- 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
Many people resented the uptown do-gooders who came to work with the downtrodden. They felt both patronized and endangered. But in the end what condescension existed was tempered by those who were perhaps the Educational Alliance’s most devoted users—the freethinkers, or “Epikorim” (Epicureans) as the pious called them. Outspoken, pugnacious, cocky as the self-instructed often turn out, they were the leaven of programs that might otherwise have succumbed to bluenose dowdiness and insipidity.
Unregenerate street kid though I remain, I always duck into the Educational Alliance’s ground-floor exhibit hall for a look at its distinguished list of “alumni” (local wise guys derisively called the good kids “Edgies"). The roster includes: David Sarnoff, Eddie Cantor, Chaim Gross, Simon J. Rifkind, Maurice Sterne, Max Weber, Sir Jacob Epstein, Sir Louis Stirling, Abe Walkowitz, and John Garfield. Others were: Leonard Baskin, Peter Blume, Irving Caesar, Jo Davidson, Philip Evergood, Adolph Gottlieb, Nat Holman, Louise Nevelson, Ben Shahn, and Murray Teichman, an awkward boy who learned to dance here and, as Arthur Murray, went on to teach a million others how.
The large number of artists who blossomed in the Alliance’s studios is particularly significant when we remember that the Bible forbids Jews “to make unto thee graven images or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above.” The pious took that to mean no drawing, painting, sculpting, or even acting. When a Walkowitz, a Blume, or a Soyer laid out three pennies each week for paper and charcoal and began to sketch, he was leaping into modernity. Such were the vistas opened to the children of the insular shtetl Jews of Eastern Europe, but their parents would berate “America gonif"—America the thief, the country that stole their children away from the old maxims.
The neoclassical building on the north side of East Broadway, directly across from the Educational Alliance, opened in 1910 and was the twenty-eighth of the public library branches built with a grant from the gospeler of wealth and demon philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
East Broadway was home to another public library branch, near Chatham Square, and dozens of night preparatory schools, to which thousands of young men went to cram for state regents’ exams and the entrance requirements for the City College of New York, which was at Lexington and Twenty-third Street until 1905, when it moved uptown. Recent City College graduates rented rooms in old tenement houses and outfitted them to teach all the academic subjects. So successful were they in preparing their diligent students that by the 1890s uptowners were complaining that the school’s initials stood for “Circumcised Citizens of New York.”
Once beguiled by secular books, a neighborhood youth might take the next step to the Astor Library on Lafayette Street, which drew studious young men up the Bowery about a mile north of the epicenter of the ghetto. Many a curious talmudist first dipped into forbidden learning there. Cooper Union’s reading rooms also attracted young men, as did the lecture series in its Great Hall and the People’s Institute, offering concerts, dramas, and debates.
To the older generation the shul was by far the central institution of their lives, but to their young, settlement houses, public libraries, parks, and, most of all, the public school, that free and secular American contrivance, became almost holy. Talmud and Yiddish were in a losing battle with the Constitution, Alexandre Dumas, and the sports pages of the American dailies.
To the older generation the shul was the central institution; for the young, public libraries, parks, and, most of all, public school took its place.
The shelves of the branch library, which now are filled with titles in Chinese and Spanish, give evidence of the changing tides of migration to the area; at one time they held the city’s largest collection of Yiddish books.
As a new world opened to the Lower East Siders, they hotly pursued an understanding of the puzzlements of Yankee ways as well as entertainment in general. Yiddish theater, papers, lectures, novels, poetry, songs, and oratory thrived here, where a great new free audience erupted to support a written culture such as had not been seen before. And for enlightenment as well as for diversion, these readers might have said with their fondness for picking up American slang, the Jewish Daily Forward was just the ticket.
The Forward ’s old home stands a few strides westward of the Alliance and the public library (it is best to view it from the Seward Park side of East Broadway), decorated in elaborate terra cotta that includes the socialist symbol of the raised torch. Chinese ideographs now cover plaques of Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, and Lassalle that were strung out just above the elaborate raised entrance.