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 New York*
by Louis Lipsky, Managing Editor, American Hebrew, New York City

* - 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."

The subject of this inquiry is rather difficult, owing to the complexity of its elements and the diversity of definitions given to religion.

There are two conceptions of religion involved in this subject, interwoven with the intensely interesting psychology of the Jew. They are found side by side in the same household and, consciously or unconsciously, are struggling for supremacy. The one has pressed itself into the very life of the older generation, and the other is as yet an inchoate view-- which has had no vital and permanent influence on the lives of those who hold it.

That of the older generation amounts to this: Judaism is a religion with its centre in the synagogue and ramifications in every department--of life in business, in the home, in society. Affiliation with the synagogue is essential to a member of the Jewish religion. The Jew who attains the proper age at once enters upon the responsibilities of his Jewish citizenship, and ipso facto becomes a member of a religion which requires obedience to law. Traditions are not only a heritage--the subject of scholarly research--but an ever present and active influence on everyday life. Religion is the greatest part of life and the synagogue the register in which every family enters its name.

Had only this conception of religion existed with us in New York, there would have been no difficulty in ascertaining the numerical strength of those affiliated with religion by means of a census of the Jewish community. But with the Jews, and especially with that Jewish community to which reference has been made, there never has been self-consciousness enough to produce a desire to make a numerical estimate of its strength, except when required by the law of the land.

Now, the East Side is the battle ground where this old representation of religion, accepted by the old generation, meets in conflict with a new conception, as yet unorganized, feeble and vague, which is held by the new generation.
Conflict is to be expected in every progressive community. The conflict in the Jewish community of the great metropolis is abnormally intensified by the various democratic influences which radiate from the community at large and which effectively bring about the assimilation of the more adaptable individuals.

What is the attitude of the old generation to the forces that are sweeping away their offspring from the ancient strongholds? Seldom is it on their part more than mere lamentation. They acquiesce in the inevitable and only berate the modern spirit which is radically undermining their influence.

The older generation of Russian Jews show a lack of organizing power and not even the new influences of a democratic city have resulted in giving them that power. With them, the new generation is incorrigible and they accept this fact with the fatalistic resignation of the oriental. They do not understand the new world.

The position of the newcomer to New York City is impossible of conception by the ordinary observer. The standard of monarchy must give way to that of democracy; authority is displaced by sectional anarchy. Communal pride of a petty sort impresses the foreign Jew with the necessity of joining a synagogue, but he finds very soon that the necessity is not so forceful as he had at first supposed.

The effect of this change in standards is to be seen in the medley of congregations which may be found in the city of New York, each with its limited territory and its ignorance of the others. Instead of one compact Jewish community with an organized centre we see group after group forming on the basis of democracy, with a steady defiance of all ecclesiastical authority beyond its own boundaries.

In the recent history of the Jewish community downtown this group anarchy may be noted by a few illustrations. The Suwalker Chevra does not recognize the authority of the Rev. So-and-So. The Roumanians settled themselves in the upper part of downtown and are clearly a distinct clan. The immigrants from Suwalk, Minsk, Odessa, etc., have their own congregations.

Formerly the rabbi of a congregation enjoyed his prerogatives with a feeling of power and a knowledge that obedience to law as interpreted by him was the one evidence of the true Jewish heart. In the loose community of New York the same rabbi found rival authorities, and--more important than all--a positive dislike of rabbinical authority not the free choice of the layman. America means to orthodoxy the breaking up of old communities, and the consequent attempt to establish a community with elements representing various local traditions and habits.

It will be of interest to note that practically all the congregations have adopted the ceremonies of the old synagogue, with very slight modifications--each with its own idiosyncracies. The ritual is practically the same, except in a sermon now and then, on a special occasion. The sermon, or derasha, is usually given before the afternoon services. The preachers, or maggidim, are seldom permanently connected with any one synagogue; they travel from one congregation to another and receive their compensation by collections from the faithful the day following the sermon. Few of these synagogues have religious schools connected with them, and even the chedarim (schools), which were often in the old country part of the synagogue, are here, with a few exceptions, usually entirely severed. The organization of modern children's schools is opposed by virtually all the modern orthodox synagogues. The opposition is based on the fear that is felt for all innovations.

The downtown synagogues are really institutional churches. An enumeration of the activities connected with the Forsyth Street synagogue will show this. It has a chevra kadisha, consisting of over twenty members, who perform all the rites connected with the burial of the members of the congregation: the chevra 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 chevra 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 synagogue. The Ladies' Benevolent Society consists of over one hundred and fifty members; the dues are paid monthly, and are devoted to charity. The congregation is interested in distributing matzoth during Passover. On specified Sabbaths promises of gifts are made for the Beth Israel Hospital, the Machsike Talmud Torah of the East Side, and other good works that may be , brought to the attention of the congregation. The synagogue supports a rabbi, a cantor or chazan, and a choir, and its doors are open for worship morning and evening of every day. Its rabbi has no direct supervision over the slaughterers of meat; this matter is in the hands of other communal functionaries. The membership of the congregation is 150 and its annual income is seven thousand dollars.

Though the synagogue is not directly interested in the chedarim, the old generation shows its influence in the numerous chedarim with which the East Side is dotted--all conducted strictly on old country methods. Children of a very tender age are admitted to these schools and some ambitious parents send their offspring to a cheder even before it has attended a public school. The methods of instruction are as antiquated as one could imagine. The first years are devoted to teaching the art of reading, then translations and finally the study of the Talmud. The drill is continuous and wearing. Specimens of children who attend these chedarim are not at all creditable as models of physical development. The cheder-bred youth has his ear-marks, of which he is unable to rid himself even when fully grown. The schoolrooms are insanitary and often a menace to health, but from the opposition of the patrons of these schools, one would gather that just these features--the incessant drill, the long hours, the lack of ventilation, the crowdedness, are essential. It has been estimated that these schools on the East Side are equal to the number of congregations; but figures cannot tell us anything of value in this respect, because the number of retired rabbis, chazanim (cantors) and schochtim (official slaughterers), who earn a pittance by instructing children, cannot be counted; they are hidden away in the recesses of many a tenement.

The older generation shows its influence also in the Gemilath Chasodim Society, which is an altogether admirable society for the loaning of money to poor borrowers; but this society, it must be confessed, would have been of very little influence were it not for the substantial assistance it received and still receives from gentlemen connected with the up-town organizations.

What is the attitude of this older generation to reform?

It is clearly and unmistakably orthodox, and has not been as yet touched in the least by the reform wave which has swept over the German communities. If anything, the German reform movement appeals to very few--even of the more advanced class in the downtown population. The repulse of the Russian community by the German congregations, though not meant, has resulted in a feeling of distrust and dislike on the part of those who live downtown. As a result, anything that may be attributed to German reform is at once discountenanced by those who are in charge of downtown affairs, or who may contemplate certain innovations. The old cling tenaciously to all the customs possible of realization and form a compact and immovable opposition to progress.

Yet the orthodox elements represent all the organized forces of religion downtown, with the exception of one or two societies which we shall mention hereafter.

It would be a narrow mind, however, that would look only to the organized expression of religion for a complete inventory of the religious life of any community. Generally in every active community there is an undertow of radicalism which in its essence is religious and which because of the unpalatable form which religion takes with the orthodox, finds it impossible to affiliate.

The organized religious community is generally one-third dead. That proportion of its adherents are successfully ossified. Another third is composed of sluggish minds, or those whom habit conquers, who cannot conceive of anything new. The other one-third is composed of the hangers-on, who are neither here nor there--too weak to organize on their own platform and too timid to tear away entirely from the old.

A large majority of the younger people of the East Side are fully impregnated with genuine religious feeling. They are opposed to religion because they think that the religion they oppose stands for the essence of all religion. They are under the delusion at the present time that the form of the religion is its spirit.

It is no exaggeration to say that one-half of the maturing generation of the East Side is religious, and is gradually finding itself, and it is not too much to hope that it will soon give expression to its feelings on the subject in some organized way. This does not mean, however, that the spirit is specifically Jewish.

Already there are two organizations on the East Side which represent the influence of the younger generation. One organization is known as the Jewish Endeavor Society, which is practically a self-supporting movement of young men and women, directed by theological students. The aim is a revival of interest in the orthodox Jewish religion. The society has established Saturday afternoon services and has placed on a respectable basis a number of classes for the study of Jewish religion, Jewish literature and Jewish ethical subjects. With one or two exceptions, all the classes meet downtown, and are led by theological students. Much has been expected of this society and interested persons are of the opinion that it would serve as an entering wedge for more religions organizations.

In the opinion of the writer, the Jewish Endeavor Society cannot be in any way effective as a focus for the latent religious feeling on the East Side; at the best, it can only hope to gather about it a very small portion of the young people of the district.

It is a great error to think that all the young people of the East Side have kept aloof of religion because the ceremonies have proved distasteful or discordant. Such a petty reason cannot be charged against them. Their opposition to the Jewish religion is not based on mere externals. There are many among them who have been affected by the progress of science and the spread of philosophical ideas and have given serious consideration to the fundamentals of religion. These enlightened minds, while not as yet fully confirmed in a theory of religion, are still so positive as to what they do not believe that they cannot be influenced by a revival of purified orthodox service.

Any form of religious service intended to be permanent, or as a focus for the younger people of the East Side, must combine not only a reverence for purified ancient ceremonies and religion, but a clear conception of the newer definition of religion which is taking hold of modern men and women.

Another organization which does not lend itself so well to the classification of a religious organization is the downtown Society for Ethical Culture; however, the seriousness of the movement permits of its classification under this head. The latest utterances of Dr. Felix Adler on the subject of symbols, ceremonies, and religion, allow for the prophecy that this society will have much to do in a positive religious line of work in the near future.

The downtown section of the Ethical Culture Society is in the hands of the East Side young men and young women. It does its work in an educational way and has under its charge a number of classes in the kindergarten. Its weekly meetings have not been successful. The influence of this organization has been somewhat checked
by the method of its formation. The purpose was to unite the young people of the district on a common ethical creed, but the fact that the society accepted a subsidy to do its work when it should have raised the required money from its own membership gives countenance to the prejudice that has arisen in some minds against the organization. The Ethical Society should not rest entirely on the saintliness of its leaders and should demand of those who affiliate with it a contribution to the cause equal to the benefit they receive.

It is unnecessary to mention the benevolent organizations and charitable societies organized outside of the synagogue, whose members are actuated by true religious feeling.

It seems that the Jewish religion has had its effects on the Jewish people in a way which gives one great hope for their future. Everywhere they have settled, whether affiliated with a synagogue or not, their efforts have been directed to good work in getting into right relations with one's neighbors, which is the essence of religion.

Ranging on the fringes of the community, and in some cases in the very heart of it, is that confused and defiant army of radicals, whose fulminations against religion by their very exaggeration lose their force. The student of the East Side must not neglect this army; it is both a menace and a benefit. It is a menace in its persistence and the passion and rancor which it displays against all forms of religion--all forms of enthusiasm, and every phase of idealism, which the community may express. It is a menace because the violent socialists and the enthusiastic anarchists seem to include in their condemnation of religion the ethical side of religion. But even this army has its good in its stinging of the self-complacent orthodox to defend themselves.1 These form in their very natures are doomed to be ineffective, for they stand for disorganization and anarchy. They represent in the Jewish community what Robert Ingersoll represented in the Christian community: that is, opposition.

The radicals have of late come under the influence of the Jewish national idea, and as a result they are less bitter against the religious element than before. In their newspapers they have abandoned the advocacy of inter-nationalism, and have declared themselves Jews, but in a national sense. No amount of rationalizing will check the growth of the feeling that their interests are closely allied to those of the Jewish people, and as a result we may see a more friendly spirit toward religion and a more liberal openness to essential religious influence than heretofore.

The elements I have described form a complete inventory of the religious activity of the East Side, in so far as such an inventory can be made.2

The problem before those who would influence the growth of religion on the East Side is not easy. The East Side looms up before the imagination of the American Jew as in a difficult situation because he has not been able to grapple with the situation. When he contemplates the East Side, he interprets its life to fit his own conceptions and views dissimilar conditions without discernment. If there is any improvement he believes it must follow the line of his own thinking and experience.

Now, obviously, the work on the East Side cannot be conducted without consideration of the elements which may be found there. There are orthodox Jews on the East Side, there are atheists, there are disciples of Emerson, there are followers of Kant and Comte, there are even theosophists and spiritualists in some number.

The true educator is he who fits his methods to his pupils, and if the aim is the development of religious feeling he has no right to impose any phase of religious belief on those to be instructed.

It is not with the children that the religious problem concerns itself. The propagandists can effect very little in the community by imposing a form of religion. The Jewish religion can boast of being creedless. It demands simply a true heart, and to walk in the right path.

The only way that feeling can be instilled as a belief in life is by developing it according to the best methods with the material that is found among the people, with the germs of the religious feeling that are there.

If there are orthodox young men the philanthropist or educator should instill orthodoxy in them. If there are Emersonians among the young people (and no one will deny that the Emerson influence is religious), it is their duty to lead the Emersonian philosophy into an organized form. If there are believers in Kant, whose belief is so strong within them that they may be stimulated to organize for the propagation of their beliefs, the duty of the worker is to assist them and ask them no questions as to the orthodoxy or reform of their Judaism. If there are young people who believe that ethics only are essential, and religion secondary, and. they are firm in their belief, the true worker will use this as a basis of organization among these young people--the point being always to utilize the germs of religious feeling in the formation of an organization--there to allow it to be developed.

Religion is a great indefinable influence, which no man can mark or limit, and it shows itself in innumerable aspects. In its essence it is neither Jewish nor Christian. It includes all of these, and he who would stimulate religion in a community which is so complex as the Jewish community of New York must make it his purpose not to further partisan views of religion but to be content if he further the growth of that greater religion which holds in its hands all minor revelations of itself.

1 The Christian missions for children have become very active. They, too, are arousing the orthodox Jews of the district to the need of providing some religions instruction, based on modern methods, for their children. But the absence of precedents, the lack of a common understanding, makes the success of any venture decidedly problematic. The so called "uptown " element is also interested and may initiate some institutions which will counteract the work of the missionaries. (whose work cannot be commended for its good influences). The Lucas classes may be mentioned. The Emanu El Brotherhood is also working on the same lines.

                2 I prefer not to give statistics on this subject. A thorough study of the figures is bang made by Superintendent David Blaustein of the Educational Alliance, but there will, in my judgment, be little illumination in the figures, for in such a heterogeneous mass the mere statement of numbers has little significance.








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