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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
Any passionate young Marxist in the neighborhoods would have vehemently denied that the Forward was truly a socialist paper, despite the fact that for years its front page bore the motto “The Emancipation of the Working Class Is the Task of the Workers Themselves.” “Socialism” on the Lower East Side might be declaimed in Marxist terms of class struggle, but to the majority of working people it was the expression of something more widely trusted—a “Jewish heart,” that traditional strain believed to compel Jews to kindliness, justice, and ethical, charitable lives.
Abraham Cahan, the editor who dominated the Forward for fifty years, thought himself the quintessential cerebral and cold-hearted Litvak intellectual. Beginning as a revolutionary, in time he put his journalistic and political bets on a reformism strongly tinged with the old communal ideal of the Jewish heart. The Forward was a passionate paper; turmoil, rent strikes, general strikes, processions, street-corner oratory, and brawls, for starters, were highlights of the public drama of the quarter, and that meant good copy.
Unlike other Yiddish journalists, Abraham Cahan did not intend his paper to impersonate fine German and be written in what was called reine or queenly Yiddish. Cahan made certain his readers got pleine Yiddish: his paper was to be for and of the “greeners” as well as the “allrightniks” who had settled and prospered. He took from Lincoln Steffens the notion that a daily paper should be a “living novel,” realistic in the Russian style: vivid, truthful—just like Gorky, Tolstoy, and other realists Cahan admired and emulated in the short stories and novels he wrote in English.
In 1906 one of Cahan’s editors told him that letters were pouring into the paper, many written by scribes for twentyfive or fifty cents a throw, pleading for advice on the most intimate and mundane matters of daily life in America. Caring nothing for the toplofty attitudes of the socialist intelligentsia, Cahan created the paper’s single most famous feature, the “Bintel Brief” (a bundle of letters). The “esteemed editor” answered many of the letters himself (and, his many detractors said, probably wrote some of the juicier ones in the first place).
Cahan would try to resolve disputes over de knippel—a nest egg that wives put aside in a knotted kerchief, saved from their house money and held for a rainy day. People got advice about abandonment by husbands, or wives. The paper printed descriptions and photos of absconded fathers, and when families were reunited, the tall front steps of the building would be used as a stage for the domestic drama; hundreds of spectators would laugh and cry at the real show. Cahan solaced those who could not bear being mocked for ways that had earned them veneration in the old country. Although he might call the violently antisocialist Tageblatt, his major Yiddish competitor, the “yarmulke paper,” Cahan was careful not to deride the deep religious feelings of his readers. He helped them deal with fear of the old-age home, with what to do with infernal in-laws, with how to handle impious children, and with, God forbid, what could be done when intermarriage threatened.
Many letters asked how to learn to speak English better. In 1917 one came in from a family that had done well and moved to the Bronx, regular “allrightniks,” only to suffer shame because their English was still halting.
An enduring theme was that children became “regular Yankees” very quickly and not only forgot how to speak Yiddish themselves but would reprove their parents for speaking it in front of strangers.
Cahan was no stylist, yet he encouraged many fine storytellers to contribute to the paper; Isaac Bashers Singer, the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1978, is the most famous.
Sammy Glick, the conniving upstart of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, grew up on nearby Rivington Street and ran as fast as he could toward the glow of the West. Now Hollywood seems to have fallen in love with the stretch of Essex Street between East Broadway and Grand. Essex is wide, and the row of old tenements is monumental. Tiers of fire escapes, street-level and basement shops, a clutter of signs in Yiddish—all are perfect to the eye of the location coordinator.
Fire escapes did not work. The older buildings had privies in their stunted back yards. These six-story “railroad flats"—all the rooms were lined up like boxcars—had been put up by speculative builders. Building paralleled the subcontracting system in the sweating trades. For instance, Trinity Parish owned land to the west that was built up with the same sort of tenement houses. The vestry subleased the houses to men whose only interest was raising their rent rolls to what the market would bear while keeping repairs down. It was a sure-fire formula for creating slums.