- Historic Sites
A Little Milk, A Little Honey
Jewish immigrants to America crowded into a tight ethnic huddle on New York’s Lower Rast Side. Yet for most of them it was still a land of promise
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
It started with a trickle and ended in a flood. The first to come were twenty-three Jews from Brazil who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654, in flight from a country no longer hospitable to them. They were, in origin, Spanish and Portuguese Jews (many with grandiloquent Iberian names) whose families had been wandering for a century and a half. New Amsterdam provided a chilly reception. Governor Peter Stuyvesant at first asked them to leave, but kinder hearts in the Dutch West India Company granted them the right to stay, “provided the poor among them … be supported by their own nation.” By the end of the century, there were perhaps one hundred Jews; by the middle of Hie eighteenth century, there were about three hundred in New York, and smaller communities in Newport, Philadelphia, and Charleston.
Because of their literacy, zeal, and overseas connections, colonial Jews prospered as merchants, though there were artisans and laborers among them. The Jewish community was tightly knit, but there was a serious shortage of trained religious functionaries. There wasn’t a single American rabbi, for example, until the nineteenth century. Jews were well regarded, particularly in New England. Puritan culture leaned heavily on the Old Testament, and Harvard students learned Hebrew: indeed, during the American Revolution, the suggestion was advanced that Hebrew replace English as the official language of the new country. The absence of an established national religion made it possible lor Judaism to be regarded as merely another religion in a pluralistic society. The early days of the new republic were thus a happy time for Jews. Prosperous and productive, they were admitted to American communal life with few restrictions. It is little wonder that a Jewish spokesman asked rhetorically in 1820: “On what spot in this habitable Globe does an Israelite enjoy more blessings, more privileges?”
The second wave of immigration during the nineteenth century is often described as German, but that is misleading. Actually, there were many East European Jews among the immigrants who came in the half century before 1870. However, the German influence was strong, and there was a powerlul undercurrent of Western enlightenment at work. These Jews came because economic depression and the Industrial Revolution had made their lot as artisans and small merchants intolerable, lor some there was also the threatening backwash of the failure of rhc Revolution of 1848. Moreover, in Germany at this time Jews were largely disfranchised and discriminated against. During this period, between 200,000 and 400,000 Jews emigrated to this country, and the Jewish population had risen Io about hall a million by 1870.
This was the colorful era ol the peddler and his pack. peddling was an easy way to get started—it required little capital—and it often rewarded enterprise and daring. Jewish peddlers fanned out through the young country into larmland and mining camp, frontier and Indian territory. The more successful peddlers ultimately settled in one place as storekeepers. (Some proud businesses—including that of Senator Goldwatcr’s family—made their start this way.) Feeling somewhat alienated from the older, settled Jews, who had a reputation lor declining piety, the new immigrants organized their own synagogues and community facilities, such as cemeteries and hospitals. In general, these immigrants were’ amiably received by native Americans, who, unsophisticated about dillcrences that were crucial to the immigrants themselves, regarded all Central Europeans as “Germans.
Essentially, the emigration route was the same between 1820 and 1870 as it would be in the post-1880 exodus. The travellers stayed in emigration inns while awaiting their ship, and since they had all their resources will) them, they were in danger of being robbed. The journey itself was hazardous and, in the days of the sailing vessels when a good wind was indispensable, almost interminable. Nor were the appointments very comfortable even for the relatively well to do. A German Jew who made the journey in 1856 reported that his cabin, little more than six feet by six leet. housed six passengers in triple-decker bunks. When a storm raged, the passengers had to retire to their cabins lest they be washed oil the deck by waxes. “Deprived of air.” he wrote, “it soon became unbearable in the cabins in which six sea-sick persons breathed. On this particular journey, sea water began to trickle into the cabins, and the planks had to be retarred.
Still, the emigration experience was a good deal easier than it would be later. For one thing, the immigrants were better educated and better acquainted with modern political and social attitudes than the oppressed and bewildered East European multitudes who came after 1880. Kewer in number, they were treated courteously by ships’ captains. (On a journey in 1839, described by David Mayer. the ship’s captain turned over his own cabin to the Jewish passengers for their prayers and regularly visited those |ews who were ill.) Moreover, there was still the bloom of adventure about the overseas voyage. Ships left Europe amid the booming of cannon, while on shore ladies enthusiastically waved their handkerchiefs. On the way over, there was a holiday atomsphere despite the hazards. and there was great jubilation when land was sighted.