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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
The Lower East Side was a vibrant community, hill of color and gusto, in which the Jewish immigrant felt marvelously at home, safe from the terrors of the alien city. But it was a setting too for fierce conflict and enervating strain. There were three major influences at work, each pulling in a separate direction: Jewish Orthodoxy, assimilationism, and the new socialist gospel. The immigrants were Orthodox, but their children tended to break away. Cheders (Hebrew schools) were everywhere, in basements and stores and tenements, and the old custom of giving a child a taste of honey when he was beginning to learn to read—as symbolic of the sweetness of study—persisted. But the young, eager to be accepted into American society, despised the old ways and their “greenhorn” teachers. Fathers began to view their sons as “freethinkers,” a term that was anathema to them. Observance of the Law declined, and the Saturday Sabbath was ignored by many Jews. A virulent antireligious tendency developed among many “enlightened” Jews, who would hold profane balls on the most sacred evening of the year—Yom Kippur—at which they would dance and eat nonkosher food. (Yom Kippur is a fast day.) And the trade-union movement also generated uneasiness among the pious elders of the Lower East Side. “Do you want us to bow down to your archaic God?” a radical newspaper asked. “Each era has its new Torah. Ours is one of freedom and justice.”
But for many immigrants the basic discontent was with their American experience itself. The golden province turned out to be a place of tenements and sweatshops. A familiar cry was “a klug af Columbus!” (“a curse on Columbus”) or, “Who ever asked him, Columbus, to discover America?” ElHs Island was called Trernindzl (Island of Tears), and Abraham Cahan, in his initial reaction to the horrors of immigration, thundered: “Be cursed, immigration! Cursed by those conditions which have brought you into being. How many souls have you broken, how many courageous and mighty souls have you shattered.” The fact remains that most Jewish immigrants, in the long run, made a happy adjustment to their new land.
After 1910, the Lower East Side went into a decline. Its strange glory was over. New areas of Jewish settlement opened up in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and in upper Manhattan. By the mid-twenties, less than ten per cent of New York’s Jews lived on the Lower East Side, although it still remained the heartland to which one returned to shop, to see Yiddish theatre, and to renew old ties. By 1924 Jewish immigration into the United States was severely reduced by new immigration laws, and the saga of mass immigration was done. But the intensities of the Jewish immigrant experience had already made an indelible mark on American culture and history that would endure for many years.