- 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
The western wall of Jarmulowsky’s building was for years a display of painted advertisements. Banquet halls and patent medicines predominated, but spinets were advertised as well. Girls from better-off families were expected as apprentice ladies to take piano lessons, so Papa would lay out for an upright. In the division of parental hopes and harassment, legions of ill-tempered boys drew bowstrings over innumerable violins, adding their screeches to those of the neighborhood’s thousands of dispossessed and unwanted cats, as their parents prayed that a little virtuoso in the family, like Milstein, Zimbalist, or Heifetz (Yehudi Menuhin was the midget maestro to the generation of the twenties), could be their ticket out of the ghetto, to wealth and the grand world uptown. Irving Berlin, lately Izzy Baline of Cherry Street, sometime busker and singing waiter on the Bowery, began to write tunes; one of his earliest hits, in 1908, “Yidl with Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime,” speaks volumes on the process called assimilation.
Place was as important to Jews as paese to Italians, county to the Irish, or province to the Chinese. People from the old place sought one another out, founded small shuln together, went to their landsleit cafés, and worked with and for their fellow townspeople in the sweatshops. Towns formed landsmanschaften—mutual-benefit societies—and financed them by renting theaters for fund-raisers, learning from the local pols, who extorted donations by selling tickets to their dances in the halls along the Bowery. Benefit was said to be among the first English words an immigrant learned, along with post no bills, all right, and get outta here.
The Independent Kletzker Brotherly Aid Association, an ornate building with entrances on Canal and Ludlow, was a typical landsmanschaft, though more prosperous than most. Chinese, Italian, and Hispanic families use the Canal Street entrance of the funeral home that now owns part of the building; artists and families live in the lofts and apartments above.
But you can see the legend of the old landsmanschaft in the cornice on the Ludlow Street side. Like the three thousand others that sprang up between 1880 and 1910, the Kletzker provided newcomers with meeting rooms, dowry funds, burial societies, medical insurance, loan funds, and, most important, the communal ties that helped ease people through the pangs of entering their American future, or, as they would have put it, of becoming “ungreened.”
Eastward, yet eastward, lie many shops specializing in Hebrew books, prayer shawls, and other religious paraphernalia and, in only apparent contrast, small electrical appliances that actually have their religious significance. Timing devices, for instance, are sold to permit observant Jews to have light and heat on the Sabbath without defiling themselves by using dials or light switches.
Canal runs into East Broadway, a Prospekt that reminded Russians of boulevards in the old country’s cities; it was the civic center of the Jewish community. Doctors and lawyers coveted office space on the grand street, and scholars clustered their yeshivas around this prestige spot in the ghetto. Yiddish-language newspapers and charitable institutions also settled along this artery of learning, which came to be known as the Athens of the Lower East Side.
Canal intersects Essex and Rutgers as well as East Broadway to form what was then called Rutgers Square but was later named after Nathan Straus, whose many philanthropies, based on the fortune he made from the success of his family’s Macy’s department store, notably included the provision of pasteurized milk, sold at a penny a glass on the roof of the Educational Alliance building nearby. Standing at Straus Square and turning back to the west, one can see where Division Street meets Canal. Division became the center of the so-called moths, the small-time garment-shop operators, themselves just recently arrived and exploited as hands in the shops of the “giants” of Broadway, the big German garment manufacturers. These shirt-sleeved mites would when the necessity arose hire shtarker (musclemen) to discourage union organization of their shops. Profit margins were so small, the hours worked so Iong, the risks so great that any amelioration of working conditions could plow the small contractor under. Small producers hired the Orthodox, often men from their hometowns in the old country, and their religious feelings and town loyalties were a greater obstacle to the labor organizers than truncheons and fists.