The Immigrant Jew in America

Home       l       Site Map      l      Exhibitions      l     About the Museum       l      Education      l     Contact Us       l      Links


The Russian Jew in Chicago*
by Philip Davis

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

Endeavoring to deal more directly with the educational work actually done for the Russian Jewish people by the public schools, the various settlements and private institutions, in and about the Ghetto, we shall, at the same time try to make some analysis of this work as affected by American Jewish conditions.

There are eight public schools which minister chiefly to the educational wants of the Jewish young people. Five of these are situated in the very heart of the Jewish district, with a proportion of Jewish children as high as 93 per cent. The other three fairly mark the northern, western and southern limits of the West Side, and have a proportion as low as 20 per cent. The names of these schools, together with the total number of pupils and proportion of Jews are, according to statements received from the principals, as follows :

Thus we find that in a total of 11,430 pupils, 7,929, or 68.9 per cent., are Jewish.

It must be remembered that it is not the fortune of every one of these eight thousand children to go uninterruptedly through all eight grades provided for by the public schools. Prof. Bamberger, of the Jewish Training School, in the Tenth Annual Report, asserts that the statistics in the school reports of the city of Chicago show that not over three per cent. of all pupils of the public schools are graduated, i.e., pass through all eight grades. And when one comes to examine any group of schools he will find considerable confirmation of this statement.

Of the eight schools mentioned, three, Foster, Polk, and Washburne, have no seventh and eighth grades at all. That there is a falling off even in the fifth and sixth grades is proved by the small number of pupils in the seventh and eighth grades in those schools where such grades are maintained. The following are figures for Goodrich, Smythe, and Garfield, as compiled by Miss Witkowsky, who investigated the subject:1

This table shows clearly that out of a total of 3,676, 368, or ten per cent., reach the seventh grade and only 186, or about five per cent., reach the eighth grade.

What tends to aggravate these conditions, and further to interfere with the educational career of the Jewish child is, on the one hand, the apparently natural truancy of some boys, and on the other, the necessity--always pressing on the workingmen's children--of leaving school and going to work. This they do very soon after they reach the age of fourteen, thirteen, or even twelve. As many of them begin school at a late age, probably because they have come to this country within but a few years, one can judge what inadequate education these future workingmen take with them. Some of the principals feel this keenly, deploring the early removal from school, especially when it affects a boy who has already attained high scholarship.

These are some of the undesirable features connected with the present status of education on the West Side. However, the outlook is exceedingly bright. When we remember that there are already eight large, fine school buildings, warm and comfortable, equipped with books and stationery, libraries and gymnasiums, ornamented with appropriate pictures; when we remember that these are controlled by large faculties of teachers and earnest principals, many of whom have as their deepest interest the education and development of our children, studying and counteracting their drawbacks in English, and in physical health, in which many of them are so deplorably deficient, then gloomy thoughts vanish. When we remember that the ability and scholarship of this army of eight thousand children, fostered and encouraged in these schools, might have remained dormant, neglected or even stiffed in the land they came from; when we think that the interest and anxiety of the parents to see their children educated, which is certainly satisfied here to a large degree;--we can readily realize the worth and success of the effort made to educate our Jewish young people on the West Side.

Of the other schools in the city, with Jewish pupils, especially of those on the Northwest Side, little or nothing can be said. There the problem of dealing with the Jewish children as such does not at all arise, so completely have they become an integral part of the neighborhood they live in. That this is actually the case is clearly corroborated by the reports of the principals of six Northwest Side schools. The principal of the Wells School, speaking of the scholarship of the Jewish children, says: " Have noticed no difference; in fact, could not pick out the Jewish children from the others in appearance or scholarship." The principal of the Burr School says: "Parents interested in schools and what is done for the children, but no more so than non-Jewish parents." This simply shows the process of Americanization that is going on, and an investigation of the schools in other parts of the city would probably further emphasize the same fact.

Side by side with the public school, and doing an educational work which in essence is even more valuable to the Jewish children than the regular school instruction, is the Jewish Training School. This school was founded in 1888, in recognition of two great principles: First, that trading is too much a part of Jewish life; that it is becoming detrimental to its welfare in the present industrial age; that, therefore, trades must supplement trading. Secondly, that the three R's are too much a part of school life and the three H's-- the perfect union of heart, head and hand--not enough. As a result of these two basic principles, there stands today on Judd Street, between Jefferson and Clinton, a fine brick building, erected by the private effort of wealthy Jews of Chicago. The grades of instruction include a kindergarten, primary department, and grammar department. The manual work is carried on in two divisions, the art and the mechanical. The art division comprises modeling and free hand drawing, taught in all the classes, and designing, taught in the grammar classes only. The mechanical division comprises Sloyd, cardboard work, wood work, machine work, sewing, cutting, fitting, and draughting, and domestic economy. Particular emphasis is laid on physical development, gymnastics being taught in all the classes. Music, too, is taught in the several grades. It is testified by many who have studied its progress and results, that, from the pedagogic standpoint, the school is successful.

Still another factor subsidiary to the public school and influential in the educational and social development of our Russian Jewish children is the settlement kindergarten. The one at Hull House takes the lead. It contains 50 children, of whom a little over half are Jewish.

The kindergarten in the Jewish settlement on Maxwell Street near Halsted has also done its share of good work for the Jewish child. The number of pupils is limited to 25.

A settlement of comparatively recent origin, the Henry Booth House, is doing almost exclusively kindergarten work, and that mainly among our Jewish children. It is situated at 125 West Fourteenth Place and is under the direction of the Ethical Culture Society.

The institutions so far. described are undoubtedly working for the highest good that is in the child. There is one other institution which must be dealt with in connection with the educational work done for children. This is the Talmud Torah, or Hebrew Free School. It occupies a large brick building only a dozen houses away from the Jewish Training School, on Judd Street near Clinton. The outside of this building is really attractive and in great contrast with the dilapidated shanties around it. This structure, together with an older one in the rear, is valued at $4,000. The seating capacity is barely 500. About 600 pupils attend the school, 200 aged from 4 to 6 years, during public school hours, and the other older children, from 6 to 13 years of age, from 4 to 7.30 P. M. They are taught the Hebrew alphabet, reading, grammar, translation into Yiddish of the Pentateuch, prophets and Hagiographa. Twelve teachers are employed. The annual income is about $15,000, contributed as follows: (1) Five cents weekly dues from all members; (2) ten to fifteen cents weekly for tuition unless parents are unable to pay; (3) contributions from congregations; (4) donations on various occasions, such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, b'rith milahs (ceremonies of circumcision), and the like.

Subsidiary to the Talmud Torah, are the chedarim, or private Hebrew classes, which are to be found on almost every block of the Ghetto. The hours and subjects are about the same as at the Talmud Torah; in some instances more modern methods are employed, in others more mediaeval or ancient, according to the progressiveness or backwardness of the individual teacher. The classes are invariably conducted in the houses of the "rabbis" and usually number from 20 to 40 pupils. The children attend until they become bar mitzvah (thirteen years of age, the age according to the orthodox custom for admission of the child into the faith).

Instruction is also given privately to younger children. A host of "rabbis" go the rounds early in the morning in order to help children "zu sogen broche" (offer morning prayer).

So much concerning elementary education. Turning now to secondary and higher education, we shall find the facts far more telling. All in all, there are perhaps 1,000 Jewish boys and girls in the different secondary and high schools of the city, public and private.

The two high schools of the West Side district are the Medill and the English High and Manual Training School. The total number of Jewish pupils in the Medill is about 200, or one third. The number in the other is about 100, or about 10 per cent. This difference may be partly due to the location of these schools, the Medill being easily accessible, while the Manual Training is far removed from the district. The fact that the former is of the regular type of American schools, offering an education which is essentially intellectual and literary, while the latter offers an education that involves manual training, may have something to do with the difference.

Aside from these two public high schools, there is also a private institution, for secondary or academic education, which is growing in popularity among the young men on the West Side. This is the Lewis Institute of Science, Literature and Technology. There are about 60 Jewish pupils in this institute, most of them paying $60 a year for tuition. The intellectual work of some is particularly notable. Professor Carman thinks that the Jewish pupils represent the extremes, "the best and the poorest." The selected courses of study are mainly literary, scientific and sociological, but not technological. On the other hand, the Armour, a thorough-going institute of technology, is rather avoided by our Russian Jewish boys. Here again the question of location might come in, but certainly cannot be the only one. As against those in the constructive sciences there are scores of young men in the medical and legal sciences.

There are about 30 Russian Jews in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and 30 in the Rush Medical College. In the less prominent medical schools, like the Bennet or the Harvey (a college having night sessions), many more are to be found. In the John Marshall Law School there are 10 Russian Jewish young men; while others are scattered among the different law schools of the city. The fact that the number of Russian Jewish young men in these schools exceeds that in the two institutions of technology furnishes further material for future analysis.

More indicative of educational progress is the fact that many of our Jewish boys on the West Side are realizing that there is a University of Chicago in this city, and that it is not open to the boys on Michigan Avenue exclusively. Those in the department of literature predominate. It is not for me to speak of their success in the different branches. Several are here on scholarships, and they proceed with their studies from one year to another in spite of many financial difficulties.

It is difficult to tell how many West Side boys would gladly take advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the University if these difficulties were overcome. There is many a young man, sitting in a cold, lamp-lit bedroom on the West Side over a book on physics, studying perhaps the First Three Laws of Newton, which he would like to re-establish by actual experiment in the laboratory, but is denied this privilege because he happens to be a poor workingman. How many young men whose educational careers have been cut short in Russia, whose identity in America is lost amid the numberless bundles of shirts or knee-pants in the factories of Chicago,-- how many of these would joyfully occupy some of the vacant seats in the lecture halls in the university if the tuition fees, and the high living expense, were not so difficult to meet. Nevertheless, while the money question is serious with the majority, for the few opportunities are open in the University, as well as in the Lewis Institute. The road may not be so easy, but with a little self-sacrifice, combined with the sympathy and help of others, it is possible for these to win a college or university education.

Hull House can point to more than one young man and woman who have from year to year bettered their English, increased their knowledge of men and things, and improved their taste, receiving all in a natural, free and truly glad-to-give manner. Nor are they slow in taking advantage here. In general two-thirds of the membership of Hull House clubs and classes are Jewish young people. They predominate most in the classes in English, literature and social studies, and least in manual training, drawing and art studies. In fact, the English classes are at times composed entirely of Jews. The art classes are entirely non-Jewish in membership. Supplementing the work of these classes are the clubs, many of which are Jewish in membership. Their interest is chiefly in debating, in the reading and discussion of literature, in dramatics and musical and social entertainments.

Very similar to these, though not quite so extensive, are the various clubs and classes at the Jewish settlement. The personal attention, help and guidance which these are receiving may be judged from the fact that there are forty workers connected with the settlement, ten of whom are college-bred men and women. The subjects of special educational value which are offered at the present time are: drawing, debating, handwork, weaving, clay-modeling, violin, reading, and piano playing.

As has been mentioned, the Booth House lays chief emphasis on the kindergarten, which is much needed in the Henry Street neighborhood. There are, however, two distinctly educational clubs besides those of a social or merrymaking nature. The chief interest about these two clubs is that they are composed of working boys and girls and are conducted by self-educated young men who have been, and in all probability will continue to be, workingmen themselves, who come directly out of the ranks of rising "Young Russia."

Independent of the settlement or any other institution, yet widely influential in their respective spheres, are three Jewish educational societies, known as the Self Educational Club, the Lassalle Political and Educational Club, and the Hebrew Literary Association. It is here in the humble educational work of these clubs of coat operators, cloak operators and cigar makers that one gets the first glimpse of that "ever-glorious revolt of toiling humanity" against unrelieved sameness, and daily weary monotone of present day factory life, "against being shut up in one single chapter of life," as Miss Addams says. Yet I am afraid that the people who "go slumming" seldom discover these more essential elements and nobler manifestations of the Chicago Ghetto. How many know of the existence and the great needs of the Club House (of the Self Educational Club), the Labor Lyceum (of the Lassalle Club) and the Reading Room (of the Hebrew Literary Association) on the West Side?

Standing on the very edge of the educational map and perhaps as far remote from each other socially as are the north and south poles, are the numerous lodges, the chevras, classes for the study of the Talmud, and congregations on the one hand; and the trade unions, the political and socialistic clubs on the other. What these institutions do educationally and socially for the uplifting of the masses can be seen, felt, and perhaps described, but not satisfactorily dealt with; nor is it possible to show by means of figures the educational influence of a similar type of social forces located, figuratively speaking, just mid-way between the synagogue and the socialist headquarters, namely, the Jewish stage, the press, and the professions of medicine, law, and the like. It would unquestionably prove exceedingly interesting to examine the effect, for example, of the more thoroughly educated doctor on the particular neighborhood he lives in on the health and culture of the families he comes in contact with. But such a discussion is out of my domain.

However inadequate the treatment may have been, the facts already presented are sufficient to indicate that there is in the limited district of the Chicago Ghetto a host of educational forces, emanating from widely different quarters, but blending to shape and mold anew the Jewish type of mind to suit the new standards and conditions and to produce those rapid changes which have aroused so much interest in recent studies of the East Side of New York and the Whitechapel of London.

As a result of this education there is rising out of the ranks of the public schools a class of young men and women whose like is almost new to Jewish life. The note of merriment in the young American Israelite, foreign as it is to him, from the historic point of view, is certainly full of promise. There is no longer in him--especially in the better educated young man--that extreme asceticism and sour-facedness which mark his Hebrew educated prototype, the yeshibah bochur (student of the Talmud). Tending to overshadow these typical characteristics there appear gradually on the face of the modern young man, "lines and angles of smiles," indicative of a more agreeable, if not so typical, a nature as that of the yeshibah bochur of Russia. The education of the school and the culture of the settlement tend to make the Jewish young man more of a social being; more varied in his likes and dislikes; more easily sharing the faults and virtues of German, American, and Irish young men.

In the frequent large social or public gatherings on Friday evening in Turner Hall, for example, where boys and girls dance away until four o'clock next morning, there is obviously just as much to be commended as there is to be condemned. The fact that the Jewish young people are outgrowing their self-centred natures and are learning to meet different people on a social plane is certainly of great significance. On the other hand, when this social tendency is carried too far, when the hour is unusually lengthened, the sobriety of the young men and the modesty of the young women must inevitably suffer.

What proportion of these dancing clubs and parties consists of public and high-school graduates is difficult to tell. It is enough to say that they take a large share of interest in organizing and maintaining these operatic, dramatic and pleasure clubs, as they are so frequently called. It remains to be seen how soon they will organize a social settlement, a municipal voting league, an ethical culture society.

1 Report of the Seventh Word District Bureau of Charities, 1897-1899, Chicago.







Copyright 2008-9. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved. 
Image Use Policy.