Living in America: The Jewish Experience




From an article in the New-York Tribune dated December 4, 1899.





Among the "sights" of New York to which the attention of many visitors from other cities and abroad is directed is the district east of the Bowery which has been captured by the Russian element, and where the atmosphere has become so impregnated with the spirit of other lands that it is best described as the "Judenstadt," or the Ghetto. To the casual observer the pushcart industry, the life in the street, the long-bearded men, the great number of children, the women with their hair concealed by coarse hair wigs, and the aroma, which came from Russia but was intensified by the addition of Spanish garlic and ancient fish, make the deepest impression.

If the guide has seen the Ghetto only from the street, and knows nothing about the people who inhabit that part of the city, the visitor will emerge from the crowded district fully convinced that the people are continuing the usages, habits and customs of their native land, and that no effort is being made by them to avail themselves of the advantages and privileges which are held out to them in a free country.

If, on the other hand, the guide has seen the picture in all its lights, he will show the visitor that the Ghetto population becomes Americanized more rapidly than some of its neighbors that the men who were born and reared in Russian slavery fully appreciate the free air which they breathe here and he will direct the visitor to the building of the Educational Alliance, which has been a potent factor in the education and advancement of the dwellers in the crowded district.


The Alliance has its home and does its work in a large building at East Broadway and Jefferson St., and the average daily attendance in its various departments is about five thousand. The founders of the institution were M. W. Mendel, Jacob H. Schiff, Louis Stern, Isidor Straus and Lazarus Straus, and at the outset the object was defined as the promotion of education by the erection and maintenance of buildings in the city of New York containing library, reading and class rooms, gymnasiums, and music and lecture halls and co-operation with other societies in the city, and the promotion of the well-being of men and women.

The Alliance has co-operated with the Hebrew Free School and with the Aguilar Free Library Society, and these organizations now have representatives in its Board of Directors.

The education which is imparted in the various classes in the building is not confined to boys and girls of the school age, but ranges from the four year-old tot to the patriarch. The superintendent, Dr. David Blaustein, in a recent discussion said that the work of the Alliance began with the little ones in the morning, and took in all ages before the institution closed its doors at 10 o'clock at night.


A peep into the kindergarten and the classrooms in the morning will show what the teachers there have to contend with. The children are taught not only what comes in the regular school course, but the English language. They are sent to the Alliance school fresh from their Russian homes, with as little knowledge of propriety and cleanliness as they have of the English language, and their education is directed toward the points where they are deficient.

Later in the day, the same rooms are utilized by boys and girls who are prepared for the struggle of life. Cooking, dressmaking, millinery and typewriting for the girls, and drawing, designing and similar studies are provided for the boys.


The Faraday Scientific Section.


In the evening the man who works during the day and who has little knowledge of the English language comes to the Alliance building to acquire the language, or, if he is sufficiently advanced, to listen to lectures, take part in debates, work in classes to perfect himself in bookkeeping, stenography, typewriting, or possibly study for a Regents' examination, and young women who work in shops during the day come to spend an hour in the sewing, dressmaking or millinery class. In the evening the gymnasium is usually well patronized, and Dr. Blaustein thinks that there are few more enthusiastic workers in that field than the young Russian Jews. "In Russia," he said, "physical culture is almost a crime with the Jews. If they are strong and agile they are taken into the army, and they prefer to be physical wrecks to doing military service. Under the changed conditions they take to athletics, and the fact that they are appreciative was shown in the late war, when many of that class enlisted and were glad to be able to do military duty."


The reading rooms of the Alliance are open from 9 o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night. These rooms are provided with all the leading American newspapers and magazines, and for the accommodation of those who have not acquired the English language there are Russian, Hebrew and German publications. The East Side is rich in places of amusement, and there is much in that line to attract the young element, but the attendance in the reading rooms is always large, and twice as much room as is now used for that purpose would be none too much for the present demands.

In addition to all this, about five hundred adults attend the evening classes, where they receive rudimentary instruction in English, and the young women who are employed in the circulating library are kept busy attending to the wants of the patrons of the institution.


Reading Room.


Although there is no line drawn as to religion in the work of the Alliance, the building is given over to religious work on Saturday, when the large auditorium is utilized for religious service for adults. Nearly all the Jews who attend service there belong to the ultra-orthodox class, and many of them hear there the first arguments in favor of reforms and the abolition of customs and usages which may have been proper in the Orient, but are useless in free America. A remnant of the ancient is preserved by separating the men from the women and by having the prayers chanted in the old way, but, on the whole, the service is of the modified reformed order. On Saturday afternoon about eight hundred children attend service, which is conducted in the English language. There is congregational singing, and the superintendent speaks of the service as nearly like that in the modern Temple Emanu-El Sabbath school.


Saturday evenings and all day Sunday are given over to social purposes. Forty-one clubs have their meetings in the Alliance building, and many of these have their meetings on Sunday. Concerts, dramatic entertainments and lectures are arranged by the various clubs, and each endeavors to outdo the other in making the entertainments enjoyable and instructive. The auditorium, which has seating capacity for more than 700 persons, is occupied every evening and nearly all the entertainments which take place there are free. For those who do not go to the entertainments, there are the assembly rooms one for men and one for young women where the young people meet and where many of the inhabitants of that part of the city get their first glimpse of "society."

Among the features of the institution is a Penny Provident Fund, which has 12,000 depositors, and is the means of saving much money for the poor people which would be lost to them if the institution did not exist.

The fourth floor of the Alliance building is occupied by the Baron de Hirsch School, where about five hundred children receive instruction in the common school branches. In the hall of this department hangs an American flag which was presented to the school by George Washington Post No. 103, Grand Army of the Republic. In this department, as in all the others, it seems to be the object of the instructors to Americanize the children, and the stories which they hear and which they repeat refer to American subjects that tend to inspire them with love for their new country.


The Alliance is maintained by about thirteen hundred members, who contribute according to the class to which they may belong from $3 to $100 a year. But In order to do the work properly more funds are necessary, and to aid the cause $100,000 was subscribed recently, of which Louis Stern gave $25,000; Jacob H. Schiff, $25,000; Benjamin Altman, $20,000; Isidor Straus, $10,000; William Salomon, $10,000; Felix M. Warburg, $5,000, and Louis Marshall, $5,000.

The officers of the Educational Alliance are: President, Isidor Straus; first vice-president, Samuel Greenbaum; second vice-president, Albert F. Hochstadter; secretary, F.M. Warburg, and treasurer, Albert Friedlander. Among the directors are Louis Stern, Marcus W. Marks, Benjamin Altman, Benjamin Tuska, Edwin B. A. Seligman, Leopold Lewisohn, Louis Marshall and Lee Kohus.

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