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*
Charles S. Bernheimer, Ph.D.

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"

We have now concluded a study bearing on possibly one million out of total of one and a half million Jews in the United States.

We have seen in the consideration of the economic condition of the immigrant Jews in the several cities that they stand out pre-eminently in the clothing trade.1

Many of the workers have risen to the position of contractors, as has been pointed out, but this has often been, so to speak, a false rise, being begotten of the desire to be an employer, or "boss," and having as its effect the increase of these go-betweens of the laborers on the one side, and the manufacturers on the other. The latter were thus enabled to bring to bear a pressure resulting in a competition which lowered the profits of the contractors and the wages of the laborers. From this there arose constant friction, reacting on the manufacturer and inducing a tendency on his part to deal with the laborer in a factory of his own, thus doing away with the small shop and its concomitant evils. On the part of the worker we have a constantly increasing recognition of the value of organization, with the consequent appreciation of the importance of maintaining standards as to hours, wages, and comforts. This maintenance, is, however, made difficult by that very mobility to which we have adverted, by constant additions of newly arrived immigrants, and by unorganized workers from without, such as farmers' families and the like, who can successfully compete in lines of industries requiring little skill or necessitating little organization in the factory.

There is a more direct connection of these industries with the professions in many individual instances than is generally suspected. One year may see a clothing or cloak worker in a shop; in a few years there will be a sign at the residence of this same man, "-- M. D" The desire to go into the professions is intense.

Between the shop workers and the professional men there are a variety of occupations into which the population has entered. Among the younger generation who have had the benefit of schooling there is getting to be less and less distinction as to the sort of occupation which they enter. But there is, as has been shown, too great a tendency to enter a few professions and to go into occupations requiring comparatively little use of the hands.

With full recognition of the difficulty of overcoming this tendency and of the value of giving the best possible intellectual training to those who have the necessary aptitude, it seems to me that there ought to be a strong movement in the direction of manual training and industrial education. Manual training will aid in the normal development of the individuals, in a broadening of their powers, in a rounding out to counter-balance what has heretofore been a one-sided growth. Industrial education should be emphasized so that the trades and the professions requiring mechanical training will be taken up. With ability as skilled workers, many young men will have a better opportunity than in their attempts to crowd the stores and offices. It seems desirable that educational institutions intended for the Jewish immigrant population, especially in the larger cities, should have as important features, manual instruction, and the teaching of mechanical trades and professions.

The movement of the immigrants away from the densely populated quarters of the large cities is now receiving attention. The Jersey settlements and the New England and western farms are all evidences of a rural life. They are admittedly small beginnings which in many instances have required and still require subsidizing of one kind or another, and which, like most small farming operations nowadays, are difficult of maintenance alongside the competition of farming on a large scale. Nevertheless, they are helpful in the movement by which the crowding in the large cities is sought to be modified. This work is also given an impetus by the Industrial Removal Office, as a result of which a number of immigrants have been directed to smaller places. Such an undertaking, if steadily pursued, should control to some extent the settlement of immigrants in the larger centres and be the means of drawing others besides those directly sent to the less crowded communities.

Whatever the enemies of Jews may say against them, they recognize an intense intellectual keenness and a desire to learn. Some antagonists sometimes turn to this very ability as a factor which makes it difficult for the rest of the population to compete with them. But such argument fares ill with the Yankee, the American, the Anglo-Saxon; he possesses too much of that same alertness and cleverness, has proceeded too far in the school of tolerance, is too broadminded and fair minded, to permit such a claim to be made against intellectual superiority, however acquired or manifested.

On all sides it is admitted that the Jewish immigrant population places its children at school. This is a matter of the most common observation. It is as true in Great Britain2 as in the United States

Not only is the appreciation of intellectual work shown in formal schooling, it is marked in the sharpness of intellect beyond the school, as is indicated in the following observation, "I have met keener speculative ardor and more force in argument among the young Hebrews of the East Side in New York than among the young athletes of our universities."3 If Miss Scudder's words were taken literally I can add that the "young Hebrews" would resent being compared with the "young athletes," for some of these same "young Hebrews" are students of the universities, excelling in scholarship the "young athletes." It is, however, true that some of the young men who are unschooled in the conventional sense show strong intellectual traits and subtle dialectic qualities, sometimes to an excessive degree, regarding argument too much as an end instead of a means to the attainment of correct thought and action. This, of course, does not affect the main contention, that the Russian Jew, young and old, shows a superior intellectual and educational standard. One reason for the strong intellectual capacity and the high intellectual ideal of the Jew is attributable to the study of the Bible and the Talmud proceeding from generation to generation, and to the necessity which has been forced upon him to live by his wits.4

The older Jew, weak in body, fails in appreciation of the physical development which makes the well-rounded normal man. The young Jew, by his contact at school, at college, in the world at large, is beginning to realize its value. With the great interest in sports at our educational institutions, he becomes affected by the enthusiasm. This is rapidly growing, and it will help to save him from the deterioration which might have set in amid the rapid workings of the life here. Wherever Jews are in institutions, or wherever influences can be brought to bear, the opportunity for physical education should be utilized. This will not only help the merely physical development, but bring about more normal growth, away from concentration on the purely mental.

We have seen the social development of the immigrant Jew. The Jew of the older generation has his synagogue as a centre of social attraction. Connected with this are the auxiliary societies of the congregation; even the burial society affords means of social intercourse. As we proceed through the layers of society according to the length of years in which the inhabitants have been in this country, we find that the means of social enjoyment approach more and more the methods that prevail among the people generally. Thus we have the lodge and the beneficial society, the social, the party, and the ball, as well as the concert and the theatre. We have noted among the older element and that not thoroughly Americanized that the Yiddish theatre is an attraction and that it presents some admirable features. We have observed, too, unfortunate tendencies to Americanize the theatre and the amusements, according to New York Bowery standards.

Among all immigrant populations the misunderstanding between the parents and the children is one of the saddest consequences of settlement in a strange land. The children of necessity become rapidly adapted to the ways of the native population, but the parents remain foreigners. This is true of the Jewish people. The children are often bread winners of the family to a considerable extent and the interpreters for their parents to the outside world, so that they acquire an importance which saps parental authority at a time when that should be the strongest force to control the children and keep them out of the ways that tempt. The parents are frequently employed during the day and are prevented from looking after their children, even when they have the necessary force and power. The home surroundings are frequently poor, and the children naturally seek an outlet elsewhere. This will explain why some Jewish children of this immigrant population are becoming street children, children with the roughness and brutality of the people of the street, copying their vicious language and habits, and why they sometimes enter into lives of crime.

Juvenile delinquency is a serious matter among all the nationalities whose children are being reared in the United States. Unquestionably one of the causes in the congested quarters, aside from that of parental lack of supervision, is the failure to provide a healthy outlet for the children. Forced from the contracted habitations of one, two, or three rooms into the streets, they get into various sorts of mischief. The boys would gladly play baseball, basketball or football in a park or playground nearby, but these are not nearby for most of them; they cannot even play in their own back yard, as their better-to-do brothers, and so they use the street for their games, and must be on the lookout for the "cop" who watches for the petty violation of street ordinances. If they break a window, their fathers do not settle, they have no influence, and the boys are hauled before a magistrate or a court and dubbed juvenile criminals. From being in the street, and kept from healthy play, they are "up to" all kinds of pranks, even the serious one of stealing. If left unchecked the boys really become criminals. Anyone who knows the conditions among the foreign nationalities, in a congested quarter of one of the great cities, realizes that it is the surroundings which are largely responsible for the misdeeds of boys and not in most cases the home surroundings so much as the city environment in general. We know that among the Jewish population the parents of the delinquent are ordinarily not criminals, but they are sometimes too weak to control the children because of lack of clear understanding of their relations to our institutions.

The juvenile court, which is becoming more and more recognized, has as important preventive influence, with its invaluable and indispensable co-operator, the system of probation officers, provides for such contingencies. The juvenile delinquent is kept watch over by the probation officer and the parents at the same time become educated in the proper training of their children through the visits of this officer. If the surroundings of the child are bad in the judgment of the probation officer, the court will usually endeavor to have It placed away from its home influences either by having it sent to be taken care of by another family, preferably in the country, or by committing it to an institution, either public or private. We lack in private institutions for delinquent children, and so they are frequently committed to a public one.

It is to counteract low standards and degrading tendencies, to conserve the Jewish moral and ethical ideals, and to help in the advance toward the highest types of citizenship that the educational, social and religious institutions and influences must come in. The implanting of principles of conduct and order according to the most elevated standards of the land must be kept in mind. The supplying of means of play and recreation as an outlet to the activities of the young must always be considered. The population must be surrounded with healthful, attractive places of social gathering in the absence of such places in the home, and to counteract dangerous resorts to which young people, of any class, may easily be lured when not kept watch over. The necessity of providing preventive influences must be emphasized. A number of such have been established, but they are inadequate to cope with the conditions. Play grounds, vacation schools, the public schools, the settlements, educational societies, libraries, all help along this line, but the community of each city must be brought to realize the importance of greater effort. Such influences as have been adverted to take up groups and individuals, but their scope is necessarily limited,--very often the greater their limitations as to numbers, the better their influence on the few with whom they come in contact. The Jewish population are susceptible of high development. The fact that they are massed together in large numbers in strange surroundings has caused them to lead an abnormal life. There must be a realization of the necessity of helping them to help themselves. Everything possible to improve their surroundings should be done, but whatever is done should be on the principle, not that the individuals are being helped, but that the community life generally is being improved.

"Of all men," says Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu,5 "the Russian, once rid of his traditional ideas, of his national prejudice, is the most completely freed. In this respect, no other can be compared to him, but the Jew, the modern Israelite. He, too, at contact with aliens, passes from the extreme of the spirit of veneration to the extreme of free thinking, from the oriental traditionalism, to which the bulk of his brethren stubbornly cling, to the most daring feats of the spirit of innovation." When, therefore, we have the combination of the Russian, the intellectual Russian, and the Jew, the advanced Jew, we may not unexpectedly have a most radical resultant, and it ought not surprise us to find it in the United States, where the Jew can give full swing to his philosophical speculations. It is this extreme tendency which makes religious stability difficult and which forces upon us one of the most serious religious problems. The older generation fail to provide for the religion of their children. True, they maintain the forms, observe the ceremonies, celebrate the holy days and the holidays, attend the synagogue, but their children do not follow in their footsteps. The opposition of two divergent influences, two different environments, separates the two generations, and one cannot understand the other and will not yield to the demands of the other. The older generation who observe the religious laws and principles insist that the strict letter must be maintained. They have been brought up in a Ghetto secluded from the rest of the community, mingling with it for the purpose of making a livelihood whenever necessary, but returning to the community fold to follow the religious customs. The younger generation have been thrown into a world in which they are part of the larger community, with the same opportunities as all the rest, with no isolating laws, no restrictions. They have become part of the English-speaking Americans; their aspirations are those of the young people of the country. The shock of freedom has thrown many of them into a state of indifference, of nothingness, of intense reaction against the practices of their fathers. To them the Hebrew chantings in the synagogue have no meaning; the symbolism of the forms and ceremonies is lost; their intellects refuse to accept as religious that which seems fantastic.

There are some who are endeavoring to find a point of worship which will be more in accord with the modern spirit, which will adopt an orderly service with the vernacular as part of the language of prayer. The reform movement among the Jews of other classes who came here before the Russian immigration was the outcome of some such clash of ideas, but the Russian and Eastern European Jewish element has thus far shown but little evidence of following along the lines of the German Jewish reform movement.

In his description of the career of the late Chief Rabbi Joseph of New York, Abraham Cahan6 points out the quick changes and vicissitudes which have taken place among the religious activities of the Russian Jewish population, even among those of the older generation. He says: "Rabbi Joseph remained the man of the third century he had been brought up to be while his fellow country people, whom he came here to lead, were in hourly contact with the culture of the nineteenth century. A gap was yawning between the chief rabbi and his people, one which symbolized a most interesting chapter in the history of Israel, but which foreshadowed the tragedy of the newcomer's life in this country."

This has reference to a growing change of attitude. So far as religious observances are concerned, the change is very much less formal among the older than among the younger generation; it is of slower growth and more subtle; but it indicates an evolution of Russian and Polish Israel in America which will be sanctioned; it presages a Judaism away from the strict ritualism of the Ghetto, refined by modern life and conditions.

There are thus, from the religious standpoint, several strata of immigrant Jews in this country: Those of the type of Rabbi Joseph, who cannot adjust themselves; those of the older generation who are gradually diverging from the ritualistic injunctions, though generally maintaining outward form and ceremony; the younger generation who are dissatisfied with the synagogal conditions of their elders, and who want a service and observance with the English language as a medium and the exposition of Jewish ideals in the light of modern conditions; and finally, the class who are radicals and iconoclasts of various types standing at present aloof from the synagogal fold.

For those who occupy more or less of a middle ground there is the possibility of what, for want of a better designation, may be called a young people's modern synagogue. The attempts to graft this on the religious life and action are in their incipiency, and any judgment as to their permanent possibility is mere guess work. With young, gifted, enthusiastic leaders, sprung from the class for which spiritual provision is to be made, it would seem that there is sufficient fertile religious soil from which a sound growth can be produced. But, unfortunately, there has thus far been a lack of such leaders, and hence the would-be followers have found it difficult to gather on common ground. Those who have the religious welfare of the immigrant population at heart must concentrate on plans to plant congregations of the young people, with an English and Hebrew service and an English-speaking rabbi--not a reform service of the advanced type necessarily, but one that would make the break between the old and the new not sharp and sudden. These are vague terms, but the conditions in the communities are such that it is impossible to give in express, tangible terms a general remedy for the religious ills.

A people with restless energy, shrewd insight, breadth of view, intense intellectual initiative, moral strength, spiritual power,--some of these qualities latent because of lack of opportunity--are thrown into an atmosphere in America for which they are well fitted and in which they would make great advance if they had not to struggle at first with severe economic necessity. The struggle is fierce in certain quarters and during the struggle some untoward results follow. Coming here hampered and trying to adjust themselves, they must strive in a way which those long settled here cannot appreciate. It is our business to improve the conditions surrounding them, and to whatever extent we help them they will profit. They are bound to rise no matter how great the difficulties. All who know the stuff of which they are made have no fear that from the grinding process there will rise men and women of the highest types of citizenship, business and professional men of high grade, poets, scholars, scientific workers in many fields. I am glad to have confirmation of my observations in the following by Dr. Emil G. Hirsch:7 "We have no doubt that the new day about to break will show the Russian American Jew as a man of power, with mind well stocked and judgment well trained, with sympathies well refined for all that is good, true, and noble, with loyalty most intense for the best that America calls its own; a citizen well worthy of the prerogative, of the sovereignty which American citizenship confers; a Jew deeply conscious of the beauty, the reasonableness of his faith, the historic beauty that birth from Jewish parents imposes."

1 "By 1890 the Jews had virtually gained control of the clothing industry in New York, a control that they have succeeded in maintaining to the present time." Willett, The Employment of Women in the Clothing Trade, p. 34. See, also, Report of Industrial Commission, Vol. XV, p. 324.
2 "Jewish children, encouraged in every way at home, often progress with astonishing rapidity, and seldom fail to reward the ambition of their parents by a substantial advance on their original condition." Mary C. Tabor, in Booth, Life and Labor of the People, Vol. III, p. 228.
3 Vida D. Scudder, "A Hidden Weakness in Our Democracy," Atlantic Monthly, May, 1902.
4 "The average Jew could always read and write." Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, p. 340.
5 The Empire of the Tsars and the Russians, Vol. I, p. 122.
6 American Monthly Review of Reviews, September, 1902.
7 Singer, Russia at the Bar of the American People, p. XXIX.







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