A Cultural Renaissance
Even as the new immigrants were struggling to survive in the Lower East Side, the Jewish neighborhoods of New York became the site of a momentous cultural rebirth. Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jewish people of Eastern Europe, had long been suppressed by the Russian imperial government, and was denigrated by more affluent and urbane German Jews. However, as hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speakers settled into the U.S. and realized the extent of their linguistic freedom, a new Yiddish culture came into bloom.
The turn of the 20th century saw an explosion of new artistic and literary ventures in Yiddish. The journalist Abraham Cahan, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1882, founded America’s first Yiddish daily newspaper, the Forverts, or Forward, in 1902. The Forward published news from Europe and reported on events around New York, but, like many of the new Yiddish papers, it specialized in advice for new immigrants, serving as a sort of guidebook to life in a strange new land. By the late 1920s, the Forward had a circulation of 20,000 copies per day, more than some English-language dailies, and is still published today, in both Yiddish and English.
Yiddish theater had long survived underground in Europe, but it burst into public view in the U.S. Theater companies sprang up around New York and Chicago and offered a broad selection of fare, from Yiddish adaptations of Shakespeare and Chekov to slapstick comedies and folktales to original new works from the modernist avant-garde. The audience for these plays was diverse and passionately devoted. In 1898 Harper’s magazine surveyed the Yiddish theater scene and reported that:
Night after night I have seen the two Yiddish theatres swarmed with men, women, and children largely from the sweat-shops. I referred the question to my friend the cashier. “That is how you all misrepresent us!” he exclaimed. “There are many poor Jewish families that spend sometimes three, four, five dollars a week here at this theatre.” A brief calculation will show that, compared with their earnings, this represents a patronage of art infinitely beyond that of the families uptown who parade their liberality in supporting the Metropolitan Opera House.
The surge in newspaper publishing led to a demand for fiction in Yiddish, and countless writers took up the challenge, turning out short stories and novels for serialization. Many of these journeymen, whose names are now lost to history, wrote for speed and published sensational tales of crime, intrigue, and illicit romance under a number of pseudonyms. The reporter for Harper’s noted that:
Of the most popular of the novelists, Schorner, it is related that in order to meet the demand he has to keep three or four tales under way at once; and to keep all his printers supplied, he goes almost daily from shop to shop, writing only long enough in each to meet the present demand for copy.
A circle of more serious authors also emerged. Their leaders, including, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mendele Mocher Sforim, blended tales from the shtetls with the concerns of urban immigrants and created a new, distinctively American Yiddish literature.
At the same time, a number of the new immigrant authors published their work in English. These writers, including Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, and Israel Zangwill, helped bring the Jewish immigrant experience to the attention of the non-Jewish public and paved the way for the wave of distinguished Jewish American artists and authors who would follow them.
As the great Jewish immigrant generation moved further into the 20th century, it also moved farther out into the United States and further into the national consciousness. By the late teens and 1920s, the new Jewish immigrants had moved into careers in established industries, taken a leading role in the labor movement, and even found themselves courted as an audience by publishers and advertisers. Some of the peddlers and fruit vendors of the turn of the century had become retail powerhouses and could be found behind the counters of grocery stores, fabric stores, print shops, religious stores, and fishmongers’ shops. Prominent service in World War I led to a higher national profile, and political representation came at the same time: In 1917 there were six Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Meyer London, who came up from the streets of the Lower East Side.
One new line of retail business that Eastern European Jewish immigrants invested in early was the operation of storefront movie theaters, or nickelodeons. A number of recent immigrants, including Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, and William Fox, soon became involved in movie production as well as distribution and went on to found several of the major Hollywood studios. Jewish immigrants also began to take prominent roles on the Broadway stage and in early movies, and performers who had started out working for immigrant audiences, like the singer Sophie Tucker and the comedian Fanny Brice, became hugely popular nationwide.
Anti-Jewish prejudice remained an obstacle, however, and took many forms, from the exclusionary policies that kept Jewish Americans out of Ivy League universities to the violent threats issued by the Ku Klux Klan. When the Red Scare arose in 1919, government officials focused a disproportionate amount of attention on Jewish radicals, and many were deported to the Soviet Union, including the fiery anarchist activist and publisher Emma Goldman.
Decades of Disaster
In the 1930s and the 1940s, the Jewish population of the U.S. was devastated by the catastrophe that overtook the Jewish communities of Europe—the rise of Nazi power and the nightmare of the Holocaust. As the danger became more and more apparent, and as European refugees fled for their lives, Jewish Americans appealed desperately for help from their government. Their appeals were not always successful; the U.S. refused to relax its immigration restrictions against Eastern Europeans and turned away several boatloads of Jewish refugees. On one refugee ship, the S.S. St. Louis, the desperate passengers launched a mutiny just off the coast of Florida in an attempt to reach American soil, but to no avail. Overall, more than 150,000 refugees did succeed in making their way to safety in America, and some 140,000 more followed after the war. But the Jewish civilization of Eastern Europe, a culture more than a thousand years old, was utterly destroyed, more than 6 million of its people murdered in the Nazi death camps.
During the Cold War years of the mid-20th century, when the remaining Jews of Eastern Europe were caught behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, Jewish Americans agitated for their freedom. Eventually, several thousand Soviet Jews were able to emigrate from the U.S.S.R. Jewish Americans also directed considerable political energies toward the new state of Israel. After it was founded in 1948, many Eastern European Jewish immigrants chose to make one more migration, and traveled from the New World to the land of Hebrew Bible.
An Era of Achievement
By the middle years of the 20 th century, the Jewish American community had fully come into its own. As many of the old anti-Semitic barriers fell away, Eastern European immigrants and their children took prominent places in American culture, across the full spectrum of achievement. The research of scientists such as Jonas Salk, Vladimir Zworykin, and J. Robert Oppenheimer dramatically reshaped the post-war world. The musicians Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein, along with the conductors Vladimir Horowitz and Leonard Bernstein, brought classical music to new audiences.
Radio and television were ruled by the comedians Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns, and Sid Caesar, while jazzmen Benny Goodman and Stan Getz packed the dance floors. The brothers George and Ira Gershwin were bestselling songwriters, and Henry and Joseph Mankiewicz Oscar-winning screenwriters. Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer had begun the literary work that would bring each of them a Nobel Prize, both mining the depths of the immigrant experience for new insights into what it meant to be an American in the 20th century.
But the comic-book rack might be the best indicator of the extent to which American life has been informed and enriched by the Jewish American experience. The most colorful and most powerful characters of the comics world--Superman, Batman, Captain America--figures that over the decades have come to embody the dreams and aspirations of American life, were all invented by Jewish teenagers--primarily the children of Eastern European immigrants.