The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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From The New-York Tribune, September 18, 1898.

The people of the East Side are again confronted with the problem of how to educate their children, and the limited capacity of the city schools. which is evident again this fall, is once more a cause for keen disappointment and unfulfilled hopes. Those who do not know the inner life of the tenement-house dwellers can hardly realize the general extent of this disappointment or the acute suffering which it entails for parents and children alike.

There were several cases brought to public notice last fall where boys who had been denied school advantages committed suicide. In other cases similar disappointments resulted in insanity. Such facts can only occasion surprise to those who are unfamiliar with the intense craving for knowledge which prevails in that part of New York where "the other half" lives. It will astonish many people to learn that the average small boy of the ghetto has none of the commercial instinct which is ordinarily taken as a sign and heritage of his race. There, boys want to become doctors and lawyers - some look forward to a political career - and social questions fill their young lives with restless longing. It is a peculiar fact, too, that the fathers of these boys, who spend their days in the ill-smelling fish market of Hester Street or live their lives haggling over the price of pushcart wares, encourage the younger generation in their desire for knowledge.

"It is enough that I am a merchant," said a long-gabardined peddler yesterday. ''What is such a life? What can I do for my people or myself? My boy shall be a lawyer, learned and respected of men. And it is for that that I stand here, sometimes when my feet ache so that I would gladly go and rest. My boy shall have knowledge. He shall go to college."

College! That is the aim and ambition of hundreds of them. The father, bent beneath the load of coats he is carrying to the factory or trudging along with his pushcart, dreams of a better life than his own for the boy or girl who is so dear to his heart. When evening comes and the day's work is over, he sits in the little tenement, at the door stoop or on the sidewalk, and instills into his children's minds the necessity for knowledge. He points to his own life - how meager, sordid, and poor it is and he tells them that to avoid it they must study hard and learn much.

The book of daily prayer and the Talmud, often the only books in the house, are brought out and eagerly studied. It is by no means unusual for a boy of nine years to be able to recite the Talmud from memory. The rapidity with which these children acquire knowledge is a constant cause of surprise when they enter the public schools. Those who come in contact with them are continually amazed at the evidences of precocity which they display. There are many who have no fathers to bear the family burden while they pursue their studies. To them day school is a luxury not to be thought of, but after the work in the sweatshop is over they repair to the Educational Alliance, Cooper Union, or other places of a similar character, where the lectures supply, in a measure, satisfaction for their craving for knowledge. The lecture is often supplemented with books rescued from a second-hand shop at the sacrifice of breakfast or dinner. These are carried to the poor lodgings where they are pored over until the coming of the first ray of morning tells the student that he must snatch an hour's rest before the working day begins. It is no uncommon thing for the East Side student to live on $3 a month while he is struggling for his education. In the ghetto, such a thing is possible.

The 'sweater' with a large family can always find room on the floor for one more, and the "boarder" gets a corner where he may sleep or study as he sees fit. In the morning he has a cup of weak tea or coffee with the family, and once a month, possibly, he is allowed to share the Friday evening dinner of "fried fish."

The girls of the East Side are not without ambition too. To them the school-teacher represents the highest type of womanhood, from which admiration, the desire to be teachers, very common on the East Side, is born.







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