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Historical Initiative

The Russian Jew in New York

More than two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1920, mostly to the United States and what is today the State of Israel. The Pale of Settlement took away many of the rights that the Jewish people of the late 17th century Russia were experiencing. At this time, the Jewish people were restricted to an area of what is current day Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine. Where Western Europe was experiencing emancipation at this time, in Russia the laws for the Jewish people were getting more strict.

The Russian Jew in New York*
by Milton Reizenstein, Ph. D.
Superintendent Hebrew Educational Society, Brooklyn

*From “The Immigrant Jew in America”– issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of “The Russian Jew in the United States.”

Russian Jews in America

There is no other city in the world that contains as many Jews as there are in New York. A conservative estimate, based upon the police census and the reports of the Board of Health, places the total Jewish population of Greater New York at about 600,000 persons, which is probably less than the actual number.

The Russian Jews (under which generic name all the immigrants from Russia, Roumania, Galicia, Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe since 1881, are classed) constitute by far the larger portion of this great aggregation of Israelites.

Within a few miles of New York, there are many thousands more of the chosen people, for there are large settlements of Russian Jews in Jersey City, Elizabeth, Bayonne, Newark, and a census of Jews in New Jersey would probably show a surprisingly large number in that state.

Aside from the Jews distributed more or less thickly all over the better residential sections of New York, there are several well defined districts whose population is practically wholly Jewish. The largest of these is situated on the lower east side of the Island and Borough of Manhattan, and is easily entitled to be called the Great Ghetto. The next largest is the settlement known as Brownsville, which lies in the eastern district of the Borough of Brooklyn. There is another extensive settlement of Jewish immigrants on the upper east side of the Borough of Manhattan in the vicinity of One Hundredth Street, and a fourth in the northern part of the Borough of Brooklyn, the centre of which is on Seigel, Moore, and Varet Streets. Each of the minor Ghettos has certain peculiarities due to its situation, but in any general study of conditions, the student need only turn to the Great Ghetto (of whose main fea­tures the smaller settlements are, after all, living miniatures in order to get the best possible view of the life of the Russian Jew in the American metropolis.

Russian Jews at Ellis IslandNo walls shut in this Ghetto, but once within the Jewish quarter, one is as conscious of having entered a distinct section of the city as one would be if the passage had been through massive portals, separating this portion of the lower East Side from the non-Jewish districts of New York.

If the entry into the Ghetto has been made from the Bowery by way of one of the streets that run eastwardly to the river–it may be Brooms, Delancey, Rivington, or Stanton,–the attention of the observant visitor is at once engaged. On both sides of the streets, tower the gloomy, dingy tenement houses, built on their long, narrow lots–the curse of New York. The peculiar system of cutting city lots into sections one hundred feet deep by twenty-five feet wide has almost compelled the erection of buildings which are bad from every sanitary point of view. It takes two or more lots to give space enough to erect a tenement house that will give necessary light and air to the residents.

As a happy offset to the miserable apologies for habitable dwellings are the handsome and spacious schoolhouses, many of them striking object lessons left by a reform city government–still insufficient for the needs of this over­crowded quarter, although they greet the eye every few blocks.

The main Ghetto of New York embraces the Seventh, Tenth and Thirteenth Wards, as well as the southern portions of sanitary districts A and B of the Seventeenth Ward, and of sanitary districts A and C of the Eleventh Ward. This area contains about 500 acres, the average density being approximately 500 to 600 persons to the acre.

This great Jewish city is bounded on the north by Houston Street (although there are now many Russian Jews living north of this point), on the west by the Bowery, and on the east and southeast–for the shape of the Ghetto is that of a square, with its southeastern corner cut off–by the East River. Adjoining the Jewish quarter on the north lies “Little Germany,” whither its present residents moved when driven out from Grand and Canal Streets by the advent of the Russian Jews, and whence they bid fair to be driven again owing to the encroachments of the steady streams of Hebrew immigrants, who are still coming in thousands from Russia and Roumania direct to New York.

Along the East River front there is still a fringe of Irish, Italian, and American-born residents, but otherwise the whole five hundred acres are practically solidly inhabited by Jews.1

East Broadway, which is the main business thoroughfare of the quarter, divides the Ghetto into two. The con­ditions prevailing in the more southerly portion are distinguishable from those of the more northerly half, not so much because they are better, but because those prevail­ing in the northern section are worse. Generally speaking, the economic status of those who live in the streets to the south of East Broadway is not so bad as that of the residents farther to the north, because merchants, manufacturers–some of them doing business on a fairly large scale–as well as their clerks and other employees, live in the southern section, while in the northern portion are the workshops and the badly built and worse kept tenements, where thousands upon thousands of workers in the under­paid needle industries are housed.

The streets in the southern portion are wider, too, than the thoroughfares further north, and there are more private houses to relieve the congestion which the tenement houses, front and rear, cause in the areas in which they are most thickly built. The tenements, too, are kept in better condition in the southern half.

Russian Jew in AmericaIt is in the narrow streets extending to the north from East Broadway, that the “sweater” works and exists. The tenement houses in this section are of two main types–the old fashioned front and rear tenement, and the modern “dumb-bell double-decker.” A prominent architect of New York has said that no misfortune that has ever come to the metropolis in the way of fire, flood, or pestilence, has been so disastrous as the way that the city has been cut up into long and narrow lots, twenty-five by one hundred feet, upon a single one of which it is not possible to build a good habitation for many families.

Owing to the physical limitations of the Island of Manhattan, the vastness of the population has caused the value of land to rise to enormous figures. Consequently, in order to pay the owner of property a fair return upon his investment, it has been found necessary to erect houses sheltering many families in almost all portions of the city. Even then the rents are very high. Measured by square feet of lot space there are few portions of the city where such a high rate of rent is paid as in the Great Ghetto. Take, for example, a dumb-bell double-decker of the most modern type. Such a house is built with six stories and a basement, making practically seven stories, for there are stores in the basement, the floor of which is only a few feet below the street level. There are four families to each floor, and two stores and living rooms for two families in the basement. The absurdly low rent of $10 per month for each apartment or store would bring $3,360 for the house for the year. This is, however, considerably less than the actual gross return from such houses, which is generally rather over ten per cent. than under ten per cent. of the cost. A lot 25 feet by 100 feet in the Jewish quarter would cost not less than $20,000, and a similar sum, at least, would be required to erect a dumb-bell double-decker of the regulation kind. Nevertheless, in spite of these high figures, the rents charged in some of these tenements are so exorbitant that in spite of losses from non-payment of rentals, a net return of ten per cent. or more is realized upon the sums invested. Many of the worst tenements are owned by Russian Jews themselves, who live within the confines of the Ghetto.

The mode whereby they acquire title to such valuable holdings is this : A house and lot may be worth $40,000. The “owner” can get a loan of at least $28,000 on such a piece of property at 4½ per cent, or even 4 per cent, and then he puts as large a second mortgage as possible upon the property, sometimes as much as $7,000, leaving the owner to invest only $5,000 of his own money. Of course, the risk is entirely his, for in case of disaster he would be first to suffer. To offset this disadvantage, he sees to it that he secures as much as possible from his tenants, giving them as little as possible in return. In many cases, the “owner” will net at least $1,000 on his house by dint of good management, or 20 per cent on his investment.

Remark has already been made regarding the crowded condition of streets and sidewalks in the Jewish quarter. This is the natural result of the dense population, for if the weather is at all warm, it is almost impossible for the residents to remain indoors, and there is no place to go but the street. Even in cold weather, the apartments are so small that the young people cannot receive their friends at home, and the streets, the cafes, the dance halls, or other places of amusement become the rallying point for social intercourse. Most of the streets of the quarter are paved with asphalt, which not only permits of frequent and easy cleaning, but also deadens the noises of traffic, of which more than enough, however, are left to disturb the slumbers of the Ghetto dwellers. The front steps are crowded during summer evenings, and also during the days when they happen to be on the shady side of the street, while during very hot weather in mid-summer, there are sleepers on the sidewalks, front steps, fire escapes, and roofs, as well as in the parks, on the docks and recreation piers, and in all other places where there is opportunity for a breath of air.

There are now a few open play spaces in the quarter that are a blessing to the children. In the summer time, some of the public schools throw open their yards as play grounds, and besides this, the city has opened a number of recreation piers along the water front, where sweltering humanity may breathe in the revivifying breezes that play over the East River upon the warmest days. Furthermore, the Educational Alliance has opened a roof garden for the people upon the top of the building, and there is also a garden on the roof of the Alfred Corning Clark Neighborhood House, and one on the top of the University Settlement. One would naturally draw the conclusion from the undesirable conditions that prevail here, owing to the overcrowding and defective way in which the houses are built, that the mortality would be very high. It is a remarkable fact that on the contrary, the death rate is low, as is shown in the discussion on Health and Sanitation in this volume.

This seems very favorable, but it takes no account of the great amount of sickness and the depressed or exhausted vitality of the residents, all of which are part of the tremendous arraignment against bad housing and urban overcrowding.

The best part of the social life of the Jewish quarter centres, as it should, in the home. The tenement house, with its cramped quarters, does the very best it can to destroy home life. But its best is not the worst possible. For in spite of such physical limitations as the double-­decker tenement house imposes, and others slightly worse, the clans–so many of them as can gather in the ten by twelve front room–always assemble to celebrate a bar mitzvah (when a Jewish boy is admitted to the faith at the age of thirteen years) or a brith milah (circumcision). The older people do pay visits to their brothers-in-law, or other relatives, from time to time. The members of the immediate family are close together (more or less neces­sarily) all the time they are at home.

But the young people! That is a wholly different story. The social life for them, alas! does not make the three-­room apartment the common centre. In the first place, it is not conducive to the observance of the convenances to have the children put to bed in the same room where Rebecca is entertaining Isaac. Yet the children must be bedded somewhere, and the other two rooms, one of which is the kitchen, are already pre-empted. Therefore, not only does Rebecca refrain from receiving Isaac in her home, but she is just as unable to entertain Esther or Sarah or Leah. Such space as exists, the children and the older members of the family occupy, and there is no place wherein the young maidens can whisper to each other their little secrets and hopes and plans, the discussion of which sweetens the hours after the toil of the day.

What is the consequence? There is the street. Crowded, too, but there is isolation in such a crowd, and the street becomes the common meeting place for man and maid. Needless to say, the ethics and etiquette of the streets are not elevating, and the degenerating effects are not hidden from. the eyes of the observant. Such young people soon become inoculated with the shallow cynicism of the ignorant. The Jewish faith, as they know it, with its ceremonies and restrictions, is to them ridiculous and contemptible. “Pleasure” and not “duty,” being their, watch-word, all that hampers freedom or self-indulgence is a kill-joy to be avoided. Therefore, the dance hall, the vaudeville theatre, the card game, the prize fight are places of frequent resort. The synagogue, the lecture hall, the concert room, the debating club, are not visited to any extent by this particular portion of Young Israel.

There is, on the other hand, a very appreciable number of fairly well educated young people, who have left the Jewish religion of their orthodox parents. There is a wide field for work among these young people. They need a leader possessing eloquence and personal magnetism and the power of teaching by example the value of a religious life as interpreted by the teachings of Judaism in its modern form.

1The Federation of Churches and Christian Workers of New York, in a report upon social conditions in the Fourteenth Assembly District, which includes the section of New York between Seventh and Fourteenth Street, east of Third Avenue (the northern extension of the Bowery) shows 17 per cent. of the families in this district are Jewish. The population of the section is about 50,000 persons, of whom 20,000, or 40 per cent, are Germans.

Courtesy of Steven

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