Living in America: The Jewish Experience

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DATELINE: April 1, 1906. The New -York Daily Tribune.


They Learn Hebrew for Hours in Private Ghetto Seminaries
After the Public Schools Have Let Them Out.

There are, according to a list of them which Dr. Blaustein, of the Educational Alliance, showed a Tribune reporter the other day, between three hundred and four hundred Jewish schools in New York City. Some are little private affairs down in the heart of the Ghetto, and the parents pay from a few cents to a dollar a week, as their means permit, to have their men-children taught the language of Israel of old, so that when they, the parents, depart this earth, the sons may be able to say the kadish, that wonderful Jewish prayer for the dead, in the original tongue. Three times a day for eleven months after the death of a parent, and always after that on the anniversary of the death, is the kadish repeated in the orthodox Jewish home, and if there is no son to perform the ceremony, then a man from outside is paid to come in and do it. Praying is a masculine function with these people, and the Jewish girls are not taught Hebrew as a rule.

The smaller Jewish schools are called cheder, which means "room," "a room to study in." One finds them all through the Ghetto, in all kinds of places, from a synagogue to a cellar. Down on East Broadway the reporter stumbled on one that was in a cellar under a little shop. To reach it one had to traverse a pitch dark passage, which seemed to be a storehouse for junk. Inside the dim room a bearded Hebrew, with his hat on, stood reading short Hebraic sentences from a big book, and the school repeated the sentences after him in concert. There were about thirty small boys, also with their hats on. All varieties of headgear they wore, from a faded woolen cap to a man's old derby.

The teacher was hospitable. "You see," he said, spreading his hands apart, when the reporter explained his wish to see a Jewish school, "you hear! They learn the Commandments," he added, indicating the boys, "the Commandments the Lord did gif us."


Every one of those boys had been at public school all day, and they would (it was then about 5 o'clock in the afternoon) sit in that cellar for two or three hours, learning the Ten Commandments and portions of the Scriptures in Hebrew. Fancy an American boy submitting to a thing like that!

The teacher said that he did not know much English. "But I go to a night school," he explained; "I learn more." He was an affable man, but greasy, and the air in that room, or which the windows were nailed shut, was a compound odor of damp earth, fried fish, old clothes and human perspiration. But, insanitary and wrong from the health side as it all was, the spirit underneath the Jewish schools, from those little ones up to the yeshiba, or college, is the spirit which has kept Israel a nation through centuries of wandering and persecution.

Some Jews say that an outsider cannot understand that spirit. "Tell you about Jewish schools!" exclaimed Rabbi Joseph Silverman, of Temple Emanu-El, when the reporter made the request of him. "It is impossible. I could not make clear to you the feeling that keeps them alive; and you cannot learn about them by visiting them. The school janitors will talk to you, perhaps, but" --and the rabbi shrugged his shoulders--"it is just as it is when a Christian goes into a Jewish home. He may sit at the table, break bread with them, converse, but he is not admitted to the sanctum sanctorum of that home.

"What some papers said about the trouble in the Rabbi Elchanon School, in Henry street, last January showed that they did not understand. They called it a 'strike' of the pupils there. What they understood by a strike was that the boys dropped their books, went away and played ball and had a good time, as the boys in an American school would do. It was not so. Those boys objected to certain teachers and methods, but they simply took their books home and went on studying, sixteen, eighteen hours a day."


Still, it does no harm to try to get at a thing even though one is told that it is hopeless, and the reporter wended his way to the Rabbi Elchanon School. This is a large yeshiba of the old type. All these schools are distinctly unmodern in their pedagogic methods, and in all of them the learning is mostly religious. The little Hebrew has his reading lesson from the Hebrew prayer book. When he gets older and goes to the yeshiba he takes up the Pentateuch, Chamisha Chumshe Torah, as they call it--that is to say, five-fifths of the law. Over the Pentateuch he spends many months, taking it verse by verse, analyzing, brooding over it. Later he goes on to the Talmud, and this, with its great wealth of material, not only religious but legal, geographical, poetical, philological, with its commentaries upon commentaries, he may study endlessly if he elects.

All the Jewish schools are unmodern, but some do have a certain amount of English translation in the course, and are a trifle more western and less Oriental in their study methods. Dr. Blaustein has been working to Americanize them; there are classes at the Educational Alliance for the Melamdim--that is, the teachers in the cheders--to give them a knowledge of English and the pedagogy of to-day; and though, as Dr. Blaustein says, it has required "all his diplomacy" to accomplish anything, some of the schools are now won over.

But the Yeshiba Reb Itzchok Elchanon, on Henry street, is not one of these. The directors of that school keep to Hebrew and the old ways, and when the students rose up and demanded classes in English and modern science, and incidentally better clothes (for the yeshiba Reb Itzchok Elchanon gives its students, most of whom are poor, an allowance for board and clothes), there was something of a row. It blew over, though, and as this yeshiba is not one of the four which have joined in the work of forming an East Side Board of Education to shake up the Jewish schools a bit, it is evidently going on in the old style.


When the reporter visited it the other day and was led into one of the classrooms by a dignified person in a skull cap, who may have been the janitor, but who looked like a director, the room, except for the chairs and tables, might have been some Oriental temple of learning; every student was going it on his own nook, and no sign of a pedagogue. Here was an open Talmud on a high stand, and before it stood a budding rabbi in a wide hat, weaving his body back and forth, his eyes squeezed shut, intoning away in Hebrew at the top of his voice. Dotted around the room were other Talmuds and other embryo rabbis, also intoning loudly, and the din was extremely confusing to one not accustomed to that manner of studying.

The dignified person in the skull cap must have been a radical. He said he did not blame the boys who "struck." "The wanted better teachers," he said, "and more of the learning which will 'pay,' as you say in this country, and we would give them better teachers, but we have not the money." It is clear that Western notions are making entering wedges in the Jewish schools. Principal Kaplan, of the Talmud torah (school for the study of the law), at No. 227 East Broadway, told the reporter he thought the boys at the Yeshiba Reb Itzchok Elchanon were quite right in being dissatisfied. "They do not wish to be mummies," he said. This Talmud Torah, which has eleven hundred students, and classes going until 9 o'clock at night, includes in its course the translation of the Scriptures into English. It also is foremost in the movement to form and East Side Board of Education, and is even talking about having classes for girls.

All these schools (except the private ones0 are supported by the congregations of the various synagogues and by contributions. The big yeshiba, in 7th street, has lately had a gift of $25,000 from Jacob Schiff, and it was the gift of $1,000 from Mr. Schiff to the Yeshiba Reb Itzchok Elchanon that set the boys there to thinking that the school ought to be able to give them better teachers and clothes.


In East 3d street there is a young man named Michaelson, who is head of the Industrial School for Jewish Girls, and whose work is among the poor Jews in that district. Like many of the young Jews in America, he was educated in the Hebrew schools in Russia.

"What is the reason," he reporter asked Mr. Michaelson, "that the immigrant Jew, who has the privilege of our schools, yet insists on establishing schools of his own? And what is the feeling that leads even the poorest, most ignorant Jew to want his child to know Hebrew and the literature of Israel?"

"With many the cheders were the only schools they knew in the Old World, in Russia, and so they think they must have them here. Also, it is the religious instinct, and the result of the repression we suffer in Russia. In Russia the Jew is kept within a narrow place, and he turns, naturally, to his synagogue. If I live in Russia, and I am a singer, here are difficulties in the way of my singing in concert, because I am a Jew; yet I must sing, or die. If I am an actor, it is hard to get a footing on the stage there, because I am a Jew. So with all the other arts, and therefore the emotions and talents of the Jew in Russia find their outlet frequently through religion, the synagogue. That must be one reason why his schools, in Russia and in this country, are of that cast mostly.

"You will find many of the most ignorant Jews have a kind of love of learning, or a respect for it; they like to have their scraps of Hebrew, and air them; their accent may be atrocious, but they are proud of having a little Hebrew. And how they turn to the Old Testament! I went into a tenement home of two rooms the other day," Mr. Michaelson went on. "The son was bar mitzvah, that is, having attained to the age of thirteen, he was to be admitted to the fold of Israel; and I went to see him. Well, they are poor people, very, but when I stepped in the room, there sat the father at the table with the Psalms before him, reading aloud from them; moving his head back and forth in time, and intoning away with the greatest enjoyment. When he got through he said, 'You must excuse me, but I was feeling good to-day, and I had to read from the Psalms a little.' Now, an Irish laborer, say, if he were 'feeling good,' wouldn't be apt to turn to literature, and literature of that sort, as an outlet for his exuberance."


A Settlement worker tells a story of an aged Jewish dealer in old clothes who was walking along Grand street with her, and he was nearly run over by a streetcar. As he stumbled to the sidewalk his lips moved, and she hard him murmuring, "When I said, my foot slippeth, Thy mercy, O Lord, held me up."

It is rather a jolt on the Christian when the Jewish estimate of the Christian's part in the Old Testament is born in upon him. "Only the Jew can really possess the Old Testament," an instructor in one of the cheders said to the reporter. "Other people may read and have faith in it, but it is as when an Englishman studies Italian. He may learn to speak Italian and read Italian literature, but he never possesses it as the born Italian does."

Mr. Michaelson says the great fault of the cheders is the disregard of hygiene in them, or rather ignorance of it. "The children are cooped up in the foul air of rooms without any ventilation, and often, too, when they have been at public school all day, and should be exercising. But one lack in the Russian Jew is his indifference to the development of the body. I have had a gymnasium put in the rear of the Industrial School for Girls, but the girls will be found studying and sewing, when they should be doing athletics. The cheders are sadly behind the times, too, in their pedagogic methods, or lack of them. But for all that one can't help feeling that there is something very wonderful in the spirit that lies under them."

Abraham Cahan, who has written stories of the New York Ghetto, was telling the reporter one day his recollections of the very beginning of his education in Russia. "I remember," he said, "how when I was a little fellow of four my father wrapped me up in a talith, or prayer shawl, and carried me to the cheder in the synagogue. I remember I had some honey to eat, which was to symbolize the study of the torah, or law, was sweet. And as the child studies his alphabet, bits of sugar and now and then a coin are dropped down on him from above to reward him, and the little fellow studies away and looks up for his sugar, which he is taught to believe that the angel of the Lord is dropping down, but he is, generally, clever enough to suspect that it is his father who is doing it.


"The hours at that cheder in Russia where I learned my Hebrew alphabet, were from 9 until 2 and from 3 until 8, in the summer, and from 3 until 9 in winter. After the alphabet, I studied reading in the Hebrew prayer book, and then the Pentateuch in Hebrew, and I learned to translate the Pentateuch into Yiddish, just as in some cheders here in America the pupils translate it into English. Yiddish is really German, the speech inherited from our forefathers who settled around Frankfort; but as we speak it in Russia it has many Russian words, just as in America it has many of your words. The Jew is assimilative; he takes the words he wants from the people around him. The Jewish girls of my time," Mr. Cahan went on, "had little education, but my girl cousin, who was born ten years after me, was sent to the Russian school, though she could not be sent to the cheder. Had she been born ten years before, she wouldn't have been sent to any school, and, what she might have minded more, she wouldn't have been allowed to wear a hat; she would have had to wear a hideous, queer sort of a flat bonnet.

"The important thing--one important thing--in the cheders, then, were the prayers." Mr. Cahan added, "and it is the same to-day. Prayers are an important part of the orthodox Jew's life. Every orthodox Jew is supposed to say his prayers three times a day. If he is at home he puts on his prayer shawl and phylactery; if he happens to be out working he does without these, but he stands up in the corner wherever he is and prays for ten minutes. In the cheders, hours are spent over the long prayers. Nevertheless, the religious Jew isn't exactly the typical Jew. I do not see, either, why any one should hold that in Russia his only refuge is the synagogue. Some of the greatest artists in Russia have been Jews; take Rubinstein. Though they are repressed there, they find avenues in Russia, as elsewhere. The liberal Jew is perhaps more typical than the orthodox Jew, and I think it will not be long before the liberal Jew in America will bring about some reforms here in our cheders."

A young Jew who is a radical now, but who was educated partly in a rabbinical school, told the reporter how he used to hate the long prayers. "And the boys who go to the cheders now hate them," he added. "And they do not always learn good Hebrew, either. Many of the men who teach, especially in the private cheders, are broken down fellows who have failed in everything else, and sometimes their Hebrew is no more like pure Hebrew than a darky dialect is like good English."


It is rather pathetic to think of the poor Yiddish parent pinching to save a few cents a week and paying them out to have his child taught bad Hebrew. It is to be hoped that this is not often the case, and that most of the teachers do speak good Hebrew.

It is curious hat in a city where there are so many Jewish schools, there should be but one Jewish kindergarten. It is a flourishing kindergarten, though, or gan yeladim, as the Hebrew has it--garden of children. To this gan yeladim, which has just moved to No. 94 Madison street from East Broadway, about one hundred and thirty children, between the ages of three and six, go daily to learn how to cut out paper kittens in Hebrew, so to speak, and to learn the rudiments of Hebrew orally, and "the Jewish customs appertaining to young children."

The prospects of this gan yeladim sets forth, in quaint English, how its object is to rescue the little children of Israel from "the moral conditions confronting them in New York, where, like tender saplings, they are slowly but surely sundered from the parent tree, our faith, and become strangers to our religion; not even knowing how to pray to the God of Israel in our holy Hebrew tongue, the only heritage presented unto us of all our former splendor--not to speak of Israel's customs, of which many of the Jewish children here have no idea whatsoever. In contrast thereto they have imitated religious customs from strange sources. It makes the heart of the Jew bleed within him," the prospectus adds, "when he considers in what condition he finds his children and feels that they must remain strangers to the religion for which he has fought his entire life; and he asks himself if nothing can be done to make his children loyal to Judaism?"


Certainly a strong effort is being made at this gan yeladim. All the exercises are in Hebrew, and it is very curious to hear this strange and sonorous speech rolling out from such small lips. When the reporter visited the gan yeladim the babies were playing a game called haam whayeladim, or, the mother and the child. One tiny mite with dark curly hair took her stand in front of the class, cast her apron to the ground with gestures of despair and burst forth into a wailing flood of Hebrew. She had lost her children, and could not find them; she was a wee Rachel "weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they were not." Finally one child appeared, and then another, and there were many rejoicings and explanations, in Hebrew, with many gestures. Then the children complicated matters by losing their toys, but found them again, and then stood in a row and sang a song in Hebrew, swinging their toys back and forth, till a toy rooster flew out of its basket and hit the teacher in the face, and broke up the game.

Then a small boy recited a poem in Hebrew, which sounded so imposing that it was quite a surprise when, the teacher having said, "Now you will recite it in English," it proved to be nothing more than an account of how Jack went up the hill for water and fell down and broke his crown.

"It is at least a good thing to keep these children from the street, isn't it?" said the superintendent, who stood by. "And it is wonderful how rapidly they learn Hebrew, though we do not attempt to teach them how to read. Every day they learn twenty words or so, names of their toys and the things they do.

"But how can you find words in Hebrew for such trivial things as toys?"

"Oh, that is easy. Hebrew is a living, flexible language. New words are constantly being added to it, and it is not a dead language, as some people seem to think."

Both the teachers in this gan yeladim are young Jewesses, one from Russia and the other from Palestine. The children, the wee behatted boys and the dark-haired girls, appear to enjoy the games and the Hebrew immensely, and if only the playrooms were better aired and less smelly, one could not help thinking this gan yeladim a fine thing for these babies of the Ghetto.

On the big blackboard a number of Hebrew characters were chalked, interspersed with dots, which, a small Israelite of five years informed the reporter, were vowel marks. "The Hebrew has no vowels," she explained.

"We would like to open many more kindergartens, to keep our children from the streets and to preserve Judaism in their hearts," said the superintendent. "It is very hard to see how our people are drifting away from the faith, neglecting to observe the Sabbath. It gives the Christians a bad impression of us when they come among us to see our shops wide open on our Sabbath. There is no reason why we could not live in friendly relations with our Christian neighbors and yet keep our own Sabbath and our customs. But it is the desire for money," he added, with a sigh. "And many of our young men, also, are being drawn away from our religion by the study of science. It is so, I suppose, with the people of all religions."




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