The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in New York*
by J. K. Paulding

* - 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 agencies at work for the education of the Russian Jew in New York are so various that their mere enumeration would extend, in all probability, over a whole page of this present volume. In the wider sense attaching to the word education at the present day there would have to be included in such an enumeration more than a passing reference to the conditions, physical, industrial, and moral, in which the lives of the Jewish immigrant and his children are set. The mere geography of his environment, when consideration is had for its effect upon overcrowding, could not be ignored. The influence of the shop, of the home, and of the society about him, would have to be examined and estimated if one would gain a correct conclusion concerning the education--in this, its wider sense--which the Jew is receiving in the process of his transformation from an Old-World subject into a citizen of the New.

It is not, however, primarily with this wider aspect of the educational problem that the present paper has to do. In its narrower sense, education includes only those agencies that are consciously at work for the training of mind, body or character. In a sense narrower still, the term education is sometimes confined to the first of these three--the training of the mind; but since the discoveries of Froebel and Pestalozzi of the value of the children's play-hour, to say nothing of the possibilities of character building through direct moral instruction, this would be held but an unsatisfactory definition of the province of human life over which education, as a science, is set in authority.

Such conscious agencies for the education of the people are everywhere divided into three classes:--(1) the State directed; (2) those instituted and carried on by private philanthropists whether in societies or as individuals; and (3) those arising from the people themselves. To one or another of these three classes may be referred every effort making at present for the education of the Russian Jew in New York.

Of course the first of all such agencies, in the extent of its influence, is the public school. There are public schools in New York, which, on the Day of Atonement, or some other religious holiday, are almost emptied of their pupils. A reference to the subjoined table1 will give ample evidence of this.

The preponderance of Jewish pupils over all others in the schools situated below Houston Street on the East Side is so overwhelming as to render of comparatively little value questions directed to the teachers concerning the relative scholarship and aptitude of Jewish and non-Jewish pupils, unless these teachers have had experience elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is much in the testimony of teachers to confirm the prevailing impression that these pupils--the children, for the most part, of poor Jewish immigrants from Russia--are among the brightest in attendance at the public schools. Certainly they rank high in all examinations for advancement to the secondary institutions of learning such as the high schools and city college,--and this not merely, it may be believed, because of a keener instinct of competition. American boys have this instinct in an equal degree, although it may be true that it is more strongly developed in the young Jew than in other children of foreign birth or parentage. In itself, and provided that it submits to correction, it may be little more than the index of an alert mind.

In spite of the bad industrial conditions prevailing among the Jews of the lower East Side, the parents, or if not the parents, the children themselves are quick to avail themselves of whatever privileges their new surroundings extend to them. Among these the privilege of most worth is the education offered them, and they are not slow to appreciate its advantages. The children begin their attendance at the public school within a very short time after their arrival here, the younger ones finding their way into the numerous kindergartens connected with private institutions. Very soon, especially to the little girls, the public school teacher becomes a strong, in many instances the strongest, influence in the lives of these children. They learn to look upon her as a model of good taste--first, it is true, chiefly in external things, such as clothes and manner of speech,--but afterwards, very often, as a pattern of deportment as well. Happy the teacher who can "live up to" the ideal that has been formed of her! These children, most teachers report, are singularly docile,--not the girls only, but the boys as well. In some cases, indeed, this docility amounts to a defect (of which, however, teachers are not wont to complain),--the children seeming to lack those healthy instincts for mischievous play that are the accompaniment of happier childhood. Later, however, when the influence of the street (not always a bad one) has had time to make itself apparent, they are apt to develop the high spirits that are a prerogative of their years.

Of the interest and ability displayed by these children of the public school age, let some of their teachers speak:
“Jewish children, as a rule, are bright, attentive and studious."
“They are generally anxious to learn, and except in English, compare favorably with other nationalities."
"They rank among the highest. They are far more earnest and ambitious [than other scholars] and many of them supplement their school work with outside reading."
"As a race, their ability to comprehend instruction is excellent. The poorer class of Jewish children is ahead of the poorer class of other nationalities. They are not so smart (?) as the average American, but have greater emotional capacity. They are more receptive than self-active."

Other teachers have observed no marked distinction between their pupils of Jewish birth and those belonging to other races.
Concerning the scholarship developed, the teacher last quoted says, "They seem to grasp `beautiful ideas' eagerly. Manual training they enjoy."

Other opinions are :
"They have a special aptitude for studies that appeal to the imagination, while matters of fact excite less interest."
“They excel in mathematics, English and history. They are deficient in drawing and shop-work."
“Their scholarship is affected, I think, by their ignorance of other surroundings than those to which they are habituated. . . . There is a decided lack of the power of concentration and steady application, owing, probably, to a very nervous temperament. The study of good English poetry seems to have developed a writing in rhyme, in a good percentage; in the few, it is even poetry,"--but the same teacher adds, in another place, "We rarely find the artistic temperament except as expressing itself in music."

Most teachers agree that the young Jewish children are exceedingly patriotic, although it is suggested that the patriotism must be, in some cases, of a merely imitative order, considering the tender age at which it is developed. One principal expresses the opinion that the Jewish boys of the East Side "are born politicians and their chief interest in American institutions arises from the fact that they furnish an area for political contests." Certainly the East Side boy grows up in a perilous atmosphere, politically considered, and too often develops into the thing to which we need not believe him born. This public school "patriotism," of which we hear so much, is by no means a product deserving of unqualified praise. With no desire to disparage the good work of the schools in familiarizing the little foreigner with the more elementary of those ideas that lie at the root of the national political institutions, it is doubtful whether in practice he is not very often imbued with a military chauvinism very far removed from the true spirit of American patriotism. We are all rather prone to forget that it is the coarser side of any abstract proposition that inevitably impresses itself upon the minds of boys, of whatever nationality, and that the concrete image that is carried away from this "patriotic" cult is apt to be the mere drum-beating and flag raising that makes such easy and instant appeal to instincts but little allied to those of justice, fair-play, and an elevated love for humanity as a whole.

Coming back to the subject of the proficiency, as well as the special aptitudes, displayed by the Russian Jewish children in the public schools as compared with those of other nationalities, it does not appear to the present writer that sufficient material is at hand to warrant the formation of a judgment having much claim to accuracy. As a general rule, and taking into consideration the moral as well as the mental qualities that go to the formation of good scholarship, it will probably be found that the best scholars come from the beat homes. Now the Jewish people have long been celebrated for the beauty of their family life, and we should therefore expect them to furnish a good percentage of the best scholarship realized in the school; but it cannot be disputed that the homes of too many of the recent refugees from Russia, Roumania, and other European countries, partly by reason of industrial conditions, in part owing to a moral break-down incident to the upturning of the tradition of centuries, have ceased to be homes at all in the true sense of the word, and it would be unfair to look to the children of these dwellings for an exemplification of the highest attainable type of scholarship. Often, indeed, individual scholars come surprisingly near it, especially on the intellectual side, and it is no part of the writer's purpose to suggest that as a class they fall farther below it than the equally unfortunate of other nationalities.

It seems clear that whatever the defects of the scholarship realized, they are attributable as much to the teacher and to the system employed as to the pupils. Considering the responsiveness of Jewish children to imaginative stimuli of one variety or another, it would seem desirable to emphasize to a greater degree than is done in other matters such as the training of the power of observation and the cultivation of habits of application. These receive admirable illustration in the system of manual training afforded by the work shops, but the work shops are few in number, and there seems at present but little disposition on the part of the school authorities to increase them and extend their efficiency. The probability is, if this were done, that they would form an admirable corrective to the too exclusively intellectual activity of the class-rooms.

One of the great aims of all education, undoubtedly, is to develop the true individuality of the child; and it is not surprising that but little attention can be devoted to this in the overcrowded class-rooms of our public schools. But sometimes directly wrong methods are adopted, as when a teacher encourages in a forward or self-conscious child the tendencies that require stimulation in an unduly retiring or modest one. There seems to be a smaller, proportion of bashfulness. among Jewish children than among those of other nationalities, and therefore less need to have resort to devices, such as public declamation and quotation-citing, designed to overcome this evil. I have often been present at such exhibitions in down-town schoolhouses where the display of vanity and of a certain self-conscious forwardness inconsistent with the modesty of childhood was painful in the extreme, and I have observed such a display more frequently among the little girls than among their little brothers.

The story is told (by President (I. Stanley Hall, I think) of a class of children in a Boston school, the majority of whom believed the real size of a cow to be the space occupied by its picture in their spelling books. This points a finger at the city child's ordinary ignorance of nature and country surroundings, and we should expect to find this ignorance intensified in the little Jewish children whose lives have been confined within such narrow city boundaries as limit the district cramped on two sides by the river, and on a third side by the Bowery, that broad and dangerous thoroughfare which an unwritten rule forbids the younger children ever to cross. The remedy for this is not school, but more parks and open air life, and the remedy is being rapidly applied, every year adding to the number of parks and open-air play grounds. The Jewish people are generous patrons of the parks, and with the natural intelligence of the children, it is probable that the defect of experience which at present hampers some departments of the school work will tend more and more to disappear.

When we come to a consideration of the secondary schools, we are struck with the large percentage of Jewish scholars and their relatively high rank, particularly in examination tests. Of course, a considerable proportion of these students are the children of parents who have been settled long in this country, and are not, therefore, to be identified with the class we are studying, but in the recently established boys' high schools, the children of recent Jewish immigrants numbered about 41 per cent. when inquiry was made. These high schools (both for boys and girls) are doing an excellent work, both in filling a need long unsupplied in the city's educational system, and in setting the pace for a higher standard than has hitherto prevailed in such institutions as the City College (for boys) and the Normal College (for girls). The high school teachers speak in the highest terms of the natural ability and persistence of their pupils of Russian Jewish origin and have many instances to relate of hardships overcome by boy and girl scholars in their struggle for an education. The girls, in especial, seem anxious to make up for every lesson they are compelled to lose, and after the holidays would keep the teachers occupied until the late evening of every day hearing omitted recitations, had not a rule been adopted excusing their absences. It is not with the grade of scholarship attained by their pupils that criticism (if criticism there is to be) need concern itself, so much as with the motive and spirit at work beneath their activity. That the motive of commercial advantage holds a very high place in the whole movement is the common testimony of teachers. Parents who are themselves at a disadvantage as compared with their neighbors would naturally be quick to respond to such a motive in behalf of their children, and there are many indications that a lively realization of this is present with the children as well. The instinct of success, so strong in the Jewish people, accounts for much prize-taking and high standing in the class-room, but for the formation of a finer type of scholarship there is necessary the cultivation of a greater degree of disinterestedness. The comparative absence of such a quality (difficult, indeed, of development under the prevailing industrial conditions) is what constitutes the principal flaw in the scholarship at present attained by the children of Jewish immigrants. That it will tend to disappear as a more comfortable material standard is realized, is easy to believe when we bethink ourselves of the strain of ideality, the endowment of imaginative power, that exists side by side in their souls with the instinct for material advancement.
Two institutions, already mentioned (the City College and the Normal College), stand at the head of the city's free educational system and in both the attendance of Jewish pupils is very large. These two institutions, together with the Training School for teachers, a state institution, supply the great majority of the new teachers who are received each year into the city's public school system. What proportion of these new teachers are Russian Jews would be an interesting inquiry, were the facts accessible. That the teaching profession is an attractive one to the children of these immigrants admits of no doubt whatever. The only real question concerns the degree of its attractiveness as compared with other professions, such as law and medicine, and this is difficult to determine, among other reasons, for the economic one that the pursuit of all special studies involves an outlay of time and money beyond what is commonly expended upon obtaining the qualifications necessary for a teacher's equipment.

Finally, with respect to the higher learning, the great increase in the number of Jews in attendance upon the classes at Columbia and the University of New York has been the subject of recent remark. That this increase is drawn from the class of recent immigrants is, on the face of it, probable, and can be easily demonstrated by a reference to the secondary schools of which these pupils are graduates. Nor is the number confined to those who are pursuing the full university course, since many whose economic position compelled them to accept employment as teachers or otherwise supplement their earlier training by attending special courses held at hours adapted to their convenience.
Coming now to the private agencies at work in New York for the education and spiritual advancement of the Russian Jews, we find a great number, of which it will only be possible, within our present limits, to go into particulars concerning a few. Some of these institutions are supported and managed by American Jews for the benefit of their co-religionists from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe; others are conducted entirely by non-Jews on a completely non-sectarian basis, and the people sought to be benefited avail themselves, without distinction, of both. This readiness to embrace the opportunities offered, combined with the keen intellectual curiosity of the race, has rendered this people, in the opinion of many, the most promising of all in the field of social experiment.

The largest single work of the character now under discussion is carried on in New York by the Educational Alliance,-- a union, originally, of three societies, Jewish in their membership, established to bring culture within the reach of the more destitute of the race. The consistent aim of this institution, since its foundation, has been the Americanization of the foreign Jew, and the first steps in this process (the English classes for immigrants) have followed closely upon the earlier Baron de Hirsch classes, long housed in the building of the. Alliance. In these classes it happens not seldom that children are found on the very day of their landing in America. They are regularly prepared, both as regards language and scholarship, to enter the class at the public school appropriate to their age. During the season of the year when the public evening schools are closed, evening classes for immigrants are opened by the Alliance, so that no time may be lost in the acquisition of the first requisite of intelligent citizenship.

But besides these elementary classes designed to meet the needs of the immigrants and their young children, there are classes for nearly every grade of culture, the subject-list including languages, literature, history, civics, mathematics, natural science, music, cookery, book-keeping, drawing, millinery, typewriting, philosophy, gymnastics, and religion. At first the most successful of these classes were those that addressed themselves to a practical result--the enabling of pupils to pass the state, or regents' examinations in specified subjects. A change, greatly to be commended, has recently been introduced, to favor the classes designed to stimulate general culture, with the result that "cramming" for an examination is now discouraged. As a result, principally, of the influence of the late Prof. Thomas Davidson and Mr. Edward King, a group of earnest students of the higher laws of history and social science has been formed, and some of these are beginning to take an active part in the conduct of the outlying portions of the institution's work. There is some reason to suppose that too great leniency was observed at first in the matter of permitting students to select at random the classes they preferred to attend, the evil showing itself in a constant shifting interest from one subject to another, as one or another enthusiasm predominated in an unripe brain. Greater systemization and a limitation upon the number of classes permitted to be attended by a single pupil have assisted in reducing this tendency. The building of the Alliance includes an assembly-hall, a library and a gymnasium in addition to its class, club and play-rooms, and lectures (for the most part under the auspices of the Board of Education), entertainments, exhibitions, and concerts follow one another in quick succession through the winter and spring months. In particular, the concert feature has been carefully developed, the resources of the neighborhood being drawn upon to form a promising chorus and orchestra. Picture exhibitions have also been held, and one was held in which the work of East Side artists alone was illustrated. On Sunday afternoons children's entertainments have been held, while legal holidays and Jewish festivals are always honored with appropriate observances. A comparatively recent departure has been to open the building on Friday evenings for social purposes only.

The three leading social settlements of the lower East Side are the Nurses', College, and University Settlements, the first two having women as residents, the third having men. Of the work of these institutions it is, perhaps, correct to say that it is individual rather than general, intensive rather than widespread.

The children that begin in the kindergarten and grow up through a whole series of clubs, coming to the house of the settlement for most of the amusement and some little of the discipline of their most impressionable years, have a chance to acquire something that shall exert a profound influence upon their future lives. The danger is lest they come to regard themselves as a society apart, by reason of an external superiority of manners and taste, or, escaping that, lest they mistake the refinement of settlement life for the end in itself and content themselves with an effort to realize that, careless of the more pressing considerations that occupy their less privileged neighbors. But though such dangers exist, the young men and women are numerous who owe to the settlement an enlarged purpose and a more satisfying outlook upon the world than they would have been likely to obtain, at least so early in their lives, without its instrumentality. Except among the clubs of the youngest there is little direct instruction in any settlement with which I happen to be acquainted,--and this not because it was undesired, but because classes did not seem to flourish in the atmosphere of sociability and light-hearted amusement that usually prevailed there. But all the more, on this account, is the influence permeative, that it does not seem to come in the way made familiar, and therefore disliked, of the instruction in school, but rather to be distilled through the medium of games, conversation, etc., until it is unconsciously absorbed. Therefore I think that the little immigrant children of the East Side who have drifted into the settlements (only a very small proportion of the whole) have come out of them again much modified in character, purposes, opinions--in nearly every way.

The value of a technical training for boys, fitting them to practice the mechanical trades, has been recognized by Jewish philanthropists as having a special application to their race, by reason of some inherited deficiencies in this regard; and in illustration of their belief two admirable institutions--the Hebrew Technical Institute and the Baron de Hirsch Trade School have come into existence in New York. The first of these, the Technical Institute, does not teach boys a trade, but takes them at an early age (twelve and a half years) and instructs them in such studies as will be most likely to fit them for success in mechanical pursuits. For the first two years this instruction is quite general in character, but during the last year they are permitted to specialize their studies in the direction of the particular taste they may have acquired, without actually studying a trade. The studies necessary to the development of a general intelligence--English, mathematics and history--are maintained throughout the three year course, and along with them goes a graduated instruction in wood-work, free hand and mechanical drawing, metal work, and applied science. The tuition, tools, and text-books are all furnished free, together with shower baths, bathing forming part of the exercises, and the only charge made in connection with the institution is that of one cent a day, or five cents a week, for the warm lunch provided in the school refectory. The present number of pupils is 249, and the school has 476 living graduates, of whom 72 per cent. are following mechanical work.

At the Baron de Hirsch Trade School the instruction is also free, but the applicant for admission, who must be sixteen years old, must show that he has some means of support while learning the trade. The aim of the school is to afford a working knowledge of one of the following trades: Plumbing and gas-fitting, carpentry, house painting, sign-painting, machinist and electrician. The time taken to acquire this knowledge is five and one-half months, the first portion of the course being devoted to a teaching of the principles of the trade and the latter part to their practical application. A preference is given, in the matter of admission, to Jewish boys born in Russia and Roumania, and statistics taken from seven successive classes show that these boys form about 48.3 per cent. of the whole number of graduates, the other pupils of foreign birth numbering 19.2 per cent., while 32.5 per cent. are Jewish boys born in the United States. Over 77 per cent. of the graduates of the previous five years were reported in 1899 to be still working at the trades learned in the school.

Closely adjoining the boys' trade school is the Training School for Girls, instituted by Baroness de Hirsch. This contains 35 training girls, who live there all the time and receive instruction in millinery, cooking, washing, machine-operating, hand-sewing, and dress-making, besides sheltering some 65 more working girls, who pay three dollars a week for their board. Provision is made for 30 free scholars. The institution is non-sectarian, Baroness de Hirsch having prescribed as a condition to this gift that ten per cent. of the inmates should be Gentiles.

The trade education for girls is looked out for by the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, which has a commercial department, containing, according to the last report, 108 pupils, and one of manual training, containing 45 pupils. The girls attending this school are about fifteen years old, and are all graduates of the public schools. The aim of the commercial department is to turn out good assistant book-keepers and stenographers; and the graduates readily secure positions. The graduates of the manual training department are also making profitable use of their knowledge. The school is quite strict in its requirements both at entrance and graduation, no girl being received who cannot pass a good examination in English, and diplomas being refused to those whose proficiency in the subjects taught has not come up to the standard. The school has grown very rapidly, and looks forward to a career of growing usefulness.
The passage over from institutions of the character of those just described to efforts at educational improvement having their origin in the people themselves may well come through the People's Singing Classes, an institution having some of the better elements of both, but more of the latter than the former. The impulse for the formation of this great union of working-people for the study of song came, indeed, not from the people, but from its present director, Mr. Frank Damrosch; and he and his assistants supply the necessary instruction without pecuniary compensation, but this not from the motive of charity, so much as out of a disinterested love of the musical art and a desire for its dissemination among the people. The people, on their side, pay the entire expenses of the movement, which has never received a contribution from anyone outside of it, and undertake besides its entire management, electing its officers and committees, who gratuitously give in its service the time snatched from their working-hours. It may, therefore, be best described as a great co-partnership for the furtherance of a given end--the extension of the love and culture of music among the working-people; a co-partnership to which each contributes what is his to give, and in which none feels himself the recipient of charity. Music is still the art to which the mass of mankind is most strongly inclined, and when compared with the plastic arts--painting, sculpture and architecture--its appeal appears to be relatively stronger in the Jewish race than among other peoples. Certainly, some of most earnest and enthusiastic workers in the musical cause since the inception of the People's Singing Classes have come from the Russian Jewish population of the lower East Side.

Among what may be called the native forces at work: for the education of the Russian Jew a high place must be assigned to the socialist propaganda. The mind of many a young man, depressed by the soul-deadening conditions of a sweat-shop existence, would never have awakened to the higher life of the intellect in response to any stimulus less immediate and personal than that extended by the socialist theories of society. Clubs and classes innumerable for the study of economics and history, science and literature, have grown up in the work of the socialist movement, and if the knowledge acquired was often one-sided, because studied in the shadow of a theory to which all the facts must be made to conform, still the ideal of a regenerated society was present to inspire other faculties than the intellect. Unfortunately for their cause, many of the older socialists adopted methods of propaganda modeled more upon German than American patterns, and this forfeited the sympathy of a young element that grew up in closer touch with American ideas.

Anyone who knows the East Side knows that it swarms with clubs almost as much as it swarms with sweat-shops and peddlers' carts. Some of them owe their origin to the schoolroom, to the settlement, or to the stray philanthropist who affords them "a local habitation and a name," but a vast host of them are of spontaneous generation, and constitute an expression of needs that are not the less genuine because sometimes unconscious. Boys' and girls' clubs are so numerous that lately the school authorities have been brought to see the wisdom of opening a limited number of school-buildings in the evening to serve as “play-centres" and to supply the want for club space. It is noticeable that nearly all of these open schools are on the lower East Side, the demand for them in other parts of the city being as yet comparatively small. The boys' clubs nearly all indulge in debates and have a "literary" programme, one of the elected officers being usually an “editor," who conducts a manuscript journal in which original matter may appear together with quotations from well-known writers, the whole being liberally seasoned with "jokes." Much oratory and some juvenile eloquence is developed in the debates, and the effect of this upon the bright boys of the race is generally bad, since it is apt to start them upon careers of law and politics which, under prevailing conditions, tend rapidly to corrupt the truthful and scrupulous instincts of youth. Circles for quiet study are more rare, but these do exist, and excellent work of a public character such as that accomplished by Col. Waring's Street-Cleaning Brigade, has been done by boys' clubs, but this usually under the direction of a leader from without. The little girls' clubs, while far more restricted in their interests than the boys', are subject to fewer temptations and under the influence of reading and quiet work, have been productive of much good to their members. At a later age, these clubs, both youths' and maidens' divide sharply into two classes, one of which is inspired by an ideal of some abstract subject or of one connected with their particular trade or employment, the other by an ideal of pleasure with which is sometimes connected a charitable purpose. In clubs of the first class earnest work is often accomplished, though there is apt to come a time in the life of every such club when the personal interests of its members, love and the starting of individual careers, come to interrupt the course of its activity. Among the older people, no clubs or associations for mutual improvement other than of a material order, as exemplified in the lodges and benevolent societies, exist. A league of young men's clubs under the title of "Federation of East Side Clubs" has recently been formed for discussion and action upon matters of common interest affecting the welfare of the neighborhood, and much good is to be anticipated from the existence of such a body.

In the foregoing review of the educational influences at work among the Russian Jews of New York, nothing has been said of the libraries--Astor, Columbia, New York Free Circulating, and others--to which they have resort in so great numbers. If the place to speak of libraries is not wholly that assigned to influences of self-help, it comes pretty close to being so. The library, indeed, is provided by others, but nothing can make it of service to the people if they do not themselves manifest the disposition to use it. This disposition is certainly present in a large proportion of the recent Jewish immigrants, even among many who are seriously hampered in the struggle for learning by the economic conditions of their lives. It is this disposition, developed into an attitude habitual to them in the face of every opportunity with which they are brought into contact, joined to their natural ability, that will vindicate the claim of the Russian Jewish people to a high place among the intellectually-disposed nations of the earth.


1 The table was made up by the editor from a record of the registration and attendance of each of the schools on October lst, 1908, which was the Jewish Day of Atonement of that year.
the total of 64,605 pupils in the district, 61,103, or 94.5 per cent., are Jews.








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