The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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The Institute of the College Marriage on the East Side--
Physicians and Lawyers Who Owe Their Start to Their Betrothed.

From The SUN, a New York City newspaper, dated July 28, 1901.

"One of the peculiar features of the life of our people in New York," said an educated East Sider, "are the so-called college marriages of the tenements. Scores our our younger physicians, lawyers, dentists or pharmacists are the products of these alliances which seem to be getting more popular each year. In many instances they result in some of the tragedies or comedies which fill the swift-flowing life of the Ghetto, yet their example is lost on our girls.

"The most common form of this arrangement is when a young man who is ambitious to obtain a college education, but is compelled to work for a living, promises to marry a girl who undertakes to support him through college. Usually the young woman is an illiterate sweatshop hand, and in some cases, the young man is equally ignorant.

"I know a finisher girl who is working fourteen hours a day to support herself and her sweetheart and to pay his preliminary teacher. He was a tailor at home and he can scarcely read and write, but he has taken it into his head  that he would make a nice-looking doctor. In this case the college marriage was an afterthought, for the two had been engaged for some time when the idea occurred to him. The scheme pleased the finisher immensely. She only wanted to make sure that her sweetheart was smart enough, and to ascertain this she took him to an elderly man who makes his living by preparing fellows of this class for the Regents' examination. " 'I'll give you a dollar if you tell me whether Reuben is smart enough to be a doctor,' she said.

"The tutor tried Reuben on reading, spelling and arithmetic, and after some thinking he announced this verdict:

" 'Truth to tell, Reuben is a piece of raw material, but if he were willing to study hard I would undertake to prepare him for the Regents' examinations in less than a year.'

"This took place more than a year ago. Reuben is still taking his preliminary lessons. He has passed successfully in one of the minor subjects on the list, however, so his fiancée is satisfied.

"My grocer is a well-to-do old man. His older daughters were all married in Russia where he was poor. Rachel is his youngest and his pet. As she was brought up in New York, she speaks English better than Yiddish and has not many of the ways of the typical Ghetto girl. When her father saw her take up with an American-born young man, he unbosomed himself to me.

" 'I don't like that fellow,' he said with anguish. 'He talks nothing but races and variety shows. I am getting old and weak. There is no telling when I may have to close my eyes and before I am gone I should like to see Rachel married to a decent man.'

"He told me of a young immigrant, a graduate of a high school somewhere in Galicia, Austria, on whom he had an eye.

"He is crazy to continue his studies, the poor fellow,' he said, 'but of course, he has no money. He peddles.'

"The long and short of it was that the grocer wanted me to play the part which in the case of Reuben was performed by his present tutor. I answered that passing upon matrimonial candidates was not in my line, but he begged me so hard that I had not the heart to refuse him. I liked the young man. We were afraid that Rachel might object to the match, but to our agreeable surprise she did not. The Austrian is at the City College now.

"One of the saddest cases I have heard of is that of a good honest young Talmudist. He was too weak to work in a sweatshop, and he knew too little of practical life to be a success as a peddler. He was planning to return to his native place when his landlady, a hard-working woman with two daughters, said to him:

" 'I have a better plan. Go to college and study gentile things until they make a doctor of you. If you give your word of honor you will marry Clara when you are through with it all, you won't have to worry about food or clothing or cash. Whatever the Uppermost sends me belongs to my children, and if you are engaged to Clara you will be as good as a son to me.'

"The young man consented, although as he now assures his friends, not without a certain presentiment that he would someday regret the step. Well, he entered college, and the three women slaved to keep him in good clothes and to pay his bills. One day the old woman declared that he and Clara would have to go before the Mayor to be married. The neighbors were talking too much, she explained, and besides, what guarantee was there that he would not go back on Clara after he was through with his studies? The rabbinical wedding could be held later on, but the civil marriage must take place at once as a guarantee of good faith, she insisted.

"He obeyed. Subsequently he expressed a desire to study philosophy. He had no taste for medicine or law, he said. Of course, neither the old woman nor Clara knew what he meant. All they did know was that he did not care to be a doctor or a lawyer. This made them wild. You see, the family had been boasting right and left that Clara's bridegroom was going to be a doctor, that Clara would occupy a parlor floor and basement on East Broadway--the highest ideal known to women of their class--while here the young man was talking of being something which is connected in one's imagination neither with a large income nor with a parlor floor and basement in East Broadway.

"The former Talmudist is a backboneless, good-natured man. He gave in. Meanwhile the intellectual chasm between him and Clara grew and grew. The 'gentile things' opened new vistas, a whole new world, to him. Formerly, although learned in the Talmud, he had looked upon his landlady's daughter as his equal. Now her ways and her ignorance were beginning to jar upon his susceptibilities. Little by little he came to consider himself a martyr, to curse the day when he became the victim of self-imposed bondage, and so forth and so on.

"The old woman, who has more common sense than her daughter, was the first to perceive the change in his behavior. The upshot was that all the three women were continually nagging the student and throwing it up to him that they were putting up with all sorts of privations and drudgery in order to feed him.

"The young man was in despair. He had not the courage personally to broach the subject of divorce, so he wrote about it to the old woman, although, mind you, the young couple were husband and wife in name only, only in the eye of the law of the land, for they lived apart, and the Mosaic ceremony which alone can unite a man and woman of the Mosaic faith in wedlock, had not yet been performed. Well, Clara's mother only chuckled. She knew he would not have the courage to do anything out of the ordinary.

"The young man is practicing medicine now, although his office is not on East Broadway. The Mosaic marriage took place immediately after he received his diploma, and I hear that the young couple are getting along very badly. Sometimes, when there are patients in the office the old lady appears on the scene and tells the doctor for the benefit of his patrons and the people of the next floor that if it had not been for her and her daughters he would still be peddling shoe laces, and that he is the greatest ingrate in New York.

"When she cools down and her business instinct tells he that scenes of this sort may have an unhealthful effect on her son-in-law's practice, she tries to mend matters by advertising his virtues as a physician. She is forever sounding his praises and twisting medical terms by way of illustrating his erudition. The poor fellow is the personification of wretchedness. A chum of his tells me that he has not his heart in his profession, and has no ambition to work up a practice. He often neglects his patients to read or to play chess, and when the old woman gets wind of it, there is the devil to pay, of course.

"In many instances the young man backs out before he is married either by the Mayor or by a rabbi, and then there is a breach of promise suit. Sometimes the fellow is locked up, and I know of one young law student who got out of jail by promising his girl's brother to marry his fiancée at once. He is a worthless scamp and the girl, although uneducated, is liked by everybody who knows her. They have been married for some time now.

"He is practicing law among the tradesmen of Rivington Street, I think, and he keeps reminding his wife that she is an illiterate sweatshop girl, while he is a college man. That it was her hard work in the sweatshops which paid his way through the law school he seems to forget, while she is too timid to put him in mind of it. To his friends he is always complaining of the gulf there is between his wife and himself.

"As a matter of fact, however, there is no such gulf between them. He has plodded through some law books and he has acquired a full command of bad English, but he is not what you would call an intelligent man. He does not read books, anyhow and his bosom friends are some of the crassest ignoramuses among his clients. One of them cannot sign his name. So you see, the lawyer is not badly in need of intellectual company. Oh, that gulf between himself and his wife is a fake. That's all there is to it.

"Another professional man of the lower East Side who married on the same plan compelled his wife to study geography after their wedding. 'Bear in mind that your husband is no tailor now,' he would say to her. 'Unless you improve your mind there will be trouble, my dear.' The poor woman who had never learned to read anything beyond the Hebrew prayer book and the Yiddish commentary or the Pentateuch, didn't know how to go about the English text books which her husband forced into her hands.

"But he was inexorable. He gave her lessons, and the poor thing was so scared by the big words that she would nod assent to everything he said and repeat, parrot-like, his words without knowing what he was talking about. She made pretty poor progress, but he soon became so busy that he had no time to bother with her. Only from time to time it would come back to him that he was a man of refinement and learning with a college diploma on his office wall, and that he was married to a former necktie maker. Gradually he forgot this too.

"He is the most devoted father you ever saw and in his enthusiasm over his children he has become attached to their mother also. I hear she has a way of bragging of her husband and of the bits of geography she has tried to learn which is quite amusing.

"There are all kinds of combinations and surprises in a vast city within a city like the New York Ghetto. A friend of mine knows a couple who were married on the diploma plan, as the institution I have been describing is called by the wits, and in this case the young woman who paid her sweetheart's way through college by working at shirtwaists, had so much natural intelligence and ability that she soon helped her fiancé with his studies, and now that he is practicing dentistry she is preparing to enter the Women's Medical College. The two get along excellently and the dentist is forever boasting of the assistance, mental as well as pecuniary, which his wife gave him at college.

"Upon the whole, I should say that these college marriages are about evenly divided between those which turn out well and those in which there is more or less trouble. A man who has been studying this question tells me that the number of happy couples resulting from these matrimonial contracts is on the increase, and after all is said the institution tends to uplift many a working girl, as well ass the young fellows who are helped to a college course in the manner I have referred to.

"There is many an able young man who would be doomed to a life of drudgery and ignorance if it were not for the arrangement by which he is enabled to educate himself, and if he is the proper sort of fellow he will educate his sweetheart also. My friend has paraphrased Horace Greeley's celebrated advice to young men to suit local conditions; his motto is: 'Get a girl, young man.'

"He tells me of many instances in which a diploma marriage has resulted in the moral and intellectual uplifting not only of the two persons immediately concerned, but also of some of their relatives. The sister, for instance, of a young woman who married a physician used to keep company with girls and young fellows of a rather shady character. No sooner had her sister become Mrs. Doctor than she discarded her old companions and began to behave in a manner becoming the sister-in-law of a doctor. In this case the marriage has resulted in perfect happiness.

"The young man has taught his wife to read and to attend lectures, and the general tone of their house has had its effect on several of their relatives who visit them. Among the friends of this doctor are tow or three of the well-educated members of his profession, graduates of Russian colleges; so that his wife and her relatives have an opportunity to come into contact with the intellectual cream of the Ghetto.

"One of the stories he told me is about a young woman, a cloakmaker, who took a student sweetheart primarily because a fellow townswoman of hers married a physician. One day she met her driving in the buggy in which her husband made his professional calls. The doctor's wife acknowledged her greeting with a majestic bow and drove on. This was more than the cloak-finisher could stand. She vowed to herself to marry a doctor and soon found a young man who was looking for this kind of match and was a handsome fellow into the bargain.

"The curious part of it is that this girl, who is a thin, nervous supersensitive creature, subsequently took it into her head that her intended husband did not care for her and that he was willing to marry her merely because he considered himself under an obligation to her.

" 'I don't compel you to marry me,' she once said to him. 'I know I am not worthy to be your wife, for you are an educated man, while I am only a factory girl. If I marry you I will be unhappy, anyhow. Something tells me I ought not to go out of my own class for a husband. You can pay me what I have spent on you later on. You are a free man.'

"The point is that the medical student actually loves her. He is a quiet, studious man and her devotion has won his heart. But she has made up her mind that he does not care for her and the idea of sacrificing herself for his sake, as she calls it, seems to be growing upon her. Of course, this does not prevent her from being insanely jealous. My friend is sure she will give in in the end and marry him."







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