- 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
Every Irish cop learned some Yiddish, and the traffic officers on East Broadway attached Jewish amulets to their whistle cords for luck.
Thousands of Gentiles lived among the Jewish immigrants in the area. Italians and Irish held down the beachheads on the East River, and Harry Golden, years later, said their military grip on the waterfront accounted for so few Jewish boys of his generation learning how to swim.
Religious harassment was commonplace and stung the Jews bitterly because they arrived believing America was free of the religious hatred and violent persecution they suffered in Eastern Europe. Stung or no, many observers commented on the brisk air of assurance that greenhorns picked up after no more than six months on American soil. Many Irish and Italians made accommodation with their new neighbors, and boys like Jimmy Cagney, who grew up at Eighth Street and Avenue D, became adept Yiddish conversationalists.
Every Irish cop, it seemed, learned some Yiddish, and the traffic officers on East Broadway attached Jewish amulets to their whistle cords for good luck.
Tammany Hall Americanized the newcomers to its ends. Clubhouse lawyers and pliant court clerks could ease an illiterate’s way past the obstacles to citizenship papers. And Tammany’s men did not shrink from voting the not-yet naturalized.
When John F. Ahearn, the powerful Tammany leader of the Fourth Assembly District, was a young politician, he was sent to Albany, but he improved himself by becoming the chief clerk at the Essex Market Police Court, where he could do much good for people who needed help with the police, mostly peddlers run in for selling without licenses or for violating the blue laws against commerce on Sundays. Ahearn paid their petty fines—in truth bribes to the cops—and made the peddlers happily dependent on his favor. Little wonder that many Jews modeled their speech, dress, and manner on the Irish, as Abraham Cahan’s character Yekl did in his love of boxing and admiration for John L. Sullivan.
Cahan hit the ceiling when he saw votes bought and sold like fish in front of the polls. That brazen cheapening of the Republic’s promise provoked this volatile and selfassured literary gent to tirade. But despite Cahan’s ruling that the local Democrats were not morally kosher, when the elder Ahearn died, Jews sat shiva (the traditional week of mourning). Peddlers overturned their carts, shops closed, and the tenement fire escapes bore black crepe; the “squire” had died.
Along East Broadway’s northern side is a park, named after William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State. An imposing Romanesque pile stands on the far corner of Jefferson Street. It is the Educational Alliance’s David Sarnoff building.
Uptown German Jews dubbed their Yiddish-speaking brethren, most Orthodox and many radical—what a combination—"barbarians” or “Asiatics.” Eastern European Jews were being stuffed into the old streets of the lower eastern end of the island more densely than in the slum quarters of Bombay. Assimilationist Reform Israelites were appalled. But their fear of losing a hard-won social acceptance combined with the ancient Jewish tradition of self-help and the biblical and talmudic injunctions to do charity (tsedakah , the word for charity in Hebrew, is barely distinguishable from the word for justice ). They determined to teach their backward, downtown co-religionists, to offer them recreational, cultural, and intellectual sustenance, and, most of all, to Americanize them. To those ends Schiffs, Lewisohns, Seligmans, and Morgenthaus undertook in 1889 to create an alliance of the Hebrew Free School Association, the Aguilar Free Library Society, and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and then to build the new Educational Alliance a proper home.
The building at Jefferson Street, designed by the distinguished Jewish architectural firm of Brunner & Tryon, was completed in 1891. An auditorium seating seven hundred, a gym, showers, roof gardens, and a library were quickly opened, along with classes in American history and civics for those who desperately wanted to become citizens.
Music and art, sports and dramatics, all were in the program; there was a children’s symphony, concerts, Shakespeare in English, hygiene, anything and everything was taught.