The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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Obstacles Against Which They Have to Struggle--Why They Take to Tailoring--
Their Ambition to Learn English and Follow the Customs of Their Adopted Country--
The Boarder an Institution.

From The SUN, a New York City newspaper, dated August 5, 1895.

New York's great sweatshop district, which is both the ghetto of the American metropolis and the metropolis of the world's ghettos, consists in fact of two distinct quarters--the Russian or Lithuanian, and the Austrian, and has two rival centers both known as Pig Markets, and so called perhaps for the reason suggested by William Dean Howells that one may buy at these markets almost anything except pork. The Russians who include nearly all the coat tailors now on strike, by far outnumber the Galicians, Hungarians, and Bohemians, and their central market, which is in Hester Street, is easily the larger, the busier, and the noisier of the two. Nevertheless the Pig Market of Pitt Street holds its own, and is as bold in its self-assertiveness as Chicago is in its claims to a place beside or in front of New York as a leading city of the New World.

In the main the Hester Street Jew and the Pitt Street Jew resemble each other. They have the same language, characteristics, mode of life, customs, views, tastes, merits, and foibles. Yet there are in all these respects many minor points of difference between the two, which make the elders, at least, draw the line pretty sharply, and even harbor a degree of intolerance one toward the other. The most effective barrier to a complete union of the two colonies is afforded by the difference of dialect, or rather, of pronunciation. For, while in its written form the jargon of the two ghetto districts is absolutely the same, they enunciate the most essential vowels in materially different ways. The Lithuanian o, ou, and ay, for example, are almost invariably used by the Galician as ou, i, and eye respectively. And, as the vocals happen to be the most used in Yiddish, the result is far-reaching and the separation even wider than between the English of a backwoods Yankee and that of a hard-baked Cockney. The upshot of it is that while a Hester Street housewife and a Pitt Street housewife may understand each other without much difficulty, what each considers a systematic substitution of vowels by the other will be jarring to her ears, and seem all but a matter of downright spite.

Among the economical dissimilarities between the two sub-ghettos, the most important is to be found in the coat-making branch of the tailoring industry. The Russians are, in this branch, far superior in numbers, while the Austrians make up for their numerical inferiority by being engaged on higher grades of work. Again, the former have thus far been working under the so-called task system, which the present strike is aiming to abolish, while the latter are all piece workers and proud of it, too. It would be unjust to Hester Street, however, to suppose that the tailors who profess allegiance to it and are fighting its battle are as a rule inferior workmen. Turn to the other ramifications of the garment trade, and above all, to the highest altitudes of custom tailoring, and you will easily be convinced that where skill is the object the Lithuanian Jew or Litvak is no more behind the Galician than he is in matters in which physical endurance is the main requisite.

The bulk of the east side tailors have learned their trade in this country. Not to speak of the many thousands of sewing machine operators, even the basters, who have brought the ability to handle a needle from their native lands, have without exception had to undergo a few months' training in the American methods of the craft before they could be counted as full-fledged hands in a sweatshop team. Only the most skilled, those who had an apprenticeship in some Russian or Austrian city and are competent to do custom work, may aspire to a job at their trade immediately upon their arrival in the United States. In the great majority of cases, the Jewish immigrant finds it advantageous or even absolutely necessary to change his trade on coming to the New World. Many cannot find employment at their trade for the reason that the work which they learned to do at home is here performed by machinery, or else is carried on under a system of division of labor so complex as to do away with the need of skilled workmanship. Many more are rejected on account of their unfamiliarity with the modern ignorance of English or German. A still more common motive for discarding one's trade on settling in New York is the fact that business here being in the bands of Christians, it calls for a violation of the Hebrew Sabbath--a thing to which the orthodox Jew, fresh from his old associations and habits, will very seldom agree. And so the bulk of the Jewish immigrants apply themselves to the trade which is monopolized by their brethren, and for a small tuition, fee or a pledge to work for a stipulated period without pay, many a Russian or Galician shoemaker, locksmith, tanner, or even teacher or rabbi, learns to run a sewing machine, or wield a heavy flat iron, and is thus initiated into the great sweatshop army of the Seventh and Tenth wards.

The next step is to try to become a contractor or boss. Time was when such a hope was harbored by nearly every male hand. The promotion does not imply the possession of any capital or special skill in the trade on the part of the aspirant. It is rather the reward of a natural bent for business, enterprise, and ability to talk the superintendent of some Broadway clothing firm into entrusting the beginner with work. Once the bundles of cut stuff are delivered at the latter's tenement apartments, he has no trouble in getting his former shopmates to bring their sewing machines into his front room or kitchen or both, and his home thus assumes the additional character of sweatshop, and the transmutation of the head of the family from a hand to a boss is consummated.

The business of the boss, no less than the work of his employees, has long since ceased to be lucrative. Ten or twelve years ago the average operative on cloaks, for example, would, in the busy season, easily make as much as $30 a week, while today half that amount is the utmost the best hand may expect to earn in the busiest week of the year; and this proportion holds good throughout the entire clothing industry. Now as the income of the contractor is determined by the wages of his hands, and as his margin of profit has, moreover, been materially reduced by the competition among the members of his own calling, the rank of boss is no longer the object of envy among the sweating population that it used to be.

Most of the Jewish immigrants either come to these shores single, or if married, leave their families behind until they can afford to send them passage money. Judging from this, one might expect the Jewish quarter to abound in lodging and boarding houses. This is far from being the case. As a matter of fact, there is hardly a single regular establishment of the kind in either of the two subdivisions of the Ghetto. The family instinct is too highly developed in the Jew for him to put up with the barrack-like existence to which one is doomed in a regular boarding house. He wants to feel himself like a member of a household, and when he had none of his own he seeks to join that of some friend and share his rooms, board, family secrets, and at times also family quarrels, all for $3 or $4 a week. And as, on the other hand, rent on the east side is much too high for the average married tailor to pay unaided, there are very few householders in the sweatshop district that do not keep from one to four boarders. The boarder has, as a consequence, come to be an important institution in the Ghetto--an axis around which turn a variety of intertwined relations and interests, economical, social, and matrimonial. The boarder will sometimes become a casus belli within the family with whom he lives, or the cause of an international war in the shape of a fight between two next door neighbors on the same floor.

And upon the whole this institution, which is forced upon the tailor's family by dire poverty, considerably impairs the peace and the sacredness of his home, and is a source of untold inconveniences, and in some instances of evils both to the family and the adopted member.

It is such poor economical conditions, in addition to the long hours of labor involved in the sweating system, that prevent the "Children of the Ghetto" from realizing their general ambition of speaking the language and following the customs of their adopted country. That such an ambition is characteristic of these people there is plenty of evidence even for the outside observer. Thus, in walking through the heart of the Jewish settlement, one is struck by the frequency with which the English tongue is heard in cases where neither of the interlocutors can speak it with ease. Even the most illiterate of the Jewish tailors make English the language of their ballrooms and social gatherings of every description, which is far from being the case with the Italian or German immigrants. Again, there is the testimony of the four large public evening schools of the Jewish quarter, whose numerous classrooms are, during the winter months, highly crowded with operatives from tailoring shops, from the beardless to the gray bearded, all toiling over the mysteries of a First or Second Reader after a hard day's sweating over coals, cloaks, or jackets. But the long working day, together with the fact that the whole tailoring trade is in th ands of foreigners, greatly reduces the average operative's chances for acquiring an English education on the one hand, and, on the other, keeps him from mingling with the native element.

Still this lack of opportunity for attaining knowledge through the English tongue is, to some extent, made up in the Ghetto by the Yiddish press, which has in the last decade developed in New York alone to dimensions never known to all the European centers of Jewish settlement put together. Five weeklies, three dailies, and one illustrated scientific and literary monthly, all firmly established, make up the periodical literature of the Ghetto of this city. Besides the news of the week or of the day, they contain popular articles on the various branches of science, translations from English or German fiction, and articles on the history, institutions, and customs of the United States. A thirst for knowledge is characteristic of the Jewish masses, and as no Jew is so illiterate that he cannot read his native tongue if printed in Hebrew characters, as it is in all these periodicals, the aggregate circulation of the various publications is very large, and their effect as a civilizing agency considerable. In Russia, on the other hand, where the Jewish workmen find more obstacles in the way of learning the leading language of the country than here, the Government does not allow the publication of a single Yiddish periodical.

By reading these Yiddish journals, many an uneducated tailor will in the course of time attain a sufficient degree of mental development to conceive an ambition and to feel himself equipped to undertake to read an English newspaper, with the aid of a Yiddish dictionary, and in many cases he will in this way soon achieve results which will make him abandon the Yiddish literature with scorn, as crude and inadequate for him. A good many Jewish workmen have recourse to the assistance of private teachers, of whom there are as many as two hundred in the Ghetto, and who go from top floor to top floor teaching English at the rate of twenty or twenty-five cents an hour.

Another auxiliary in the education of the tailor is the numerous literary societies of the east side, whose membership is for the most part made up of ambitious young immigrants, struggling with the language of their adopted country. The English used by the participants in the exercises of these societies is rather at fault, but then there is on hand an ever vigilant critic in the person of some specially invited city college student, who will correct mispronunciations and bad grammar, and set an example of as good English as he can muster.







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