The Lower East Side
The capital of Jewish America at the turn of the 20th century was New York’s Lower East Side. This densely packed district of tenements, factories, and docklands had long been a starting point for recent immigrants, and hundreds of thousands of the new arrivals from Eastern Europe settled there on arrival. By this time, most American cities had sizable Jewish neighborhoods, most notably Chicago’s West Side. But for size, crowds, and overall energy, none could compete with the Lower East Side.
When a new Jewish immigrant first set foot on the Lower East Side, he or she stepped into a Jewish world. The earliest Eastern European Jews to settle there had quickly established synagogues, mutual-aid societies, libraries, and stores. Every major institution, from the bank to the grocery store to the social club to the neighborhood bookmaker, was Jewish-owned or Jewish-run, and everyone a Jewish immigrant might speak to in the course of daily business would likely be Jewish. Even the owners of the garment factories and department stores where many immigrants worked were Jewish. For a new Jewish immigrant in a strange country, this immersion in a familiar world, around people who shared a common language, faith, and background, could be profoundly reassuring.
For all the comfort that this shared heritage brought, however, the Lower East Side was still a very difficult place to live--and a crowded one. By the year 1900, the district was packed with more than 700 people per acre, making it the most crowded neighborhood on the planet. The reformer Jacob Riis described a visit to a typical tenement building occupied by Eastern European Jewish families:
I have found in three rooms father, mother, twelve children, and six boarders. They sleep on the half-made clothing for beds. I found that several people slept in a subcellar four feet by six, on a pile of clothing that was being made.
This congestion brought with it many hazards, along with many annoyances. Nearly half of the city’s deaths by fire took place in the Lower East Side. Disease was rampant, clean water was hard to come by, and privacy was unheard of. For many immigrant children, their education in American life was acquired in the city streets, where lovers strolled amid streams of raw sewage, vendors offered almost anything for sale, con artists and petty thieves worked the crowds, and horse carriages burdened with goods clogged the muddy roadways.
The Lower East Side could certainly be frightening, dangerous, noisy, and cramped. However, it was still a place of relative safety compared to the virulently anti-Semitic Russian Empire. And, however chaotic it might be, as some observers at the time noted, it was still the greatest concentration of Jewish life in nearly two thousand years.
Most of the new Jewish immigrants faced unique challenges in their search for work. In the Russian Empire, they had been barred by law from a wide range of jobs, including farming, and so brought a more limited set of skills with them than some immigrants did. At the same time, they had to overcome the prejudices of U.S. employers, where “gentlemen’s agreements” and open bigotry prevented them from entering the professions and many heavy industrial jobs.
As a result, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe often had to find employment outside of the more established trades, as well as creating opportunities for themselves between the cracks of the American economy. More than one-half of all Eastern European Jewish immigrants worked in manual occupations, predominantly in the garment industry. The Jewish neighborhoods of New York and Chicago were home to countless tiny, airless sweatshop factories, where women, teenagers, and children worked long hours cutting, sewing, and finishing clothing for pennies per piece. In 1892, a reporter for The Century visited some of the garment workers of New York:
[They] toil from six in the morning until eleven at night. Fifty cents is not an unusual compensation for these murderous hours. Trousers at 84 cents per dozen, 8 cents for a round coat, and 10 cents for a frock coat, are labor prices that explain the sudden affluence of heartless merchant manufacturers, and the biting poverty of miserable artisans.
Sweatshops were not only unpleasant and exploitative—they could also be lethal. In the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, nearly half of the 146 workers killed were Jewish teenage girls.
Another avenue of employment that was open to the new Jewish immigrants was the retail trade. At least one-third of this generation of immigrants worked in retail sales at some point, especially young women and girls. Peddling also appealed to a large number of Jewish immigrants, providing as it did a measure of independence and freedom from workplace discrimination. An estimated 10 percent of the retail workers in the great wave of Jewish immigration found work as peddlers at one time or another. Many of these went on to own their own shops, and a few even launched department stores.