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The Jews of Brooklyn - Brooklyn's Ghetto

Brownsville, as well as other parts of Brooklyn, became more popular with the building of various bridges, e.g. the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Now both businesses and individuals could move out of the overcrowded conditions of the Lower East Side to more pleasant living conditions.

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Sunday, September 17, 1905.

For eleven months two young women settlement workers and college graduates have been living in the heart of the Brooklyn Ghetto. They have been received as residents of this interesting colony of strange people with strange habits. These two observing students have become acquainted with the methods in the daily life of the Yiddish folk with whom they have cast their lot. The things they have seen and the reforms they have instituted are related in this article, written by one of them. As they will continue for some time to make their home in the district they have chosen as their field of labor, it will be apparent why their names must remain unpublished.

It was simply and solely the picturesqueness of the Brooklyn Ghetto that attracted two young college women to seek a home in its heart nearly two years ago. That the Jewish housewives of the neighborhood needed the example of a better domestic science was realized by the strangers at their first visit. That the mothers needed lessons in the way of brining up their children was also realized.

A Typical Dweller in the Ghetto.
A Typical Dweller in the Ghetto
An Everyday Street Scene
An Everyday Street Scene

That public-spirited residents were needed to spur on the city departments, responsible for a better care of the neighborhood, to a realization of that responsibility could be seen in a flash. That a small park and playgrounds, as well as public baths should be worked for by residents of the Ghetto was easy enough to realize. But because this sketch is to afford an opportunity for perfect honesty, it must be stated that it was the genuinely quaint and unusual qualities of the Ghetto that persuaded the students to leave their homes in a fashionable part of Brooklyn to make a home in Seigel Street, the Fifth Avenue of the neighborhood.

There is no millionaires’ row in this street, but there is to be found the most exclusive element of the Ghetto. The students at first regretted that their demand for a bathtub took them into this richer neighborhood. The search for a home having a bathroom began two years ago. At that time model tenements were beginning to appear.

 The airy, open courts had begun to replace the old air shafts. Each room was light and well ventilated but bathtubs were considered a superfluity. They were not arranged for in the plans for the new tenements that were already rented even while they existed only on paper. The students, thoroughly resolved to live in the Ghetto, became the champion of the bathroom idea. They visited the builders that had already broken ground for several new tenements. A laugh was the only answer given in the first pleading. Brooklyn’s Ghetto dwellers would not know what use to make of a bathtub. The idea, an entirely new one, was evidently a source of mirth to the builders and not to be taken at all seriously. The students were in earnest, however, and bent upon imparting this seriousness to the landlords. It required patience and hard work. Two houses were completed, each providing homes for fifteen families and without bathrooms. It looked discouraging but the students stuck to it. After ground had been broken for two more houses and the foundations all but completed, the students made their way beyond the builder to the owner himself.

It was a source of keen regret to the students that their demand for a bathtub led them into the very heart of the wealthiest portion of the neighborhood, but poverty begins before affluence ends in a Jewish quarter, and the new residents soon found to their delight that the home among the rich was the only way of making the acquaintance of the prosperous merchants, while the poor were more willing to be visited by dwellers in the envied sections than by their own next door neighbors.

With the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge came a new influx of Jews from Manhattan’s lower East Side. They came across the East River by thousands. Hundreds had long lived in America, while hundreds were new to this soil and were making their first home in the free country in Brooklyn. It took but a few months from the time of the opening of the new bridge to more than double the Jewish population of Williamsburg alone. The families coming from Manhattan were happy, for better houses at less money were to be had here and because of the new bridge the old occupations across the river could still be carried on. The Jews from abroad were far happier than it had ever entered their minds a human being could be. New life had been opened to them that they could not grasp in its entirety, so great was the joy that it held. In the height of this new delight came a crash. Landlords had waited until every nook and every corner of their property was crowded, then raised the rents. There was scarcely a family that had not been paying every cent possible for rent, but the order was relentless: “Pay the increase or move.”

Only one way of complying could be found. It was for two families to huddle in where before one had lived. Crowded living conditions had long been known in this quarter, but the date of the increased rent scale marked the birth of a system of huddling together far more suggestive of animal life than of anything human. There were many families that could afford the higher rents and are today the occupants of the new tenements. They, too, live in close quarters, but only where there is dire poverty is the the horrible animal-like huddling. The apartments in the model tenements consist of three and four rooms in addition to the bathrooms. Five rooms, the haushalterin (the housekeeper) will tell you, as she shows you into the largest and most expensive suite. Nor will she like it if you prefer to call it four rooms and an alcove.

Jews of Brooklyn - in the Ghetto

Market Day

On the same floor with the students lives an aged Hebrew and German teacher, whose old wife loves to patronize the students, whom she calls “Strange kindern,” and to whom she gives many a lecture in household economy, without charge and with the utmost good will thrown in. The fact that these lessons are free is greatly appreciated by the students because of an early experience that they had with the old woman. Soon after moving into the house one of students was struggling, in good German, to make a marketman understand her instructions about the delivery of her groceries. The struggle was being carried on at the dumbwaiter shaft in the hall. The old teacher came out in time to realize the difficulty. The student could speak only good German, while the tradesman could speak only Yiddish. Neither could grasp the language of the other to a sufficient extent to effect an understanding. The student was feeling the misery of failure when the old woman offered to act as interpreter. The proffered services were accepted gladly because of he opportunity which seemed o be opening of becoming better acquainted. For a month these attentions were continued, although in half that time the student had mastered enough Yiddish to speak to the grocer with comparative ease. At the end of the month a neatly folded bit of paper was handed to the student by the teacher. When opened it was found to be a bill for services as interpreter. The bill was made out for $5, but a note pinned to the corner explained that only one-half that amount was expected, as the bill was made out for the higher figure in case of its being seen by other people.

The students have now been living in the Ghetto eleven months. They have kept in constant touch with fifteen families during that time. Seven of these households have money enough to warrant good homes, and wholesome livings, while the remaining eight are typical of thousands of the poorer families. The well-to-do families are in the same house with the students. There are four children in the smallest family and eight in the largest. Invariably a relative finds his place around the family board and hearth in addition. Among the very poor, “the boarder method” is regarded as the sole way of paying the rent. But among the better-to-do, a social or a clannish feeling is at the bottom of the custom. That this custom should be broken is earnestly realized by the students, but just how it can be broken is the all-important problem to solve. That it is an unwise custom can be readily realized when one considers that seven, nine or even eleven persons of a family are living in three rooms. The admission of an outsider can only be allowed at the expense of privacy in sleeping and in living quarters. Definite good has been accomplished, however, by the students and in the most friendly and neighborly way. Their apartment door is frequently left wide open that their housekeeping methods may be observed. And they have been observed in a score or more ways. The observations are made most frequently by the children. they carry home to their parents the new ideas and it is to them that the credit for the actual changes that are made belongs. The housewives are slower for more reasons than that of greater age. One, however, grasped the laundry situation rather more quickly than would have been expected. The students had been in their new home but six weeks. Six different washings had been hung upon their clothesline. The interested neighbor across the court asked the washerwoman why she washed so often. The question was overheard by one of the students, who gladly explained why cleanliness was such a necessary trait in good living. The questioner’s mind was certainly good ground upon which to sow the seed. She confessed that her sheets and pillowcases were washed but two, three or four times a year, while her blankets were only washed “when they needed it.”

The Street Nursery.
Street Nursery

Yiddish speaking parents that have become acquainted with the students testify to their gratitude for the new home among them, because of the greater respect that they now receive from their children. The students took the trouble to learn Yiddish that they might speak with the parents to whom English was unknown.

Many of the children had come to despise the jargon in the public schools. Their parents could speak nothing else and were fast being ignored or despised by their offspring. When strangers would take the trouble to learn the language, a new value was attached to it by the youngsters, with a resulting happiness to all concerned.

Another good effect of the new home has been upon the youngest children’s digestive systems. The students, like a large percentage of unmarried women, have the strictest of ideas as to how children should be trained. Jewish mothers, like hundreds of Gentile mothers, frequently think that a small child opens its mouth only to have it filled with food. And such food! It makes no difference whether the child has teeth. It is given anything at hand, with the utmost disregard of the law of cause and effect. The students at once put up a big fight in behalf of good digestion for the tiny tots. All fifteen mothers–for each has a new baby–were labored with in one way or another until they were made more or less firm in the habit of feeding the baby every two or three hours only, according to the age of the tot. In many instances it required the spending of entire nights in some homes to see that the plan but just begun was carried out.

Fifteen families are indeed a small proportion of a population of 175,000 or 200,000. There are many friends of the students who feel that their life in the Ghetto is one of unjustifiable sacrifice. Others think that the work has been done for self-aggrandizement and often ask the students what they have to gain by their queer experiment. To the first set of questions the students reply that the work, though hard, has never been tedious, and the value of directing a human life into broader and better channels can be appreciated only by some one who has done it. To the second set of questioners the students are likely to reply, with a manner that is a bit patronizing, that they hope to gain experience. Both students have been settlement workers. Both feel that the very walls of a settlement house form a complete barrier between those that would help and those whom they would help, especially when they be Jews. Thus it is that the experiment has been made and thus it is that it has been proven the work has really been a leaven. It has been such a little leaven, but it has been in the very heart of the entire lump.

Courtesy of Steven

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