The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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Inconvenience of Rabbinical Ceremonial and Lack of Persecution Tend to Break Up Old Beliefs.

From The New-York Tribune, October 15, 1905.

Across the Bowery, where Europe and America constantly mingle in everyday life, the annual conflict between the Jew orthodox and the Jew apostate is now going on. It is a minor war, this year polemic. Its greatest havoc is wrought in printers' ink and Russian coffee, and yet it is a characteristic phase of Ghetto life. Moreover, it is the atheist and not the champion of orthodoxy who provokes the quarrel. He is a cantankerous fellow, this Jewish apostate, happy only when he is attacked and miserable when suffered to go his way in peace. At the precise moment when the devout are busy with their religious observances, he bursts into his fiercest verbal excess, lashes the Yiddish press into venomous editorial warfare, and in noisy mass meetings formulates resolutions of blood curdling impiety. Last year, when the orthodox were celebrating the Day of Atonement, the most solemn festival of the Jewish year, the atheists, with characteristic malice, were assembled in a Brooklyn hall, voicing plans for a Temple of Reason to be set among the synagogues of the East Side and far to outshine them all. this was the atheist's triumphant excess of last year; the East Side is now waiting for this year's sensation.

For all his noise the Jewish atheist who causes the annual disturbance is not a representative of any numerous body. There are several millions of Hebrews in America, but the polemical atheists number only then thousand, nearly all members of the Arbeiter Ring. Small as this number is, however, its quarrels are many, for the fighting apostate on the Jewish Sabbath has other combats on his hands for common days. He has the Hibernian characteristic of being "agin' the government," religious as well as political. An atheist on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, he is a Socialist on the other six days. His hatred for the capitalist is no less bitter than his aversion for the orthodox. His atheism is of foreign origin, and the average number of the Arbeiter Ring bade defiance to the religion of Moses and the laws of the Czar at the same moment. Harmless as he is in America, this Jewish iconoclast has dangerous potentialities in Russia. There he is the backbone of the revolutionary movement, and supplies the leaders for the Bund. He may be satisfied with verbal firecrackers in New-York, but he has used dynamite with fatal effect in Warsaw and Moscow.


It is his foreign origin which constitutes one [of the] striking characteristics of the local members of the Arbeiter Ring. His activity  has served [to confuse] many students of East Side life. In [performances] these observers have imagined, they beheld a new and widespread revolt from the Mosaic religion. But this has proved to be a mistaken view. The polemical apostate of the East Side, the member of the Arbeiter Ring, does not in any sense represent the American born generations of Hebrews. Nor do his doctrines find proselytes among this new generation, which has an apostasy of its own far different from the aggressive and bitter unbelief of the members of the Arbeiter Ring. The Arbeiter unbelievers are almost without exception foreign born, representatives of the more intelligent of the workingmen of Russia, Galicia and Rumania. Their code of religious and economic brigandage was developed by conditions faced abroad and fancied to exist in America.

The philosophical attitude manifested by the vast bulk of the East Side orthodox toward the sputtering apostate is well founded. Long observation has made it clear that his days of activity, of fierce and aggressive warfare, are numbered. Little by little that tolerant spirit characteristic of American life, even on the East Side, saps his joy in battle. Amid persecution he grows strong, but in a world that ignores him he relapses little by little into silence. A decade in America is the span of time careful observers allot to the fiercer activity of the member of the Arbeiter Ring. By that time he has usually prospered too well to have any bitter resentment for the economic system about him. His vociferous apostasy has also been quieted, not by persecution or by convincing argument, but by the complete indifference of the world about him. Thus it happens that he leaves to his newly arrived brethren the work he undertook. The foundation stone of that Temple of Reason so urgently advocated a year ago has not bee laid. Even the young agitator whose eloquent speech in advocacy of the project attracted widespread attention is no longer prominent n Arbeiter circles, and the whisper is going around that he is already an apostate from apostasy.


The newspaper polemics of the Jewish atheist are almost humorous in their acrimony. Last year one radical organ printed six hundred letters. In all these documents the writers gravely discussed the eligibility to membership in the Arbeiter Ring of a Jew who went to a synagogue on the Day of Atonement. The majority of correspondents agreed he was ineligible. This year the Yiddish press is discussing another burning question with equal thoroughness. The present discussion deals with the proposition of expelling from the Arbeiter members found surreptitiously observing religious rites. The consensus of opinion seems to be that they should be prevented from joining rather than treated to a system of espionage after joining. But the Arbeiter has other methods of disciplining its weak kneed brethren. It collects and distributes a fund for the sick, and members who do not work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, may not enjoy its benefits. Not a labor organization itself, the Arbeiter Ring is after all made up almost entirely of workingmen representing almost every trade. Moreover, not all of its activities are either polemical or iconoclastic. Its primary purpose is education, and its meetings are designed for the improvement of its members. Even the famous Temple of Reason was to be, first of all, a seat of educational activity.

Despite its protests, however, the Arbeiter Ring is not in any sense representative of the irreligion of the American Jews. A careful student of East Side conditions, a Hebrew himself, recently declared that not more than 40 per cent of American-born Jews observed the dietary laws and religious ceremonies prescribed by the Mosaic law. In such a percentage the handful of members of the Arbeiter Ring plays only a small part. The vast bulk of Jewish apostasy represents no revolt, intellectual or moral.


"Convenience," said this Jewish student of his race, "convenience and the customs of the society about him - write that down as the explanation of the irreligion of the American-born Jew. No intellectual protest against the traditions of his race moves this class of apostate. The public school; the business world, adjusted to the observation of the Christian, not the Jewish Sabbath; the Saturday night dance; and the complete ignoring of all Jewish holidays by the mass of people surrounding him - these, and a score of similar reasons, explain the situation. The Jew of the second generation does not become a Christian. He is as far from any such conversion as his father, but he finds that to live in a business world adjusted to a Christian calendar is hopelessly inconvenient, if not practically impossible, if he clings to his racial religious observances.

"So long as the boy is in school and lives with his parents, he more or less willingly submits to the parental training, but when he goes out to work and becomes self-supporting, then conditions change. He finds that to keep his job he must work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and rest on Sunday, the Christian holiday. Similarly, he learns to surrender his celebration of other religious days for business reasons. Thus, little by little, the Jewish boy is transformed into a workaday member of the American business community. Natural as such a result is, it brings with it endless unhappiness to Jewish homes on the East Side. The father, with bewildered sorrow, sees his child steadily becoming estranged from him, not merely in education and in the ordinary things of American life, but even in the observance of rites and laws peculiar to his race through countless centuries. Moreover, since every Jewish ceremony is more or less patriarchal in character and comprehends the whole family in its festivities, sacred days, such as the approaching Day of Atonement, are fraught with extreme sadness, because, from their observation, the second generation will in countless instances be absent. Even in homes where both generations are together, the chasm between Asia and America will not infrequently separate father and son sitting at the same table."


Apart from matters of religion the gulf between father and son on the East Side is broad. Students of local conditions have declared that the vast majority of Jewish immigrants live and die obeying the laws and following the customs of their native land. American language and ways alike remain unintelligible to them, and they depend with almost pathetic helplessness on their children for association with the world about them. Indeed, the precocious Americanism of the Jewish child is at once the wonder and the despair of his parents.

"He is an American-born American not a greenhorn like me." This is the fashion in which the average Jewish immigrant describes his child. From the very start, this child unconsciously acquires a contempt for the un-American habits and characteristics of his father. The American public school and associations with business life do the rest. The average Jewish boy of fifteen lives the life of New York, contemporaneous to the minute; his father still slumbers in the existence of Kishinev, Lemberg, or Jassy. The separation in habits of religion follows as a natural sequence that earlier separation in all the common phases of life. What is the polemical activity of the Arbeiter Ring has not accomplished the ordinary current of American daily life brings about to a very great extent. With all its European prejudices and bitterness, the Arbeiter Ring has no appeal of deep significance to the American Jew. On the other hand, the laissez-faire spirit of our national life seems in many cases to accomplish what the persecution of ages has failed to bring about - namely, the alienating of the Jewish child from the strict observance of his racial religious rites.

Such a situation as is described above does not escape the attention and the consideration of that large element of the Jewish world which still remains orthodox. One great organization, the Jewish Endeavor Society, is gallantly struggling to stem the tide of indifference. It has organized scores of branch clubs, revived and endeavored to popularize the study of the Hebrew language, and unquestionably set in motion a reaction toward orthodoxy. There are, moreover, other Jewish societies doing a similar missionary work, the results of which cannot yet be foreseen. In this way the Jew himself is manfully attempting to check a movement threatening the individuality of the race.







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