The year 1880 marked the beginning of the third period of Jewish immigration to the United States. What began as a trickle became a virtual flood, whose headwaters were located in the countries of Eastern Europe. From 1987-1910 alone 449,000 Jews emigrated from Poland to start a new life in America (Bujak, 1919, 14).
Coming to America became a great drama of redemption for East European Jewish masses. After the Partition of Poland in 1793, part of the country came under Russian czarist rule; Catherine the Great was none too happy to receive these Jewish wards.
Russian policy was pervaded by very discriminatory patterns; the Jews were tightly circumscribed inside the “Pale” (the area that was formerly Polish territory), which moved the shelts (villages) closer toward the conditions of slums; the Jews were also burdened by abnormally heavy taxation and special government restrictions. The object was to destroy the Jews economically and Jewish life in general. They urged the Jews into agriculture yet the policies more often than not denied them ownership of land; Russian government abolished the Jewish corporate state yet denied them citizenship. Moreover, governmental policies ran hot and cold according to the whims of the czar: one never really knew what was to happen next.
In 1881 after the assassination of Alexander II, anti-Jewish riots arose in Russia, and the anti-Semitic terror the brutal pogroms intensified, and Jews were expelled from the rural areas. By 1897, 86.5% of the Jews in Poland lived in the cities, the main social occupation was trade as the middleman (Boroff, 1966, 13).
Life was becoming more intolerable every day; about the only action taken by the government toward the Jews was of a negative nature. Education was provided by the village shuls (synagogues), but sole object of study among the Orthodox was religion. Every Jewish boy attended the school and learned to read the Hebrew Bible, recite prayers, and generally read and write Yiddish: this was the extent of the narrow curriculum, which lacked even a trace of secular education.
In 1893 new persecutions in Russia erupted and with favorable conditions in the United States beckoning, immigration soared: their great hope now was to escape to America where they could be free and still be Jews. And so they came, and they came to stay. . . there was no going back.
Usually the husband, after many years of saving, went first to the new home, and saved for the time he would have enough to send for his wife and children. Most immigrants went directly from Castle Garden or Ellis Island to the streets of Manhattan, where they sought relatives or fellow townsmen who had gone before (Boroff, 1966, 13). They were now in the land of opportunity, the Promised Land.
The east European Jews came during the “Gilded Age,” and contributed to the expansion of the American industrial empire. Many skilled and semi-skilled Jewish workmen came between 1899 and 1914, and 66% of gainfully employed Jewish immigrants possessed industrial skill. Those without skill could go into production, which was mechanized and routinized (Rischin, 1967, 59).
The urban background of the Jews prepared them for the urbanized and industrial direction in which the U.S. was moving. The geographic concentration proceeded with the economic concentration in industrial centers, but faster. The large city congregations lead to the massive proletarianization of East European immigrants: they could offer what the American economy needed at the time. These Jews worked hard and long; they wanted to get ahead, lead the good life.
Almost one-forth of all immigrants tried their hand as a tradesman, a peddler or pushcart vendor. This seemed to be the direct introduction to American ways, and the lure of commercial success, starting from the humble peddler’s pack was magnetic. For some, it was an apprenticeship in low-toned commerce that would lead to a more elegant and prosperous career; for others, it was merely a martyrdom that enabled them to subsist. As the immigrant population increased the Lower East Side became the center of the pushcart trade (Rischin, 1967, 55).
The mass of Jews lived on the Lower East Side of New York City because it was cheap and there was a vital Jewish community present that could give solace to the lonely and comfort to the pious. By 1910, when it had reached its peak on congestion, the Lower East Side had become an immigrant Jewish cosmopolis.
Most of the immigrants lived in the “dumbbell” flats of old tenements, which were predominant in the Lower East Side. The tenements were six or seven floors high with four apartments per floor. Only one room in each of the three to four room flats received direct air and sunlight from the street. In the narrow hall separating the apartments were the common water closets. Few families could afford the privacy of a flat and often took in boarders or lodgers to make ends meet.
The Lower East Side, the tenements was not a pleasant place to live. One could not escape the filth, the mice and cockroaches, and other neighbors. It was miles, blocks of tenement buildings, concrete and glass smashed as closely together as possible; a tree, a plot of grass, a little fresh air were occasional luxuries for days in the country or at a park. All around too were the prostitutes, pimps, and racketeers. People had to make a living.
Many charitable organizations and societies were set up to help the immigrants. German Jews who had come to America earlier, though they despised these poor Eastern Jews, generally felt a responsibility to help their fellow Jew: they felt superior to the new immigrants and there was tension between them, but the German Jews tried to help their coreligionists.
Despite all the organized help available, as soon as possible, any self-respecting immigrant made every effort to assist their own; from the start, immigrants in need instinctively turned to their fellow townsmen. As Michael Gold recalls, “Every tenement was a Plymouth Rock like ours. Hospitality was taken for granted till a new family found a flat. When I woke in the morning, I was never surprised to find in my bed a new family of immigrants in their foreign and baggy underwear” (Gold, 1930 49).
In spite of the high density and conditions of the tenements, the immigrants showed a remarkable resistance to disease and had a very low death rate. The rules of life, which the Orthodox unflinchingly obeyed as laid down in Mosaic code was designed to maintain health; cleanliness was dictated by religion.
The East European Jews were overwhelmingly Orthodox. The need for congregational life from the moment of their arrival led to a great increase in the number of synagogues. The synagogue was a prayer place, meeting hall, and clubhouse. The absence of organized or official anti-Semitism (although dislike and hatred were present, public opinion of the country at large did not encourage or approve of it); coupled with the novelty of being allowed to form organizations without charters led to formation of groups to be overdone a bit at first. In the end, however, the only lasting activity was the synagogue, which represents the continuity of Jewish existence through centuries and unites Jews throughout the world (Wiernik, 1951, 256).
Although the parents were predominantly orthodox and tried to train their children in the discipline of Judaism, many of the younger people were quietly slipping away or becoming less devout; there seemed to be a different attitude or atmosphere prevailing over these same longtime institutions. “I was oppressed with thought of God because my parents had put me in a cheder. I went to Jewish religious school every afternoon when American school let out. The teacher was an ignorant rat, who knew absolutely nothing but this sterile memory course in dead Hebrew, which he whipped into the heads and the backsides of little boys. . .Did the God of Love create bedbugs; did he also put pain and poverty into the world?” (Gold, 1930, 48). These were the thoughts that plagued the second-generation Jews who were that half-way point between the old country and the new.
The second generation Jew was growing up into an American; he wanted to know the things that would help him make it in America. He was the child who spoke Yiddish at home and English outside or who listened to his parents in Yiddish and answered in English. There was a tremendous amount of respect between the generations, but they were going in different ways, with changing outlooks. Now too, the Jew had time to think about his religion and God without always being on the defensive, without the unquestioned reassurance of being the Chosen as Jews not the Jew was also an American.
East European Jewish immigrants remained fairly isolated in the city’s industry, and their isolation conditioned their relations with the other workmen. They were concentrated in light manufacture or in Jewish food and service trades, and thus did not compete directly with organized labor. Jews virtually held a monopoly on the clothing industry in New York. Jewish unions were formed to organize the workers politically. Business was conducted in Yiddish in the union meetings since this was the language all of the workers could understand. These unions ran into difficulty of cohesion; they were constantly being split by new groups or off-shoots who did not quite like the way matters were being handled.
Economic individualism was ever pervasive among the immigrants. Self-employment, to be your own boss and answer to no one, was the dream. The Jews easily fell into the pattern of the American dream for isn’t that a universal dream, a world populated by aspiring Horatio Algers. After World War I, the number of Jewish industrial workers decreased, while those in trades and professions increased. The development of an increasing middle class stemmed from intensified urbanization and its grater intellectual requirements. Acquisition of a higher education was directly related to closeness to cities; the Jews were situated to take advantage of this (Sherman, 1961, 106).
These poor Jews also looked for their fortune in illegal areas; they discovered the rackets, prostitution, and bootleg. There were Jewish gangsters in America. But it was America that taught the sons of tubercular Jewish tailors to kill; there were never any Jewish gangsters in Europe (Gold, 1930, 23).
All poor men believe in the magic by which the good things in life come, and they dream of the day they will stumble upon it. “In America, we believed, the people dug under the streets and found gold. In America, people did little work, but had fun all day. Soon I found there was no gold to be dug in the streets here—so I worked with my hands, my liver, and my sides I worked!” (Gold, 1930, 48).
This first generation of immigrants from East Europe lived largely emotionally, psychologically, and culturally, within the land of their migration. Most of them remained in New York and in forming the ghetto of the Lower East Side were able to maintain an atmosphere similar to their villages. This by no means is to say that people did not leave the ghetto—they did so at every turn. As soon as their social and economic status would allow the immigrants moved from the ghetto into more respectable neighborhoods.
Prejudice and discrimination were certainly present in the early times but not to an overwhelming degree; the Jews were greatly needed in the new economy. However, by 1910 anti-Jewish prejudice threatened to become acute; there were getting to be too many Jews and they were beginning to compete for jobs. Great firms rejected Jewish applicants; apartments rejected Jews undesirable.
World War I shattered old attitudes and crystallized a new set for the nation; an anti-foreign hysteria led to a rejection and intolerance of the immigrants’ faith. New York become the focus for the anti-immigrant sentiment; the Dilligher Commission report explicitly labeled the latest immigrants inferior to earlier ones on scientific grounds, and recommended a national policy be based on its findings (Rishin, 1967, 260). The year 1914 brought a close to the third period. anti-Semitic discrimination in employment agency ads reflects business conditions: discrimination was low in boom years of 1918-1928, high in depression years 1929-1932. The Jews were hit first when jobs were scarce. The approach was indirect but hardly subtle. Ads would read “Christian firm”, “Anglo-Saxon”, “Nordic”, conveying the idea that Jews were not wanted (Economic freeze-out, 1939, 37).
Social barriers, the hardest to break down, were very much evident, not only in business but also by signs on restaurants such as “Jews and dogs not allowed.” And the Jews were not particularly fond of the goys either; “My mother was opposed to the Italians, were surrounded. . .
Christians did not seem like people to her. They were abstractions. They were the great enemy, to be hated, and cursed. . .Her hatred of Christians was really the outcry of a motherly soul against the groundless cruelty of life” (Gold, 1930, 116-119). But the Jews wanted to live in this American society, and have the good things also; there was a certain distance kept by the Jews as well as from the Jews.
The most serious anti-semitism, European style, for American Jews came in the 1930’s with the rise of Nazism, which penetrated the American scene. It is only since the rise of Hitlerism that American Jews have found it necessary to maintain an organization whose chief function is to combat anti-semitism in the U.S. it’s self. The propaganda and anti-Semitism of Hitler was embraced by those “declassed” persons unable also to comprehend the depression in the world’s richest country. Anti-semitism as a movement in America died because the depression ended (Dimont, 1962, 38).
But the goals of the Jewish immigrants were long-range; there was the immediate question of survival, but few looked upon their lowly positions, in all phases of life, as permanent. Most saw betterment, if not for themselves, for their children.
Jewish immigrant children brought home scholastic prizes; families pinched pennies and sent their children to college, universities medical and law schools. Within one generation Jewish occupations changed radically (Dimont, 1962, 343). The Jews became men of learning or prosperous businessmen.
In the 1930’s 95% of the jobs closed their doors to Jews (Belth, 1958, 46); today the majority of jobs and occupations are non-discriminatory. The American Jew, and there are more Jews in America than in any other country, is predominantly middle-class. There are practically no Jews in unskilled labor, and only 25% are clerks and salesmen (Dimont, 1962, 364). The rest are either entrepreneurs or professionals: manufacturers, retailers, government career men, doctors, lawyers, writers, artists, teachers and professors, scientists and scholars.
Barriers to upper echelon jobs are coming down slowly; there are still very few Jews in executive positions, especially in baking, the chemical industry, insurance, mining, real estate and automobile industry. However, Jews are very much present in new industries like electronics, plastics and advertising and television. Extreme poverty is almost non-existent among healthy American Jews (Kertzer, 1967, 18).
Nearly one half of American Jewry live in or around New York City—few are still on the Lower East Side, however. Many have followed the earlier Christian trek to the suburbs and live in comfort and close contact with no-Jews. Even the “gentlemen’s agreement” which kept many Jews out of certain areas is breaking down to an extent. Middle-class status seems to have brought the Jewish people respectability and make Judaism fashionable and helped to lessen anti-semitism; social and economic status are moving closer together today.
The Supreme Court decisions of 1954 outlawing discrimination reflected a shift in the national mood toward all minorities. This legislation effected not only housing, and employment but also education, by forbidding segregation in public schools at all levels. Most states were silent on private institution discrimination, except New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, where the district attorney may prosecute if a person is refused admission because of race or religion (Belth, 1958, 46).
There are still hidden requirements for college entrance, and quota system, and studies show that the lowest success rate for college applicants is among Jewish high school seniors. However, in the past few years the degree of discrimination in higher education has lessened considerably with anti-discrimination laws and an awakening of educators. In proportion to their actual numbers, there are twice as many Jewish students in college as non-Jewish students (Sherman, 1961, 112).
In the United States today, anti-semitism is at an alltime low, and is publicly out of fashion: the Jews are experiencing unprecedented freedom of a kind they never knew. The problem of Jewish survival today is that there is no problem relatively. The central issue is now a question of whether a long, beleaguered faith can endure the conclusion of its perilous siege (Education for survival, 1965, 351).
The result of Jewish involvement and participation in America is that they are, apparently, totally at home in the U.S. But the price has been considerable: the American process is not one of assimilation, but of acculturation. The superficialities of Jewishness are being more a part of American culture, but the Jews are also becoming more “American”. There is a dual identity in being an American and a Jew; it is difficult to know which one carries the most weight, with which does the American Jew of today most strongly identify.
The Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe asked what a Jew was: a Jew was a Jew. But today, although a young Jew can affirm his identity in a natural, unaccented way, he is troubled by his pressing question of “What is a Jew?” and “What do I do about it?” (Education for survival, 1965, 35). What to do and what to think is really becoming a much more personal matter; no rabbi, parent or relative, and only to limited degrees one’s peers can help—each decides alone.
At a time when assimilation, intermarriage, and especially secularism are eroding U.S. Judaism, religious education has become the main weapon for survival. There are now contemporary modern schools, much like private Protestant and Parochial schools, to replace the one-room class. But the problem is how to reach the thousands of young Jewish students in high school and college who have decided religious training is not for them (Education for survival, 1965, 51). Is this young American Jew more a Jew or more an American?
Many Jews are joining synagogues as never before; there is still the taboo on intermarriage; and the identification with Israel, the Jewish home-state, is a new fact of Jewish existence. Today the Jew in the cultural hero of literature and theatre in an age of alienation the Jew is looked to as an expert in estrangement, the perpetual outsider who knows how to keep warm out there. So many factors of cohesion are still keeping Jewishness alive and the Jewish people together; there is a brotherhood still.
“Jewishness is more than a religion; it is an order of being more than believing. Being Jewish is feeling the past in one’s bones and living all out in the present” (Education for survival, 1965, 51). Being Jewish includes the characteristic self-deprecating humor (to make life tolerable), the melancholy and nostalgia, Jewish foods, Yiddish expression, the Jewish mamma; these are not things which the American Jew has really lost—he is just sharing them with the world. Perhaps, the Jew, American or otherwise, is still marked off even in this time of acculturation and/or cross-culturation: he understands the meaning of his Jewishness, and he feels it in his kishkas.