The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in Chicago*
by I. K. Friedman
Author of "Poor People," etc.

* - 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."

In general the Russian Jew takes his amusements seriously. It is no mad endeavor to be epigrammatic which induces the statement that his amusement is almost a business, his business all but his amusement. Persecution in the old country, the struggle for existence in the new, have been anything but conducive to lightness of heart or of touch. It is enticing to enter on the subject of the philosophy of amusements, to make comparisons and to draw wider conclusions, but the limits of this paper forbid.

The breaking of a glass in the orthodox wedding ceremony of the Russian Jew is deeply symbolical of every amusement of the Ghetto. The glass is broken--so runs the explanation--to warn the Jew that he must not completely surrender himself to mirth no matter how festive the occasion: Zion lies in ruin and it behooves the sons of the Covenant to be cast down until its walls be built up. Metaphorically the glass is broken in the very comedies of the Yiddish theatres. The sound of its shattering runs through the strains of Jewish folk music, you hear it in the heavy mongrel tones of the Yiddish jargon itself, and the serious faces of the older folk of our modern American Ghettos are as constrained as if they were ever awaiting the melancholy crash of the fragile stuff of which life itself is made.

The sober cast of Ghetto, of Russian Jewish amusements, becomes strikingly apparent the moment one takes even a cursory bird's-eye-view of the subject in its entirety. While outlining my theme for this series of papers, to take an instance, I found it difficult to draw a hard and fast line between the diversion afforded by the synagogue and its festivals, and the pastimes which are purely secular. I am not sure that a comprehensive paper should not include both; so intimately do the beth hamedrash (house of learning connected with the synagogue) and the religious rites and festivals enter into the amenities of Ghetto life, so much does religion contribute to the mere pleasure of the orthodox Russian Jew-pleasure which his less orthodox brethren seek in the secular world without. And beyond all this there are a reason and a philosophy that lie deeper than a superficial observation might at first lead one to suppose; but again the lack of space forbids the digression.

Chicago's one Yiddish theatre, formerly the Metropolitan, next called the Irwin, and afterward Glickman's, was almost exclusively devoted to the presentation of Jewish historical and religious plays, and to operas historical or religious in theme. The literary standard of the dramas presented here was about on a par with those produced in English theatres attended by audiences of the same status in life as the Russian Jews of the Ghetto, and where the price of admission is about the same. In the old Metropolitan theatre I saw a Yiddish adaptation of "The Streets of New York" and "Woman Against Woman," which to the discerning will sum up the story fairly well. "Fairly well" is used advisedly because the standard of comparison is by no means rigid; for now and then Mr. Ellis F. Glickman, who is actor, manager and playwright, too, puts a play on the boards which is superior in most respects to the average attraction offered by the surrounding theatres of the English-speaking districts. The same assertion may be made, within certain bounds, of the acting of the members of Mr. Glickman's Yiddish stock company. The theatre is now closed because it did not comply with the city regulations passed in the fall of 1903 after the disastrous Iroquois fire. There is therefore no regular Yiddish theatre here, "The Pavilion" being merely a hall for vaudeville performances and in no way representing the better intelligence of the Chicago Russian Jew.

However, certain allowances ought to be made for the Yiddish actor when comparing him with the English speaking members of the profession who appeal to audiences of about the same grade at about the same price. In the first place, the Yiddish actor is harder pushed-every week sees a change of bill and he scarcely has had time to commit the lines of one part before he is rehearsing the roles of a new play (which is the reason, by way of parenthesis, why the prompter is always in evidence); and secondly, the Yiddish actor is nine times out of ten a Yiddish singer as well. He is more apt to win popularity among our Chicago Russian Jewish audiences by good singing than by an artistic rendering of a character. The Ghetto audiences are clamorous in their insistence on music and singing, and the encore and the applause always go to the most pleasing song and the best voice. Fine music finds quick appreciation here; and in this one respect certainly both audience and performers are far superior to the audience and performers of the English theatres of a corresponding grade. The orchestra of the Yiddish theatre is excelled by few in Chicago, nor is this in any wise accidental, for the Yiddish theatre without .good music were equivalent to a play without scenery.
I saw in the Irwin theatre a play which was a Yiddish adaptation of Hamlet and the whole performance struck me as very much like the play of Hamlet with the part of Hamlet left out. Shakespeare was most neatly adapted out of the tragedy to make room for up-to-date melodramatic situations, for orthodox Jewish religious ceremonials, and for the dramatic triumph of the production the singing of the Kaddish (prayer for the dead). A line or two copied from the programme may suffice to give even those who were not privileged to see "The Jewish Hamlet" an idea of the broad license that the adapter allowed himself. "Act IV, Scene 2--Great scene of the Jewish cemetery. Beautiful scenery painted specially for this production. Sad wedding of Vigder (Hamlet) and his dead bride Esther (Ophelia) according to the Jewish religion."

From the plays which any manager may supply it is always unsafe to draw conclusions of what the audience may demand. I should be loath to deduce from the mere presentation of this Yiddish Hamlet and plays of its type that Russian Jewish audiences were eager for the spilling of blood and for ultra-sensational situations and scenes. I noticed, and with more than a little rejoicing, that those sins against good taste which were intended to appeal to the sympathies of the audience won applause from the galleries only, and that the parquet, which represented the better class of the Russian Jews of the Ghetto, looked on in ominous silence at what they were unable to translate emotively.
I believe that the younger element of the Ghetto is far more attracted by what lies without than what lies within the confines of that narrow district, and the constant tendency in amusements, as in other things, is centrifugal. The variety theatres down-town, the play-houses on the surrounding streets, draw a larger audience of young Russian Jews than the Ghetto theatre itself. With very few exceptions--it may be doubted whether the phrase is half strong enough--the younger Russian Jews are neither proud of their Yiddish jargon nor of the ways of their ancestors, and they are only too quick to accept anything that may have an Americanizing influence. In Chicago, at any rate, the Yiddish theatre is not likely to outlast the life of the present generation, and it is fairly open to question whether it will endure that long.

The lodges form a most significant element in the amusement of the Ghetto and contribute not a little to its social life, while like almost every other diversion, they add, or at least carry along, an element of religion and charity. The various lodges, with their numerous orders and divisions, ramify through the entire Ghetto, spreading out in every direction, leaving few families uninfluenced by their existence. The Chicago Ghetto contains seventy-five recorded lodges, thirty-two of which belong to the Order of B'rith Abraham and twenty to the Western Star,--a purely Chicago organization, and the other twenty-three to orders of less prominence. Like their Christian prototypes, the western lodges render an important economic service, namely that of life insurance, which, when all is said and done, serves as the chief reason and the best cause for their existence.

Every once in so often, one of the seventy-five lodges will announce a ball or a party by way of benefit for the impoverished family of a defunct member, and so it in that these orders indirectly contribute their share to the amusement of the Ghetto.

Regarding all balls and parties given in the Russian Jewish district, it may be asserted that there is little if anything to distinguish them from the social functions of a like nature given by Christians of the same status, and what little there is goes in favor of the Russian Jew on the side of decorum. I know from my own studies in the district through which Milwaukee Avenue cuts diagonally, and which represents one of the most cosmopolitan populations in the city of Chicago, that the moral effect of the weekly Saturday night balls and masquerades is anything but elevating, and that the road to ruin for many a young girl begins here.

Cases of moral depravity resulting from any dance given in the Ghetto district are rare enough to be practically unknown. Of course, home training, custom and other elements must be taken into consideration when weighing the moral problem, and this lies outside of this paper's boundaries.

Zionism, which so deeply imbues the life and spirit of our American Ghettos at the present time, may be regarded as the chief religious feature of the lodges, for they are more or less animated by its doctrines and given to the promulgation of its benefits.

The same religious purpose sublimates the one important literary society of our Ghetto, the Hebrew Literary Association, which has a regular meeting place on West Twelfth Street. The library of the association numbers over 2,000 volumes devoted all but exclusively to modern Hebrew literature as contradistinguished from the still more modern Yiddish jargon. The club holds regular Sunday night meetings to listen to lectures in English and Yiddish given by local authorities on Jewish history and literature, and less often to lectures on classic English prose and poetry. The surplus in the treasury of the club is given to the Order of the Knights of Zion, which contains six branches, numbering over 500 members in all, and this society in turn holds regular meetings in Porges, Schwarz, or Turner Halls, to spread a knowledge of Hebrew history, language and literature, with the central object of stimulating the Zionistic movement. The younger members of the Knights of Zion Order have their lectures and lessons in English, the older members in Yiddish. Besides the assistance which the Hebrew Literary Association lends the Knights of Zion, it also contributes liberally to a Zionistic Sunday school for children, where instruction is given in what may be broadly termed Judaism and Zionism. So again in surveying Ghetto amusements in their entirety, the religious impulse and fervor become salient.

The Lessing Club, which is far removed from the Ghetto district, is composed of wealthier Russian Jewish members than any of the organizations yet mentioned, and is, I believe, higher in social rank. There is nothing in particular to differentiate the Lessing from a hundred and one other clubs in the city, although the younger members have formed the Lessing Self-Educational Club, which is just what the name would imply. Like the Hebrew Literary Association the Lessing Self-Educational Club employs specialists to give lectures on literature and the arts; and meetings are held with exercises and papers, for the purpose of spreading education and culture.

The feast and ceremonies of the weddings contribute at least an element of amusement, and so by a liberal interpretation may be given a place in the topic. The more orthodox of the Russian Jews are married in the synagogue, the less orthodox, who are in a rapidly growing majority, are married without its walls, either at home or in one of the public halls. In the synagogue weddings the glass dish is broken and the parents of the bride lead her three times around the groom, who stands under the canopy. The postnuptial festivities vary in brilliancy according to the means and liberality of the bride's parents; dancing and music are an important feature and few, if any, weddings are without them. The tendency to copy the forms observed by the non-Ghetto and richer Jews grows stronger with the passing of every day, and the customs peculiar to Jewish weddings are fighting a battle for survival in which apparently they must soon lose. In short, the Americanization of the Russian Jew is thoroughgoing; and his amusements, his customs--all the outer reflections of at least the superficial part of his inner life--are taking on the color and form of his environment, standing out less and less as an entity distinguished by a color and form all its own.







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