The Immigrant Jew in America

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From the New-York Daily Tribune, August 16, 1903


Russian Jewish Women Barred From It as Well as Social Life.

"It is impossible to understand the lower East Side," said Dr. David Blaustein, head of the Educational Alliance, speaking apropos of his recent statistical investigations of conditions in that section, "or the attitude of the people there toward American institutions, without knowing the conditions from which these people came in Eastern Europe. For instance, the average Russian Jew of the lower East Side will declare that there is more religious liberty in Russia than in America. He cannot understand the State interfering with marriage and divorce, which in Russia are left entirely to the rabbi. He is specially puzzled by the State's attitude toward divorce. There are more divorces on the lower East Side in proportion to the population than in any other part of the city; and far more than among the Jewish population of any other country on the globe.


"The reason is not far to seek. The man comes to this country first. Five years later, during which time he has lived as a single man, he sends for his wife. He finds her not five years behind him, but two centuries. He has acquired a new language, new clothes and customs, and a new country. He finds the union insupportable. In the old country all that was necessary was for the couple to go before the rabbi with a declaration of mutual consent, and he would divorce them. Some rabbis on the East Side continued to grant these divorces until recently, and a great deal of trouble was caused. Here in America, therefore, the immigrant finds the State interfering, according to his notion, with his private affairs, and he will claim there is no religious liberty in America.

 "As a matter of fact, there is perfect liberty in Russia so far as the exercise of his religion is concerned. The Jew is never interfered with in his religious observances. He simply loses, on account of them, all civic and economic rights. He pays for his religious liberty with the latter. His church has infinitely greater power and importance than in America. The rabbi keeps all the vital statistics. The rabbi marries and divorces. The rabbi has charge of all education. He also acts as a court in both civil and criminal cases. Formerly Jewish contestants were compelled by law to take their cases to the rabbi. In certain classes of cases they may now go before a general court, but if they agree to take the case to the rabbi they are required by law to abide by his decision.


"At every turn of the road the Jew's religion is recognized. He is taxed as a Jew, enlisted as a Jew. No matter how many Jews there may be in a city, or how many synagogues they may have, representing as many different shades of religious opinion, they are all lumped together as one congregation. One man represents this congregation to the government. He is responsible to the government for their taxes. The government will support him in any attitude he may take toward any individual in the matter of taxation. He is responsible for the number of soldiers required, fifty or one hundred, as the case may be.  He can decide what young men shall be chosen.

"This representative to the government is elected by the Jews of the city. Their choice may be rejected by the government, but once it is confirmed, the people cannot change their representative. One can easily see in this method a fertile opportunity for tyranny and oppression. But nevertheless it is a distinct and permanent recognition of the Jewish church.

"In fact, in Russia a man is first of all required to be a member of a church, and next a citizen of Russia. The very passports so describe him. They begin 'The Jew so-and-so is hereby authorized to travel,' or 'The Christian so-and-so is hereby authorized to travel.' And 'the Christian' signifies a Greek Catholic. If he belongs to any other denomination it is so specified by 'The Lutheran,' or 'The Roman Catholic' and so on. In theory no man in Russia can be an atheist. In theory no man is a freethinker. He should be a Greek Catholic, and if he is born a Greek Catholic he cannot change. There is imprisonment and often Siberia for life for a Greek Catholic who changes his religion. But if he is born a Jew he is regarded strictly as a Jew and protected in the observance of his religion. Only, because he is not a Greek Catholic, he has no civil or economic rights.


"You can imagine the confusion in the immigrant's mind when he reaches America. He finds his church of no account whatever. No one cares what church he belongs to, or whether he belongs to any church or not. The State delegates no rights or powers to the church. All that is asked is whether he is an American or not, and whether he is loyal to his adopted country. No one cares anything about his loyalty to his church, or regards his religious belief as a matter of any importance to anyone but himself. In place of finding the congregation all-powerful and all embracing, he finds when he joins a congregation that he has simply joined a liberal society.

"There are 332 of these little congregations east of Broadway and south of Houston St.  They are founded not on differing shades of belief, but merely on the fact that the members came from different towns or villages in Eastern Europe. Each congregation is a mutual benefit society. It has a sick benefit, and in many cases free medical treatment. The rooms serve as a clubroom, where the men meet to talk over old times, read letters from home, discuss politics and current events, or to study the Talmud and other religious writings. And religious services are also held, one of their number, not necessarily an ordained rabbi, acting as leader.


"This is the puzzling and bewildering metamorphosis which the Jewish immigrant finds in America. The results are far reaching. In Eastern Europe, both educational and social life center in the church. We have at the Educational Alliance one of the largest religious schools in America – thirty-two hundred pupils. Of these thirty-two hundred only 15 per cent are boys. To understand this it is necessary to understand the position of woman in the church of Eastern Europe. The Jewish woman of Eastern Europe has no religious life. All that I have told you applies to men alone. All the parochial schools there are for boys alone. Woman is disregarded so entirely that she is not even expected to attend religious services unless she chooses. Boys are confirmed, girls are not. Boys are called on to perform certain religious rites in the home; girls are not. When a boy reaches the age of thirteen it is possible for him to occupy a position to which his mother can never aspire. The position of woman is such that when she ventures to offer an opinion in the presence of man—if she ever dares to do so—she will begin with an apology: 'Although I am a woman, yet it seems to me,' and so on. Even a mother addressing her little boy will do this, because her womanly understanding is not supposed to be capable of grasping an idea as he would.

"The religion which we teach at the Educational Alliance, a religion without superstition or bigotry, is simply regarded by the people about us as no religion at all; therefore, it is good enough for the girls. Our school is free, but the people will not send their boys to it. They prefer to pay $5 a month to send them to the rabbinical schools. There are 279 such schools flourishing on the lower East Side.

"The change in social life is as peculiar and puzzling to the immigrant as that in the religious life. In Eastern Europe the social life centers in the church and the home, and is pervaded by a devotional atmosphere. It is spontaneous. It comes from natural occasions. The social life to which we are accustomed—balls, receptions, banquets, class reunions—is not spontaneous; it is organized. All these affairs are arranged.


"For instance, it is the custom in the Jewish Church to celebrate the eighth day after the birth of a son. This festival in Europe is always an occasion of much rejoicing. But here, suppose that the day falls on a weekday, when there is work at the shop, the man goes to the shop, and the celebration is postponed until the following Sunday. Then the host knows, and his guests know, that it is not the right day. Their consciences smite then, and the occasion is one of secret sadness rather than rejoicing. They fall to mourning over the economic conditions which will not permit them to observe the old customs, rather than enjoying themselves.

"Always before the immigrant had room in which to entertain his friends. In the crowded condition of the quarter where he now lives he cannot do this. The wedding is the pinnacle of Jewish social life. But on the lower East Side the wedding must take place in a hall. The guest must pay at the door for his hat and coat check, and this at the very start takes away all the old feeling of openhanded hospitality. The hall wedding is a cold and comfortless function.

"So economic conditions prevent him from enjoying himself in his home, with his family and his religion, in the old way. If he seeks social enjoyment he finds he must accommodate his time to that of others. A ball is to be held at a certain time. There is no especial reason for it at that time, but the date has been fixed on by a committee of arrangements, and he is asked to purchase a ticket. But, remembering his good times in the old country, he goes, hoping to enjoy himself once more. He finds himself in a sea of strangers, with nothing as he has been used to it. He goes away weary and disheartened. It is the same in summer, when he buys a ticket for one of the mammoth picnics. When he compares such a picnic with the harvest festival at home, a thing as happy and spontaneous as the play of children, his heart is sick. Often he says that America is no good, and he would rather be back in the old country.


"As the woman in Eastern Europe has no religious life, so she has no social life. If you call at a house you are received by the man of the house, not the woman. There are certain social feasts and celebrations of the church, but the men participate in them, not the women. If invitations are sent out to a wedding they are sent to the males of a family, not to the women; and at the wedding, the highest social function of Judaism, there are five men present to one woman.

"The woman is also a minor. She belongs to her father before her marriage, to her husband after. She cannot own property in her own name. Her testimony is not received in the ecclesiastical courts, although in the civil courts it has recently been admitted.

"Can you imagine what all this means to the immigrant? He goes to church and finds women in the majority. He goes to the schools and finds women teaching most of them. He finds them behind every counter, beside him in every shop. What is the result? The result is that he loses all his respect for women."

Dr. Blaustein paused to let this declaration sink in, and then went on to explain.

"You may think," he said, "that from what I have said of the position of woman among the Jews of Eastern Europe, that she is despised. On the contrary, she is an idolized being. She is adored. She is the queen of the home. The theory upon which she is excluded from all the things I have mentioned is not that she is not entitled to them, but that being busy with her household duties she is excused from them. She is excused from religious duties, because something at home may require her attention. She is excused from education, because more important duties await her. She is excused from looking after her own property. The men of her family will do that for her and protect all her rights. She is even excused from social duties," concluded Dr. Blaustein gravely.


"The immigrant sees woman in America excused from nothing. She bears the heat and burden of the day at his side. She has become his equal, and he supposes she is to be treated as an equal. He loses all respect for women, and acts accordingly. Then he goes out into the American world, and finds to his astonishment that women have privileges in America. He finds that there is a rule, 'ladies first.' It surprises him very much. He can't understand the apparent contradiction of things. It requires another mental readjustment.

"There is nothing that disturbs the Jew so much as to see his boy, and still more his girl, taking part in the athletics of the schools. The rage for athletics, both outdoor and indoor, in America is something incomprehensible to him. He has cultivated his mind so long at the expense of his body that the American maxim 'a sound mind in a sound body' is something he cannot understand. Physical weakness has become a sort of an ideal to him. This is one of the features of our educational system which add most to his bewilderment.

"All these things may explain to a slight degree the puzzled condition of the immigrant's mind; the difficulty he has in assimilating and adjusting himself to new conditions; his heavy heartedness often-times; his frequent estrangement from his own children."







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