The Immigrant Jew in America

Home       l       Site Map      l      Exhibitions      l     About the Museum       l      Education      l     Contact Us       l      Links


The Russian Jew in the United States*
by Abraham Cahan
Editor, Vorwartz (Forward), New York City

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."
* - This article is largely an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1898,
corrected (c. 1905) with reference to changes since that time.

It may not be known that the male Russian and Polish Jew can generally read his Hebrew Bible as well as a Yiddish newspaper, and that many of the Jewish arrivals at the barge office are versed in rabbinical literature, not to speak of the large number of those who can read and write Russian. When attention is directed to the Russian Jew in America, a state of affairs is found which still further removes him from the illiterate class, and gives him a place among the most ambitious and the quickest to learn both the written and the spoken language of the adopted country, and among the easiest to be assimilated with the population.

The cry raised by the Russian anti-Semites against the backwardness of the Jew in adopting the tongue and the manners of his birthplace, in the same breath in which they urge the government to close the doors of its schools to subjects of the Hebrew faith, reminds one of the hypocritical miser who kept his gate guarded by ferocious dogs, and then reproached his destitute neighbor with holding himself aloof. This country, where the schools and colleges do not discriminate between Jew and Gentile, quite another tale to tell. The several public evening schools of the New York Ghetto, the evening school supported from the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and the private establishments of a similar character are attended by thousands of Jewish immigrants, the great majority of which come here absolutely ignorant of the language of their native country. Surely nothing can be more inspiring to the public-spirited citizen, nothing worthier of the interest of the student of immigration, than the sight of a gray-haired tailor, a patriarch in appearance, coming, after hard day's work at a sweat-shop, to spell "cat, mat, rat," and to grapple with the difficulties of "th" and "w." Such a spectacle may be seen in scores of the class-rooms in the schools referred to. Hundreds of educated young Hebrews earn their living and often pay their way through college by giving private lessons in English in the tenement houses of the district,--a type of young men and women peculiar to the Ghetto. The pupils of these private tutors are the same poor, overworked sweat-shop "hands" of whom the public hears so much and knows so little. A tenement house kitchen turned, after a scanty supper, into a class-room, with the head of the family and his boarder bent over an English school reader, may perhaps claim attention as one of the curiosities of life in a great city; in the Jewish quarter, however, it is a common spectacle.

Nor does the tailor or peddler who hires these tutors, as a rule, content himself with an elementary knowledge of the language of his new home. I know many Jewish workmen who before they came here knew not a word of Russian, and were ignorant of any book except the Scriptures, or perhaps the Talmud, but whose range of English reading places them on a level with the average college-bred American.

The innumerable Yiddish publications with which the Jewish quarter is flooded are also a potent civilizing and Americanizing agency. The Russian Jews of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago have within the last twenty years created a vast periodical literature which furnishes intellectual food not only to themselves but also to their brethren in Europe. A feverish literary activity unknown among the Jews in Russia, Romania, and Austria, but which has arisen here among the immigrants from those countries, educates thousands of ignorant tailors and peddlers, lifts their intelligence, facilitates their study of English, and opens to them the doors of the English library. The five million Jews living under the Czar had not a single Yiddish daily paper even when the government allowed such publications, while their fellow country­men and co-religionists who have taken up their abode in America publish seven dailies (six in New York and one in Chicago), not to mention the countless Yiddish weeklies and monthlies, and the pamphlets and books which to-day make New York the largest Yiddish book market in the world. If much that is contained in these publications is rather crude, they are in this respect as good--or as bad--as a certain class of English novels and periodicals from which they partly derive their inspiration. On the other hand, their readers are sure to find in them a good deal of what would be worthy of a more cultivated language. They have among their contributors some of the best Yiddish writers in the world, men of undeniable talent, and these supply the Jewish slums with popular articles on science, on the history and institutions of the adopted country, translations from the best literatures of Europe and America, as well as original sketches, stories, and poems of decided merit. It is sometimes said (usually by those who know the Ghetto at second hand) that this unnatural development of Yiddish journalism threatens to keep the immigrant from an acquaintance with English. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Yiddish periodicals are so many preparatory schools from which the reader is sooner or later promoted to the English newspaper, just as the several Jewish theatres prepare his way to the Broadway playhouse, or as the Yiddish lecture serves him as a stepping-stone to that English-speaking self-educational society, composed of workingmen who have lived a few years in the country, which is another characteristic feature of life in the Ghetto. Truly, the Jews "do not rot in their slum, but, rising, pull it up after them."

The only time when Jewish laborers threatened to come in serious conflict with the cause of American workingmen was during the great 'longshoremen's strike of 1882, at the very beginning of the new era in the history of Jewish immigration. Ignorant of the meaning of strikes, the newcomers blindly allowed themselves to be persuaded by representatives of ship-owners to take the places of former employees. No sooner, however, had the situation been explained to the "scabs" than they abandoned their wheelbarrows, amid the applause of the striking Gentiles. Since then the Jewish workmen have been among the more faithful members of the various trades-unions of the country. So far from depressing wages and bringing down the standard of living, the Jewish workingman has been among the foremost in the struggle for the interest of the wage-earning class of the country. If he brings with him a lower standard of living, his keen susceptibilities, his "intellectual avidity," and his "almost universal and certainly commendable desire to improve his condition" impel him to raise that standard to the level of his new surroundings. Unlike some of the immigrants of other nationalities, the Essex Street Jew does not remain here in the same plight in which he came. Poor as he is, he strives to live like a civilized man, and the money which another workingman perhaps might spend on drink and sport he devotes to the improvement of his home and the education of his children. If "it may be stated as axiomatic that home-builders are good citizens," the Jewish immigrant makes a very good citizen indeed.

I have visited the houses of many American workingmen, in New England and elsewhere, as well as the residences of their Jewish shopmates, and I have found scarcely a point of difference. The squalor of the typical tenement house of the Ghetto is far more objectionable and offensive to the people who are doomed to live in it than to those who undertake slumming expeditions as a fad, and is entirely due to the same economical conditions which are responsible for the lack of cleanliness in the homes of such poor workingmen as are classed among the most desirable contribution to the population. The houses of the poor Irish laborers who dwell on the outskirts of the great New York Ghetto (and they are not worse than the houses occupied by the poor Irish families of the West Side) are not better, in point of cleanliness, than the residences of their Jewish neighbors. The following statement, which is taken from the report made by the Tenement House Committee to the Senate and Assembly of the State of New York on January 17, 1895, throws light on the subject.

"It is evident," says the committee, "that there are other potent causes besides density of population at work to affect the death-rate of the tenement districts, and the most obvious one is race or nationality. It will be observed at once that the wards showing the greatest house density combined with a low death-rate, namely the Tenth and Seventh Wards, are very largely populated by Russian and Polish Jews. This is, in fact, the Jewish quarter of the city. On the other hand, the wards having the highest death-rate ... constitute two of the numerous Italian colonies which are distributed through the city ....  The greatest density (57.2 tenants to a house) is in the Tenth Ward (almost exclusively occupied by Jews), which also has the lowest death-rate .... The low death­rates of the Seventh and Tenth Wards are largely accounted for by the fact previously mentioned, that they are populated largely by Russian Jews."

To be sure, life in a Tenth Ward tenement house is wretched enough, but this has nothing to do with the habits and inclinations of its inmates. It is a broad subject, one which calls in question the whole economic arrangement of our time, and of which the sweating system--the great curse of the Ghetto--is only one detail.

Is the Russian Jew responsible for the sweating system? He did not bring it with him. He found it already developed here. In its varied forms it exists in other industrial as well as in the tailoring trades. But far from resigning himself to his burden the Jewish tailor is ever struggling to shake it from his shoulder. Nor are his efforts futile. In many instances the sweat-shop system bas been abolished or its curse mitigated. The sweating system and its political ally, the "ward heeler," are accountable for ninety-nine per cent of whatever vice may be found in the Ghetto, and the Jewish tailor is slowly but surely emancipating himself from both. "The redemption of the workers must be effected by the workers themselves" is the motto of the two dailies which the Jewish workingmen publish for themselves in New York. The recurring tailor strikes, whose frequency has been seized upon by the "funny men" of the daily press, are far less droll that they are represented to be. Would that the public come gain a deeper insight into these struggles than is afforded by newspaper reports! Hidden under an uncouth surface would be found a great deal of what constitutes the true poetry of modem life,--tragedy more heart-rending, examples of a heroism more touching, more noble, and more thrilling, than anything that the richest imagination of the romanticist can invent. While to the outside observer the struggles may appear a fruitless repetition of meaningless conflicts, they are, like the great labor movement of which they are a part, ever marching onward, ever advancing.

The anti-Semitic assertion that the Jew as a rule avoids productive labor, which is pure calumny so far as the Jews of Russia, Austria, and Roumania are concerned, would certainly be out of place in this country, where so many of the Jewish immigrants are among the most diligent wage-earners. As to the remainder, it includes, besides a large army of poor peddlers, thousands of such "businessmen" as news-dealers and rag-men, whose occupations are scarcely less productive or more agreeable than manual labor.

Farming settlements of Jews have not been very successful in this country. There are some Jews in Connecticut, in New Jersey, and in the Western states, who derive a livelihood from agriculture, but the majority of the Jewish immigrants who took to tilling the soil in the eighties have been compelled to sell or to abandon their farms, and to join the urban population. But how many American farmers have met with a similar fate! This experience is part of the same great economic question, and it does not seem to have any direct bearing on the peculiar inclinations or disinclinations of the Hebrew race. It may not be generally known that in southern Russia there are many flourishing farms which are owned and worked by Jews, although, owing to their legal disabilities, the titles are fictitiously held by Christians.

Hundreds of Russian and Polish Jews have been more or less successful in business, and the names of several of them are to be found on the signs along Broadway.

The first educated Russian Hebrews to come to this country were attracted neither by the American colleges nor by the access of their race to a professional career. In the minds of some cultured enthusiasts, the general craze for shaking oft the dust of the native land and seeking shelter under the stars and stripes crystallized in the form of a solution of the Jewish question. Of the two movements which were set on foot in 1882 by the Palestinians and the Americans, the American movement seemed the more successful. Several emigrant parties (the Eternal People, New Odessa) were sent out with a view to establishing agricultural colonies. The whole Jewish race was expected by the Americans to follow suit in joining the farming force of the United States, and numbers of Jewish students left the Russian universities and gymnasiums to enlist in the pioneer parties. All these parties broke up, some immediately upon reaching New York, others, after an abortive attempt to put their plans into practice, although in several instances undertakings in the same direction have proved partially successful. The would-be pioneers were scattered through the Union, where they serve their brethren as physicians, druggists, dentists, lawyers, or teachers.

Only from three to five per cent of the vacancies in the Russian universities and gymnasiums are open to applicants of the Mosaic faith. As a consequence, the various university towns of Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, France, and Austria have each a colony of Russo-Jewish pilgrims of learning. The impecunious student, however, finds a university course in those countries inaccessible. Much more favorable in this respect is the United States, where students from among the Jewish immigrants find it possible to sustain themselves during their college course by some occupation; and this advantage has to some extent made this country the Mecca of that class of young men. It is not, however, always the educated young men, the graduates of Russian gymnasiums, from whom the Russian members at the American colleges are recruited. Not to speak of the hundreds of immigrant boys and girls who reach the New York City College or the Normal College by way of the grammar schools of the Ghetto, there are in the colleges of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston, as well as among the professional men of the Jewish colonies, not a few former peddlers or workmen who received their first lessons in the rudimentary branches of education within the walls of an American tenement house. I was once consulted by an illiterate Jewish peddler of thirty-two who was at a loss to choose between a medical college and a dry goods store. "I have saved two thousand dollars," he said. "Some friends advise me to go into the dry goods business, but I wish to be an educated man and live like one."

The Russian-speaking population is represented also in the colleges for women. There are scores of educated Russian girls in the sweat-shops, and their life is one of direst misery, of overwork in the shop, and of privations at home.

Politically the Jewish quarter is among the most promising districts in the metropolis. The influence of the vote-buyer, which is the blight of every poor neighborhood in the city, becomes in the Ghetto smaller and smaller. There is no method of determining the number of votes which are secured for either of the two leading parties by any of the several forms of bribery enumerated by Mr. James Bryce.

If some immigrants have not the "adequate conception of the significance of our institutions," of which Vice-President Fairbanks speaks, it is the American slum politician who gives the newcomer lessons in that conception; and if it happens to be an object lesson in the form of a two-dollar bill and a drink, the political organization which depends upon such a mode of "rolling up a big vote" is certainly as much to blame as the ignorant bribe-taker.

The ward heeler is as active in the Ghetto as elsewhere. Aided by an army of "workers," which is largely made up of the lowest dregs of the neighborhood, he knocks, on election day, at the door of every tenement house apartment, while on the street the vote market goes on in open daylight as freely as it did before there was a Parkhurst to wage war against a guilty police organization. This statement is true of every destitute district, and the Jewish quarter is no exception to the rule. As was revealed by the Lexow committee, some of the leading district "bosses" in the great city, including a civil justice, owe their power to the political co-operation of criminals and women of the street. Unfortunately this is also the case with the Jewish neighborhood, where every wretch living on the profits of vice, almost without exception, is a member of some political club and an active "worker" for one of the two "machines," and where, during the campaign, every disreputable house is turned. into an electioneering centre. If the Tenth Ward has come to be called "the Klondike" of the police, so much the worse for the parties who are directly responsible for the evil which justifies both that appellation and the name of "Tenderloin," which is home by a more prosperous neighborhood than the Ghetto.

The malady is painful enough, but it is not the guilty politician from whom the remedy is to be expected. As to the Jewish quarter, the doctrine of self-help is practiced by the workingmen politically as well as economically. In proportion as the intelligence of the district is raised by the thousand and one educational agencies at work, "the many characteristics of the best citizens," the Jews of the East Side come to the front, and the power of the corruptionist wanes.

The Jewish immigrants look upon the United States as their country, and when it engaged in war they did not shirk their duty. They contributed three times their quota of volunteers to the army, and they had their representatives among the first martyrs of the campaign, two of the brave American sailors who were wounded at Cardenas and Cienfuegos being the sons of Hebrew immigrants.

The Russian Jew brings with him the quaint customs of a religion full of poetry and of the sources of good citizenship. The orthodox synagogue is not merely a house of prayer; it is an intellectual centre, a mutual aid society, a fountain of self-denying altruism, and a literary club, no less than a place of worship. The study-rooms of the hundreds of synagogues, where the good old people of the Ghetto come to read and discuss "words of law" as well as the events of the day, are crowded every evening in the week with poor street peddlers, and with those gray-haired, misunderstood sweat-shop hands of whom the public hears every time a tailor strike is declared. So few are the joys which this world has to spare for those overworked, enfeebled victims of "the inferno of modern times" that their religion is to many of them the only thing which makes life worth living. In the fervor of prayer or the abandon of religious study they forget the grinding poverty of their homes. Between the walls of the synagogue, on the top floor of some ramshackle tenement house, they sing beautiful melodies, some of them composed in the caves and forests of Spain, where the wandering people worshiped the God of their fathers at the risk of their lives; and these and the sighs and sobs of the Days of Awe, the thrill that passes through the heartbroken talith­covered congregation when the shofar blows, the mirth which fills the house of God and the tenement homes upon the Rejoicing of the Law, the tearful greetings and humbled peace-makings on Atonement Eve, the mysterious light of the Chanuccah (a festival in memory of the restoration of the Temple in the time of the Maccabeans) candles, the gifts and charities of Purim (a festival commemorating the. events in the time of Esther), the joys and kingly solemnities of Passover,--all these pervade the atmosphere of the Ghetto with a beauty and a charm without which the life of its older residents would often be one of unrelieved misery.







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