundists in America mobilized in behalf of their comrades in Europe, sending them for several months the considerable sum of five thousand dollars a week. After the collapse of the 1905 revolution, a widening stream of Bundist immigrants began to arrive, some of them, like David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, to become crucial figures in the trade unions, and others, like B. Charney Vladeck and Nokhem Chanin, to lend strength to Jewish socialism in America. The New York “ambassador” of the Bund, Dr. Moshe Gurevitch, decided to remain here and in 1907 opened a Russian-Jewish bookstore, which served as port of call for arriving comrades.

The Bundists had the advantage not only of political experience but also of sustained discussions regarding the relationship of Jews to the socialist movement. They inclined politically to the left wing of international socialism; they were strongly oriented toward practical work in the trade unions; they believed in fostering a coherent Jewish culture, secularist and modern in outlook and based on Yiddish as the language of the Jewish masses. Committed to Jewish national survival (or, as they put it in Europe, “autonomy”), they were nevertheless strongly opposed to Zionism, which they dismissed as a utopian fantasy. They wanted the Jews to form a distinct national-cultural grouping within the countries where they lived, and the Jewish workers to be part of, though organizationally separate from, the socialist and labor movements in those countries. In Poland this had led to organizing a Jewish socialist party, the Bund; in America, where a separate party was clearly unrealistic, it led to the organization in 1912 of the Jewish Socialist Federation as an autonomous subdivision of the Socialist party.

Despite their relative sophistication, the Bundists who came to America after 1905 had difficulties in adjusting to the new world. Emotionally, many of them still lived in the old country, their imaginations excited by memories of revolt and their consciences troubled by reports of comrades suffering from czarist reaction. They often looked down upon the older Yiddish-speaking socialists as deficient in theoretical subtlety and victimized by the flatness of American society. “Everything in America seemed to them prosaic. Another lecture, another hundred votes gained at election time—who could be excited by that?” Still, as people of energy and conviction, they threw themselves into the movement in this country and succeeded in giving it a new forcefulness.

In Europe the Bundist position had been attacked as a disguised version of Jewish nationalism; Georgi Plekhanov, the Russian Marxist theoretician, had made a famous joke dismissing the Bundists as Zionists with seasickness. More cogent perhaps than the ideological attacks of orthodox Marxists like Plekhanov was the argument that the Bundists proposed to stop history at precisely the point where they had first encountered it. They accepted the breakup of the traditional Jewish world view; they favored the fracturing of opinion and pluralism of tendencies within Jewish life that followed upon the end of religious hegemony; yet they strongly resisted all proposals or inclinations toward a further assimilation into the gentile world. They wanted to remain Jews—nonbelieving, radical, modern, but Jews.

Both religious and secularist Jews criticized the Bund on the ground that the Yiddishist phase of Jewish history which it hoped to preserve would, of necessity, be short-lived. Either—said these critics of both right and left—the Jews will return to their traditional faith or they will proceed to total assimilation; it is unrealistic to expect a prolonged historical period in which the Jews would maintain themselves as a distinct people yet be without religion or territory.

There was, it now seems, a certain validity to these criticisms, but in 1910 or 1912, before modern Jewish history had reached its denouement, the Bundists played a vital role in the immigrant community. They grasped, better than anyone else, that the problems of the immigrant Jewish working class were not merely problems of organization but, still more, of morale. They grasped that it was necessary to forge a Jewish working class that would have a sense of its own worth. Too many Jewish workers still lived under the sign of fear, too many still bore the stigma of shtetl passivity, too many still thought of self-exploitation as a strategy for escaping exploitation. The Bundists understood that they had to confront a major problem in collective self-regard. Victories in trade-union struggles were, of course, essential to that end, but greater internal coherence and solidarity were a prerequisite for giving those victories a lasting institutional base. What the Bundists brought to the socialist and union movements in this country was not merely their élan, combativeness, and sophisticated conviction; it was a Jewish dimension, the persuasion that when garment workers won strikes, as they began to do in 1909, this was a victory not merely for workers who happened to be Jews but for Jewish workers. The class struggle pursued within the Jewish community would be a means of enriching the life of the Jewish workers, while enriching their life was a precondition for a successful pursuit of the class struggle.

Recognizing that they were now in America to stay, the Bundists joined the Socialist party, became active in the Workmen’s Circle, and provided new leadership in the Jewish unions. There were bitter fights between the “grine” sotsialistn—greenhorn socialists, mostly Bundists—and the “gele” sotsialistn—“yellowed,” or less greenhorn, socialists, mostly old-timers from the 1880’s and 1890’s. In Chicago, for example, where the “grine” proposed to create a Jewish Socialist Federation, the “gele” howled them down: “You want to make a Bund in America, do you? You want to celebrate your own private Sabbath? No, sir; here in America we have only a unified Socialist party.”

The Bundists and their allies won out, with the Jewish Socialist Federation representing, in good part, their adaptation to American circumstances. A number of Yiddish-speaking socialists of the “cosmopolitan” wing, especially in their Brooklyn stronghold, refused to have anything to do with the “nationalistic” Federation (which, in reality, devoted much energy to attacking the Zionists). Under the leadership of J. B. Salutsky, later known in the labor movement as J. B. S. Hardman, the Federation nevertheless thrived. A year after its formation in 1912, it had sixty-five branches with a membership of 2,500. On the face of it, this was a small number, but because these people were active and articulate, they were able to exert considerable influence in the immigrant world.

Several factors helped the new Federation. Ever since the Kishinev pogroms of 1903 there had been a greater readiness on the Jewish left to acknowledge the depth and validity of national sentiments; such prominent East Side anarchists as Hillel Zolatoroff and Moshe Katz returned “to the people” and became Labor Zionists. Though not yet a mass movement, the Zionists lent intellectual respectability to national sentiments among secular Jews, thereby forcing the Socialists to adopt less doctrinaire positions.

Within the American socialist movement as a whole, there had been going on a sharp debate about the problem of immigration. The Socialist party leadership, seeking to win over major segments of the trade-union movement and itself not quite free of prejudice, was torn between the traditional socialist principle that immigration should everywhere be unrestricted and the AFL stand favoring severe limits on Oriental immigration. The Jewish community, of course, favored unrestricted immigration, as did almost all the Jewish socialists, both out of principle and a recognition that anything less would leave them utterly vulnerable to attack by political rivals. At the 1908 Socialist party convention a fight broke out over the immigration issue, with one or two party leaders (Victor Berger and Ernest Untermann) indulging in openly racist remarks. Morris Hillquit, appalled at some of the things he heard yet seeking a formula that would prevent a rupture between the Socialists and the AFL, introduced a resolution that accepted some restrictions on immigration, not on the grounds of race, religion, or nationality, but whenever it threatened to “weaken American labor.” This waffling formula gained a narrow majority of the convention; it was opposed by the Jewish delegates from the East Side, led by Meyer London, who fought for unrestricted immigration. That the issue could arise in so bedeviling a way, even within the radical movement, greatly strengthened the hand of those who argued that a distinctive Jewish Socialist Federation was needed.

Finally, it was the pressure of events that settled this dispute. The years 1907 and 1908 had brought a severe depression, and partly in reaction, a series of major strikes broke out in the Jewish industries. There could be no question that these strikes represented a fulfillment of hopes shared by all Jewish socialists nor that they represented an outburst of rage and yearning within the Jewish community as a whole. Polemics were put aside for a while, and the work of the moment began.

The Girls and the Men

Bad as things were for the Jewish socialists in the first years of the century, they were worse still for the Jewish unions.* Socialist groups can survive on ideology, factionalism, and visions, but unions either perform concrete tasks or go under. The largest and most important Jewish union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, was organized in 1900 at a New York conference opened by Joseph Barondess, the all-purpose plenipotentiary of the East Side, and Herman Robinson, representing the American Federation of Labor. Eleven delegates were present, claiming to speak for two thousand workers. With a treasury of $30, the ILGWU began to make what its officers regarded as “modest progress”: its total income for 1900–1901 was $506, a sum deemed sufficient to appoint Bernard Braff as part-time secretary-treasurer at $5 a week. The next year his salary was tripled, on condition he give full time to union duties.

The early account books of the ILGWU tell a story of their own. From June 1902 to May 1903 the cost of clerical help came to nineteen dollars. Since Braff wrote poorly, his son, a high-school student, “smoothed out the English of his immigrant father and embellished the official reports with literary allusions to Mark Twain,” for which service the 1903 convention voted the boy a ten-dollar present. At the initiative of Benjamin Schlessinger, a young activist who would later become president of the ILGWU, the convention passed a resolution of friendship for the Socialist party, though the union itself was tactically conservative in these early days, avoiding rash strikes and trying to move step by step toward solid organization. This strategy was strengthened by the new secretary-treasurer chosen in 1903, John Dyche, whose views on unionism were fairly close to those of Samuel Gompers but whom the Jewish socialists respected as a devoted and serious man.

About 1904 the ILGWU started going downhill: internal wrangling, raids from the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, disastrous strikes, decline in membership. A 1908 conference led certain active figures to consider abandoning the union: “Some of us,” recalls the early leader Abraham Rosenberg, “cried bitterly at these words.” When a decision was made not only to keep the union afloat but also to open a new office for its New York Joint Board, the first month’s rent could be paid only because Meyer London, the Socialist leader, advanced twenty-five dollars from his own pocket. Rosenberg writes that when the New York tailors’ Local 9 had to induct new members, it often could not collect a quorum of old ones. “Well, we found a way out. Just before the meeting we borrowed a dozen operators who were meeting in the same building and a few skirtmakers, and we elevated them to the rank of tailors for that evening.” As for the International, Dyche spent a good part of his time evading landlords and other bill collectors: he “would come into his office early in the morning, snatch up his mail, and be gone for the rest of the day.”

And then, with a momentum and rapidity that may resist full explanation, everything changed. In 1909 the United Hebrew Trades, a federation of the Jewish unions, had forty-one affiliates in New York, with perhaps five thousand members; many of these locals were paper organizations wistfully held together by five or six people. Yet within a few months there erupted a series of strikes unprecedented in Jewish life for their size, duration, and fury. First came the bakers, two thousand of them, striking in the spring of 1909 against conditions that were regarded as shocking even on the East Side. Soon the offices of the United Hebrew Trades were besieged by groups of workers demanding they be organized, and the UHT leaders-Bernard Weinstein and Max Pine, aided by socialist irregulars like Hillquit, Cahan, and London—were racing about from meeting to meeting.*

Why the change? Because the 1907–1908 depression had come to an end, there was more work in the Jewish industries, and a slight rise in income fortified the workers to demand more. Because the IWW, mostly an irritant in the needle trades, had been beaten off. Because the post-1905 wave of immigrants began to assume leadership in the unions. And because the realization kept growing among immigrant Jews that for good or bad they were in America to stay: “Their hopes in the Russian Revolution began to wane.… The idea of going back home to Russia gave way to the realization that America was ‘home.’ As a result, many of these immigrants turned their attention to their immediate environment.”

Helpful as such explanations may be, they all seem finally not to satisfy. Perhaps the most cogent thing to be added is that the massing of tribulation and anger which in the past had recurrently erupted as strikes now reached another climax of explosion—this time among the Jewish girls.

On November 22, 1909, twenty thousand shirtwaist makers, most of them girls in their teens or early twenties, and about two thirds of them Jewish, went on strike.

The manufacture of shirtwaists, or blouses, was a relatively new segment of the garment industry. Since 1900 it had been growing rapidly, its 1909 output in New York alone reaching fifty million dollars. Physical conditions in the shirtwaist shops tended to be better than in other parts of the industry, mostly because these shops were newer, cleaner, and more likely to use electrical power; but the girls were subject to many small tyrannies, sexual discrimination on top of class exploitation. “Inside subcontracting” was common in the shirtwaist shops, which meant that male employees would themselves employ several “girl helpers,” who earned no more than three or four dollars a week. These doubly ill-used “learners,” who sometimes kept “learning” long after there was nothing left to learn, formed 20 to 25 percent of the work force. Female workers were charged for needles, power, and supplies at a profit of 20 percent; taxed for the chairs on which they sat; made to pay for clothes lockers; fined if they came to work five minutes late. Sporadic efforts to organize them had failed, and the common view of the time was that, because they were girls who hoped soon to marry, they could not be unionized.*

When the strike began, the shirtwaist makers’ union, Local 25 of the ILGWU, had slightly more than one hundred members and some four dollars in its treasury. Limited strikes had already been called against several firms, the Triangle Waist Company and the Leiserson Company, but these seemed on the edge of collapse because the employers, mostly east European Jews, had used strikebreakers and thugs to frighten the girls. In desperation, the leadership of Local 25 began to consider the total gamble of a “general strike” in the shirtwaist industry.

On November 22 it called a meeting of workers at Cooper Union. Thousands came, with crowds spilling over into other halls. Gompers spoke; so did Mary Dreier, head of the Women’s Trade Union League; and, as usual at such meetings, Jacob Panken and Meyer London, the big guns of Jewish socialism. But no clear strategy had been worked out by the Local leadership, and the speakers, hesitating before the prospect of an ill-prepared general strike, could not quite decide between exhortation and caution. As the evening dragged along and speaker followed speaker, there suddenly raced up to the platform, from the depths of the hall, a frail teen-age girl named Clara Lemlich, who had been picketing at the Leiserson plant day after day. She burst into a flow of passionate Yiddish which would remain engraved in thousands of memories: “I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared—now.”

A contagion of excitement swept the meeting, people screaming, stamping feet, waving handkerchiefs. The chairman, Benjamin Feigenbaum, stood on the platform trying to restore order, and when finally heard, asked for a second. Again pandemonium, the whole crowd shouting its second. Shaken by this outburst, Feigenbaum cried out: “Do you mean it in good faith? Will you take the old Jewish oath?” Thousands of hands went up: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I raise!”

Week after week the strike went on. Most shops were closed, a few tried to use scabs. The Jewish socialists threw themselves into the day-today work. The Women’s Trade Union League sent help to the picket lines, sharing blows and abuse with the Jewish and Italian girls.* Lillian Wald and Mary Simkhovitch did publicity. Wealthy New York women such as Mrs. Oliver Belmont and Anne Morgan, sister of the banker, provided bail money. Wellesley students donated $1,000 to the strike fund. In the first month alone, 723 girls were arrested and 19 sent to the workhouse; the average daily bill for bail came to $2,500. Sentencing a striker, Magistrate Olmstead declared: “You are on strike against God and Nature, whose firm law is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow.” About which Bernard Shaw, in reply to the Women’s Trade Union League, wired: “Delightful. Medieval America always in the intimate personal confidence of the Almighty.”

Nothing in the strike was as remarkable as the girls themselves. Some turned out to be natural leaders, fighting with great boldness, even ferocity. “Into the foreground,” wrote an observer, “comes the figure of one girl after another as her services are needed. With extraordinary simplicity and eloquence, she will tell before any kind of audience, without any false shame and without self-glorification, the conditions of her work, her wages, and the pinching poverty of her home.”

A young reporter for the New York Sun, McAlister Coleman, went down one morning to the garment center. It changed his sense of things forever,

to watch a picket line form in front of a struck shirtwaist-factory.

The girls, headed by teen-age Clara Lemlich, described by union organizers as a “pint of trouble for the bosses,” began singing Italian and Russian working-class songs as they paced in twos before the factory door. Of a sudden, around the corner came a dozen tough-looking customers, for whom the union label “gorillas” seemed well-chosen.

“Stand fast, girls,” called Clara, and then the thugs rushed the line, knocking Clara to her knees, striking at the pickets, opening the way for a group of frightened scabs to slip through the broken line. Fancy ladies from the Allen Street red-light district climbed out of cabs to cheer on the gorillas. There was a confused melee of scratching, screaming girls and fist-swinging men and then a patrol wagon arrived. The thugs ran off as the cops pushed Clara and two other badly beaten girls into the wagon.

I followed the rest of the retreating pickets to the union hall, a few blocks away. There a relief station had been set up where one bottle of milk and a loaf of bread were given to strikers with small children in their families. There, for the first time in my comfortably sheltered, upper West Side life, I saw real hunger on the faces of my fellow Americans in the richest city in the world.

The strike dragged on until mid-February 1910, and was finally settled with improvements in working conditions but without the formal union recognition for which the ILGWU had held out. A victory or defeat? In the eyes of some intransigent leaders, probably a defeat; in retrospect, a liberating event for the Jewish workers. By the strike’s end, Local 25 had grown to ten thousand members. In the immigrant world, the shirtwaist makers had created indescribable excitement: these were our daughters. The strike came to be called “the uprising of the twenty thousand,” and the phrase should be taken as more than socialist or Jewish rhetoric, for it was indeed an uprising of people who discovered on the picket lines their sense of dignity and self. New emotions swept the East Side, new perceptions of what immigrants could do, even girls until yesterday mute. “Unzere vunderbare farbrente meydlekh,” “our wonderful fervent girls,” an old-timer called them.

What the girls began, the men completed. Five months after the shirtwaist makers strike was over, the cloakmakers declared their general strike. “In the women’s strike, the social consciousness of the community was a potent factor. In the men’s struggle, labor faced capital directly. One was a sudden emotional outburst; the other was carefully planned. In the former, about 20,000 workers were involved. In the latter, the number of strikers was three times as large.… The shirtwaist makers’ strike was an ‘uprising.’ The cloakmakers’ strike was ‘the great revolt.’”

No Jewish union in the United States had ever before gone about its preparations with such care and method. Members were systematically enrolled. The Cloak Operators Union, Local 1 of the ILGWU, which in 1908 had only two hundred members, increased its ranks to two thousand by June 1910. In April the union began issuing an irregular paper, the New Post, in English, Yiddish, and Italian.* “Wherever cloakmakers gathered, one would find groups of workers discussing [the proposal for a general strike] in the most heated manner.” The AFL hierarchy was enlisted and Samuel Gompers came to New York to speak at a prestrike rally in Madison Square Garden—the first time a Jewish union had ventured to hire so large a place. Thousands could not get into the hall, so enormous was the outpouring of workers. Many stood on the streets listening to speeches from rented trucks. Elaborate arrangements were made for raising funds from friendly organizations, with Morris Winchevsky, the Yiddish poet, in charge of this campaign. (Where but in the Yiddish world could a poet have been the chief fund-raiser for a general strike?) Close to $250,000 was collected, with about two thirds of that sum to be distributed as weekly strike benefits.

On July 2 and 3 a secret vote of all the locals in the cloak industry favored the strike by 18,771 to 615. On July 7 the strike began. Abraham Rosenberg, then president of the ILGWU, summons the moment:

About two o’clock some members of the strike committee went to the cloak district to see how the order of the strike committee would be received.… Among those who were eager to see whether the workers would respond were Abraham Cahan and Benjamin Schlessinger, editor and manager of the Forward. Our people naturally were excited, their hearts beat fast, and every minute seemed an age to them. When at ten minutes past two there was no worker to be seen, Cahan ironically asked, “Well, where are your strikers …?” Hardly had he spoken, when we saw a sea of people surging out of the side streets toward Fifth Avenue.… By half past two, all the streets were jammed with thousands of workers.… Many of our most devoted members cried for joy at the idea that their lifelong labors had been crowned with success. In my mind I could only picture to myself such a scene taking place when the Jews were led out of Egypt.

All was precise, orderly, well managed: something new among the immigrant workers. “Every hall where the strikers met was in charge of a hall chairman.… Each shop elected its own shop chairman who was responsible to the hall chairman. The shop chairman kept a list of all the workers in their respective shops. Twice a day they took roll call. If any strikers were absent more than once or twice, committees were sent to look them up.” Strike benefits were distributed as regularly as finances allowed, one to two dollars for unmarried workers and two to four dollars for married ones.

The union was asking for a forty-nine-hour week, the employers offered a fifty-three-hour week. Wage demands also began to seem negotiable once representatives of both sides started to meet. But the one point that seemed beyond compromise was a union demand that the employers bind themselves to hire only union members. When the strike dragged through the summer, the suffering of the workers grew severe, as did the losses sustained by the smaller employers. A number of Jewish public figures proposed that the Boston attorney Louis D. Brandeis, by then well known in American life, be invited to serve as negotiator. He accepted, and with the aid of Louis Marshall and Jacob Schiff, both of whom feared that the strike might tear apart the Jewish community, he gradually worked out an agreement.

In principle an opponent of the closed shop, Brandeis improvised a formula that would later be used for settling many industrial disputes. He proposed a “preferential union shop,” that is, “a shop in which union standards prevail and the union is entitled to preference.” At first the Jewish socialists denounced this formula, the Forward calling it, not very accurately, a scheme for “the scab shop with honey.” But pressures for settlement were mounted against both sides, and finally, on September 2, a “Protocol of Peace” was signed that gave the cloakmakers substantial improvements (a fifty-hour week, wage increases, abolition of inside subcontracting, and a version of the “preferential union shop” that in practice would not be very far from the “closed shop.”) As soon as word of the agreement reached the East Side, people started streaming toward the square in front of the Forward building on East Broadway. “Everywhere men and women, old and young, embraced and congratulated one another on the victory. It was early morning, Saturday, September 3, before the streets were emptied of the masses of humanity.… Saturday afternoon, trucks decorated with flags, with bands of music, and carrying crowds of cloak-makers drove through the streets, announcing the strike had been settled.”

The East Side had earned its joy. Until now there had been no more than a large scattering of Jewish immigrant workers who would sometimes cohere for a fierce outbreak and then crumble into isolated persons; by 1910 one could speak of a Jewish working class, structured, disciplined, self-conscious, and with a much stronger tie to socialist politics than characterized the American workers. Through a bitter struggle against Jewish employers, the immigrant workers helped to create a new Jewish élan, a greater sense of strength and possibility, which extended beyond their own ranks and into the immigrant community as a whole. Through an internal class struggle they helped form a communal, even “national” consciousness. The words of Abraham Rosenberg—“I could only picture to myself such a scene taking place when the Jews were led out of Egypt”—were acute in their linkage of class and communal motifs.

Historians of American Jewish life have often seen the Protocol of Peace as a sign that, even when struggles broke out between Jewish workers and Jewish employers, the traditional values of Judaism still contributed to modulating the conflict. A sense of belonging to a community in which norms of justice, no matter how frequently violated, continued to operate; a sense that Jews could find ways of settling disputes among themselves short of open battle; a sense that Jews had moral obligations to one another that would at least soften the ravages of class conflict—all these, it has been suggested, helped make possible the Protocol of 1910.*

There is obvious truth in such claims. The Protocol did advance norms of collective bargaining far ahead of those prevailing in most American industries, and it would take some decades and a good many violent strikes before the major American corporations would agree to similar terms. No doubt, some of the Jewish manufacturers wanted, as their lawyer, Julius Henry Cohen, wrote, “to put the industry upon a higher plane and to make of the business something which would not make them shamefaced when admitting to their neighbors or children that they were cloak manufacturers.” No doubt, such employers encountered moral pressures from friends, neighbors, fellow members of societies and synagogues: pressures likely to be all the more stringent because the immigrant Jews were still packed into a tight physical and social space.

Yet the point can easily be exaggerated into a Jewish sentimentalism. For, as one historian asks, “How do we reconcile [the supposed effects of] the Jewish heritage with the brutality accorded strikers in 1909, 1910, 1912, and 1913 by Jewish employers?” Or with the efforts of the manufacturers to discard the Protocol entirely in 1916? Or with the brutal history of industrial relations within the garment industry all through the 1920’s and 1930’s? If the moral imperatives of the Jewish tradition acted as a restraining force upon the garment manufacturers, their own economic interests usually proved to be stronger. They had to. The employers were caught up in an industry where competition was murderous, profit uncertain, bankruptcy frequent. To survive, they had to take these realities into account, which meant that their Jewish consciences, keen or dull, had to be kept in the background. Had the immigrant workers not forced recognition of their unions and improvements in conditions, most Jewish employers would not, and probably could not, have allowed traditional sentiments of justice to overcome economic urgencies. Still, it seems fair to add that in some ways—their susceptibility to pressure from leaders of the immigrant community, their grudging readiness to accept arbitration during the 1910 strike—the employers did show themselves to be still responsive, if only residually, to the moral claims of the Jewish tradition.

This tangle of mixed feelings and confused values showed itself in the third major strike of the period, the 1910 general strike of men’s clothing workers in Chicago. Dragging on for more than four months, it was an especially bitter strike, in part because the workers were caught between their employers, mostly Jewish, and the United Garment Workers, a sluggish organization that looked with suspicion on the “radical Jewish tailors.” The hub of the strike was the huge factory of Hart, Schaffner and Marx, employing six thousand people. Here a young man named Sidney Hillman, later to be a major figure in the Jewish labor movement, sprang forward as the local leader, shrewdly fighting off both the New York-based bureaucracy of the United Garment Workers, which at one point tried to make a deal with the employers over the heads of the Chicago strike committee, and a group of intransigent leftist workers influenced by the IWW and unwilling to end the strike unless the closed shop were won. Except at Hart, Schaffner and Marx, the terms of settlement were close to being a defeat for the strikers, yet in the long run constituted an entering wedge for the unionization of the industry. What broke the unity of employer resistance was, to some extent, the moral qualms of Joseph Schaffner, who so took to heart the criticism of rabbis, ministers, and social workers that he began to wonder whether he was “a moral failure.” “This strike,” he told a friend, “is killing me.” Schaffner then negotiated with Hillman an agreement superior to those in other segments of the industry—here conscience, Jewish or not, does seem to have played a role.

Four years later, after much quarreling with the leaders of the United Garment Workers, the Jewish unionists in the men’s clothing industry set up a new organization, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, with the twenty-eight-year-old Hillman as president and a veteran socialist, Joseph Schlossberg, as secretary-treasurer. Though it soon became the dominant union in the men’s clothing industry, organizing shops that the slow-footed UGW never even approached, the Amalgamated had to live outside the ranks of the American Federation of Labor, the leaders of which kept insisting that the UGW was the only legitimate union. This isolation did the Amalgamated little harm. Blending Hillman’s pragmatic reformism with Schlossberg’s radical sentiments, the Amalgamated became a major presence within the Jewish labor movement, less socialist in tone than the ILGWU and less involved with Jewish communal affairs, but in many ways a pioneer in developing the “progressive unionism” of later decades, that is, a unionism extending its range of concern to the social and political reforms that would be characteristic of the welfare state. Its independence from the AFL hierarchy allowed the Amalgamated a freedom to experiment with liberal programs that was by no means common among American unions.

The Triangle Shirt Fire

After 1910, strike followed strike, one after the other, in all the Jewish industries. Long-contained emotions poured into these strikes, outcries of men and women calling for a recognition of their worth. And then, in the spring of 1911, the nerves of the East Side broke. One of the largest garment shops in the city, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, at the edge of Washington Square, burst into flame, and in the eighteen minutes it took to bring the fire under control, 146 workers, most of them young Jewish and Italian girls, were burned to death.

A reporter passing through the square would remember how

a young man helped a girl to the window sill on the ninth floor. Then he held her out deliberately, away from the building, and let her drop. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. He held out a third girl who did not resist. They were all as unresisting as if he were helping them into a street car instead of into eternity. He saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames and his was only a terrible chivalry. He brought around another girl to the window. I saw her put her arms around him and kiss him. Then he held her into space—and dropped her. Quick as a flash, he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upwards—the air filled his trouser legs as he came down. I could see he wore tan shoes.

Investigations, recriminations, exonerations: none could quench the grief of the East Side. What did it matter whether the Triangle building had violated the fire code or the fire code had been inadequate to start with? The charred bodies spoke of endless pain, remembered burnings. The East Side broke into scenes of hysteria, demonstrations, mass meetings, as if, finally, its burdens were just too much to bear. Morris Rosenfeld, the Yiddish poet, printed a threnody that occupied the whole front page of the Forward. A few lines:

Over whom shall we weep first?

Over the burned ones?

Over those beyond recognition?

Over those who have been crippled?

Or driven senseless?

Or smashed?

I weep for them all.

Now let us light the holy candles

And mark the sorrow

Of Jewish masses in darkness and poverty.

This is our funeral,

These our graves,

Our children.…

A more severe eloquence was that of Rose Schneiderman, the tiny firebrand of the Women’s Trade Union League, who spoke in a whisper at one of the memorial meetings:

The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today: the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch fire.…

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred! …

I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled.… It is up to the working people to save themselves.

It was from such experiences that the immigrant Jewish working class emerged in America.

The Jewish Working Class

Has there ever been another working class quite like it? Still pocked with the scars of Jewish fear*—a legacy of the past that could not be erased through mere will—the immigrant working class showed deep resources for sacrifice, powerful sentiments of solidarity, and a capacity for organization that made the hasty impressions of labor historians like John Commons seem a little absurd. There was a visible communal pleasure, a grim sort of pleasure, in testing out this new sense of combativeness. Abraham Liessen wrote a sentence about the striking cloakmakers of 1910 that would be widely quoted on the East Side: “The 70,000 zeros became 70,000 fighters.” Radical or not, the immigrant Jews took pleasure in this observation: it spoke to their morale.

To be a fighter, to act in concert with other workers, to bring to one’s tongue such inspiriting words as “respect” and “dignity”—all this testified to the forging of collective selfhood. Almost every ideological segment of the immigrant community stressed the goal of achieving “a normal life,” and part of that “normal life” would consist in a readiness to demand from the world what other people never hesitated to demand.

As a class in its merest beginnings, the Jewish workers had no traditions, no depths of experience to draw upon. They had to improvise their own myths, transmuting emotions of millennial expectation, or perhaps merely the frustrations of immigrant life, into visions of proletarian solidarity. The belief of the radicals that fulfilling this vision would also, somehow, sustain Jewish identity, may now seem to have been too facile; but in 1912 the formation of an immigrant Jewish working class helped to cohere and define the entire immigrant Jewish community. An old-time Jewish leftist has remarked, “It’s my idea that the Jewish community in the United States was not really a Jewish community, it was just something in fermentation until the labor movement came along. That gave the Jewish community its character, its face.” An exaggeration, but a useful one.

Meanwhile, yielding inspiration, there were stories brought across from Europe about the new fighting spirit of Jewish Warsaw and Lodz, though in truth this went no further back than a quarter of a century. There were also, as both inspiration and admonitory examples, the efforts of the earlier immigrant generations to fall back upon, though gaps of remembrance had already begun to crack open here. So the Jewish activists in the unions, most of them socialists, had to create their own symbols, their own legends, their own rhetoric, drawing upon whatever sources they could. That was why their imaginations were stirred by the spontaneous boldness of Clara Lemlich, the unknown girl racing up to propose a general strike of the shirtwaist makers. That was why their pride was gratified by Liessen’s epigram about the zeros becoming fighters. That was why they responded warmly when European socialist and Zionist leaders came over with reports that other Jews were starting to raise their heads.

The Jewish immigrants were a community triply uprooted: from their old homes, from their religious traditions, and from their customary work and culture. Uprooted, yet able to enjoy the sensations of unfettered speech, they found in their very deracination ground for a new assertiveness of strength. They could speculate freely, luftmenshn of programs. They could excite themselves with illusions of possibility. They could dream of bringing together their homely Yiddish with red visions of a beneficent future. The moral and psychic restlessness that seized the Yiddish-speaking Jews both in Europe and America hardened into a social restlessness. It was an overwrought community, dizzied from the freedom it had won in crossing the ocean and angered by the wretchedness it had encountered after the crossing. Tuned to a pitch of intensity, the immigrants seemed sometimes to behave as if intensity were a good in itself, a pleasure to be savored and indulged.

All this, we may ask, about immigrant workers, overstrained, ill-lettered, provincial, and with the marks of the shtetl still upon them?

Like most people, the mass of immigrant workers lived or tried to live by the values of private life; yet a significant number, a vital minority, thought in terms of political goals and collective fulfillment. Perhaps more important, the sentiments of this minority had a way of penetrating and sometimes inspiring those workers who were not active in the unions and did not consider themselves to be radicals. The outlook of a community is almost always expressed by its articulate minority, and the test of that minority’s right to speak for the others is whether, at crucial moments, it anticipates their sentiments, putting into language what they could not articulate themselves.* True as it may be that for the bulk of the immigrant workers the unions counted mainly as agencies for securing immediate benefits, it is also true that—for a sizable minority, always, and for the majority, now and again—unions figured in larger, more “ideal” ways. The rise of Jewish unionism cannot be understood without acknowledging “the decisive role that can be played by purely moral factors in the life of a people.”

How deeply these moral factors could penetrate the life of simple people is evoked by a letter sent in 1902 to the pantsmakers’ local of Boston by a member expelled for scabbing in a strike. The original is in Yiddish:

I appeal to you, President, and the members of the Union. I would call you brothers, but I know you will not take it in good faith. I know that you will say, “What think you of the boldness of this scab; he even calls us brothers?” …

Dear Brothers, I beg you to have mercy on my children. If you would come into my house you would see how frozen my stove is, and how my children shiver with cold—on empty little stomachs—just as I do. But I can only answer my children with a sigh: “I was a scab, therefore we must starve from hunger and cold. I cannot justify myself against the union.…”

Dear Brothers, I will ask you something, but answer me feelingly. Are my children responsible for my being a scab? Are they to be blamed because their father is a fool? Answer me, are they to be blamed? I beg you in the name of my little ones to let me back into the Union; we are cold, we are hungry, you are men, have mercy, Brothers.

Sam Schaeffer

The Boston pantsmakers took back the contrite brother and gave him a union card.

By their very nature, the Jewish unions were different from those prevailing in the United States during the early years of the century. In tone and quality, they resembled the unions established by European Social Democrats and anticipated the “social” unionism later to be introduced by the CIO. Where most American unions focused on immediate bread-and-butter issues and were likely to be hostile to heterodox ideas, the Jewish unions reached out toward a wide range of interests, from social insurance plans to co-operative housing, educational programs to Yiddishist cultural activity. Especially in the earlier years of their insurgency, the Jewish unions were not merely bargaining agencies, they were centers of social-cultural life, serving some of the same functions as the landsmanshaftn, though with a much more enlightened outlook.

A politics looking to the future blended with a tradition of tsedaka, or communal responsibility, drawn from the past. The unions established a custom of contributing generously to other unions, Jewish or not, as well as to innumerable social and communal agencies. When the furriers went on strike in 1912, the cloakmakers, themselves barely established, gave $20,000. During the great steel strike of 1919, the Jewish garment unions contributed $175,000, an enormous sum for the time and half of what all the unions in the country gave. Later, in the thirties, the Jewish unions were equally helpful to the new CIO unions.

There were other signs of distinctiveness. In the early days, meetings of locals were often conducted in Yiddish, or mainly in Yiddish, though the garment unions were careful to recognize the claims of multilingualism in locals with other ethnic pockets. The fervent atmosphere of these years is recalled by Charles Zimmerman, who would become a leader of the Communist bloc in the needle-trade unions during the twenties and a major figure in the ILGWU afterward: “[In 1914] our whole young crowd, we hadn’t much to eat, so we used to gather at my house. My mother would cook a big pot of potatoes, we used to buy a couple of herrings, and we would sing Edelstat’s [Yiddish] poems. Also those of Bovshover, but mainly Edelstat, his proletarian songs. Such was the spirit of the East Side at that time.”

This blend of social radicalism and cultural romanticism not only shaped the awareness of many early leaders of the Jewish unions;* it also helped bring those unions a little closer to the Jewish community than some socialist leaders really desired, since it encouraged a recognition of how deeply the unions were becoming involved in the daily course of immigrant affairs. **

There remains the most fascinating characteristic of the immigrant Jewish workers: that many of them should be simultaneously inflamed with revolutionary ideas and driven by hopes for personal success and middle-class status. Writing about these aspirations for social ascent, Nathan Glazer has remarked that

the explanation of Jewish success in America is that the Jews, far more than any other immigrant group, [had been] engaged for generations in the middle-class occupations.… Now the special occupations of the middle class—trade and the professions—are associated with a whole complex of habits. Primarily, these are the habits of care and foresight.… The dominating characteristic of [the middle-class person’s] life is that he is able to see that the present postponement of pleasure (saving money is one such postponement) will lead to an increase of satisfaction later.… [Jewish workers] were not, like the other workers who immigrated with them, the sons of workers and peasants, with the traditionally limited horizons of those classes.… [Their] background meant that the Jewish workers could also immediately turn their minds to ways and means of improving themselves that were quite beyond the imagination of their fellow-workers.

How then was it that these immigrant workers, or at least a good number of them, also became solid unionists and dedicated socialists? In part through the very traits Glazer assigns to the middle class—traits also needed by proletarian unionists and radicals, for whom the postponement of gratifications would come to be a familiar experience. In part because the Jewish immigrants brought with them not merely habits derived from petty trading but also such traditional elements of Jewish experience as messianism, which could be adapted to secular persuasions. And in part because the first shock of encountering America brought a shattering disappointment, especially to the earlier immigrants. Frustration paved the way for new political faiths, as it already had in the old country.

Many immigrants paid no attention, of course, to any programs for radical liberation: they saw their chance in America and they took it. Only a few would remain in accord with the aging Jewish unionist who explains that he was never inclined to set up his own business because “I didn’t want to be an exploiter, that’s all.” But many others yielded themselves to dreams of fulfillment ranging from international socialism to a little business of one’s own, from the regathering of the Jews dispersed in galut to a professional career for one’s son. The fulfillment could be collective, it could be personal—or, as the immigrants felt, why not both? As either descriptive or judgment, the term “middle class” does not even begin to do justice to the shadings and complexities of Jewish desire.

Like no other group in modern history, the immigrant Jewish workers meant to realize the Marxian idea that the task of the working class is its self-abolition. They can hardly be blamed that this did not occur quite according to plan.

The Socialist Upsurge

By 1910 the Jewish socialists had begun to deepen their roots in the East Side, breaking out of their earlier sectarianism and approaching the condition—as well as the problems—of a mass movement. In America itself socialism was on the upsurge, reaching its peak of influence in the years between 1912 and 1916. The Jewish socialists felt themselves to be part of a movement that, in the foreseeable future, could sweep to victory, and in 1908, when Eugene Victor Debs ran as Socialist candidate for president, they organized enormous campaign meetings for him throughout the East Side. His voice trembling with apostolic passion, Debs stirred audiences of tens of thousands at Hamilton Fish Park and then at Rutgers Square, just across from the Forward building, as he held out the vision of “a new and shining era of human brotherhood.”

In their own neighborhoods—the East Side, Harlem, Brownsville—the Jewish Socialists were steadily growing in number (more followers than members), starting to learn the arts of electoral politics, and consolidating their intellectual position, partly through the arrival of writers from Europe and partly through the maturing of spokesmen like Morris Hillquit. Intense and excitable, with a loftiness of spirit that even its opponents envied, the Jewish Socialist milieu gave people a sense of home and of mission. Spurred by the example of their parents or by the eloquence of orators like Panken and London, young sons and daughters of the immigrants would turn “naturally” to the idea of socialism; it became their initiation into the world, for a few the belief to which they would pledge their lives and for most a first inoculating touch of idealism before passing on to other, worldlier affairs.

The Jewish Socialists worked in several arenas. There was the union movement, now starting to provide a major institutional base. There was the network of inner activity: meetings, conferences, committees, lectures, social events, parades, soapboxing, selling literature, all of which brought people together into comradeship yet differed from other Jewish institutional life in that it directed attention beyond itself, outward, toward national affairs and international politics. “One need only go,” remarked a gentile visitor, “to a Sunday morning Jewish Socialist Sunday school to get a glimpse of the leaven of socialism that is among all ages of Jewry. There over 100 children spend an hour in singing, and a second hour in classes, eagerly discussing questions as to the relation between the wages John Wana-maker pays his employees and moral goodness.” Especially important in this thickening infrastructure of Jewish socialism was the Workmen’s Circle, the fraternal society founded earlier in the century, which doubled its New York membership from five to ten thousand in the years between 1905 and 1908 and provided the political activists with financial aid and a “mass base.”

Apart from strikes, the most exciting activity open to the Jewish Socialists was the recurrent election campaigns. At first, in orthodox Marxist fashion, they saw such campaigns merely as occasions for propaganda and recruitment, but by about 1910 they began to be lured by the thought of victory. In the electoral campaigns, confined mostly to the Jewish districts but sometimes with darts into adjacent German and Irish neighborhoods, such masters of the soapbox as the booming and indefatigable Jacob Panken reached thousands of listeners. On the East Side a lively street meeting meant an evening’s free entertainment and casual enlightenment: it was an important part of neighborhood life. Election by election, the Jewish Socialists became more professional in their methods, providing lists of registered voters in the Forward, organizing impromptu leagues of supporters in the unions, arranging torchlight parades, printing literature, and sending their sharpest debaters, like Hillquit, to outwit opponents. Yet, for a good many years, the results of the elections—impressive enough by comparison with later radical efforts—were deeply disappointing to the Jewish Socialists. As one of them wryly observed: “During the campaign weeks the East Side districts rocked with socialist agitation. The Socialist candidates were hailed as Messiahs. The open air meetings were monster demonstrations of public confidence and affection.… The marvels of the Socialist strength would grow until the day of the election. Then during the twelve hours between the opening of the polls and their closing, the strength would melt away.”

One reason, probably overstated by the Socialists, was the skill and persistence with which Tammany Hall used “repeaters” at the polls, stole votes, and so on. Another reason was the continual movement of Socialists out of the East Side to Brownsville and the Bronx (“as the ships bring the greenhorns, the moving vans take out the radicals”). Still another reason was the feeling among Jewish voters that while it was ennobling to listen to London and Hillquit, they preferred not to “waste” their votes on the Socialists. (A feeling especially strong when there were “reform” candidates or when William Randolph Hearst, the demagogic publisher then in his populist phase, ran for mayor or governor.) And still another reason for Socialist electoral disappointments was that large numbers of immigrants never troubled to become citizens. In 1912 the proportion of registered voters on the East Side was the lowest in the city. A few years earlier the Forward was bemoaning the fact that in Jewish electoral districts containing 250,000 people, only 12,000 had voted. “Our Exile has created neglect of bureaucratic formalities.… For the same reason American Jews do not take out citizenship papers—who wants to bother with the formalities and the paper work? Peddlers and storekeepers have to be citizens in order to obtain licenses, and they don’t want to start up with Tammany.” But the immigrant workers, especially those whom Hillquit called “ready-made Socialists” from Poland and Russia, were less inclined to observe such bourgeois legalities as citizenship. An old-timer remarks in his memoirs: “I know of one great Socialist propagandist who was in America thirty years before he became a citizen.” There were others.

The major reason for electoral disappointment, however, was one that Jewish Socialists were reluctant to confront: the movement in New York was predominantly Jewish in composition and leadership, with only a few pockets of Irish, German, and native American members. The very successes of the Jewish Socialists in their own districts underscored their difficulty in reaching apathetic or hostile gentiles and brought home a realization that victories won within a minority subculture had only a limited value for advancing the Socialist cause. Had the Socialists been able to register support in other parts of New York to the extent that they could in the East Side or Brownsville, that might well have triggered a multiplying effect among the Jewish voters. As it was, potential supporters in the Jewish neighborhoods must have turned away from Hillquit and London out of a persuasion that socialism was still mostly a Jewish tempest in a Jewish teacup, both tempest and teacup rather small. And for the Socialists themselves, it raised the deeply troubling question of why they could not penetrate other ethnic groups with the degree of success they were beginning to show among the Jews.

In the Ninth Congressional District, which covered the heart of the East Side, the Socialists kept increasing their strength, almost from election to election. In 1904 their vote came to 21 percent. In 1906, when Morris Hillquit ran for Congress in the Ninth, he polled 26 percent. In 1908 the party put on a major effort, again nominating Hillquit. Distinguished outsiders, like William Dean Howells and Charles Edward Russell, endorsed the Socialist ticket; during the peak of the campaign there were an average of 2 5 street meetings a night on the East Side; Big Tim Sullivan’s Tammany machine seemed genuinely alarmed. Yet, when the results were in, Hillquit ran a poor second behind Tammany’s Henry Goldfogle, the Socialist vote having declined from 26 to 21 percent.

All the previously cited reasons for electoral disappointment were discussed by the Jewish Socialists, but there is one additional factor that needs examining, though at the time it was not often faced with candor. Once it began to seem possible that in a three- or four-sided race the Socialist candidate in the Ninth might win by polling about 40 percent of the vote, the temptation naturally arose to pick up some extra votes through campaign appeals that the more intransigent comrades would regard as not “strictly Socialist.” For some, such appeals seemed the rankest opportunism. But those Socialists who responded to the problems and feelings of their district not just as Socialists but also as immigrant Jews, honestly believed that to campaign in the Ninth with the mere abstract slogans of socialism was utterly insufficient. It showed an insensitivity to the life of the Jews, it signified a doctrinaire narrowness in one’s conception of politics.

The old problem of the relation between socialist principles and Jewish sensibilities, which had troubled the East Side a decade or two earlier, was now reappearing in a new and heightened way. To what extent was it intellectually honest and politically appropriate to appeal to Jewish interests that “went beyond” or “left behind” class divisions? There was, for example, the endlessly troubling matter of immigration. There was the extremely sensitive issue of Jewish pride, which had been wounded by Police Commissioner Bingham’s attack (see p. 134) and which could be rubbed the wrong way when radicals kept harping on the social evils of the East Side.

Hillquit tended to emphasize a purist approach. He had no strong feelings, or none he showed in public, for Yiddish as culture or language; he was a cosmopolitan, not in the narrow-spirited way of those earlier radicals who had exhausted themselves attacking religion, but in the sense that he cared mainly about establishing a nationwide American movement. At a 1908 rally, he spoke with candor: “The interests of the workingmen of the Ninth District are entirely identical with those of the workingmen of the rest of the country, and if elected to Congress, I will not consider myself the special representative of the alleged special interests of this district, but the representative of the Socialist Party and the interests of the working class.”

But was it really self-evident that the interests of workers in the Ninth were “entirely identical” with those of workers in the rest of the country? On some issues, like the crucial one of immigration, a strong case could be made for the opposite view. Hillquit was clearly distinguishing himself from those comrades who wished to give electoral acknowledgment to “the alleged special interests” of the East Side, and his opponents, both on the right and the left, quickly grasped his point. For as one historian has remarked, the Jewish Socialist movement was unique on the East Side in “preaching … concern for issues transcending the ethnic group.”

Hillquit’s opponents handled him roughly. The Varheit, a Yiddish daily edited by ex-Socialist Louis Miller, kept asking where Hillquit had been during the 1903–1904 protests against the Kishinev pogrom. (Miller had in mind a statement of the New York Socialist party, shortly after the pogrom, warning its members not to be swept away by “Jewish nationalism.”) The conservative Tageblatt wrote that “Hillquit belongs to those who hide their Jewish identity … who crawl after the goyim.… He supported closing the door of the land of freedom to those who like himself wished to find a home in America.” Such thrusts were wounding, with the Varheit further damaging Hillquit by reprinting attacks from the left, some by Bundists and some by Daniel De Leon, the polemicist of the Socialist Labor party.

That Hillquit was seriously concerned with trying to maintain good relations betweeen American Socialists and the trade unions (without which, he believed, it would be impossible to build a significant Socialist movement in America); that he had Asiatic immigration in mind when he wrote that he opposed immigration of workers from backward countries “who are incapable of assimilation with the workingmen of the country of their adoption”—such facts, whether mitigating or not, helped him little. For “the Jewish quarter insisted on an unqualified stand for unrestricted immigration. As a spokesman for American Socialism, Hillquit could not meet this sectional demand. He spoke with the circumspection of a presidential nominee and not with the regional partiality expected of a Congressional candidate.” Neither Goldfogle, the Tammany man, nor De Leon, high priest of the sectarian left, needed to worry about such problems.

Whether by plan, intuition, or a little of both, the Jewish Socialists began to bend to the sentiments of the East Side. In 1910 they nominated for Congress Meyer London, like Hillquit a veteran comrade and lawyer for the garment unions but also more deeply placed in the immigrant milieu. If Hillquit had no choice but to become entangled with complications of national politics, London, a supporter of unrestricted immigration, spoke to the immediate sentiments of his community.

Running far ahead of the other Socialist candidates, London brought the congressional vote up to 33 percent. The left wing of the party charged that campaigners had urged the East Side to “split for London,” thereby abandoning the other Socialist candidates, and Louis Boudin, a theoretician of the left, wrote bitterly that “racial and subracial prejudices of voters were appealed to. The Russian Jews were appealed to because Comrade London was also a Russian Jew.” For Boudin this was prima facie a betrayal of principles; in the eyes of the London supporters, an overdue acknowledgment of the legitimacy of ethnic demands.

Running again in 1912, London did almost as well, with 31 percent of the vote. The portents were clearly good, since this was the year of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive party, and its candidate for Congress in the Ninth, the respected social worker Henry Moskowitz, won 22 percent of the vote, at least a portion of which could be expected to go Socialist the next time.

Apparently it did. In 1914, with the now-strengthened garment unions plunging into the campaign, London brought his vote up to 47 percent (just under six thousand votes) and won the election. That election night there occurred one of those emotional outpourings which seems to have been a profound need of East Side, perhaps of all Jewish, life. Crowds started gathering at dusk on Rutgers Square, facing the Forward building; at two in the morning, recalls an old Socialist,

Tammany leaders conceded London’s election. Joy broke out among the assembled mass. Men sang and danced.… London was brought to the square at four in the morning to head an impromptu demonstration. The writer still remembers the march over the streets at early dawn; M. Zametkin [a venerable comrade] speaking from the balcony of the Forward, lifting his hands to the rising sun, exclaiming, “Perhaps the sun will shine on the East Side from now on.”

The following Sunday the Socialists held an overflow celebration at Madison Square Garden, and London spoke simply and modestly: “I do not expect to work wonders in Congress. I shall, however, say a new word and I shall accomplish one thing that is not in the platform of the Socialist Party. I hope that my presence will represent an entirely different type of Jew from the kind that Congress is accustomed to see.” It was, in good part, for this last remark that the East Side had chosen Meyer London.

Meyer London (1871–1927) and Morris Hillquit (1869–1933) were the best, morally and intellectually, that Jewish Socialism had to offer. Both were born in eastern Europe, and both came to America in their late teens, gifted youngsters who turned spontaneously to the radicalism of the East Side. London, whose father ran an unprofitable anarchist print shop, tutored pupils in order to get himself through high school and then, in 1896, NYU law school. Hillquit, whose family was squeezed into a two-room apartment on Clinton Street, worked for a few months as a shirtmaker but proved too frail for factory life; he then spent some time as a four-dollar-a-week clerk in the Socialist Labor party office and as a contributor to the Yiddish radical press before also entering law school. London trained himself through English-language amateur debates at the Educational Alliance, Hillquit through nighttime political discussions in Yiddish, Russian, and English on the roofs of Cherry Street. Both were enthralled by an idea, but in temperament and style they expressed, almost too neatly, variant possibilities open to young radicals at the turn of the century.

London never left home. He lived his entire life on the East Side, a man neither quite of the people nor apart from the people; he belonged to that small group of immigrant professionals still closely tied to the working-class milieu, men and women with strong cultural inclinations but not, in a narrow sense, intellectuals. London’s strongest feelings were stirred by the ordinary—he might have said extraordinary—workers who pioneered in forming the Jewish unions. For them he served as advocate, adviser, and, sometimes, informal loan agency; labor people loved to tell stories about his generosity in donating services and refusing fees. A modest man, quite without the flamboyance or falsities of an earlier figure like Barondess, he lived austerely, sometimes simply closing his law office in order to work for the cause. He was the respected tribune of the East Side plebs, sharing their values and never, apparently, tempted to leave them for more attractive quarters. His daughter has remembered a family atmosphere that could have been found in other immigrant homes as well:

The lack of money never affected me, largely, I believe now, because nobody we lived among had any more than we did.… Our traditions did not include money as a problem to be discussed.… I don’t recollect [London] buying me toys, but we did talk about books a good deal. There wasn’t much buying of anything; there was a good deal of improvisation, but my childhood was a very happy one.

And what a leader of the fur workers’ union has recalled about London during a grim twelve-week strike in 1912 could have been said over and over again by everyone else in the Jewish labor movement:

London battled and suffered with us. I shall never forget one little incident that occurred during the fourth week of the strike. We came to London with our usual tale of woe, told him of the desperate plight of the strikers’ families. On the table near him were lying an unpaid gas bill for about $18 and a pass book from a bank. London picked up the book … consulted his check stubs. Then he remarked that his bank balance was $35, made out a check for the sum and gave it to us.

London had little to offer as a socialist thinker, but as an example of socialist man, a great deal. Though not a Yiddishist—he did his public speaking in English, with a strong accent and without the bearish melodrama affected by some of his comrades—London lived in essential moral harmony with his milieu. He was rewarded three times, in 1914, 1916, and 1920, with election to Congress, not (as some historians would later suggest) despite his socialism, but because, in the eyes of the immigrant masses, he was uniquely their socialist and consequently something other or more than a socialist.

Hillquit, in approach more reflective, in temperament more withdrawn, in style more cosmopolitan, chose a role difficult, perhaps impossible, to fulfill in the circumstances of American life. While maintaining as his political base the Jewish districts of New York and working as closely with the garment unions as London did, he also became the main intellectual guide of American socialism. Regarding himself as a Marxist in the tradition of Karl Kautsky and the German Social Democrats, he soberly tried to steer his party into the American mainstream, between the extremes of antipolitical syndicalism and incoherent reform which have always threatened American socialism. Whenever it was necessary to put forward a spokesman in public debate, whether against Samuel Gompers of the AFL or Bill Haywood of the IWW or any number of intellectuals who volunteered to defend capitalism, Hillquit was usually his party’s choice. He spoke with lucidity, argued cogently, and kept to a stance of civilized discourse; he also learned to write English well, though with a certain Victorian stiffness. If not an original thinker, he became a figure of intellectual force.

More complex than London, Hillquit was given to sardonic moments and uneasy reflections, troubled by the embarrassments of reconciling his career as highly paid lawyer with his vocation as Socialist spokesman, and inclined to retreat from his comrades into a shell of personal cultivation. London was a natural leader, though in a confined constituency; Hillquit, a highly developed political man who would have made a first-rate European parliamentary spokesman but in America had no proper outlet. London fulfilled himself by staying within his culture, but thereby shrinking the terms of his fulfillment; Hillquit suffered frustration by confronting the problems of connecting Jewish socialism with American politics, but thereby gained in breadth of perspective.

The First World War put both men to a harsh test. Many, probably most, American socialists were shocked by the collapse of the European movement before the power of nationalism: the European Socialists, who had kept saying that an imperialist war would be met with a general strike, now rushed to vote war credits for their warring governments. The Hillquit leadership in America, however, proposed to remain loyal to the traditional Socialist view on the war. In April 1917 Hillquit wrote his party’s famous Saint Louis Declaration, pledging continued opposition: “We call upon the workers of all countries to refuse support to their governments in their wars.… As against the false doctrine of national patriotism we uphold the ideal of international working class solidarity.…”

Courageous and principled, Hillquit’s stand nonetheless brought down upon his party mounting governmental wrath and occasional mob attacks.

The solitary Socialist in Congress—and from a Jewish district, at that—London faced a lonely task. He bore himself with dignity and judiciousness, he worked hard at preparing his speeches, he won the respect of the more serious Congressmen. This was, indeed, “an entirely different type of Jew from the kind that Congress is accustomed to see.” He introduced bills against child labor and for minimum wages and unemployment insurance—“wild socialist schemes” sidetracked in committee. “I remember,” said London, “when I made my first speech, one of the most extreme of the Republicans made his way across the House and peered into my face as if to discover what kind of a weird creature from some other world had found its way to this planet.”

Though convinced that Hillquit’s Saint Louis Declaration was too extreme, London did his best to oppose the gradual American drift into the war, arguing against “preparedness” and urging the United States to mediate between the warring sides in Europe. No one in Washington listened. Once the United States entered the war, he felt it wrong to impede its military measures, even by the symbolism of a vote. He therefore voted “present” (a way of abstaining) on a measure for issuing war bonds and on a war-appropriations bill—for which the left wing of the Socialist party would never forgive him. In 1916 the Brooklyn branch had already decided not to circulate London’s congressional speeches on the ground that he was fudging the party’s antiwar stand; now, in 1917, Ludwig Lore, a left-wing spokesman, charged that London was deliberately neglecting “every opportunity of manifesting serious opposition to war, in direct violation of our Saint Louis program.”

Under the multiplying pressures of the war years, London’s political base began to crack. Feelings on the East Side grew inflamed: some found him too antiwar, others not enough so; some thought him a fanatic, others a temporizer. In 1918 the Labor Zionists, who until then had supported London, turned against him because he evaded their request to introduce a congressional resolution supporting the Balfour Declaration recognizing the right to a Jewish national home in Palestine. Answering the Labor Zionists, London rehearsed the standard socialist arguments, including a warning against “forcible annexation” of Arab properties. In his own quiet way, London was a stubborn man who proposed to act in accord with his convictions even if that meant displeasing political allies.

Attacked on all sides, from right and left, in the press, in Congress, in his own party, London was no longer the adored tribune of a coherent community. In 1918 he failed to be re-elected, losing by a few hundred votes. Two years later he ran and won, for the last time; but by then, with the devastating split in the Socialist party, which prepared the way for a Communist movement in the United States, his victory was at least as much personal as political. In 1922 a gerrymandering of the Ninth District and the banding together of Republicans and Democrats behind a single candidate insured London’s defeat. He never ran again.

In June 1927, while crossing Second Avenue, London was struck by a taxi and fatally injured. His coat pocket, as he lay dying, held a copy of Chekhov’s short stories.

After London’s congressional victories in 1914 and 1916 there occurred one last and overwhelming upsurge of immigrant Jewish socialism. In the mayoralty campaign of 1917 Hillquit pulled together the hopes of East Side radicalism, bringing it to a high pitch of ecstasy, perhaps delusion; he drew as well, though not nearly as much, upon the unpolitical antiwar sentiments of the Irish and Germans. The campaign meetings were enormous; thousands of East Siders, belonging to no party, worked as volunteers for Hillquit; and even he, usually so restrained, was shaken by the enthusiasm.

One evening [he wrote] I was to speak at three meetings in the East Side. A gigantic parade was formed spontaneously. The whole East Side seemed to be on its feet, and for three hours countless thousands of men and women surged and swarmed through miles of streets before and after the car in which I made my laborious progress from one hall to another. They sang and shouted and cheered, and their numbers swelled incessantly. It was a touching scene never to be forgotten.

The magnitude of Hillquit’s campaign set into motion a backlash among New York’s Jews, some of whom, newly prosperous and respectable, were afraid that Jews would be smeared as radicals and war “shirkers.” As seldom before, the East Side was polarized into hostile camps. A great deal was now at stake in politics; one’s ideology signified more than the luxury of “taking a position.” Obliquely but sharply the whole question of immigrant relations with American society was being fought out in the campaign.

Joseph Barondess, now supporting the Republican candidate, led an attack on his old comrade: “Every cheer we give to those [like Hillquit] who are betraying the government is a betrayal of our sons in the camps.” Louis Marshall, usually a sober man, wrote that he was “alarmed at the thought that the Jews of New York, by supporting Hillquit’s policies [which Marshall described as favoring ‘a premature peace’] shall be charged by the American people … with virtual treason and sedition.” Samuel Untermeyer, a lawyer associated with Tammany Hall, struck the same note: “The Jews are generally regarded as the backbone of the Socialist party in this city. With your aid, this sedition appeal will die the death it deserves. If, with your aid, it should succeed, the responsibility and shame will be yours.” And the New York Times, in a touch of nastiness, wrote: “It is a singular genius of Mr. Hillquit that he seeks at once to betray the land of his birth and the land of his adoption.”

What all such appeals shared was not an effort to prove the Socialists mistaken but the threat that a Socialist victory would be used against the Jews; or, more bluntly, that Jews should not permit themselves to hold unpopular opinions because that would unleash anti-Semitism. Replies came from several directions. A conservative English-language journal, the American Hebrew, attacked “the shortsighted policy of making the Jew the scapegoat for all radical movements.” The American Jewish Chronicle, another English-language paper, charged that the Jewish leaders promoting the fight against Hillquit were themselves “the authors of the talk about a Jewish vote,” and asked, “Why must we Jews always be under the spell of what gentiles will say?” Most biting of all was the Forward in an article entitled “Be Afraid and Be Hypocrites!”:

A Jewish multimillionaire in today’s free, proud, democratic America comes and tells us to be afraid, to conceal our feelings, not to do what we consider decent and honest.… We should not vote, he says, for the man we love and respect and trust but for the others who don’t give a damn for the people.… If you Jews [he tells us] are true to yourselves, America will hate you.

From what medieval cellar come these words? From what terrified, broken Jew, with wobbly knees and bent back? Is this the voice of an old-time innkeeper who kissed the whip with which the Polish nobleman slashed him across the face? No, it is the voice of an American Jewish millionaire.…

The most loathsome aspect of the whole business is that they are not trying to persuade us, they are playing upon our fear. They do not really believe in America or its democracy.

Once the vote was in, it became clear that both Socialist expectations and anti-Socialist anxieties had been excessive. Hillquit polled a very impressive total of 145,332, an increase of nearly 500 percent over the last Socialist candidate for mayor; 22 percent of the city’s voters (31 percent in the Bronx) supported him. But this was still far from the electoral victory that people had been talking about. In the three assembly districts containing the bulk of East Side voters, Hillquit gained 11,911 out of 22,299 votes, a clear majority (but also indicative of how small the immigrant Jewish vote still was). A breakdown of city-wide returns by later scholars has indicated that Hillquit’s vote was not simply “a Jewish vote”; clearly, however, his strongest electoral support and the bulk of his active workers came from the immigrant Jewish community as it now spread out from the East Side into a number of satellite neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.

The Jewish Socialists had reason for celebration: they elected, in “their” districts, ten state assemblymen and seven city aldermen, as well as a municipal court justice. It seemed, not only to them, that they were on the way to becoming the second party in New York City (there had also been large Socialist gains elsewhere in the country). But that, of course, was not to be. Harsh internal splits, a repressive national atmosphere in the early twenties (reflected in the expulsion of several Socialists from the New York State Legislature in 1920), and a distinct improvement in economic conditions, especially for the Jewish immigrants—these were among the reasons for a reversal of political fortunes.

The Meaning of Jewish Socialism

From the distance of half a century—and at a moment when our controlling assumptions seem radically at variance with those of Meyer London and Morris Hillquit—what are we to make of immigrant Jewish socialism?

To a few elderly survivors it may still seem like a golden time of hope and fervor. For their sons and daughters it can often evoke a glow of warmth, sometimes framed in condescension: the struggles and dreams of the past are done with forever, yet those were really wonderful days.… Such feelings have found a sophisticated analogue in the theories of a number of historians who have written about the radicalism of the immigrant Jews.

The objective function of the Jewish Socialist movement, argue these writers, was to acclimatize the immigrants to American life. This was neither the intent of the Jewish radicals nor a judgment they could be expected to welcome; nevertheless, during the first two decades of the century Jewish socialism in America was primarily a vehicle of “transition and acculturation.” It built up the morale of the Jewish workers, enabling them to move into American society; it helped integrate them “into American political life” by providing, through the unions, “a laboratory and training-ground of collective self-government.” These ends achieved, it was then all but inevitable that the radicalism of the immigrant Jews should fade away.*

Clearly, there is a portion of truth to this view of Jewish unionism and socialism. The garment unions were, in fact, becoming deradicalized even as they kept using socialist rhetoric; a good many Jewish Socialists were, in fact, being absorbed into communal and labor organizations as their fervor cooled and their ideas changed. For many immigrant and even American-born Jews, their stay in the Socialist movement served as a kind of prep school for later careers. At a Socialist branch meeting you learned how to make a motion conforming with Robert’s Rules of Order—which gave you an advantage over most workers in your union. At a YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League) meeting you learned how to make a speech, even if sometimes a bombastic one—which gave you an indispensable skill for becoming an official of some communal agency or a business agent of a union. At a meeting of a Socialist faction you learned how to “theorize,” or at least mimic the posture of theory—which gave you a certain facility when you went on to college and became a sociologist or an English professor.

Stressing articulateness, rapidity, coherence, generalization, the Socialist milieu provided skills that in later, more “realistic” years could be put to worldly advantage. That was true, of course, for every Socialist movement throughout the world, but all the more so for the Jewish movement in America, where political training enabled careers venturing not only upward, in status, but also outward, beyond the ghetto.

It was not an inexorable process. Individuals could cling to old convictions even while escaping the social milieu that had helped form them. Some “of the most fervent Socialist agitators soon became doctors, lawyers, and teachers, but as a rule, they did not sever their connections with the radical or labor movements out of which they had come.” But the organizations of Jewish labor had less leeway: they found that, if they were to survive, certain adaptations to American circumstances were essential. Unions had to accept the rules of collective bargaining within capitalist society; they sometimes had to help small employers stay in business so as to insure jobs for their members; and they had to deal with unsavory politicians if they wished to protect themselves.

Nor was the process of adaptation entirely one-sided. “In the course of winning a better place in our society, those who became the nation’s tailors developed a fresh view of the functions of a trade union,” so that in time they exerted a transforming influence upon the American labor movement. For decades a minority, sometimes a scorned minority, within the American labor movement, the Jewish unions contributed heavily to the transformation of American unionism which began in the 1930’s. The Jewish Socialists, though failing to build a durable mass movement, brought to public attention a cluster of social proposals that would be debated and fought over for decades, some later to be enacted as domestic policy.

Still, the fact remains: it was the Jewish unions and the Jewish Socialists that had to do most of the adapting, it was they that had to modulate their earlier political ideas as they found themselves gradually being absorbed into American society.

Yet, for all its pertinence and shrewdness, this approach to immigrant Jewish socialism betrays the bias of a later moment, the tendency of ex-radical historians to dissolve the Jewish radical experience in the acids of retrospection. They assume what remains, or ought to remain, an open question: that the course of adaptation from the “excesses” of Jewish socialism to liberal moderation or even conservative comfort was entirely desirable, a token of what is called “maturing.” They treat immigrant Jewish radicalism in a manner oddly similar to that in which the immigrant Jewish radicals used to treat religion. Jewish socialism becomes a colorful trauma in the process of adjustment, to be stored in the attic of memory, just as religion had been dismissed as a mere sublimated version of unfulfilled historical yearnings or a mere social agency holding in check oppressed masses. In both cases, the explanation explains away too much too easily. The historians refuse to confront Jewish radicalism in its own right, even as they make shrewd remarks about its unanticipated role; the Jewish radicals, in similar fashion, refused to confront religion in its own right, even as they made shrewd remarks about its unacknowledged uses.

But while there is no reason whatever to take Jewish socialism at its own valuation, there is good reason for confronting it on its own terms. Whatever undesired or alien functions it came to serve, Jewish socialism was primarily a political movement dedicated to building a new society. It was part of a great international upsurge that began in the nineteenth and has continued into the twentieth century; and while there were, of course, distinctive traits in Jewish socialism testifying to a unique historical background, there were also many ideas and values shared with the other socialist movements of the world. Had the Jews, upon entering modern history, not participated in this movement, that would have perhaps required more of a special explanation than the fact that some of them did. Sharing the program of international socialism, the Jewish socialists largely shared its fate. There is a simple, perhaps decisive sense in which Jewish socialism can be said to have failed, quite as American or French socialism failed: it did not lead to the creation of a new society in which all men would live without want, in freedom and fulfillment. But just as international socialism helped to transform the consciousness of humanity, so did Jewish socialism transform the consciousness of the Jews. International socialism placed upon the historical agenda the idea of human liberation; it brought to unprecedented intensity the vision of a secular utopia; it enabled masses of previously mute workers to enter the arena of history. Jewish socialism (and Zionism also) transformed the posture of Jewish life, creating a new type of person: combative, worldly, spirited, and intent upon sharing the future of industrial society with the rest of the world.

To see Jewish socialism, then, as mostly an episode in the adjustment of immigrants to American society is to deny it the dignity of its historical range and ambition—even the dignity of its failure. It is to assume that the yearnings that gave rise to Jewish socialism have been more or less satisfied; it is to assume that not only were some adaptations of the Jewish Socialists to American society unavoidable but that most of them were desirable. There is, however, another possibility. In bending when it had to, Jewish socialism may have bent more than it had to. In yielding to American ways, it may have lost some essential strength of vision.

We have no reason to suppose that there will occur a revival of Jewish socialism in quite the forms it took during the first few decades of the century, any more than we have reason to suppose there will occur a similar revival of American socialism. But abiding needs and desires can take new expression. Has American society shown itself to be so splendid and so solicitous of its members that the views of the Jewish Socialists no longer retain an edge of truth? Are the adjustments and adaptations of their later years, made at some expense of earlier vision, to be seen as an unqualified good? Were all the hopes and ideas of the immigrant radicals mere softhearted delusions?

Perhaps so. Yet if Jewish socialism had to yield some of its intransigence before American society, American society still has something to learn from Jewish socialism.

* What Commons wrote in the 1901 Industrial Commission report became, for a time, fairly standard opinion: “The Jew’s conception of a labor organization is that of a tradesman rather than that of a workman.” Selig Pearlman, a historian of American labor, reports that Beatrice Webb, the English Fabian writer, had similar notions “about the extreme individualism of the Jewish immigrants from East Europe and their eagerness to ‘get out of their class,’ traits for which she had a scornful reaction.” Mrs. Webb, in her study “The Jews of East London,” wrote in 1902 that “it is by competition, and by competition alone, that the Jew seeks success. But in the case of the foreign Jews, it is a competition unrestricted by the personal dignity of a definite standard of life, and unchecked by the social feelings of class loyalty and trade integrity.”

Mrs. Webb wrote this just three or four years before the revolutionary activities of the Polish Bund and seven or eight years before the enormous strikes of Jewish workers in the United States.

* An aura often gained through imprisonment in czarist jails. B. Charney Vladeck, who began his political career as a Bundist and later played a major role in the affairs of Jewish socialism in America, wrote in an unpublished autobiography that “the whole experience” of his imprisonment “was in a way a repetition of the Talmudic Academy.… The days passed in endless discussions of party programs and platforms. The role of the peasantry in the revolutionary movement, the historic mission of the working class, the kind of government to be set up after the revolution, the role of the individual in society, the question of national minorities—all these were discussed in their relation to Karl Marx and Bakunin, Plekhanov and Lenin.… For the first time in my experience I had an opportunity to become familiar with the theories of the international labor movement. Also, there for the first time, I came across Emerson in a German translation.”

* An imprecise but unavoidable designation. “Jewish unions” refers to those in the needle trades, and sometimes elsewhere, which have had either a majority or a crucial plurality of Jewish members and in which the leadership has been heavily Jewish. At a minimum, this would include the unions in the women’s clothing, men’s clothing, fur, and hat industries. Over the years, a number of other unions, such as locals of the bakers’ and painters’ unions, could also be called Jewish.

* As a central agency of the Jewish socialists in the unions, the United Hebrew Trades came in for severe attack from leaders of the American Federation of Labor. In general, the tension during these early days between Jewish unionists of socialist inclination and the more conservative AFL has been minimized by historians who respond to the leadership of the Jewish unions as it is now and forget what it once was. A major point of contention was the immigration issue, with the UHT favoring unrestricted immigration and most AFL unions restrictions of varying severity. In 1901 the AFL organizer Herman Robinson urged local unions not to affiliate with the UHT since it knew “little or nothing about the trade union movement; its entire knowledge of unionism extends from East Broadway to Houston Street, and from the Bowery to Sheriff Street.”

This kind of sparring continued for a good many years. In February 1918 the AFL Executive Council ordered all affiliates in New York to leave the UHT on the ground that it maintained close relations with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Cloth, Hat and Cap Makers Union, both of which were independent unions led by immigrant Jews, many of them socialists, and both of which were in conflict with older, moribund AFL affiliates.

It would take several decades before this clash between the Jewish socialist union leaders and the official AFL leadership came, not to an end, but at least to a point where it could be quietly contained.

* “Our organizing,” recalls the secretary of the shirtwaist local, “was generally carried on in a stereotyped way. We would issue a circular reading somewhat as follows: ‘Murder! The exploiters, the blood-suckers, the manufacturers.… Pay your dues.… Down with the capitalists! Hurrah!’ The employers would be somewhat frightened and concede to the demands of the union. [Then] the workers would drop out.”

* At a strike rally for the shirtwaist makers, Morris Hillquit commented on the relationship between immigrant working girls and native middle-class women who were helping them: “It is no mere accident that in this fight the striking Jewish and Italian girls, the poorest of the poor, have the sympathy and active support of the suffrage workers of all classes. There is a certain common bond between women fighting for civil rights and women righting for industrial justice.”

* During the early 1900’s there had been a steady influx of Italian immigrants, mostly women, into the garment trades. In later years the Italians would form a powerful minority within the ILGWU, concentrated in Local 89 under the leadership of Luigi Antonini.

* Will Herberg, in his important study of Jewish labor, writes that Jewish employers and employees shared “a common social and cultural background,” which included “an age-old tradition of arbitration, of settling their often bitter disputes within the Jewish community.… They shared too, as a heritage of centuries of self-enclosed minority existence, a marked concern for the reputation of the Jewish community with the outside world. New World conditions undermined and confused these traditional standards, but did not entirely destroy them.”

* “We were a frightened people,” recalls a veteran of Jewish unionism.

* A personal recollection: in a strike of garment workers in 1933, my parents were suddenly swept into strike activity. Neither had ever shown any interest in unionism or politics; yet in the immigrant milieu the moral authority of the unions, or the idea of unions, was so great that once the strike began, they simply took it for granted that it was their duty to join, work, and make sacrifices in its behalf. And this attitude was widespread among Jewish workers.

* A more sardonic version of this idea is expressed by a Yiddish journalist reminiscing about his immigrant years: “The East Side waited for the paradise promised by the socialists, and while waiting, it sang the Yiddish songs of Edelstadt, Rosenfeld, and Winchevsky.”

** “The position of Jewish labor in the American Jewish community was strange and hard to define. In New York particularly, it was a very important part of the community and yet was, in a way, alien to it; in the ‘provinces’ (outside of New York) this alienation was even more marked. Jewish labor was an important part of the community because, in the larger centers, it constituted a major section of the Jewish population and set its mark on the emerging American Yiddish culture. But the radicalism of the Jewish labor movement, especially its secularist, anti-religious bias, actually made it a schismatic element in American Jewish life, very much as it had been in earlier days in eastern Europe.”

* This approach to Jewish socialism is most thoroughly developed in Will Herberg’s essay on the American Jewish labor movement; it appears obliquely in Daniel Bell’s history of American socialism; and a cruder version can be found in Benjamin Stolberg’s book on the ILGWU (“the garment workers were Americanized in the melting pot of their own union, which burned out the many isms and in the end produced an essentially progressive trade unionism”).

CHAPTER TEN. Breakup of the Left

For most American Socialists, and particularly the Jewish ones, the two Russian revolutions of 1917—February, overthrowing the czar, and October, establishing Bolshevik rule—seemed proof that the moment had come when the proletariat would take power throughout Europe.

The whole of immigrant Jewry welcomed the February Revolution: an end to the hated czars and government-arranged pogroms! With the October Revolution all the talk of the radicals, everything that must sometimes have seemed elusive to even the most sanguine among them, took on the strength of reality. That a working-class state could be proclaimed in the most backward country of Europe, that the Lenin who had yesterday been a mere émigré in Switzerland should today command the palace of the czars: this seemed radiant evidence that the victory of socialism was at hand.

Until the formation of the Communist International in 1919, and for a while afterward, there was hardly a radical in America who did not support the Bolshevik revolution, though some had begun to dissociate themselves from Bolshevik theories. One reason was that for a time hardly anyone in America really knew what was happening in Russia, most reports in the press being so drenched with malice as to discredit the possibility of serious criticism. Once, however, John Reed started filling the pages of the Liberator with his brilliant narrative about “ten days that shook the world”—an account of the Bolshevik revolution with the imperial simplicities of myth—then the American radicals could find a source of guidance and inspiration: this is how it happened, this is how it’s done.

In the Yiddish press, by contrast, there was at first a strain of skepticism toward the Bolsheviks. The Tageblatt hewed to its conservative line: “A strong government based on law and order will not be established in Russia until the Bolsheviks have failed.” The socialist Forward, uncertain in its view of the Bolsheviks, printed an editorial on November 17, 1917, favoring a coalition of all the Russian Socialist parties, a proposal Lenin had already dismissed. The next day the Forward ran a pugnacious article by Moissaye Olgin, then an anti-Leninist but later to become the main Yiddish spokesman for Stalinism. Lenin, wrote Olgin, “is a master at devising slogans for uninformed masses.… But when it comes to governing a powerful state or being responsible for improving the life of millions, he may not be so keen.” It was only after the Bolsheviks had consolidated their power and begun to cast their voices across the whole of Europe that the Jewish left in America largely abandoned, at least for a few years, its impulse to criticism.

Among the more radical immigrants there now arose a movement to return to Russia: it brought together motifs of nostalgia, political romanticism, and disillusionment with America. Between 1917 and 1920, some 21,000 people left the United States who declared themselves to be “Hebrews” and “Russians”: 3,760 of the former and 17,355 of the latter, though we can safely assume that a good many of the “Russians” were also Jewish.

A Chicago Yiddish daily published a poem in which the author thus expressed his feelings about new Russia: “Forgive me, I did not know you,/I was afraid of you, because of the Czar’s crown on your head.… I have escaped from you/ to a strange land over the sea.” The Socialist Forward’s manager, Baruch C. Vladeck, wrote: “Life is strange: my body is in America. My heart and soul and life are in that great wonderful land, which was so cursed and is now so blessed, the land of my youth and revived dreams—Russia.”

Especially in the months between the fall of the czar and the rise of the Bolsheviks to power, the East Side was caught up in heady sensations of political fervor. On July 9, 1917, thousands came to a demonstration in front of the Henry Street Settlement, at which the new Russian ambassador, M. Bachmatiev, spoke: “I salute you in the name of my sisters who were tortured in Russia; of brothers who were tortured in Siberia; and of my dead father, whose eyes were burned out in a pogrom.” With unusual lyricism, Abraham Cahan wrote that Yiddish culture in America would now enter a higher phase through interchange with the newly liberated Russian. In May 1917 a group of about a hundred, calling themselves the “Former Prisoners,” left New York to return to revolutionary Russian via Japan and Siberia. It was a moment of great expectations and only a few sober voices:

When New York Jews found out about the Russian Revolution [wrote A. Litwin in the Forward on May 4, 1917] they were exuberant.… We would all leave America and fly to Russia, and Jewish New York would be emptied out; East Broadway and Harlem and the Bronx would be covered with grass, as they were fifty years ago when the first Litvaks [Lithuanian Jews] set foot in America. But we are sobering up and realizing that Jews in America are here to stay. I talked with lots of people; only a few thousand can and will leave immediately. Most of these are greenhorns who can’t assimilate, luftmenshn drifting between the United States and Russia and always ready to move. The majority of the two million Russian Jews in America have struck roots and will remain. They have hundreds of cemeteries here, where their relatives are buried. Those with children born here will remain. And economic ties are strong.

Those few who dared express doubts about Bolshevism had a rough time of it, especially at Jewish meetings. Emotions of revolutionary fraternity seized the left-wing public, so much so that even the usually prudent Hillquit was swept along. “The Socialist picture from 1917 to 1921,” notes Daniel Bell, “is not a simple one of ‘left’ vs. ‘right,’ but a complete shift of the entire socialist movement to a frame of reference completely outside the structure of American life.” In a book Hillquit published in 1921, From Marx to Lenin, there is some criticism of the Communist International as “essentially Russian in structure, concept and program,” but far more noteworthy was his endorsement of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as a form of power compatible with democracy. If this reflected a desire by Socialist spokesmen to keep the favor of their leftward-swinging constituency, it is also true that the leaders were themselves caught up in the same enthusiasms.

Inevitably there sprang up a left wing in American Socialism hoping to transform itself into a Communist party, and inevitably this left wing found adherents in the Jewish quarter. With their major source of inspiration the political turmoil of Europe, the left wingers succumbed to a sectarian outlook utterly out of rhythm with American events. Through a series of splits and splits within splits, often ugly, sometimes bizarre, there gradually emerged the feeble beginnings of American Communism.*

At first it seemed that the Jewish Socialist Federation (see p. 294) would escape the worst excesses of factionalism, since it was already to the left of the American Socialist party and thereby somewhat less vulnerable to the pull of those urging an immediate split. Some of the Federation leaders also felt that the inner cohesion of the Jewish radical world would make the prospect of a split seem especially disturbing. But there was finally no way of insulating the Jewish left in America from the convulsions of world socialism. In 1917 a meeting of Manhattan Socialists saw the loose beginnings of a left wing influenced by Leon Trotsky, then a refugee living in New York.* By 1919 the Forward was describing the inner situation of the Federation as hopeless: “The majority of the branches are divided into warring camps which refuse to listen to or understand one another. It is impossible to carry on constructive activity.… Might not a divided existence be more practical than a forced coexistence?”

Earlier that year a left wing had been formally established in the Federation by five young members of its East Side branch; like all radical factions, they started publishing a paper of their own, the Kamf. In May 1919 this small group, led now by Alexander Bittleman, withdrew from the Federation and started its trip into the semiunderground of American Communism. “The young men of this group,” scoffed Moissaye Olgin, “live in a little world created in their own imagination where everything is as they like it to be. The workers are united, class conscious, organized and armed. Only one thing remains to be done: begin the final conflict.” J. B. Salutsky, the leader of the Federation, wrote with still greater vehemence: “According to the Moscow prescription, the new [Communist] International is to be a religious, fanatical, intolerant sect of hasidim adhering to one rabbi only.”

So powerful, nonetheless, were the leftward propulsions within Jewish Socialism that precisely leaders like Olgin and Salutsky would be the ones to break the Federation away from the Socialist party. Trying to walk a thin political line—pro-Soviet but critical of Communist parties—the Federation leaders in 1921 declared their organization autonomous, apart from both the Socialist and Communist parties. A minority, consisting mostly of Forward people, left to form their own group, the Jewish Socialist Farband, which maintained ties with the Socialist party. It tells us a good deal about the temper of the Jewish left at this time that the Farband’s weekly could say as late as 1921: “We are not an organ for attacks on the Russian Bolsheviks. We have the greatest respect for the leaders of the Soviet government.” Not until another two years or so did this “respect” come to an end—by 1923 the Farband was sharply anti-Communist and would remain so to the end.

Only a few voices within the Jewish left offered a critique of the now-homeless Federation majority. Philip Krantz, veteran radical of the nineties, denounced it as “a gilgul [transmutation] of De Leonism”—not quite accurate, but a sharp thrust. More serious were the warnings of Vladimir Medem, the Bundist leader recently come to the United States, who argued at the Federation’s 1921 convention that “the dictatorship of the proletariat” must necessarily degenerate into a dictatorship of the ruling party over the proletariat. Only through democracy, Medem insisted, could socialism be fulfilled.*

The Jewish Socialist Federation soon became entangled in negotiations with some of the underground Communists, hoping thereby to establish a revolutionary movement more combative than the Socialists but less doctrinaire than the Communists. These negotiations completed, the most prominent Federation leaders, like Salutsky and Olgin, joined with the Communists in establishing an aboveground organization, the Workers party, in December 1921. For the Communists, the Workers party was a “legal front”; for the Federation people, a venture in good faith. Stricken at the moment of birth, the Workers party did not last long. Salutsky and some of his friends became disillusioned and quit; others returned to the Forward, sadder and perhaps a trifle wiser; hundreds drifted out of left-wing politics entirely; and a small group, led by Olgin, became hard-line Communists. In a play on Chekhov’s phrase, Olgin explained his political choice: “But I want to go to Moscow!” So in the coming decades would a good many others, Jewish and non-Jewish.

If the number of card-carrying Jewish Communists in the early twenties was small (perhaps fifteen hundred in all the garment unions, for example), their influence in the Jewish labor movement was large. A militant segment of needle-trade workers responded with enthusiasm to the call of Lenin; the majority of left-wing Jewish writers, intellectuals, and speakers faced left; while those who remained with the Forward and the Socialist party were mostly the “practical workers,” trade-union functionaries, and the like. Among the Jewish radicals who had the perception and courage to criticize the Bolshevik regime were some who, a few years earlier, had gone back to Russia in a flush of enthusiasm. The anarchist leaders Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman had at first praised the Bolsheviks for “their glorious work,” but by June 1921 Emma Goldman was writing from Russia, “I am trying desperately to get out now that I have come to the conclusion that the situation here is utterly hopeless as far as Anarchist activities are concerned.” From the red scare in America to the red terror in Russia, they were hounded for their beliefs, and when they came back their accounts of what they had seen in Russia were denounced not only by the Communists but also by many liberals.

Never before, remarked Vladimir Medem sarcastically in 1921,

have I seen so many people inclined toward Bolshevism as here in America. And precisely among the affluent, the “alrightniks.” If you see a Jew who drives a car, you can be almost certain that he will be chanting Sabbath hymns for Bolshevism. And the better the car, the warmer his “sympathies.” …

What is lacking [in the American Jewish milieu] is firm socialist will and clear socialist thought.… Zionism, communism, anarchism, all are mixed into one pot, and no one knows where one ends and the other begins. Chaos reigns.

In this atmosphere of unsorted enthusiasms there began to emerge the community of Yiddish-speaking Communism.

Civil War in the Garment Center

From the very start it was characteristic of the Jewish Communists that they should be marked by a deep ambivalence toward everything Jewish. They were hostile to religion, Zionism, any “deviation” into Jewish nationalism; they used Yiddish simply because it was the language of the immigrant workers and not out of any principled attachment—or so they said. But they were themselves also immigrants, whose language was Yiddish and whose culture consisted mainly of the very elements of the Jewish tradition they were rejecting. For Jewish radicals this was not a new dilemma, but among the Communists it was driven to an extreme. They declared themselves internationalist, even cosmopolitan, in outlook and concerned mostly with rousing the class consciousness of all workers, yet they could not escape the impulse common to many immigrant Jews of building a hermetic community of their own, one in which the overtones and associations of Yiddish played a far greater part than their ideology allowed. This problem was to plague the Yiddish-speaking Communists for many years, with party functionaries issuing “directives” that Jewish comrades must abandon their provincial ways and plunge into mass work within the American proletariat. All very well; except that it was entirely beyond the reach of most immigrant Jews, Communist or not.* In the early twenties, however, another kind of “mass work” did come within their reach, and that was the fierce Communist effort to capture the garment unions.

William Z. Foster, a left-wing trade unionist who had led an unsuccessful steel strike the previous year, organized in 1920 the Trade Union Educational League, which was to serve as a focal point for militant unionists in the established labor movement. The early Communists were at first contemptuous of Foster’s plan for working within the AFL; but as he drew closer to them politically and became their outstanding public leader, they realized the TUEL could have its uses. Campaigning for industrial unionism, the TUEL picked up considerable support at first, but by 1923 it had narrowed into a Communist agency. An AFL convention of that year denounced it as a dual-union tendency.

One of the few places where the TUEL had real strength was in the garment center of New York. There was a long tradition of “opposition groups” fighting inside the garment unions against the traditional leadership. There were acute economic grievances as a result of the decline of the cloak trade, the spread of the contracting system, and the flight of employers to open-shop towns away from New York. There were internal fissures within the ILGWU leadership which could be exploited. And there were militants, perhaps two thousand of them, belonging to the four main garment unions, who were not members of any Communist group yet followed the Communist line with devotion. During the recent splits a good many of the more energetic younger radicals had turned toward the left; the Communists could now assemble such gifted leaders as Charles Zimmerman and Louis Hyman in the ILGWU and Aaron Gross and Ben Gold in the Fur Workers Union. By the end of 1924 the TUEL had won majorities in the executive boards of three large ILGWU locals in New York and had also made sizable inroads in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The struggle between left and right grew more brutal and demoralizing each day.*

At the head of the ILGWU stood Morris Sigman, a veteran Jewish unionist who had been an IWW organizer in his youth and still remained a bit of a syndicalist at heart. Ill at ease with the Forward crowd, suspicious of all political interference in trade-union affairs, and convinced almost religiously of the virtues of the rank and file, Sigman was an honest man who lived by the pioneer psychology of early Jewish unionism and felt increasingly out of place in these more complex times. At first he was prepared to tolerate the Jewish Communists, hoping they would work as gadflies to sting complacent leaders, but he soon came to see that there was something new about the Communists, very different from all earlier radical “oppositions,” a rule-or-ruin outlook that would not rest short of total domination. Blunt in his methods, Sigman started to attack the Communist bloc in early 1925. He charged the TUEL leaders with violating the union constitution—specifically, with having arranged a May Day meeting at which the loose-tongued Moissaye Olgin had cried out from the platform, “Long live a Soviet America!” The three locals under TUEL control were suspended and the headquarters of two were seized in the night by Sigman cohorts; but the third, Local 22, repulsed the raid and became a center for the Communist-led opposition.

Contesting the legality of Sigman’s action, the suspended locals set up a Joint Action Committee (JAC), which became the directing body for all left-wing work in the garment unions. Its nominal leader, Louis Hyman, was not a CP member but behaved pretty much as if he were; a radical magid (preacher), he had a way of endearing himself to union members whenever he got up to speak. The brains of the JAC and probably the most able Communist in the garment unions was Charles Zimmerman.* Led by these gifted men, the JAC kept intensifying the struggle. Scores of young Communists from the colleges, Bronx housewives, and party members from the entire city joined the left-wing garment workers in guarding their headquarters. There was civil war in the garment center, with that peculiar venom which only fratricide can induce.

In the past almost all radicals had shared the premise that factional disputes must not be allowed to go beyond certain limits, but this restraint was now abandoned. Importing “the methods of the class struggle,” the Communists fought the old-line union leaders as if Jewish socialism were their main enemy. And, as they saw things, perhaps it was. If anything, the Jewish Communists were more ferocious than their gentile comrades, for when Joseph Boruchowitz, the Communsit leader in the cloak union started debating with a Forvetsnik (a Forward supporter), what erupted was not just a difference of opinion but a seething hatred between men who only yesterday had known one another intimately.

At first the violence was mainly symbolic. Left-wing women would form what their opponents called “fainting brigades”—when a right-wing leader opened a local meeting, these women would pretend to faint, perhaps out of sheer incredulity at what they were hearing, and the result would be a brilliantly contrived chaos. Then there were the “spit brigades,” groups of women ostentatiously spitting into the gutter whenever a right-wing union official passed them in the garment center. Childish as all this may seem, it often managed to unnerve its victims, especially those still inclined to think of themselves as socialists who had given their lives to building unions. And in their disdain for civility, the Communists moved from the symbolism of disruption to the actuality of violence. Both sides began using shtarke (strong-arm men), first amateurs and then professionals. In the headquarters of the furriers’ union, Room C became known as a place where opponents could be roughed up a little. Rarely, if ever, had such methods been seen in the earlier years of Jewish radicalism, and the fact that they were now on the way to becoming commonplace signified a shared moral decline.

Functioning as a union in all but name, the Joint Action Committee collected dues, serviced grievances, negotiated with employers. But since the Communists were still reluctant to embark on a dual-union policy, Zimmerman and Hyman avoided the trap of proclaiming the JAC a separate union. Its main slogan, they took care to stress, was the “full reinstatement” of the left-wing locals.

That the left wing commanded enormous influence among the garment workers in the mid-twenties was admitted even by its enemies; it succeeded, for example, in calling a mass demonstration at Yankee Stadium in July 1925 to which forty thousand cloakmakers and dressmakers came, and it then organized a work stoppage in which thirty thousand workers left the shops and filled seventeen halls to listen to its speakers. A majority of the New York garment workers, certainly a majority of the active ILGWU members, supported the left wing, not necessarily because of its Communist leadership but because they felt—with some reason—that the suspension of the left-wing locals had been undemocratic.

The Sigman leadership was forced to retreat. Resuming negotiations with the left wing, it agreed to reinstate the suspended locals and call a special convention of the ILGWU. When this convention opened in Philadelphia on November 30, 1925, the two sides were about evenly matched, and for a moment it seemed that the largest of the Jewish unions might fall into the lap of the Communists. After fifteen days of wrangling, in which the Communists demanded proportional representation (it would have assured them control, since they represented the larger locals), a convention committee proposed more representation for the big locals but not proportional representation. Zimmerman leaped up to remind the right wing of an earlier informal agreement for a referendum on this issue, but the chairman, David Dubinsky, ruled that no previous arrangement could be binding on a sovereign convention.

A remarkable incident now occurred. Louis Hyman shouted, “Let’s walk out,” and the entire TUEL group left the hall. This was not, however, a calculated bit of Communist strategy, it was an impulsive act initiated by Hyman. The top Communist steering committee, Ben Gitlow and William Dunne, immediately ordered Hyman to reverse his course—dual unionism was not yet the order of the day. When Hyman refused to lead his delegation back to the convention hall, Dunne told him bluntly, “Then you’ll crawl back on your belly!” Bowing to Communist discipline, the TUEL forces returned to the convention that evening.

A compromise was patched up and the right wing kept control of the ILGWU, though by a frail margin. The TUEL continued to gain strength; it soon took over the New York Joint Board, the single most important segment of the union, with Hyman becoming general manager and Zimmerman head of the dressmakers’ department. In a short time, it seemed almost certain, the Communists would control the whole ILGWU.

Yet within a year there followed so radical a shift of fortunes that the power of the TUEL was all but shattered. In 1926 the Communist leadership of the New York cloakmakers called a long, violent, and disastrous strike. It grew out of a debate within the ILGWU over the report of a commission appointed by Governor Alfred E. Smith to consider ways of rationalizing the garment industry. So close did this report come in its particulars to earlier ILGWU demands that President Sigman advised accepting it as a basis for negotiations.

The Communist group running the New York locals now faced a crucial choice. Hyman and Zimmerman were not at all enthusiastic about calling a strike, for they realized that the odds against success were high; but behind them pressed the Communist party, actively demanding an immediate strike. This pressure, in turn, was almost entirely the result of a violent faction fight that was then being waged within the party. Neither of the two factions, one led by William Z. Foster and the other by Jay Lovestone, was willing to risk the “onus” of opposing a strike and the accompanying charge of being insufficiently “Bolshevik”; both knew that in actuality a strike would have little chance of victory; but each was more concerned with factional advantage than the future of the union. Out of such unsavory motives, the Communist leadership finally drove its supporters in the ILGWU to call a general strike in the cloak trade on July 1, 1926. The response of the workers was immediate and predictable: the shops were closed.

During the first months of this bitter strike, almost the entire Jewish community supported the cloakmakers, despite the leftist character of their leadership. Had a settlement been negotiated within a reasonable time, the workers would have profited and the Communist leadership in the ILGWU emerged with heightened prestige. But the strike was not settled in time. Hyman and Zimmerman negotiated informally with the employers and by the eighth week of the strike reached what seemed to them favorable terms. Only one barrier remained: approval by the Communist apparatus. And again factional interests proved decisive. Neither the Lovestone nor the Foster group within the party was willing to endorse a settlement that, in the eyes of Moscow, might make it seem pusillanimous. The party thereupon ordered its people in the union to reject the proposed terms of settlement—a decision for which the cloakmakers paid heavily. Yet their ranks held firm: no group of Jewish workers had a longer experience in strike discipline than the cloakmakers.

Finally, on December 13, the International suspended the left-wing New York leadership and settled the strike as best it could. Prolonged for six months and costing $3,500,000, it had brought misery to thousands of workers, mostly because their leaders were subject to an external political decision. It would take the ILGWU years to recover from this shattering defeat.

The Yiddish-speaking Communists continued to offer battle within the union, issuing “bonds” in a campaign to reinstate their leaders and raising $150,000 from sympathizers. But their moment had passed. They had held the fate of thousands of workers in their hands and had treated them with gross irresponsibility. The cloakmakers gradually drifted back to the old-line leadership; the “bonds” were never redeemed. Though they could still launch punitive guerrilla raids, the Communists would never again be in a position to take control of the union. In the shops and on the streets fist fights, sometimes with knives and blackjacks too, continued to break out regularly.

Not only was the struggle within the Jewish unions organizationally damaging, it was an experience that brutalized everyone involved. All participants were stained, right and left. The ethos of Jewish socialism would never again have the moral glow of its earlier years. In the whole immigrant Jewish experience there was probably nothing to match the civil war in the garment center for sheer ugliness.

One major reason for the success of the Communists in gaining support among garment workers was that a good part of the traditional leadership—socialist, nominally socialist, ex-socialist, or nonpolitical—had been losing its spiritual élan. “There was much in the union—ancient abuses, narrow-visioned, overcautious policies, undemocratic structures and practices—against which ‘idealistic’ members might revolt.” That unions, like all other organizations, should become bureaucratized may be inevitable, and not even the most idealistic leadership can prevent this merely through an exercise of will. A vigorous opposition, acting in good faith and loyal first of all to the members, would have done the ILGWU a world of good. The possibility of such an opposition, however, was foreclosed by the Communists, with the result a hardening of bureaucratic arteries in the right-wing leadership.

A veteran of Jewish Communism, later supporter of the right wing, has left a picture of how a bureaucratic “machine” could grow up in a union local:

A machine was built primarily by placing supporters in the best shops or by satisfying their craving for prestige. As voluntary [union] work was now paid for, an unscrupulous officer could oil his machine by padding committee expenses to give his men a few extra dollars.

A machine manages to remain in power through deals when it lacks popular consent. It also tends to develop contempt for the people. Some of the [ILGWU] officials had no trouble convincing themselves that the good of the union demanded their remaining in office. And if the ballot proved disappointing, they did not shrink from improving the results.

Feeling that their very survival as public men was at stake, and privately somewhat doubtful that they could cope with the sharp-tongued leftists in debate, the right-wing leaders sometimes found themselves using methods and making alliances within the unions that they would have felt ashamed of a few years earlier. The struggle hurt both sides but, in a sense, the right more than the left. Having surrendered to the “higher” requirements of ideology, the Communists were all but indifferent to ordinary moral constraints: they were open to large brutalities, rarely to petty corruption. The Socialists, more humane and commonplace, could slip, by contrast, into small weaknesses, the routine failures of union bureaucrats. Recognizing as much, some of the better Socialist leaders tried to warn their followers. At the 1924 ILGWU convention Morris Hillquit said: “People have become cynical.… You must maintain the highest sort of idealism, for that is one of our greatest assets. The union should not be purely a business organization which discards all questions of theory, philosophy, or idealism.”

Four years later, at a convention that was trying to pull the union together after the 1926 disaster, Hillquit came back to the same theme: “In the years of spiritual indifference that had taken hold of the whole country and all movements [during the early twenties], your union … began to conduct itself too much as a business enterprise. There was not enough soul in it.”

Such appeals, Hillquit must have known, could hardly undo the damage of the mid-twenties. For not only had the opposing sides themselves resorted to brutal methods, the struggle had also enabled gangsters to enlarge their foothold in both the industry and the union. During the 1926 strike, the employers hired the notorious Legs Diamond mob to terrorize pickets, and the left-wing locals responded by hiring a rival mobster, “Little Augie” (Jacob Orgen). When violence splattered across the streets, the International appealed to A. E. Rothstein, a respected manufacturer, to intervene with his son, Arnold Rothstein, then absolute boss of the New York underworld. Arnold had once met a few ILGWU people—Charles Zimmerman had appealed to him to remove gangsters who were terrorizing union pickets. He had taken a liking to Zimmerman and obliged. Now, eager to please his father, he again obliged, this time by telephoning Legs Diamond and Little Augie, both of whose gangs he controlled, and suggesting that they calm things down. They did.

Yet the mere fact that some locals could become mixed up with gangsters, even if only to arrange “protection” for their members, signified a sad decline for the Jewish union movement. For some years after the strike, the gangsters kept sliding into both the industry and several ILGWU locals. Murder Inc., run by the notorious Lepke and Gurrah, seized control of trucking within the garment center, edged its way into the top rung of a few locals, and made deals with a number of union officials (several, like Harry Cohen and Abraham Beckerman, old-time Socialists, were removed from union office because they collaborated with gangsters). It was not until the mid-thirties that the Jewish unions would be able to shake off these unsavory connections.*

It was a deadly combination: Communist ruthlessness, the decline of integrity in the union leadership, and the mushrooming of gorilla methods. Even after their hold on the ILGWU was consolidated in the late twenties, the right-wing leaders were, in crucial respects, damaged men. Many had been badly shaken by the years of poisonous factionalism, shaken out of complacence but also out of idealism. They felt wearied, ill-used, drained, little appreciated. Some grew bitter, others cynical. A rigid anti-Communism became a reigning passion. Without quite acknowledging it, some of the Jewish union leaders were now inclined to do precisely what Hillquit had warned them against: to treat the union not as a “cause” but as a businesslike institution requiring efficiency and meriting honesty, while leaving the rhetoric of socialism to nostalgic banquets and the Sunday pages of the Forward (where it had also lost its original glow). Hillquit was still respected, but for only a few union leaders did he remain an unquestioned moral guide. Something had burned itself out in the civil war of the garment center, some fires of youth and hope.

There are many reasons for the gradual decline of Jewish socialism in America—its very success in creating labor unions that improved the lot of immigrant workers, its inability to stake out a modus vivendi with native American radicalism, its failure to break past the boundaries of ghetto life, its hesitation to acknowledge the distinctiveness or “exceptionalism” of the American experience, its later excessive submission to the welfare liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt, and more. But in the actual experience of the leaders of the garment unions, nothing was more damaging to their earlier visions than the struggle with the Communists in the twenties.

Dual Unions—and the Furriers

With one major exception, the Communist penetration of the garment unions is, from here on, a story of decline, even fiasco. By the late twenties, when the Communist International decided upon the policy of dual unionism (the building of Communist-led “revolutionary” unions in opposition to the established “reformist” unions), Communist strength in the garment trades had badly shrunk. On New Year’s Day, 1929, they nonetheless organized the Needle Trades Industrial Union, which set itself up as a competitor to the four major garment unions. Only a few thousand workers joined this dual union, mostly furriers, long to constitute a bulwark of Yiddish-speaking Communism, and dressmakers, who had not participated in the 1926 strike and were therefore less likely to be hostile to the Communist leadership. In a little while a number of left-wing leaders, including Hyman and Zimmerman, broke with the Communists and returned to leading posts in the ILGWU. Some embittered right wingers were reluctant to welcome them back, but David Dubinsky, now becoming the dominant leader, understood that these men would be especially useful in rebuilding a shattered union.

The other major garment unions differed sharply in their relation to the Communists. In the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Sidney Hillman’s guile prevented the Communists from making permanent inroads, though they did command some influence during the mid-twenties. A master Machiavellian, Hillman pursued during the twenties a generally pro-Soviet line in public, thereby pleasing the left, while at the same time keeping it firmly under control in his locals. In the Fur Workers Union, however, the Communists established a strong and enduring base. Here the fight between factions began to look like a gang war, and for years the New York fur market would be the scene of mass violence. Inflamed young Jewish workers, joined by a few hundred militant Greek furriers, battled on picket lines and in the shops: sometimes against the Industrial Squad of the Police Department, sometimes against right-wing opponents, sometimes against hoodlums. The Communist furriers developed a psychology rare in modern Jewish history and previously unknown in the immigrant milieu: the psychology of shock troops, a sort of paramilitary vanguard handy with knives, belts, pipes. No one in the garment center was tougher than they, no one claimed to be.

Within the fur union the Communists had two first-rate leaders, Aaron Gross, a quiet tactician, and Ben Gold, a flaming rabble-rouser. In 1926 the furriers called a strike of their own, fought out with gorillas and shtarke; it ended with the first forty-hour week in the garment trades as well as a 10 percent wage increase. The fur industry was small and compact, and the majority of its workers skilled craftsmen; it could be organized much more easily than either the dress or cloak trades. Except when yielding to ideological agendas—and since they had a mass following within the union, they could often establish some independence from the party representatives—the Communist leaders of the fur workers were resourceful unionists.

In the whole immigrant world there was no one quite like Ben Gold (1898– ). Gold’s natural setting was a meeting hall at Manhattan Center or a platform at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-eight Street during lunch hour. With or without amplifier, he would rise to speak before thousands of garment workers milling about in the streets and ready for a few minutes of excitement: the followers whom he sent into transports of adoration, the opponents whom he scandalized, and those who savored his gifts with the neutral objectivity they might turn upon the technique of a great cantor.

Physically, Gold was not an overwhelming figure at all. He was slight and, in his younger years, good-looking in a raffish sort of way. Quivering with nervousness, he experienced a kind of transfiguration when he opened his mouth, as if seized by some spirit of fury and negation. A stream of fire came pouring out of him, not always as grammatical speech, either in Yiddish or English (which he used interchangeably), and not always elegant, either; but as a rush, a flood of rage, summoning the anger of his listeners and teaching them they had funds of anger of which they had not even known.

A virtuoso of invective, he poured endless scorn on the heads of the “Socialist fakers” and “AFL misleaders.” Union rivals would remember with a tremor of astonishment his resources for sheltn, a Yiddish verb connoting curse, denounce, excoriate. When Gold reached “dem tsentn shtok,” the tenth floor of the Forward building, where Abraham Cahan had his office, there tumbled out of him arias of abuse as his voice, always high and thin, rose to a piercing shriek. His hysteria ate into his audiences, and they reveled in it, they found it bracing and cathartic, they gained some vicarious strength from it.

Part of his power derived from the ideological energies of Bolshevism, but part, too, had indigenous sources in the turbid streams of Jewish apocalypticism. Anyone familiar with east European Jewish history would not have found it difficult to imagine Gold as a disciple of the would-be Messiah Jacob Frank, predicting an end to days and an escape from mundane torments, in a voice that leapt through the higher octaves of yearning and release.

Gold had been born in Bessarabia, the son of a radical Jewish craftsman. In 1908 his father, Israel, came to the United States, and two years later brought his wife and children. The boy quickly began working at all sorts of trades, pocketbooks, dresses, paper boxes. At thirteen he took his first job in a fur shop, earning nine dollars a week as an operator. “In May 1912 Israel Gold gave Ben $1.25 to pay for a union book, and the young boy joined the furriers union. When the 1912 strike started, Gold [all of fourteen] was assistant chairman of the shop of Pike and Rabinowitz.… During the strike Gold became acquainted with men and women active in the Socialist party. Though much older, they took the young boy into their confidence and taught him many things.”

In 1916 Gold joined the Socialist party; his temperament made it almost certain that he would later follow the left wing into the Communist movement. Within the Fur Workers Union, he became the acknowledged Communist spokesman, profiting greatly from the guidance of Aaron Gross. Beaten up by thugs after the 1926 strike, Gross left for California, physically broken and politically disillusioned—one of the very few Communist furriers to join the dissident Lovestone group. Whereupon the Communist party sent in another “representative,” Irving Potash, who took over Gross’s role of helping, steering, and restraining Gold.

The Communist line of starting dual unions in the late twenties upset Gold severely, his every instinct as a mass leader telling him it was a dreadful mistake. For three days and nights he walked the streets of New York with his friend Charles Zimmerman, trying to decide what to do. Zimmerman proposed quitting the CP, Gold resisted. “Gold’s real motive,” Zimmerman later felt, “was a fear for his future. He knew well that in a break with the party he would be unable to carry the entire fraction [of the Communist furriers] with him.… Besides, Gold’s vanity could not face the prospect of being castigated by those who now worshipped him as a hero.”

And a hero Gold would remain all through the thirties and deep into the forties for the left-wing Jewish workers: a combative, shrewd