The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in New York*
by A.H. Fromenson
Editor, English Department, Jewish Daily News, New York City

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

Although it may be accounted a negligible factor, yet the liquor saloon has some value in a study of the social life and amusements of the Russian Jew in New York City (and doubtless in the other large Jewish centres in the United States). Its relation to the topic is inverse; in other words as the Jewish population of a given district increases the number of "gin mills" decreases. Contrary to the advent of butcher-shops, grocery stores, and "coffee and cake parlors," the disappearance of a saloon from a street corner where it had seemed moored for all time to come, and where it had been located for a period beyond memory, has always, on the East Side, and latterly in the newer Ghettos of New York City, signaled the ousting from that district of its former denizens and their supplanting by a population between which and the saloon there is no affinity. Not that there are no liquor saloons in the Ghettos. The Russian Jew is not a teetotaler, but he has no need for the solicitous guardianship of a temperance organization. He drinks when he feels so inclined, or when it seems to him the occasion warrants. But there must always be some reason for his drinking; there is the "gefilte fish" on Sabbath eve and for Sabbath lunch. It is almost a desecration of the joy of the Sabbath not to have a little brandy before the fish-course, once with the course, and once after. Then there are the festal occasions, the "Rejoicing of the Law," the anniversary of the hanging of Haman, the celebration of the Maccabean victories and the miracle of the lights - surely, these are sufficient warrant for looking upon the wine when it is red, or tasting of strong drink. Then, too, the great family events: the b'rith milah (circumcision), the pidyon ha ben (a ceremony relating to the first-born), the bar mitzvah (thirteenth anniversary of a male child), the tnoyim (engagement), the wedding - surely one cannot invite friends to these great functions without previously having a small keg of beer brought in; people cannot sit at a dry table!

But the drinking that is done on any of these occasions is done in the house. The Russian Jew does not lean on the bar; nor does he sit around in the saloon. If he likes a glass of beer with his meals, he can have a bottled supply on hand.

What saloons there are on the East Side do but an impoverished business and are dependent to a large extent upon the chance passerby or upon the steadily waning "kettle" trade. The brilliantly illuminated, lavishly decorated, expensively equipped saloons that may be seen in other sections of the city are unknown on the East Side. What brilliant illumination there is on the East Side, what lavish decoration, what rich furnishing, is in the restaurants, the latest response to the steadily growing social instinct and material development of the East Side.

Instead of the saloon the "coffee and cake parlor," and from the "coffee and cake parlor," by a process of steady and marked evolution, the restaurant, with its nouveau art decorations, mission furniture, table d 'hote, and string orchestra! Ten years ago it would have been impossible for even one of these restaurants, the acme of social life on the East Side, to have paid even running expenses; today there are a half-dozen taxed to their utmost capacity daily and nightly, and more are preparing to make a bid for the profitable approval of the East Side with brighter iIIuminations, gaudier trimmings, more aesthetic furnishings than those which now ride on the golden crest of popularity. Five years ago the proposed establishment of a "high class" restaurant on semi-philanthropic lines was hailed with the joy of anticipated gastronomic delight by the apparently limited number of young Russians and sons of Russians who yearned for "better things." Now, the semi-philanthropic venture is not so popular, and its patronage is not so typical of the elements that go to make up the East Side as some of those established by the people themselves.

But though these high class restaurants have fitted themselves into the daily life of the East Side, they have not done so at the expense of the humbler resorts of which they are the offspring. After all, it is in the "coffee saloon" - where many times more tea is consumed than the beverage from which it takes its name - that the East Side finds recreation. Whether It is to play chess or checkers, or to discuss Karl Marx or Bakounine, or to analyze Tolstoi or Ibsen, or to debate the relative merits and demerits of the naturalistic or romantic drama - or the wonderful colorature of the last night's prima donna at the Metropolitan - (for all of these are included in the light converse of the East Side), or to denounce the critics of Adler, the actor, or to excoriate the traducers of Gordin, the playwright ­ these topics are handled best, thoughts come lucidly and words eloquently, over the glass of tea a la Russe - with a floating slice of lemon, and the cigarette.

It is estimated that there are between 250 and 300 of these coffee and cake establishments on the lower East Side, which figure is the best proof of the popularity of these "workingmen's clubs." Unlike the occasional liquor saloon on the East Side, they are absolutely independent of transient trade. The chance passerby does not enter into the calculations of the proprietor, and is stared at as an intruder by the regular habitués. We have called these places "workingmen's clubs." They answer that description more truly and more pleasantly than the Bishop's tavern, for here there is an absolute guarantee of sobriety, and a free, democratic foregathering of kindred spirits. If one is up in the coffee and cake geography of the district, he knows where he may find the social and intellectual diversion most to his liking. It is each to his own; the Socialist has his chosen headquarters, the chess-crank his, the music-lover his, and so on right down the line. Some, indeed, combine two or three cults or fads, but even these have a tendenz which stands out clearly after the first clash of impressions.

Two or three of these "clubs" have considerable life in the afternoon, especially those in which the radical literati and journalists, the compositors on the Yiddish dailies, and students and insurance agents and others who have a few hours of the day to kill congregate. But, for the most of them there is no life until late in the evening. It is generally ten o'clock before the social phase manifests itself; if the "popular price" performance at the Metropolitan Opera House is a worthy one, or if there is something worth while on the boards in the Yiddish theatre, it may even be later before the roll-call would have a full response in certain of these places. The resort of the chess­player is naturally quiet enough, but the philosophers and critics are oracular and demonstrative. Often it is "mine host's" who leads the discussion, or sits in judgment of the pros and cons. When he says his say, it is boldly, recklessly almost, viewed from the mercenary aspect of retaining his patronage. Nor does he fail to castigate a stubborn adherent of a contrary view. But the heat of controversy never assumes a petty, sulking character; to tear "mine host's" arguments to tatters, to utterly rout him at every point, is no mean accomplishment and worth hazarding many defeats, for generally he is very well informed on the topic under discussion. In fact, it is his known views and predilections that decide the character of his patronage. Thus, if his establishment is frequented by Socialists, it is fair to assume that he belongs to that political school; if his clientele is made up largely of musicians, he is an amateur critic or patron of the liberal art.

And where the cigarette smoke is thickest and denunciation of the present forms of government loudest, there you find women! One wishes he could write these women down gently. But to none would gentle words sound more strange than to the women of the radical co1fee "parlor," who listen to strongest language, and loudest voices, nor fail to make themselves heard in the heat of the discussion. Yet it is hard to criticize them. The hall-bedroom is such a dingy, dreary place; the walls so close they seem to crush the unfortunate whose "home" is within its oppressive limits. The "coffee saloon" is light and cheerful; the noise is only the swelling chorus of spirits with whom they are in harmonious accord. If they are not the objects of fine courtesies and considerateness, they do not miss them; perhaps they never knew them. The stern realities of life, the terrible disappointment of thwarted ambition, the bruising friction of tradition and "emancipation," the struggle for existence, - all these have conspired to rob them of the finer attributes of womanhood These are the stalwarts of the radical movements, the Amazons, or, as they have been dubbed, "die kaempferinen," whose zealotry rallies the flagging courage of their "genossen." Unromantic, perhaps, and yet we hear of them toiling, slaving, denying themselves until some man has won a degree and an entry into one of the professions. But, as they sit there in an atmosphere of tea-steam and cigarette smoke, one who does not know sees them only as unwomanly women; pallid, tired. thin-lipped, flat-chested and angular, wearing men's hats and shoes, without a hint of color or finery. And to them, as to the men, the time of night means nothing until way into the small hours. When one must sleep in a hall­bedroom there is no hurry about bedtime.

Even when these radical resorts have reluctantly surrendered their
habitués, night life in the Ghetto is not at an end. There are still some resorts that are aglow with light and strident with color. The actor-folk and their admirers and satellites are still awake, talking "shop," posing, sneering, joking, romancing, fawning, and flattering, until the gray light of dawn paling the glowing incandescent admonishes them that sunrise, and therefore bedtime, is near at hand. The great "star" or the distinguished playwright about whose table, as at an altar, sat the worshipful, gives the signal; the lesser lights, down to the chorister, know the meaning of that prodigious yawn - and night life in the Ghetto is at an end,- that is, the night life that is not lived behind the tight-drawn shades, to the melody of clicking ivory chips. But of this life this is not the place to speak.

Theatre-going is so much a habit with the Russian Jew in New York City that at the moment of this writing three theatres are deriving large profits from catering to it. All of these theatres, with seating capacities equal to the largest patronized by the non-Jewish elements of the city's population (one built for the specific purpose of housing a Yiddish stock company) are located within five minutes' walk of each other in the downtown Ghetto. Another, in the newer, but rapidly growing and more prosperous Harlem Ghetto, has failed. There were five Yiddish theatres up to a very recent date, and there may be that number again shortly. It is estimated that the patrons of the Yiddish theatres number from five thousand to seven thousand a night, and as performances are given on each of the seven nights in the week, with two matinees (Saturday and Sunday) the importance of the theatre as a source of amusement in the Ghetto may be realized.

And because it has such an important place in the life of the Ghetto, it is all the more deplorable that the Yiddish stage is not a better institution than it has been permitted to become. What good may be said of the Yiddish theatre is not owing to those whose first duty it should be to make it possible to speak well of it; rather, it is due to the people themselves, who have compelled the theatre-folk to show some little deference to popular taste.

The players, with but few exceptions, are not educated and anything but artistic. Their mimetic powers are highly developed, undoubtedly, but most of them lack creative power. Naturally, they are at their best in photographic reproductions or in caricaturing types and characters with which their lives and environments have familiarized them. There is no desire here to deny to any of the leading men and women of the Yiddish stage the credit that rightfully belongs to them. Indeed, it is perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to them when it is said that if they possessed that education which is a requisite for even a moderate success on the American stage, they would by now have been the greatest actors in the world, so wonderful are their talents within their mental limitations.

Still another factor that tends to prevent the stage from rising is the discouragement of authorship. The Yiddish playwrights are few, because some of them, in combination with business managers and players, have conspired to limit the number. About eighteen years ago a Yiddish company was eking out a precarious existence by giving performances of the Goldfaden operettas in a converted "concert-hall" which had been renamed the "Oriental Theatre." Possessing more business than literary ability, one "Professor" Hurwitz gathered about himself a number of Yiddish players who had drifted here from Europe, among them Moguelesco (perhaps the greatest of all Yiddish actors), Kessler, Feinman, and others. He started a rival theatre of which he became the manager and author. Except the Goldfaden plays, which were used as "stop-gaps," none but the emanations of his pen, in the main clumsy imitations of the wholesome creations of the "father of the Yiddish stage," were permitted to be heard in the playhouse of which he contrived to gain control. How many "plays" he wrote no one can say; not even Hurwitz himself. Besides "historic" dramas and operas, he wrote "zeit-piesen" - "news melodramas" they might be called. Hardly a sensation of the day, such as the Blood Accusation of Tisza Eslar (a full performance of which required eight acts rendered in two evenings), the Dreyfus Case, the financial panic of 1892, the volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique, went undramatized by his astoundingly prolific pen. Twenty-four hours was sufficient time for him to conceive, write and stage a play. The authors of the sensational American melodrama are rank amateurs by contrast with him.

Another prolific playwright is Joseph Lateiner. Lately, however, his pen products have been few and far between, and for the most part unsuccessful. His plays, like those of the Goldfaden type, have musical settings. They differ from the Hurwitz production in that they have sustained, coherent plots, which though as artificial as most stage productions, are yet not without a basis of verisimilitude and logical sequence of events and climax.

It is worth while mentioning here that Sigmund Moguelesco is responsible for most, and also for the best music of· the Yiddish stage (except that written by Goldfaden). Much of it is original, some of it borrowed either from the compositions of the great chazanim (cantors) of Russia, or "adapted" from the more popular Italian operas. But even these adaptations have been so altered in rhythm and tempo as to become almost characteristically "Yiddish."

Today Jacob Gordin is the dominant figure of the Yiddish stage, and his impress is the strongest. Some others, among them Libin and Kobrin, have managed to get a hearing, and not without success, but they are disciples of Gordin, and at times have ventured farther than their master. Gordin has excellent literary skill and powers and, if he were tolerant of criticism and amenable to discipline, could become the greatest factor in the development of the Yiddish stage. But it would be absurd to grant him all that he and his followers claim for him. Although he has written many plays which he probably regards as greater, his "Yiddish King Lear" must stand out indicative of his great possibilities if he had not chosen to become a philosopher and a problem play writer. What gives Gordin his greatest vogue, and what tends to confuse many of his zealotic followers, is his ability to write strong scenes. When at his best he has produced living, breathing entities, in contrast to the artificial, impossible creatures produced by his predecessors. His main faults are his stubbornly mistaken conception of "realis" and his persistent exposures of phases of life which are better left unrevealed. The consensus of opinion is that "God, Man and Devil" is Gordin's master-work. It is a combination of Job and Faust and its lesson is that even the most saint like man may be tempted and fall. It has been witnessed and approved by college professors, and is unquestionably a lasting contribution to the literature of the drama.

Besides the playwrights already discussed, must be mentioned Shaikewitch (Schomer), a half dozen of whose plays have won popular esteem; Seifert, with a few good plays· and several adaptations to his credit; Sharkansky, whose specialty is the dramatization of the High Festival liturgy (the names of two of his plays, "Unsane Tokef" and "Kol Nidre," will serve as illustrations); and Sigmund Feinman, an actor with a fair education, who has been particularly fortunate in adaptations. Other of the Yid­dish actors, Kessler and Tomashefsky, have permitted their names to appear on the posters as co-authors, but their pretensions have been met with knowing smiles - there are some "hack" writers who want money, not fame.

Jacob P. Adler, the nestor of the Yiddish stage, has been so much written of that it would be idle to say anything at length about him here. But very little has been written about David Kessler, who is the equal of Adler, and in a few roles his superior.

Of the women of the Yiddish stage, it needs only be said that Bertha Kalisch is an actress of such rare ability that even so discriminating a critic as "Alan Dale" has said of her that she is as good as Sarah Bernhardt at Sarah's best, but never as bad as Sarah at Sarah's worst. The others, with the possible exception of Mme. Dina Feinman and Mrs. Sarah Adler, count for very little indeed.

Unwittingly, the people themselves have been factors in lowering the tone of the Yiddish stage by fostering the pernicious system of "benefits." At one time or another, lodges and societies of the East Side, of which there are a countless number, will "buy a benefit"; that is, they will pay the management a certain sum of money, a little over half of the box-office receipts in the event of every seat being occupied; for this sum the benefit buyers are given tickets representing the extreme seating capacity and standing room of the theatre. A play is selected by the committee representing the organization to be presented on the night of the benefit. The tickets are sold by the members of the society and every dollar received over the price paid to the management is the society's profit. This is no philanthropy on the part of the theatre managers; on the contrary, it is good business. The theatres may be reasonably certain of "crowded houses" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings and at the matinees on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, but the other nights of the week are not very lucrative. Without these "benefits" the theatres would have to run the risk of financial straits. It may readily be seen how these "benefits" could become a powerful weapon in the hands of the people, it properly directed.

It is on the "benefit" nights that the Yiddish theatre is best worth visiting, provided the play is not the thing. The audience is made up of family parties and neighbor­groups; from the grandsire to the infant and the boarder the whole tenement house is there with its luncheons and its bedlam. Half of the audience bas never been to the theatre before, and would not have been there now, only they could not "insult" by not buying tickets, or because it is a "mitzvah" (good deed) to contribute to the good cause for which this "benefit" is given. And having earned the "mitzvah," why not partake of the earthly joy in its train? Here and there is the "veteran" theatergoer, who may be a member of the society, or also could not "insult" by refusing to buy a ticket, or also wanted the "mitzvah" and all that goes with it. The veteran may be easily discovered, the centre of a group of novitiates explaining the play, naming the actors, criticizing them audibly if they are lesser lights, telling where the laugh will come in and repeating lines lost in the noise. Altogether they are joyous occasions, these benefits. Presents are passed over the footlights to the "stars," the officers of the society strut out before the curtain between acts and make "spitches," the member who sold the greatest number of tickets has a gold-medal pinned on his palpitating bosom, and all bathe in a sea of ecstasy, with a feeling of good deeds well done, philanthropic purposes well served ­ if the "benefit" is a success.

Although the Yiddish drama is decadent, there is no evidence of a similar degeneracy among the people . As already pointed out, the value of plays like those written by Gordin and his disciples is due entirely to "strong" scenes and powerful acting. Take these two attractions away, and the plays must fail, as many of them have. The social tendency of the people is constantly upward. Every sign-post in this period of transition points higher and higher. Their conceptions of life, of morals and ethics are expanding. Those who have worked among them for a considerable number of years see these signs clearly. It must be borne in mind that the population of the so-called Ghetto is increasing rapidly, and it is but natural that under the circumstances there should be added to it such individuals who are below the average of decency, or are forced down in the social scale by inability to cope with conditions. Hundreds of influences are at work in the Ghetto which make for higher ideas and chief among these is the natural inclination, or rather aspiration, of the Jew to live the higher, better life, in accordance with that ethical code which has been his guide through the centuries.

The ladies of the Ghetto are never "at home," but the welcome visitor is always sure of his glass of tea, his dish of preserves, and some fruit. There are no "Kaffee Klatches" here; nor progressive euchres, or bridge-whists. Hospitality is simple, homely, genuine. There are no social circles, "social life" as that term is understood does not exist. "Parties" are given; not "coming out" parties, but "engagement parties," "graduation parties," "bar-mitzvah parties." The wedding, of course, is the big function. Hundreds of societies give dances and "receptions" (the latter being a more pretentious name for the former) during the winter, to which anyone may come if he can pay the price of a ticket and "hat check." Some societies couple entertainments with these receptions. The great social events are the "entertainment and ball" of the Beth Israel Hospital, the Hebrew Sheltering House and Home for the Aged, the Daughters of Jacob, the Young Men's Benevolent League, and the New Era Club. It is at these functions that the East Side makes its most gorgeous sartorial display, and it is by no means either a crude or cheap display. The women for the most part are as exquisitely clad as their sisters who visit the Horse-Show, and the diamonds worn at these affairs can be outblinked only by the collection on the grand tier at the Metropolitan Opera House. Strange as it may sound to many, the East Side is not all poverty and suffering.

The Harlem contingent has acquired some "society" manners, but like newly acquired things, these manners do not fit very snugly, and their wearing is very amusing. Perhaps, with much effort some of the social aspirants will become accustomed to the new burden. The "climbing" is confined, for the most part, to the wives of physicians and lawyers and manufacturers. The great mass regards it all with quiet derision, and will have nothing to do with "visiting lists" and the rest of what they call "blowing from themselves." With the mass, relatives and friends are to be visited when time allows, or when occasion demands.

Owing to home-conditions on the East Side there is only such social life for the young folks as is made possible by organization membership, and as may express itself in the dances mentioned above, or in "open-meetings," indulged in by the "literary" societies, the Zionist societies, and the clubs in the settlements. In the summer time there are the picnics, which are dances in an open pavilion, with a few patches of grass surrounding it, all enclosed with a high fence. Much has been said against these "picnics" and it must be admitted that many of them are not very desirable. There is great need for healthy, wholesome recreation, for expression of the buoyancy of youth; and it is greatly to be regretted that the facilities for the things that help to make boys and girls better, purer men and women are so very few.







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