The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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From The New-York Tribune, September 30, 1900.

Where the political situation is discussed.

At this season the subject of politics claims the chief attention of everyone, but one kind of politics, which is certainly as interesting if not as important as many, is invariably overlooked. Newspapers keep us informed of the doings of the great parties; writers of fiction have made so-called "saloon politics" an open book; the spellbinder receives attention; the wizard of the stump is exploited, and so on. But few people know of the sort of thing that goes on in the Russian quarter of the city.

But there must be some clubs, for the gregarious instinct is strong there as everywhere, and the need is well supplied by the Russian cafés. These people want no saloons. When they drink liquor, they drink at home in a properly well-bred fashion. But their tea, they take in public and over it discuss the questions of the day for hours at a time. In these cafés there is much political work done, much earnest and clever talk on the problems of government. They are in a sense intellectual centers.

Not every Russian café reaches this level. There are many which exist for the purpose of dispensing food and for that alone. Four or five, however, make this only a part of their business. At most hours of the day and night, until three o'clock in the morning, these places are filled with men who have come there to sip Russian tea out of tumblers, meet their friends, and discuss everything under heaven. They are the intellectual aristocracy of the East Side, although aristocracy is a word tabooed among them, for they are almost all socialists or dreamy and peaceable anarchists. The socialistic feeling is widespread on the East Side, and in these cafés most of it is fostered.


The literary men, the newspaper writers, the actors, the professional men form the clientele of the cafés. Not all of them are interested in the socialist movement, but nearly all are of radical opinions. The air of the East Side is unfavorable to conservatism. Too much is remembered of the old Russian home across the water, and while nobody would apply here the rules that hold good in the Czar's dominion, the habit of being "ag'in' the government," once formed, is not easily broken.

One of the cafés on the East Side is the official meeting place for the socialists of the district. Another, higher up, serves as a Tammany stronghold, but the latter is not typically East Side, like the other. The other cafés are Russian, pure and simple. As one steps into them, he has taken a journey into another world. At the little bare tables there are groups of men, with here and there a woman, all of them bearing the stamp of intelligence and earnestness on faces which testify only too plainly to the life of unnatural confinement led by most of them.

"She must have just come over," remarked an habitué of the cafés the other evening of a girl sitting near, "she looks so fat and healthy." The characteristic face is pale, sharp-featured, intensely eager, and earnest - the face of one who thinks too much and breathes the air of heaven too little. They drink their tea slowly, biting off bits of the sugar, in true Russian style, instead of dropping it into the glass. It is not the most healthful occupation in the world, after a long day's work to sit and sip tea until long after midnight, but it makes an interesting sight for spectators. These people do not give their over­wrought brains much time to rest. Life is a struggle for a livelihood part of the time and a feverish search after knowledge for another part. Not all are poor, of course ­ there are many prosperous-looking men and women among the groups in these places - but the pale-faced, overworked type prevails.


There is a general air of cheerfulness, however. The East Side loves a joke, and many go the rounds. There is always fun of some sort in the Russian cafés, together with the earnest discussion which char­acterizes the places. Games of one sort or another are frequently played. A group of men will gather in a corner and crowd together in such earnest conference that a timid visitor might suppose that they were plotting the destruction of society, while in reality they are only watching a game of chess and discussing the good or bad points of the play. Being Russians, they are all chess players, and intellectual strain marks even their recreation. One might think that for overnervous people there might be a better prescription, but it seems the nature of these folk to live at high pressure.

The "nature cure" is much needed, but nobody would take it were it offered. They love the good fellowship of the café, the noise and crowds of the city. They are city people, although, like many of their kind, they may think they pine for the peace of the country. It is a notable fact that there are few among them who do not hold Russia in fond remembrance. The Government they hated, of course; many of them left fortunes behind to fill the pockets of officials, and many of them know what is the comedy which the courts call a trial by law. But for the country, for the people in general, they have a love and homesickness.

Any one who knows the East Side well will easily recognize a fair proportion of the men in any of the well-known cafés on any evening after eleven o'clock. At that time the intellectual East Side sets forth to enjoy itself. The humdrum worker is asleep, but these men cannot exist without companionship, and this is the time to find it. When the theaters are closed and the meetings ended, the cafés begin to fill. If there has been a great socialist gathering, the talk is of that. If the brilliant playwright who gives the Jewish stage plays considerably stronger than those produced in English has just brought out a new work, that is the general theme.


Patronized by East Side foreigners.


Among the tables moves the proprietor. He is not a man who stands behind a counter or who holds himself aloof from his guests. He is a true host, and in more than one café he is the chief attraction. The proprietors of these cafés are social powers in the neighborhood. They are clever, well-informed men who can talk well on any subject with their guests. Most of the clever men on the East Side patronize some one café in particular, and the choice is frequently decided according to their personal liking for the proprietor. He must need be a bright man, for his visitors are men of education and ability. Here, one sees the editor of some socialist paper there, is a musician of more than local reputation. Another man is a physician of high repute on the East Side and one of its best educated men. Yet another - and with what respect is he regarded! - is the same playwright who thrills the East Side with productions worthy of any stage in the city. Another is the actor who makes the East Side laugh, and with him may be the actress who makes it cry.

Everybody is clever-looking; everybody knows everybody else; all is sociability and bright talk. The earnest groups who are talking politics retire to the corners, if there is not a special meeting ill some room in the rear. Anyone who wishes is at liberty to join in the talk. It is Bohemia; a socialist as well as a literary free missionary prevails. Introductions are not necessary, beyond that of a smile and an appropriate remark. All are welcome, young and old, Jew and Gentile, although the latter are in a hopeless minority.

To those who know it, this life is fascinating in the extreme. It is a phase which is little known, for few not born in it can lay aside preconceived notions so far as to permit themselves to recognize in the habitués of these places their intellectual equals or superiors. If students and sociologists and workers in the political field would turn their attention to these happy hunting grounds of radical thinkers, they would find out how limited is their knowledge of conditions in this great city.







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