The Jews of Brooklyn

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The New-York Daily Tribune, June 11, 1895.





The American Zangwill, when he comes to make his studies for a New World "Children of the Ghetto," will find much curious material in a strange place. To catch the details of the life and manners of the low class, expatriated Jew he will journey not to Essex Street, and its ghetto of surrounding blocks, punctuated as it is by sweaters' shops and signs of Kosher meat, but to Brownsville, that Polish village of the Hebrews, set down on the outskirts of Brooklyn, at the edge of the Flatlands Woods.

For Essex Street, at its best and in its most picturesque moments is New York. It is never more or less than a colony of the metropolis, with not a quarter of the quaint charm of the Jewry of London or of Frankfort-on-the Main. The people are there, it is true, the sound of their Yiddish dialect penetrating the visitor's tympanum, but the tenement architecture, so distinctly modern and of New York, destroys the illusion.

With Brownsville it is different the moment its boundary line, "the Pale," the unfinished Eastern Parkway, is crossed. For from six to ten blocks to the East and West and the same distance to the South, a settlement that comes nearer to being a Polish Hebrew town than anything else in this country spreads itself out. Originally settled by a few thrifty Scotch and Irish, who fifteen years ago built little homes for themselves here, it has now a population that is completely Jewish. Within the square mile of territory it occupies, nearly 20,000 men, women and children are gathered.

Had the crafty and cunning Hebrews of small capital, who began some ten years ago to speculate in these then waste building lots that had hardly been redeemed from farm purposes, been gifted with supernatural vision, they could not have chosen a fitter place for the founding of a Jewish town. It will be two-score of years at least, before Brooklyn grows around Brownsville, for the town is set in a hollow that makes the locality undesirable for residence. The spreading out of the metropolis of Long Island is in other directions; Brownsville will remain on the outskirts for many a year to come.


People who have studied the wretched, hunted down Polish Jew in his villages in Russia say that in Brownsville the similarity to such towns as Sziget and Berdicheff is marked. An elevated railroad is only a few blocks away; its posts may be seen. In fact, from certain street corners, but this "L" and a trolley line that runs along Brownsville's western border are merely the keys to the outer Christian world. Over them is a swift and easy egress to New York. They do not touch nor enter into the colony's life.

Street Scene in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Instead of the ordinary ghetto's squalid streets, shadowed by tall tenements, here are wide, broad country roads, bounded by a few ambitious wooden buildings, three stories in height, fancifully painted with ornamentations of many colors, but for the most part lined with cheap, ugly cottages that send odors up to heaven, odors of cooking, uncleanliness and scores of closely packed together human beings. To [negate] this and to keep the colony in good health--for there is almost no illness in Brownsville--the fresh, keen salt breeze blows across the Canarsie marshes into every crevice of the settlement.

Though a few sidewalks have been laid, hardly a street is paved. the dirt in them, cut into ridges by the wheels of peddlers' carts, becomes a morass during a rain, a hard, uneven, uncleaned road in the midst of a drought. Almost all the adult inhabitants are engaged in real estate, "sweatshops," tailoring, shopkeeping or the express business. The tailors, stitchers, pressers and finishers form by far the most numerous body. On them the life of Brownsville hangs. Contractors have made the place. Tempted by the low rents, and appreciating the fact that here they are free from the sanitary exactions of Essex Street, more and more have set themselves up in this new Sziget. With the rents in their favor, they are often able to underbid their city brethren, and work pours in upon Brownsville, even in times that are dull elsewhere.


Immense packages of goods come from East and West, even from so far away as Chicago. In transporting the raw material and carrying back the finished product, the express business flourishes. Around the town scores of hungry eyed, lean real estate agents hover, trying to carry through deals for the sites of new shops or the settling of a newly arrived family in rooms. Seldom, if every, do these real estate men have offices. they do their work in the street, tramping ceaselessly to and fro.

The comedy of the ghetto comes when a real estate sale happens to be made. The papers are hardly signed when, like a flock of vultures, these agents swoop down upon the seller. Each clamors that he and he alone has made the sale, was really responsible for it, and each claims a commission. the Polish Hebrew rises to torrents of eloquence.

Primitive customs rule in Brownsville. It is one great family, with its rabbis and elders at its head. The keynote of the settlement's life is to be found in its absolute indifference to the rest of the world. It u its differences itself. Its quarrels and the claims one man may happen to have against another. Mounted policemen ride through the streets, and officers on foot walk through the colony, swinging locusts extra long and tough. Nobody to Brownsville, as a rule, pays the slightest attention to them. If in the midst of some heated argument a policeman dashes into the group and lays about with his stick or jerks the collars of two or three or more of the crowd, the Hebrews accept the punishment without resistance and with downcast eyes. They knew much worse when they were in Poland; there not a few of them felt the stinging blows of the Russian knout.

Family Affairs.


Christian law these low caste Hebrews hate and despise. They have no part in it; they care nothing for its rulings. A Brownsville man in a Brooklyn police court is the despair of the sitting magistrate. Hew has been assaulted, perhaps, in a street brawl. His assailant has been arrested, and he himself is brought into court to make a charge. But his thin lips close tightly behind his matted, untrimmed brown beard that never yet has felt the razor, and he shrugs his bent shoulders, bobbing up and down his greasy, threadbare old coat of Hester Street cut. perfectly impassive he stands. Not a word can be drawn out of him and the prisoner is finally discharged. He--the assaulted one--knows very well that before the rabbi and in the presence of men of his own faith measure will be paid with measure, and eye will be taken for eye according to the Mosaic law. What does he want with these men of another race and tongue, and why should they bother with his battles?

But there is small need of signs; the goods displayed tell their own story, and they are, in a great measure, out on the curbstone for the convenience of buyers. Brownsville's chief baker, for example, brings out his trays of unleavened bread, flanked with curiously shaped, glossy-coated rolls of many styles, and stands beside them on the sidewalk while they are purchased by twos, threes and fours, each customer kneading them first with her knuckles and forefinger until she has found what she wants. Fowls are in cages hard by, ready to be killed kosher; brooms, coal-hods and little counters of small pieces of cheap dress goods thrown picturesquely together.

Stands of speckled and uninviting fruit touch these cheek by jowl, and soda water fountains, the most of the time deserted, are still prominent in the street picture. Brownsville possesses only one business street, a highway three city blocks in length, but this is active enough at sunset each day to make up for the deficiency in its extent.

There used to be three concert halls in the colony running at full blast, but latterly these have been shut down by police dispensation; not that they were especially bad, or that disorderly conduct grew out of them, but they encouraged big gatherings, and there was always danger of fire and riot, no small causes of fear in a district built almost entirely of wood. Now the amusements of the people of Brownsville are confined to clustering and gossiping in the streets on nights.

Children are there seemingly by the thousand score. The racial ambition of Jewish mothers to gather large families about them is realized in Brownsville in almost every household. The youngsters are invariably unwashed, and they play hour by hour delightedly in the dust and dirt of the street. It is a permanent country for them, and very nearly as good as an expanse of green meadows.


Two features of the Jewish life beyond this Long Island "pale" must not be left untouched. One is the sunset cow-milking. Each evening half a dozen cows are driven into a convenient vacant lot from their pasturage out on the Flatlands meadows, and milked directly into the vessels, the pails, pitchers and cups that customers bring. A crowd of women and children gather about the woman on her stool, who is sending the fluid into the pail beneath in long streams. They drink the milk warm, holding glassfuls up to infants' lips, while the owner stands by opening and again closing his well-filled purse, accumulating pennies and nickels in great store.

The Russian steam bath is extremely popular at the westward end of the colony. It consists of two rooms, one above the other, and connected by a great fireplace. In the room below a roaring fire is built. In the room above, which is air-tight, the bathers lie stripped, while a swarthy attendant dashes down bucket after bucket of water through the opening in the floor directly upon the fire. So intense is the heat from the flames that only a cloud of steam arises, and the fire blazes merrily on.


Milking Time.

No strike in the clothing trade is now complete unless the Brownsville men and women will join it. This village has become he labor key of the trade. Its men are keen-witted and diligent workers. Their one great amusement is politics, and the colony has had several times since its founding local bosses, who have shown themselves able, popular orators. Anarchy has never had a strong hold in the village, and it is less in vogue there now than ever before, though Emma Goldman, who has been a frequent visitor and has spoken several times in the little Anarchistic meeting hall, would probably deny this statement.







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