- Historic Sites
Welcome To America
A walk through the old Jewish Lower East Side of New York City recalls the era when that battered, close-packed quarter was a high-pressure machine for the manufacture of Americans
April 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 2
Walking Manhattan’s Lower East Side is like browsing through a family album of American Jewry. Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and, in the last forty years, increasingly large numbers of Spanish-speaking and Asian immigrants have shared this four-milesquare enclave, but it is not ethnic effrontery to call the old city quarter the Jewish Lower East Side; none of the other sometime residents have laid such a heavy sentimental the claim to the ground as have American Jews. These blocks are as seedy and down-at-the-heels today as they were a hundred years ago, and the members of the immigrant generations who lived in them would be surprised by the wreath of glowing nostalgia their descendants have placed here.
When the haggard and forlorn hordes of steerage passengers arrived in the 1880s, they were pushed through the circular enclosure at Castle Garden, the old fort in Battery Park where visitors now buy their tickets to visit the Statue of Liberty and the Museum of Immigration at Ellis Island. Castle Garden was a byword for a corrupt bedlam. So scandalous did the goings on there become that the federal government took New York State out of the immigration picture and shifted operations to Ellis Island, which opened in 1892.
Twelve million immigrants were “processed” at Ellis, and for 80 percent, the stay on the island lasted no more than three to five hours. But in 1907, when 1,285,349 people came into the United States during the biggest year of the tide—1,004,756 of them through Ellis, four times the facility’s planned capacity—the wait on the floor, in cattlepen lines without food or water, could seem endless. You wondered where you were and, worse, who you were. A story told by immigrants conceals in humor a harsh truth: A Jew is asked his name. Befuddled, he answers, “ Sheyn fergessen ” (roughly “I just plain forgot”). In a twinkling a man with payiss (traditional long sidelocks) and a beard is transmuted into Shawn Ferguson.
Though no more than 2 percent of the newcomers were deported by reason of disease, criminal records, or dubious politics, families could face the awful choice of going back as a group or separating and sacrificing one of their close ones. Such dilemmas we can imagine caused many of the three thousand suicides on the island.
The last barrier to acceptance was the “legal” man, who would speak to each immigrant for a minute or so, more usually thirty seconds, after waits of up to four or five hours. If the immigrants applying for admission survived his quick, tough questions, they were on their way into America.
And then? Most were ferried to the tip of the central island of the tallest, most densely populated, fastest-moving city on earth to be plunked down along with their worldly possessions in Battery Park. What next?
A lucky few were met by family and friends. Hundreds of thousands, on their own, were simply told to head up Broadway, veer right at Park Row, and to keep walking until they saw a lot of Jewish people.
Abraham Cahan’s novelistic hero David Levinsky, whose rise began at Castle Garden, trudged through a new landscape: the financial district, past City Hall, and to a cataract known as the Bowery, the famously rowdy boulevard that divided the Jewish quarter to the east from Chinatown.
Trains on the Third Avenue elevated lines roared overhead, whiskey bars lined the sidewalks, huge theaters playing German and Yiddish shows and burlesque punctuated the run of flophouses, pawnshops, and clothing merchants. Sailors, tramps, tarts, and legions of street kids, layabouts, and roughs thronged the old street, many of them given to a gleeful ferocity that included the habit of pulling pious elders’ beards and pelting bewigged Orthodox ladies with anything that came to hand. The newcomers could not get around the Bowery; the only way into the ghetto was to bravely pass over.
Our walk, which might well have been the route taken by a Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, or Romanian Jewish family, begins just a few blocks east of the Bowery at Canal and Eldridge streets.
At first glance the intersection looks like part of Chinatown. But a turn south from Canal into Eldridge, a narrow segment of an old street framed by the span of the Manhattan Bridge, reveals the grandest landmark of the Jewish days on the Lower East Side.
Appropriately enough, it is a synagogue, the first built by Eastern European Jews. Despite its home on this cramped tenement block, it remains quite a sight, for in its day it was the biggest synagogue on the Lower East Side, with a membership of eight hundred families and a reputation for going first class.