The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in New York*
by Emanuel Hertz, Member New York Bar

* - 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."

All political parties, whether national or local, find recruits and adherents among the people who have been forced to leave the realm of the Czars for the past quarter of a century. Contrary to expectation, these new voters are not grouped and collected under the banner of any one political party or any one clan.

Their political activity dates back to the early eighties, when the first wave of the great mass of Russian Jewish immigration reached these shores. It was then that the influx of Russian students began and lent a peculiar color to the character and activities of the Jewish immigrants. As might have been expected, the effect of liberty upon the masses of Russian Jews downtrodden in their mother country was in the beginning apparently disastrous. The anarchists and the socialists found some of their most active supporters among these younger Russian fugitives. The older class, either because of ignorance of politics or by reason of the immediate problem of supporting their usually large families, could not avail themselves of the same educational facilities. Their sons in the short space of time required for citizenship, after a course at the day or evening schools, were able to cope with other electors. But the older immigrants were not long to remain behind in their duties as American citizens. After a remarkably short time, old and young became citizens and set to work to master the fundamental principles of American constitutional government. Questions of the municipality began to engage their attention. Soon they not only mastered the problems that were propounded by the national and state parties, but also became eager students of municipal affairs. So important a factor has the Russian Jewish vote become in recent years that all parties have made a bid for its united support.

We are now brought to the consideration of the position the Russian Jew has of late years assumed with respect to the dominant political parties. As a rule, each clam of voters belonging to a particular nationality before naturalization is claimed in toto by either one or the other of the two great political parties. The Russian Jews, however, in spite of the fact that they were distributed among all the parties as to national questions, have in municipal affairs occupied a unique position of late. In the campaign of 1897 they were very largely among the reform forces then organized by the Citizens' Union. Although the almost solid vote of the Russian Jews had little effect upon the general result, at that time it was sufficiently important to arrest the attention of the fusion party in the next municipal campaign of 1901. It is almost incredible, but is nevertheless a fact, that the entire machinery of the fusion campaign was largely directed to that portion of the city mostly inhabited by the Russian Jewish citizens. It was there that the successful candidates for mayor and district attorney made their strongest appeals and received the most encouraging response. Little did they know the character of the citizens they so anxiously tried to convince of the justice of their cause. For never in their wildest dreams did they expect such an upheaval. But those who know the Russian Jew expected nothing less. Be that as it may, however, the phenomenal majorities of Tammany Hall were almost entirely annihilated and the Russian Jew--this time justly--may claim the lion's share in the result of the municipal election of 1901. The Second, Fourth, Eighth, Tenth, Twelfth and Sixteenth Assembly Districts, which in former years ran up insurmountable Tammany majorities, showed such a remarkable change that the other districts in the city normally in favor of reform movements had an easy task. Many have claimed the credit for this remarkable performance; few care to see the facts of the case. To the Russian Jew, with a mind quick to grasp simple business propositions, this problem of municipal reform was a very simple matter. They all remembered the first abortive effort at reform under the Strong administration with its few cases of good work accomplished among the desert of promises unperformed and unfulfilled. They all remembered and suffered during the era of night under Tammany's regime from 1897 to 1901. Given this contrast, placed before the Russian Jew in a clear and intelligent manner, those who knew him had neither fear nor doubt as to which course he would pursue.

Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of this campaign was the revelation of the Russian Jew as an active campaigner. He was not content with voting for the right cause alone;--he appropriated every street corner, every hall, every truck, every temporary platform in the various districts, and for an entire month called upon the passerby to hear his reasons for supporting the fusion ticket. Young and old, these speakers, in English, in German, and in all the Jargon dialects conceivable, thundered against the iniquities of Tammany Hall and conducted a campaign the like of which New York had not seen. They demonstrated for all time that the Russian Jewish vote is a factor to be reckoned with.

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon that has challenged our attention in recent years is the appearance of the rapidly developing types of Russian Jewish politicians. From year to year they have progressed along the various lines. Whether as district captains, election watchers, ballot clerks, campaign orators, they are becoming as distinct types as the Irish, the German, or the Yankee politicians.

To them the problems of the ever-changing ballot laws are simple in the extreme. So well are they informed as to the provisions of these that results in their districts are tabulated as accurately as in the most enlightened sections, and their election officers perform all their work with the same speed and accuracy as do the ballot clerks and election officers of other neighborhoods.

As is but natural, in course of time these young aspirants for political preferment pass through a process of crystallization, and the efficient district captains and election clerks of two or three years' experience become budding leaders in the various localities of the Ghetto assembly districts. Their development is gradual and interesting. The Russian Jewish young man, generally a lawyer, who casts his fortunes with Tammany Hall, gradually assumes the habits of his Tammany confreres. He chews, smokes, drinks, gambles, visits the club-rooms religiously, attends the politico-social functions of the year, is prominent in the purchase and dissemination of chowder tickets, and is rewarded, perhaps, by being permitted to play at the Tammany chowder game of poker the elite of the district. He is gradually taken into the confidence of the assembly district leader, in most cases called the "old man," and from time to time becomes the recipient of some political news emanating directly from the fountain head of Tammany Hall Democracy--the Democratic Club--or Tammany Hall proper. In time this aspiring politician becomes the constant companion of the leader, and at all dinners, meetings or functions acts as the host and direct personal representative of the all-powerful leader. For the leader in his bailiwick is supreme, and to be in touch with him is to become in course of time a political power. If the young aspirant is faithful, the leader delegates a measure of his authority to his new fledgling, who, encouraged by the tokens of appreciation on the part of his political sponsor, begins to see visions of power and is, possibly, led to aspire to the leadership himself. In a few instances, such young men get the nominations for the minor elective offices.

Usually this is done only to test their fealty, for they are expected to stick to the organization in victory as well as in defeat. The many unsuccessful aspirants for elective office try to find consolation in appointments such as positions in the corporation counsel's and district attorney's offices. So great has been the crop of candidates for these offices of late years, that in every assembly district we find the young men organizing independent Democratic clubs, generally bearing the name of the founder, for the purpose of demonstrating how great a vote they can command and thus either compelling recognition from the organization or, in case of failure, forcing their way into the regular organization of opposite political faith. They have but one ambition, and that is to attain judicial position, and to attain it they seek election as assembly man or alderman as a stepping stone.

As a rule, these young Russian Jewish men who make their way into Tammany Hall belong to a lower order. In
some cases the office holders are taken from the most color- less class, having nothing but regularity and party fealty
as their redeeming features. Usually, their education has ended with the completion of a course in the public schools.
From that time they, mutatis mutandis, are close readers of the Daily News, the World, and the Journal, and keep
"posted" on all political questions. Add to this the mellowing influences of the Tammany leaders' discourse and society, and the young men are fit for any office within the gift of the "people."

The Republican Jewish politician is another remarkable product of the metropolis. Socially he is, perhaps, a grade higher than the former; his parents, by dint of hard work, have amassed a comfortable fortune, and their offspring has possibly had the benefit of a better preliminary education and has come in contact with wealthier young men, who are Republicans in their political affiliations. He, like his Tammany Hall cousin, is a growth gradual in development, but is as positive a character as the former. A little more credit may be due to him by reason of the fact that his party is rarely, if ever, in power in the city of New York and most of his political "patronage" consists of promises, conditioned upon its success and the disruption and defeat of Tammany Hall, a hope upon which every Republican spellbinder loves to dwell. The fact that the state or national elections generally are favorable to his party makes small difference, as little or nothing percolates from the state or national board to these dreamers of the Ghetto. A picturesque character this young "statesman" undoubtedly is. From early citizenship he carries himself like a "statesman." He believes himself treading in the steps of Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, and Blaine, as his cousin in those of Jefferson, Jackson, Tilden, and Cleveland. His garb, his features, his periods, all savor of the statesman to be. Now and then one of the more inventive discovers that a page of Macaulay would fit into some stirring appeal and the speech or essay or paragraph is pressed into service and is sent resounding from a truck or platform over the heads of a host of boys who for the time being become "fellow citizens." The youngsters thus get their first baptism of political eloquence from these campaigners.

The Republican Russian Jewish politician gains admission into the counsels of his party more readily than the Democratic. The power of the district leader is not so absolute as that of the Tammany man and the young men become members of the County Committee; some have even been known to raise their voices in that august assembly of archons of the local Republican party. In one or two cases revolt is ripe against the " carpet-bagger " Republican leader. In time two or three Republican and Democratic assembly district leaders will be none other than the young Russian Jewish politicians.

There is another political factor in the Ghetto which must not be lost sight of. In some respects this is the most remarkable of all. I refer to the Socialists. As a rule the Socialist leaders are students, whose collegiate course has been prematurely cut off by reason of migrations caused by anti-Semitism, or economic distress. After a short apprenticeship, either as a peddler or mechanic or unskilled worker at one of the trades, he quickly regains his equilibrium and--as has often been the case--manages to complete his studies in one of the colleges or universities, of this city. Rarely, if ever, has another nationality furnished so many splendid examples of the hard working student who prosecutes his studies while undergoing great privations in his efforts to support not only himself, but in many cases the family as well.

Regardless of what his privations may be, he throws himself into the study of literature, poetry and political economy and becomes a powerful debater or excellent journalist. One or two such bid fair to rival our ablest editors and campaign speakers. They are generally good Hebrew and Russian scholars and are able to draw upon the literatures of these languages to make their arguments acceptable and clear to all.

The noblest type which has of late become general is the Russian Jewish mugwump; the man who votes and thinks upon the highest planes of civic patriotism without regard to political preferment. As a rule, he is not a candidate for office, is either a professional or business man, and helps to form the great silent vote which in the last few years has upset the calculations of the wiseacres of all political parties. His class are the people who vote "split tickets," who examine the characters of the candidates, and who thus sway the power from party to party as desert and political virtue are divided. These form the great portion of the uncontrollable and unapproachable vote of the Ghetto; so much so that word goes forth from both political camps that time spent on attempted conversion of such voters is time wasted. This class furnishes the most valuable election officers and campaign speakers and the most promising guarantees of the ultimate complete redemption of the Ghetto from the influence of the machines. The arts of the older parties, which their devotees have studied for a lifetime, these progressive young voters, and for that matter the old ones as well, have mastered in a remarkably short time. The young people, aided by such journals as the Times and the Evening Post, and the older people by the German and Jewish newspapers, have become adepts in discussing municipal questions and really form the most formidable menace to the continuance of Tammany rule. No audience in the city is quicker to grasp the questions at issue. Also no speaker is better informed or better prepared by example, quotation and explanation than the middle-aged Ghetto orator. He resorts to comparatively few devices of voice or diction. With examples drawn either from daily life or Biblical lore he brings home an argument to an intelligent audience more forcibly than do his younger and more progressive sons. He cares little for their political veneer. He is a plain spoken advocate of clean streets, parks, public schools, and honest police, and prates not of the immortal principle of the democracy of Jefferson and Jackson, as do his younger descendants.

The following editorial from the Nation of December 1, 1904, confirms the observations of the writer: "It is clear . . . that our Jews and Southern Europeans do vote. A more important question, however, is whether they vote with discrimination. Do they always support the same parties; do they ever vote split tickets? A study of the returns for the last four years--including those for the November elections--shows that there are only eight assembly districts in Manhattan which, in both local, State, and national elections, do not invariably go one way. They are Manhattan's `doubtful districts,' which are apparently influenced by argument, and which may be expected to split their tickets. They are the Fifth, the Eighth, the Tenth, the Sixteenth, the Twenty-first, the Twenty-third, the Twenty-ninth, and the Thirty-first. Some of these are only slightly independent; the Twenty-ninth, for instance, gets into this good company simply because, this year, it voted for Roosevelt and Herrick. The average foreign population of these independent districts is 42 per cent., or just about the average for the whole island. Chiefly important, however, is the fact that this list includes the Eighth, the Tenth, and the Sixteenth Assembly Districts. These are also situated south of Eleventh Street and east of the Bowery.

"By all odds the most interesting is the Eighth. This is the district with the largest foreign population, and its population is very largely Jewish. It has such well-known Ghetto streets as Hester, Delancey, Eldridge, and Allen. Yet politically it is one of the most uncertain sections; the majority of the winning candidates is always small. It voted for Bryan in 1900; for Roosevelt in 1904; for Coler in 1902; for Higgins this year. Its representative at Albany is alternatively a Republican and a Democrat. The Tenth District, which also shows unmistakable signs of independence, is strongly Jewish. This year it voted for Roosevelt and Herrick. The Sixteenth, which also divided on State and national lines, is populated almost exclusively by Jews from Austria-Hungary. Similar independence is evidenced in districts largely native, such as the Fifth, the Twenty-first, and the Twenty-third; but at least it is plain that the Jewish localities, chiefly recruited from immigration, are not lacking in the first essentials of good citizenship."

It is but natural that so many shades of political leadership should lead to the creation of political organizations. In most instances, these are ephemeral and rarely survive a fatal election. Even in case of success at the polls they usually survive just long enough to provide a number of the ambitious with berths at the public crib. On the other hand, some have builded better than they knew, and have become powerful political bodies to the extent of either carrying the assembly district for good government or gradually making such inroads into the vote of the dominant party that success is but a question of time. The leaders of such political organizations have in a few instances received recognition from the party of good government.

Perhaps no other phase of this discussion can be approached with more certainty than the problem of determining whether the Russian Jewish vote is controllable. Inquiry as to how votes are acquired or controlled by illegitimate or questionable means will demonstrate the contention that the Russian Jewish vote is neither controllable nor purchasable. The Russian Jewish citizens as a body are not an office seeking or office holding class. They have but few representatives in departments not under civil service regulations. The civil service protected officers carry with them independence in voting. The offices whose occupants change with each administration are sought for by all but Russian Jewish voters. Candidates for such offices are the habitués of the Tammany assembly district clubs--the saloon brigade of candidates for office, who drink with every newcomer. The Russian Jewish citizen will have none of the inferior positions, such as those in the street cleaning or dock department, nor are there Russian Jewish laborers in the department of parks or public works. The higher offices of these departments are not yet within his reach and he therefore concludes to wait his chance. Meanwhile, he continues to demonstrate his fitness, his ability, his readiness, to pass civil service examinations such as are imposed by the post office and custom house.

The club and the saloon are the marts where voters are either "influenced" or bought outright. The class of votes obtained in the latter place are rather risky "investments” in these days of the secret ballot. For he who sells his vote may nevertheless go into the booth and vote as his "conscience" dictates. As to the former method, most Russian Jewish citizens are an industrious class, and think more of earning an honest livelihood than of bartering their votes for cash.

One need but examine the registration lists of a single assembly district, as the writer has done, to convince himself that the Russian Jew is very much in earnest where politics are concerned. The overwhelmingly Republican districts, the best and wealthiest in the city, have an alarmingly large number of citizens who neither register nor vote. An even larger proportion of those who register do not vote. To the Russian Jew the day of election is not a holiday in the sense that he is to have his annual excursions or trips of recreation out of the city. Many days before election, he informs himself as to the merits of the respective candidates, by attending meetings, reading papers, and by discussion at his cafe or after his lodge meetings. When election day arrives he has made up his mind how to vote and he does vote, neither pleasure nor business exigency preventing him. A great many other citizens of foreign extraction mistake election day and turn it into a riotous feast, to the discomfiture of the election officers, who find it difficult to cope with the curious inventions of the Bacchanalians that wield the power of the ballot in the secrecy of the election booth. Not so with the Russian Jew. He does not drink anything stronger than tea before he votes and after he has voted he goes about his business without celebrating or rioting. Compared with the American cycling, golfing, automobiling, and football fraternity, who either intentionally forget or do not care for the issues and principles at stake, the Russian Jew is certainly an excellent example of new citizenship.

A most important factor in the political development of the Russian Jew has been the Jewish press. Although published and for the most part sold on the lower East Side, the Yiddish papers have reached the remotest corners of the country.

The oriental substratum in the mind of Russian Jews must be appealed to in a different manner from that of the humdrum, every day, political intelligence of the voter who is swayed by newspaper reading. The Russian Jew examines with the eye of a critic the arguments presented on the editorial page. He who would convince him must put forth his best efforts. The Russian Jew is witty by nature and appreciates the political diatribes which are placed before him by these many advocates of heterogeneous factions. There is a novelty, a charm, an ingenuity about these papers on political questions.

No matter how adaptable the Russian Jew may be and no matter how true the statement that no party can claim him to the exclusion of others, still it is a fact daily more and more apparent, that the independent reform element on municipal questions has become a most alarming sign of the times in the political parties. The younger element who have had a college or university education form the hotbeds of independent voting and reform ideas. As this class is growing larger year by year they will certainly have to be reckoned with by every party which has success at the polls as one of its objects.

If the proportion of Russian Jewish electors to the total vote be a consideration for assigning public office to the representatives of any particular class, the Russian Jews are far behind all others in the distribution of offices. Even if we include the elective offices they receive much the smallest share of party patronage. While it is true that whatever positions are distributed among them are generally positions of importance, still most of these they attain by competitive examination, which in recent years has really taken the vast majority of offices from the gift of the party in power. It is, therefore, to the elective office or confidential appointive ones that we must direct our attention. In the Federal service, if we exclude a number of specialists or statisticians, there are none. These, too, are civil service appointments. As to those elected to office, our field of vision is of necessity limited by the fact that the Russian Jew has graduated but a very few of such office-holders. An alderman, here and there, two or three assemblymen, probably one justice and a deputy district attorney, and perhaps a deputy corporation counsel, and the list is complete. Taken all in all, these elected representatives of the Russian Jew are not brilliant examples of what they have produced by way of good citizenship. For in those firstlings of elected officers party spirit is developed to an alarming degree and in most cases they simply register the fiat or party caucuses with as scrupulous care and obedience as the most thoroughgoing machine men. Small wonder, then, that in one case, when a little independence was about to be developed the bold office-holder was promptly called to account and with the fatality of the punishment of the Mafia the victim was denied renomination and his usefulness in the office held was forthwith dispensed with--all because of a too ready desire to air his opinion and discuss questions which were simply to be voted upon. The machine resents nothing so much as disobedience in any form. The elective office-holder is but one small wheel in the scheme of machine government. All that he is expected to do is to obey and to vote; to talk, unless requested so to do, means political annihilation.

It is yet too early, however, to judge the Russian Jewish office-holder of either kind. We have witnessed but the earliest beginning of such careers. The college and university men are still in the early twenties and have not yet had an opportunity to be put upon their mettle. Another ten years will witness the elevation to office of some of these young men; they will compare favorably with other candidates of the older parties, having a fundamental education that will aid them materially in their preparation for the public office which they are bound to occupy.

Time was when a great portion of Russian Jews could be found in the Socialist and Anarchist camps. The Socialist party in particular had its remarkable leaders and editors, who made such noteworthy strides in these sections of the city that their party spread to almost every state of the Union. Their emissaries organized the party in every state. The Anarchist elements at one time numbered among its hosts a number of Russian Jewish immigrants fresh from the country where they had been oppressed. But as time went on, as prosperity dawned on them, they gradually drifted by way of the Socialist party into temporary political obscurity, only to reappear in one or the other political parties. The Socialist Labor party at one time was the third largest party in the city. By reason of the Social Democratic schism, its numbers have been decimated and we have ardent DeLeonites combating still more ardent followers of Debs with even greater bitterness than they do the other parties. The two sections of the Socialist party today are each firmly held together by rigid platforms, containing very nearly all their declarations of belief and articles of creed. But they have yet to demonstrate that they will ever wield any power in the city as a whole. In one or two assembly districts they are ripe for the election of either an assemblyman or alderman or both. But the Socialist assemblyman or alderman pure and simple is as yet a figment of the imagination, although in a number of instances the candidates are of so high a character that their possible election could be considered as much of a personal tribute as an experiment in having a Socialist in office. It cannot be denied, however, that small as it is, the Socialist party has mastered the principles of active, nay, of aggressive campaigning, and its leaders are remarkably able orators and debaters, and explain and enunciate the principles for which they stand in a manner second to none of the speakers of the other political parties.
And so the stream of Russian Jewish citizens grows through constant accretion, naturalization as well as by the coming of age of the younger immigrants who have been educated in this country. Each day has its number of these industrious craftsmen or business men both at the state courts and Federal courts. To many understanding of the mysteries of English chirography and reading have been denied. And though old and decrepit, many of these
men have toiled two and three terms at the evening schools of the city gradually preparing themselves for citizenship.
An examination will disclose hundreds of newly made citizens weekly. A new trade has sprung up in the Jewish bookstores; thousands and thousands of civil service and citizenship manuals are annually printed and sold for the purpose of enabling immigrants to be admitted to citizenship.

It is not possible even approximately to guess at the number of Russian Jewish voters in this city. With the American education and citizenship come also in many cases the desire to Americanize the names, yea, even the first names of their owners. When Tultchinsky becomes Anthony; Tonkinogy Thomas; Tabatchnikoff Tobias, and Tamashefsky O'Brien or McCarthy, the city record containing a list of voters may tell a deceitful story.

Perhaps the most difficult problem that could be set before an observer of these children of the Ghetto is to form a true estimate of their character as citizens. Some opinions have the ravings of anti-Semitism as their sole inspiration; those who hold them see nothing in this host of newly made citizens save miscreants, and if there be brilliant examples these generous critics regard them merely as exceptions to the rule previously laid down. On the other hand, such impartial observers as Jacob A. Riis, Ida M. Van Etten and others have sent forth into the world different opinions of these Russian Jewish citizens. Thus:

"Politically the Jews possess many characteristics of the best citizens. Their respect and desire for education make them most unlikely to follow an ignorant demagogue, while for a still deeper and more radical reason they make the enlightened selfishness their standard of all political worth. The centuries during which every conscious or unconscious tendency of the government, under which they lived, has been to make their individual and race advancement their single object have developed traits of character most unfavorable to that blind partisanship which is requisite for the successful carrying out of the objects of political organizations like Tammany Hall. The education given by the modern labor movement has, in a great degree, transformed their race-feeling into a class-feeling and they now look with zeal to the advancement of the working people, in whose elevation they recognize that their hope for the future lies.

"The one or two Jewish political demagogues who strive to create a following on the East Side have met with doubtful success. In fact, there does not exist a more unpromising field in New York for the political trickster than the Jewish quarters of the city. Their quiet, critical analysis of political nostrums is most disheartening to the district leaders of Tammany Hall." 1

That the Russian Jew has come to stay is conceded, that his influence in this as well as in other spheres of life will have to be reckoned with, is equally clear.

1 Ida M. Van Etten, " Russian Jews as Desirable Immigrants," Forum, April, 1893.







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