The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in Chicago*
by Elijah N. Zoline

* - 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."

I shall first review the litigation most common amongst Russian Jews in the civil branch of the courts. They are: Suits growing out of contracts of bargain and sale of merchandise, personal injuries, matters relating to personal property, marriage and divorce, real property, bankruptcy.

A little more than half of the Jewish population in the city of Chicago are engaged in the mercantile business and hence disputes often arise as to the quality of the goods, manner and time of delivery and similar matters. Suits are also frequently brought for goods sold and delivered. In most of the cases, there is generally a good and bona fide defense. Cases of this kind seldom go by default, unless the defendant be a bankrupt, or contemplates bankruptcy. The courts, however, are not much bothered with litigation of this class. A great many of the cases are tried and disposed of by arbitration, or are submitted to the orthodox Jewish rabbis for decision. In this connection, it is worth while mentioning that the orthodox Jewish rabbis of this city have organized a tribunal with all the formalities and forms prescribed by the Talmudic law, which has proven a blessing to the Jewish community in keeping the people out of courts. Matters are disposed of with great dispatch and all parties interested seem to be always satisfied.

Personal Injuries. Since so large a portion of the Jewish population is engaged in industrial pursuits, working in factories of every description, which are operated by dangerous machinery, many become injured in the usual course of such employments. The number of injured Russian Jews is augmented by the terrible condition of the street car system of the city of Chicago. It is a noteworthy fact that during working hours it requires a great effort for a workingman to reach home. Conductors do not stop at the crossings, the cars are always overcrowded; people become maimed in their efforts to either get on or off the cars. As a consequence considerable litigation is pending in our courts in behalf of Russian Jews, growing out of personal injury sustained by them, either during their employment or while going or coming from work. There are very few suits of this kind pending against them as defendants.
Marriage and Divorce. There is considerable litigation in the courts growing out of the relation of husband and wife. Hasty marriages and marriages on the part of girls for the sake of quitting work in the sweat-shops or other undesirable factory places, without regard to the fitness and temperament of contracting parties, are in a great measure responsible for this condition, but with all this, it cannot be said that there is a greater percentage of divorce cases than among other nationalities in Chicago.

Real Estate. To judge of the progress that Russian Jews have made in this city, we must take into consideration the large extent of real estate acquired by them within the last fifteen years. It may be said with a certainty that 65 per cent. of all the real property in the so-called Ghetto district, comprising the portions of the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Wards occupied by Russian Jews, is owned by them. This is exclusive of real estate owned by Russian Jews in other parts of the city of Chicago and county of Cook. It is natural that men owning real estate should have disputes with tenants and hence litigation growing out of the relationship of landlord and tenant, but during all my experience as a practicing attorney among Russian Jews I did not find one case of a heartless landlord in the true sense of the word, but in most instances there were circumstances, some in favor of the plaintiff and others in that of the defendant, which at least justify litigation in court. The proportion of suits of this kind is considerably less among Russian Jews than among other classes of citizens in the city of Chicago.

Bankruptcy. The Russian Jew arriving in this country without capital usually establishes his business with a small capital, saved up as result of hard work. A recent immigrant, he is not in a condition to enable him to scrutinize business transactions without blunder. He is not yet up to the nice business tricks practiced by the Boards of Trade and the great financiers and business men of America, who are so proficient in organizing trusts and corporations. Therefore he frequently mistakes the course of action necessary in his business ventures and as a consequence is sometimes led into bankruptcy. Russian Jews were therefore obliged to avail themselves of the benefit of the bankruptcy law. An investigation of the clerk's office of the district court of the United States in Chicago discloses the fact that every Russian Jew who filed a petition in bankruptcy was granted a discharge by the courts, thus showing a presumptive absence of fraud in business transactions.

Crimes. There were a number of cases tried in the police courts against Russian Jews, in which men were charged with abandonment of wife and children, but in most cases the magistrates effected a reconciliation and the charge was dropped. I could find no record in the criminal court of any case against a Russian Jew charged with abduction of an unmarried female. No indictments were found in the year 1904 against a Russian Jew or Jewess on the statutory crime of abortion. No convictions were had in the criminal court on the charge of adultery.

The oft-repeated charge of arson against the Jews finds no substantiation in the annals of the criminal court of Cook County. During the year 1904 not a single Jew was indicted by the grand jury on a charge of arson. The police courts in the Ghetto districts are often called upon to try cases of assault and battery, but in a majority of instances there is no prosecution when these eases are called for trial. There were three convictions of Russian Jews in the criminal court, during the years of 1903 and 1904 on the charge of bigamy; they were brought about by the energetic action of the United Hebrew Charities. There were no indictments against Russian Jews on the charge of bribery within the last fifteen years. There were three eases of burglary against Russian Jews during the year 1904, resulting in two convictions.

Four Russian Jews were convicted during the years 1903 and 1904 for conspiracy to commit an illegal act. Cases of embezzlement and extortion by threats were quite rare; while there might have been eases of this kind in the police courts very few of them ever reached the criminal court. There were a number of cases in the criminal court against Russian Jews on the charge of obtaining goods under false pretenses, but in most instances there were acquittals. There were no convictions of any Russian Jew on the charge of forgery in the criminal court within the last three years. Ten Russian Jews were convicted for bucket-shopping. Two Russian Jews were tried and convicted in 1904 for manslaughter. In both cases, insanity was the defense. During the entire history of the criminal court of Chicago there was not a single ease of a Russian Jew on the charge of incest or kidnapping. About twenty Russian Jews, mostly junk dealers, pawn-brokers, and second-hand dealers, were indicted during the year 1904 for receiving stolen property. One of the convicted men was sentenced to the penitentiary and the others received jail sentences and were fined. There were no convictions on charges of malicious mischief and mayhem, and no indictments for perjury were returned during the year 1904. Not a single Russian Jew was convicted on the charge of vagrancy.

Violations of City Ordinances. It is a fundamental principle of law that everybody is supposed to know the law and that ignorance of the law is no excuse. The word "law" includes the common law, constitutional law, statutory and municipal ordinances.

It is monstrous to suppose that a Russian Jew, a recent immigrant, should know all these laws, much less the municipal ordinances which are passed at one session of the city council and repealed at another. (In this connection, I call attention to the legal absurdity, that while everybody is supposed to know of the existence of municipal ordinances, the judge who tries the case is not supposed to know that such an ordinance in fact exists. He takes no judicial notice of a municipal ordinance unless it has been exhibited to him in proper form and proved up in accordance with all the rules of evidence.)

It is therefore natural that there should be violations of municipal ordinances, because of the ignorance of the people of the existence of such ordinances, and not necessarily because of a desire to violate them. Russian Jews are frequently the victims of police officers, who delight in arresting for a violation of a city ordinance with prospect of the harvest of the ward politicians and professional bailers, who are always on hand to help out a "friend.
The information furnished above is based upon personal investigation and knowledge of the writer with litigation among Russian Jews during a law practice, in the city of Chicago, for the past twelve years.







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