- 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
There were, however, rude shocks when the voyagers arrived in this country. The anguish of Castle Garden and Ellis Island was well in the future when immigration first began to swell. Hut New York seemed inhospitable, its pate frantic, the outlook not entirely hopelul. Isaac M. Wise, a distinguished rabbi who made the journey in 1846, was appalled. “The whole city appeared to me like a large shop,” he wrote, “where everyone buys or sells, cheats or is cheated. I had never before seen a city so bare of all art and of every trace of good taste; likewise I had never witnessed anywhere such rushing, hurrying, chasing, running … Everything seemed so pitifully small and paltry; and I had had so exahed an idea of the land of freedom.” Moreover, he no sooner landed in New York than he was abused by a German drayman whose services he had declined. “Aha! thought I,” he later wrote, “you have left home and kindred in order to get away from the disgusting Judacophobia and here the first German greeting that sounds in your ears is hep! hep!” (The expletive was a Central European equivalent of “Kike.”) Another German Jew who worked as a clothing salesman was alfronted by the way customers were to be “lured” into buying (“I did not think this occupation corresponded in any way to my views of a merchant’s dignity”).
After 1880, Jewish immigration into the United States was in flood tide. And the source was principally East Europe, where by 1880 three-quarters of the world’s 7.7 million Jews were living. In all, over two million Jews came to these shores in little more than three decades—about one-third of Europe’s Jewry. Some of them came, as their predecessors had come, because of shrinking economic opportunities. In Russia and in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the growth of large-scale agriculture squeezed out Jewish middlemen as it destroyed the independent peasantry, while in the cities the development of manufacturing reduced the need for Jewish artisans. Vast numbers of Jews became petty tradesmen or even luftmenschen (men without visible means of support who drifted from one thing to another). In Galicia, around 1900, there was a Jewish trader for every ten peasants, and the average value of his stock came to only twenty dollars.
Savage discrimination and pogroms also incited Jews to emigrate. The Barefoot Brigades—bands of marauding Russian peasants—brought devastation and bloodshed to Jewish towns and cities. On a higher social level, there was the “cold pogrom,” a government policy calculated to destroy Jewish life. The official hope was that one third of Russia’s Jews would die out, one third would emigrate, and one third would be converted to the Orthodox Church. Crushing restrictions were imposed. Jews were required to live within the Pale of Settlement in western Russia, they could not Russify their names, and they were subjected to rigorous quotas for schooling and professional training. Nor could general studies be included in the curriculum of Jewish religious schools. It was a life of poverty and fear.
Nevertheless, the shtetl , the typical small Jewish town, was a triumph of endurance and spiritual integrity. It was a place where degradation and squalor could not wipe out dignity, where learning flourished in the face of hopelessness, and where a tough, sardonic humor provided catharsis for the tribulations of an existence that was barely endurable. The abrasions and humiliations of everyday life were healed by a rich heritage of custom and ceremony. And there was always Sabbath—“The Bride of the Sabbath,” as the Jews called the day of rest—to bring repose and exaltation to a life always sorely tried.
To be sure, even this world showed signs of disintegration. Secular learning, long resisted by East European Jews and officially denied to them, began to make inroads. Piety gave way to revolutionary fervor, and Jews began to play a heroic role in Czarist Russia’s bloody history of insurrection and suppression.
This was the bleak, airless milieu from which the emigrants came. A typical expression of the Jewish attitude towards emigration from Russia—both its hopefulness and the absence of remorse—was provided by Dr. George Price, who had come to this country in one of the waves of East European emigration: Should this Jewish emigrant regret his leave-taking of his native land which fails to appreciate him? No! A thousand times no! He must not regret fleeing the clutches of the blood-thirsty crocodile. Sympathy for this country? How ironical it sounds 1 Am I not despised? Am I not urged to leave? Do I not hear the word Zhid constantly? … Be thou cursed forever my wicked homeland, because you remind me of the Inquisition … May you rue the day when you exiled the people who worked for your welfare.