June 29, 2005


The Jews of New York (Jacob Riis, Review of Reviews 13, 1896: 58-62)

It is a pity that Herr Ahlwardt [a virulently anti-semitic German politician, not to be redundant], our latest German visitor, has made up his mind so firmly about the Jews, or the events in New York of the closing days of the year might have taught him something worth his learning. If it were his purpose to ascertain the true status of the Jews, whom he so hates, in the American community, he could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. The great Hebrew Fair in Madison Square Garden and the strike among the garment workers on the East Side combined to furnish an all round view of this truly peculiar people that to the observant mind was most instructive. On the one side the mayor of America's chief city opening the great fair with words of grateful appreciation of the civic virtues of a prosperous and happy people, wealth and fashion thronging to its doors and the whole community joining in the glad welcome. On the other, this suffering multitude in its teeming tenements, fettered in ignorance and bitter poverty, struggling undismayed to cast off its fetters and its reproach, and winning in the fight against tremendous odds by the exercise of the same stern qualities that won for their brothers prosperity and praise. Truly this is a spectacle well calculated to challenge every feeling of human and manly interest; alas! and of human prejudice as well.

For in the challenge there is no shuffling and no equivocation. New York's Judaism is uncompromising. It is significant that while the census of 1890, which found 130,496 members of Jewish congregations (heads of families) in the United States, records 72,899 as "Reformed Jews," and only 57,597 as orthodox, in New York City that proportion is reversed. Of an enrolled membership of 35,085, 24,435 are shown to be orthodox, and only 10,650 Reformed Jews. At the rate of 5.71 members to the average Jewish family, the census gives a total of 745,132 Jews as living in the country five years ago, and 200,335 in New York city. Allowing for the natural increase in five years (13,700) and for additions made by immigration, it is probable that the Jewish population of the metropolis reaches to-day very nearly a total of 250,000, in which the proportion of orthodox is practically as above, nearly 2 1/2 old school Jews to every 1 who has been swayed or affected by his Christian environment. The Jew-baiter has them at what he would call their worst.

Everyday observation suggests a relationship of orthodoxy and prosperity in this instance that is not one of dependence. Roughly put, the 2 1/2 are of the tenements - for the present - the 1 of the Avenue. Those of the strike, this one of the fair. Those the newcomers, struggling hand to hand with the dire realities of poverty which these, having won home and welcome, are attacking in the rear, faithful none the less, as their problem. Driven from the old world, received in the new, if sometimes with misgivings, less for what they are than for what they were made, it is worth casting up the account to see how it stands, what they have brought us for what they have received.

First, the tenement hordes. They perplex at times the most sanguine optimist. The poverty they have brought us is black and bitter; they crowd as do no other living beings to save space, which is rent, and where they go they make slums. Their customs are strange, their language unintelligible. They slave and starve to make money, for the tyranny of a thousand years from which freedom was bought only with gold has taught them the full value of it. It taught them, too, to stick together in good and evil report since all the world was against New York's ghetto; it is clannish.

As to the poverty, they brought us boundless energy and industry to overcome it. Their slums are offensive, but unlike those of other less energetic races, they are not hopeless unless walled in and made so on the old world plan. They do not rot in their slum, but rising pull it up after them. Nothing stagnates where the Jews are. The Charity Organization people in London said to me two years ago, "The Jews have fairly renovated Whitechapel." They did not refer to the model buildings of the Rothschilds and fellow philanthropists. They meant the resistless energy of the people, which will not rest content in poverty. It is so in New York. Their slums on the East Side are dark mainly because of the constant influx of a new population ever beginning the old struggle over. The second generation is the last found in those tenements, if indeed it is not already on its way uptown to the Avenue.

They brought temperate habits and a redeeming love of home. Their strange customs proved the strongest ally of the Gentile health officer in his warfare upon the slum. The laws Moses wrote in the desert operate to-day in New York's tenements as a check upon the mortality with which all the regulations of the Board of Health do not compare. The death-rate of poverty- stricken Jewtown, despite its crowding, is lower always than that of the homes of the rich. The Jew's rule of life is his faith and it regulates his minutest action. His clannishness, at all events, does not obstruct his citizenship. There is no more patriotic a people than these Jews, and with reason. They have no old allegiance to forget. They saw to that over yonder.

The economic troubles of the East Side, their sweat shops and their starvation wages, are the faithful companions of their dire poverty. They disturb the perspective occasionally with their urgent clamor, but with that restored Jewtown is seen marching on steadily to industrial independence. Trade organization conquers the sweat shop, and the school drills the child, thenceforth not to be enslaved. The very strike of to-day is an instance. It is waged over a broken contract, extorted from the sweaters, which guaranteed to tailors a ten-hour working day and a fixed wage. Under this compact in a few brief months the tenement sweat shop was practically swept from the trade. And it will not be restored. I verily believe these men would starve to death rather than bend their backs again under the yoke.

So it stands with the East Side, sometimes so perplexing: as to the Avenue, how does it appear in the footing? There was the great fair, so fresh in the public mind, at which a fortune was realized for the Jewish charities of the city. It is more than 240 years since the Jews were first admitted, by special license as it were, to the New Netherlands, on the express condition that "the poor among them should not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation," and most loyally have they kept the compact that long since ceased to have force to bind. Their poor are not, and never were, a burden upon the community. The Jewish inmates of the workhouse and the almshouse can be counted on the fingers of one hand any day. They are not paupers. Of the thousands who received help through the dreadful winter of two years ago, scarce a half dozen remained to be aided when work was again to be had for wages. The Jewish charities are supported with a generosity and managed with a success which Christians have good cause to envy. They are not run by boards of directors who stretch their legs under the table in the board room while they leave the actual management of affairs to paid superintendents and officials. The Jew as a charity director directs. And he brings to the management of his trust the same qualities of business sagacity, of unerring judgment and practical common sense with which he runs his store on Broadway. Naturally the result is the same.

The system of Jewish charities is altogether admirable. There is no overlapping or waste of effort. Before charity organization had been accepted as a principle by Christian philanthropy the Jews had in their United Hebrew Charities the necessary clearing house for the speeding and simplifying of the business of helping the poor to help themselves. Their asylums, their nurseries and kindergartens are models of their kind. Their great hospital, the Mount Sinai, stands in the front rank in a city full of renowned asylums. Of the 3,000 patients it harbored last year 89 per cent were treated gratuitously. The Aguilar Free Library circulated last year 253,349 books, mainly on the East Side, and after ten years' existence has nearly 10,000 volumes. The managers of the Baron de Hirsch Fund have demonstrated the claim that he will not till the soil to be a libel on the immigrant Jew. Their great farm of 5,100 acres at Woodbine, N.J., is blossoming into a model village in which there are no idlers and no tramps. At the New York end of the line hundreds of children who come unable to understand any other language than their own jargon, are taught English daily, and men and women nightly, with the Declaration of Independence for their reader and the starry banner ever in their sight. In a marvelously short space of time they are delivered over to the public school, where they receive the heartiest welcome as among their best and brightest pupils.

Their technical schools prove every day that the boy will most gladly take to a trade, if given the chance, and that at this, as at everything he does, he excels. Eighty per cent of the pupils taught in the Hebrew Technical Institute earn their living at the trade they learned. These trade schools are the best in the land. Most thoroughly do these practical men know that the problem of poverty is the problem of the children. They are the to-morrow, and against it they are trying to provide with all their might. It was a Jew, Dr. Felix Adler, who first connected the workshop with the school in New York as a means of training and discipline. There is not now a Jewish institution or home for children in which the inmates are not trained to useful trades. The Educational Alliance which centres in the great Hebrew Institute, with its scope "Americanizing, educational, social and humanizing," is a vast net in which the youth of the dark East Side tenements are caught and made into patriots and useful citizens. And the work grows with the need of it. The funds are always forthcoming.

Our public schools are filled with devoted Jewish teachers, the ranks of the profession in New York overflow with eminent men professing Judaism. Their temples and synagogues are centres of a social energy that struggles manfully with half the perplexing problems of the day. There is no Committee of Seventy, no Tenement House Committee, no scheme of philanthropy or reform in which they are not represented. Was ever a sermon preached from Christian pulpit like that which stands to-day in Rutgers Square done in stone and bronze? Where the police clubbed the unoffending cloakmakers, gathered lawfully to assert their rights that meant home and life to them, a Jew built a beautiful fountain, the one bright spot in all the arid waste of tenements, "to the City of New York," and nowhere shall the seeker find the name of the giver graven in the stone. It remained for a "Christian" Board of Aldermen to wantonly insult a man whose very name is synonymous with gentleness and benevolence, by refusing through the hot summer to turn on the water because the member from the ward "had not been consulted" and so had suffered in dignity.

On the whole, Mayor Strong spoke fairly for the metropolis and its people when, in the spirit of the letter to the Newport Jews from George Washington, of which a part is here given in @i[fac-simile], and which was the most prized exhibit at the fair, he congratulated them upon their notable achievements and praised their public spirit. The facts bear him out, I think.

I spoke of the orthodoxy of the slum. In more than a physical, sanitary respect is it the salvation of the East Side. Jewish liberalism takes a different course in New York on the Avenue and in the tenement. With still its strong backing of the old faith morality, it runs uptown to philanthropy, to humanitarianism. The work of Dr. Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Society, whose congregation is very largely Jewish, is an outgrowth of Judaism. "Religion and humanity" is the watchword of the advanced Jew, sufficiently indicating his spirit. In the slum the loosening of the old ties lets in unbelief with the surrounding gloom and leads directly to immorality and crime. The danger besets especially the young. Whether it be the tenement that corrupts, the new freedom, or the contrast between the Talmud schools, to which the children are sent when young, and the public school, the fact appears to be that crime is cropping out to a dangerous degree among the Jewish children on the East Side. The school explanation was suggested to me by the fact that the Talmud schools, which are usually in dark and repulsive tenement rooms, become identified in the child's mind from babyhood with his faith. By contrast the public school appears so much more bright and beautiful. The child would be more than human did he fail to make a note of it. And these children are very human.

Whatever the explanation the danger is there, but their wise men are preparing to meet it upon its own ground. The Hebrew Free School Association gathers into its classes in the Hebrew Institute these children by thousands every day, while under the same roof the managers of the Baron de Hirsch Fund are giving their teachers instruction in English and fitting them for their task as religious instructors upon an American plan that shall by and by eliminate the slum tenement altogether.

The Jew in New York has his faults, no doubt, and sometimes he has to be considered in his historic aspect in order that the proper allowance may be made for him. It is a good deal better perspective, too, than the religious one to view him in, as a neighbor and a fellow citizen. I am a Christian and hold that in his belief the Jew is sadly in error. So that he may learn to respect mine, I insist on fair play for him all round. That he has received in New York, and no one has cause to regret it except those he left behind. I am very sure that our city has to-day no better and more loyal citizen than the Jew, be he poor or rich - and none she has less need to be ashamed of.

Given American history, nothing is more easily predictable than that the children of the wetbacks will campaign resolutely against the admission of refugees from China's collapse. They don't speak English, they're communists, they are poor and will be a burden on the taxpayer and are in all ways different from the hardworking Mexican immmigrants of yesteryear who wanted nothing more than to be Americans.

Posted by David Cohen at June 29, 2005 9:50 AM

David --

Come on brighten up. It's almost th 4th of July. I think it's a tribute to our country that first generation children of immigrants are assimilated Americans with full rights and priveleges to kvetch that newcomers will be a burden to taxpayers like them.

At this time of the year more than ever, I like to remember the words of Emma Lazarus, a New York Jew if I'm not mistaken, who knew what she was talking about.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me,
I lift, my lamp beside the golden door!"

I have tears in my eyes as I'm typing just thinking how lucky we all are to be living in the greatest country the world has ever known where the son of wetbacks is being considered for the highest court in the land and the granddaughter of a Negro sharecropper has a very good shot at being our next president.

So paste a smile on your face -- at least for the weekend.

Posted by: erp at June 29, 2005 5:02 PM

erp -- I'm the happiest person you know.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 29, 2005 7:43 PM


Thanks muchly.

Posted by: Peter B at June 29, 2005 8:24 PM

At the end of the naturalization process, the official swearing in new citizens says, "Repeat after me: The trouble with America is there are too may d@mn foreigners!"

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at June 29, 2005 11:54 PM