April 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 2
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
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.
In the early 1900s the Eldridge Street Synagogue hired an Odessa chazan (cantor) and a choir for the holiday season for a fee announced at five thousand dollars for his services and passage, a very expensive way to show up the other congregations, but what a ram’s-horn blast for the first synagogue built anywhere in the country by an Orthodox congregation.
After 1887 a newly arrived shtetl (smalltown) Jew would have been stunned at the sight of the grand Moorish-Romanesque-somewhat Gothic facade of K’hal Adath Jeshurun, otherwise known as the Eldridge Street Synagogue. So was I. Perhaps even more so was Dr. Gerard R. Wolfe, a leading scholar of the history of the area, when he ventured into its abandoned sanctuary in 1971. Wolfe pried open doors that had been shut for years and reported that what he found made his neck hair stand up: a seventy-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling, a majestic brass chandelier, an unbroken rose window, a splendid wooden ark and prayer lectern, and murals that make this one of the most imposing spaces anywhere in the city.
Thanks to Wolfe’s pioneering efforts, and to old congregants, a foundation or two, and the preservationist and architectural critic Roberta Brandes Gratz, the once-doomed synagogue is now on the National Register of Historic Places and undergoing renovation.
Back on Canal the walker finds another broad, heavily trafficked thoroughfare to cross. Now a wide boulevard, with a planted, bench-lined median, Alien Street was for years a narrow, dark corridor of tenements, filled with sweatshops and topped by the rails of the Second Avenue elevated. Jacob Riis described the half-mile from Division Street to Houston, as it could be seen from the windows of the el train, as one unbroken string of small, airless apartments dedicated to the production of pants, skirts, cloaks, shirts, and other garments, each with at least one sewing machine operator, a steam presser, basters, and finishers.
For many years Alien was also a center of the making and selling of brass and copperware, a trade that lent the street a strong touch of the exotic, even to the Eastern European Jews of the district, because the people in this business were Sephardic Jews from Armenia, Turkey, and other Levantine jurisdictions. Their basement workshops blazed and crackled with the flames and heat of their furnaces. Harry Roskolenko, who spent his boyhood on the Lower East Side, thought them Gentiles because they did not speak Yiddish, were swarthy, and dressed and behaved like the characters he read about in The Arabian Nights . They spoke Ladino, not Yiddish, and watched belly dancers, drank dark coffee, and smoked the hookah in basement cafés.
Allen Street shamed and frightened the newly arrived immigrants because it was also a red-light district. Many of the tenements were bordellos, where prostitutes courted customers with loud explicitness from stoops and windowsills. Worse, the schande (scandal) was that many of these women were Jewish, a terribly shocking fact to the pious, who revered their womenfolk for chastity before marriage and ritual restraint afterward.
Prostitutes had no want of customers. Not only were many of the men of the area without their families, but the district lay near the harbor and just a block from the lusty Bowery. The “social evil,” as reformers called it, was well settled downtown and well protected by politicians, police, and judges.
At the southwest corner of Canal and Orchard streets is the impressive formal entrance to the bank Sender Jarmulowsky founded in 1873 and housed in this neoclassical skyscraper he built around 1895. Jarmulowsky’s rise was one of those Horatio Alger stories that dazzled and emboldened the hardworking poor of the old neighborhood.
He began as a pushcart peddler, then moved up to selling goods to steady customers: a fine linen tablecloth for the Sabbath, silverware, perhaps silver candlesticks to replace those stolen at Ellis, furniture. Jarmulowsky extended credit and opened a “passage and exchange” office, where he bought steerage passages in bulk and offered his customers a chance to “pay out” the cost of bringing their relations from the other side “on time,” precisely the way they bought bedroom sets. He also exchanged hard-earned greenbacks for the red-backed Russian rubles the toilers of the ghetto remitted back home. Extending credit, operating in the foreign currency markets, branching out to taking deposits, buying mortgages—a banker.
Jarmulowsky’s bank, alas, failed in August 1914, when the neighborhood called up all its liquidity to send passage money to relations in the old country before the war trapped them for good.
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 Ions, 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.
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 selfhelp 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.
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.
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.
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.
The three- or four-room apartments were women’s province. Mamas prided themselves on being balabatisch —able to manage their households. Making do meant scrimping and schlepping. Careworn, fatigued from shopping, cooking, doing the laundry, tending the coal stove, carrying water from outlets on lower floors or in the back yard, looking after boarders, doing piecework at home, and worrying over the health, safety, and report cards of her children turned many a young woman quickly into a crone who took what solace she could from the old saying “God knew He could not be everywhere, so He invented mothers.”
No matter the heroic efforts of mothers, the airless, dark, and suffocating rooms were overrun with bedbugs and cockroaches. Old tin cans were cut down, filled partway with kerosene, and set under the legs of beds in hopes of warding off insects; the device was more successful making firetraps even more inflammable.
Privacy in the tenement rooms was as scarce as sunlight or fresh air. Each tenement was a human hive, often containing more than two hundred people, many of them boarders, some relations, many strangers, who slept on cots, tables, chairs, or the floor and took their meals with the family. Walls were thin and the air shaft carried all the sounds and smells of family life into every flat. Love, death, disaster, shame, exultation—all were shared with friends, family, and strangers.
The streetscape backgrounds of films like Crossing Delancey and Enemies, a Love Story have put Essex on celluloid, lively with pickleman, scribes, repairers of tefillin (phylacteries), and sellers of “Bar Mitzvah sets,” but they miss the tremendous bittersweet reality behind the facades.
Sholom Aleichem might have been thinking of Hester, Ludlow, Essex, Orchard, or Rivington streets when he wrote: “Squeezing is a Jewish custom. If no one squeezes us, we squeeze ourselves.”
Hester’s pushcarts, shops, and street stalls were called the chazzer mark (pig market), an irony, for the only thing the shouting, straining independent businessmen and -women in the street would not sell was a pork chop.
Fruits, not always fresh, vegetables with a vintage, fish—carp was cheapest and most popular—crockery, clothes, eyeglasses, stationery, suspenders, buttons, linoleum, underwear, ties—all were for sale. You could buy a chicken leg or just one wing; you could buy the yolk or the white of an egg. Haggling was a tradition, an art form, and, for both threadbare seller and poor housewife buyer, a life-and-death struggle. Harry Golden remembers his mother trudging an extra mile to the pushcarts under the Williamsburg Bridge, where she could buy butter that was a penny cheaper.
Gertel’s, on the north side of Hester just off Essex, is one of the older bakeries, like those Jacob Riis described, whose back-yard grates tramps would seek out for a warm place to sleep. On holidays and the Sabbath police ambulances rolled up and hauled away the frozen bodies of luckless Gentile wanderers from the Bowery who did not know that the ovens shut down on Friday and had paid with their lives for their ignorance of Jewish ways.
David Levinsky, Cahan’s representative immigrant, began his rise selling in the chazzer mark ; anything he could get his hands on—remnants of fabric, scissors, cheap underwear—he would muss up to look damaged and therefore more likely a bargain. In real life the young Jacob K. Javits sold dented teapots and kitchenware from a cart he partnered with his mother, and he later said that street selling cured him of any fear of public speaking.
Pushy and loud, a peddler hawking his notions could be a show in himself, and a comedy too. A man of piety and learning, used to chants of talmudic argument in the study houses of the other side, might be too proud to do more than peep out his spiel, and his plight was one of the sadder shades of the tragicomedy taking place on the old cobblestoned streets. The pushy and the pious coexisted for a moment, and the European indexes of dignity and worth sold off at high discounts in the exacting effort to survive. Schuster (shoemakers) and schneider (tailors) could make their way where chuchim (sages) faltered.
The streets were the stage sets on which the drama of Americanization, “ungreening,” could be seen in its various stages. Men who had just forsaken long black gabardines for American-cut suits and yarmulkes for derby hats strode Grand Street arm in arm with women who had just forsworn dark, long-sleeved dresses and wigs. Talmudic hairsplitters argued that the law spoke only against shaving with a blade; they bought rank-smelling kosher depilatories to do their unbearding. After sidelocks and beards, in a slow but sure erosion, many forsook the Sabbath, kosher observance, and, often enough, most of the Jewish daily observance. So had the old ways gone with the conceited uptown Reform German Jews, out the window.
In the evenings crowds swarmed on the streets for “some air"; Cahan said the phrase was spoken as if it had quotation marks around it. Couples would window-shop mostly, too poor for more than wistful looks at the finery in brightly lit showcases. But an ice-cream soda at one of the new parlors was within their means. On the bibulous Lower East Side, Jews fell in love with that wonder out of the miraculous nineteenth century, carbonated water, otherwise known as seltzer or the “workingman’s champagne.” In the one-third of a square mile near Grand Street around 1910, there were no fewer than seventy-three soda fountains, nine dancing academies and halls, and eight movie houses. Young women, making shirtwaist dresses uptown at firms like the Triangle Company, began to wear Gibsongirl outfits and to think like American girls. Shtetl -bred habits of long duration dissolved at the swish of style and the spritz of soda water.
Grand Street’s couples were walking their way into romantic marriages and out of the old habits of arrangements made between families with the services of shadchonim (matchmakers). Many Grand Street unions were quick and quiet affairs performed by so-called “rabbis for business only,” who set out shingles, asked no searching questions, and hitched the impatient.
For more than one hundred years Grand was traditionally given over to bridal wear. When the immigrant population was at its greatest and poorest, a bride’s dress might be rented for the wedding and returned after the weddingnight honeymoon the next morning as the newlywed girl made her way to work.
At Rivington Street a peek into Schapiro’s Winery, just this side of Norfolk Street, is proof that not all the business of the Lower East Side was housed on the streets. Schapiro’s, the only working winery in Manhattan, has been in business since 1899. A long look eastward to the corner of Suffolk Street will show you Aaron Streifs matzoh bakery.
Just to the west, between Ludlow and Orchard streets, tucked in the middle of a block clogged with small clothing stores, is First Roumanian-American, also known as Shaarai Shamoyim. Built as a Methodist church in 1888 and purchased by this congregation just four years later, it is the only Romanesque synagogue on the Lower East Side. Its huge sixteen-hundred-seat auditorium was for years filled to overflowing with crowds drawn by a chorus of great cantors: Kwartin, Oysher, Peerce, Koussevitsky, and, incontestably the greatest, Yossele Rosenblatt.
Rosenblatt sold as many Red Seal recordings as Caruso, who graciously conceded that Yossele’s voice came closer than any others to matching his own. Rosenblatt commanded four registers, from a deep baritone through the tenor range and up to a controlled falsetto that made the silver ornaments on the Torah scrolls jingle and dance.
The strength and beauty of the cantor’s voice imploring God’s justice, mercy, and forgiveness at Yom Kippur for a stiff-necked, hard-used, and often wayward people touched the hearts of the entire congregation. A great cantor was needed to sing the major holidays because he was able to pronounce each word clearly and by great study knew each word’s meaning, unlike daily prayer leaders, who knew what they knew by rote. The cantor was an advocate, his client Israel, his courtroom the bar of heaven.
Despite the depleted Jewish population of the area, making a minyan (the minimum of ten men required to read daily services) at First Roumanian is, surprisingly, no problem; many local businessmen who live elsewhere choose to pray in the morning and evening here, before they open and after they close their shops. Still, the auditorium is never filled; there are no big-name cantors and no choir.
Sundays are the best time to walk the streets of the Lower East Side, thronged then with shoppers, especially on Orchard Street, which, closed to automobile traffic from Delancey to Houston, is as dense with varied humanity as the old photographs. Shops spill out onto the sidewalk, and there are bargains upon bargains, but the old life-and-death haggling is for the most part no more.
But if much of the old uproar has subsided, the delicacies sold along East Houston Street seem to be the stuff of eternity. “Soul food” would not be an inaccurate description of the cheeses, cured fish, and knishes that are the stock-in-trade of the firms here. On Sundays lines of those purchasing the traditional makings of a Jewish brunch are as long as they would be for a hit show. Cars with out-of-state license plates double-park as their owners stock up on lox, smoked whitefish, pickled herring, and smoked sturgeon. Next door to Russ & Daughters, the shop with the widest, and cheapest, selection of fish delicacies, is Moishe’s Homemade Kosher Bakery, where the hungry can find the bagels, challahs, and black breads that fill out the traditional bill of fare.
Like Yonah Schimmel’s famous knishes bakery, a few blocks west, the stores are modest, and they can almost be heard to say that they are the real thing, the working landmarks of the Lower East Side’s heyday.
So, too, is Ratner’s Restaurant (see pages 68-69), still thriving over on Delancey Street, a narrow thoroughfare dramatically widened in 1900 when demolition began to prepare for the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge, which opened in 1903, became, in the words of the New York Herald , the “Jew’s Highway,” a thoroughfare allowing thousands to escape to northern Brooklyn and “better rooms,” the deceptively simple phrase that summed up so many local dreams.
After a nosh (snack), dedicated walkers should turn the corner west on Houston and Chrystie streets, where they will come upon Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. The product of a New Deal slum-clearance project, the park was created by razing “lung blocks,” back-toback tenements so called because of the “Jewish asthma"—tuberculosis—they cultivated.
Economic disaster after 1929 did not convert the majority of the working-class Jewish population to socialism. By 1936 New York’s Jews were enthralled by the New Deal, and the President’s mother was honored in the heart of the unavowed matriarchy of the ghetto’s remnant. Franklin Roosevelt became the Grand Rabbi the Lower East Side never had. So deeply did its citizens venerate him, it was said, that for Lower East Siders there were three worlds: “ Di velt yene velt , and Roose-velt ” meaning “This world, the other world, and FDR.” (Written out, it proves the old Yiddishists’ lament that the best of Yiddish humor is untranslatable.)
Turning north again, where Chrystie becomes Second Avenue, I usually walk up Second, following the route taken by theaters as more and more immigrants poured into lower Manhattan. I like to stop at the Second Avenue Deli on Tenth Street, whose proprietor, Abe Lebewohl, had the inspired idea to create a “Sidewalk of Stars” to honor the Yiddish theater of days gone by. Molly Picon, Menashe Skulnik, Aaron Lebedeff, Leo Fuchs, Miriam Kressyn, Maurice Schwartz, and Jacob P. Adler are among the names inscribed in the pavement fronting the well-known pastrami parlor. Most of these luminaries were unknown to the general public, but they were legends down here. However, one name, at least, earned general fame: Muni Weisenfreund, who as Paul Muni conquered Broadway and then Hollywood.
Moscowitz and Lupowitz, one of the cut-glass, chandeliered, and linen-tablecloth tonier restaurants, is long gone, as is the Café Monopole, where Sophie Tucker began her career literally singing for her supper, and—the worst loss of all—the Café Royale has vanished from Twelfth Street, where it was the Sardi’s of the profession, the Algonquin of the Yiddish literati.
The Central Plaza no longer welcomes the yearly balls of the old landsleit groups; it is part of New York University’s Tisch Center for the Arts. Marquees gone, boarded up, transmuted into stores and clubs, remnants of the Jewish Rialto nevertheless can still be found.
Yiddish, traditionally, was the spoken language of the immigrants; Hebrew was written and sacred. Once writers took to Yiddish and the stage, they had a rich tradition of dialogue to call on.
“Realists” despised the standard fare of “Bowery melodramas,” historical extravaganzas, operettas and formula romances. These were schmatte plays or schund (rags and junk) to the serious playwrights who eschewed music, operetta histories, and mere burlesque. The combative Jacob Gordin, the paladin of the realists was a Russian intellectual who came to writing Yiddish late and used his plays as a vehicle to propagandize for social justice and the emancipation of women. Gordin took to appropriating the plots of Shakespeare for his inspiration, and his Yiddish King Lear and Yiddish Queen Lear became great hits.
But the power of any playwright paled in the shadow of the mighty actor-managers, petty and not-so-petty tyrants in their principalities and duchies, attended by their courts of devoted patriotn (fans, or patriots), hangers-on, and lovesick followers. Their tempers, appetites, love affairs, wardrobes, and automobiles were the talk of the ghetto.
Playwrights had to bear actors ad-libbing and adding shtick (idiosyncratic stage business). But the actor-managers had to play to an audience that came for a show and not necessarily for literature. In 1928 Maurice Schwartz, the chuchim of the Yiddish Art Theatre at the southwest corner of Twelfth Street (now a seven-screen movie house), produced and starred in American Hasidism , which featured a rabbi delivering this line: “May God help you to knock him out in the first round.” An Orthodox rabbi no less. Another character announced: “ Er is nicht ein Yid; er ist ein crapshooter .”
Yiddish theater came out of Romanian wine cellars and the Jewish community of Odessa. Jacob P. Adler, who was not a good singer or graceful dancer, made his career in drama and induced the first serious realistic plays out of writers like Gordin. Outsize, oratorical, broad in his stage mannerisms, and equally gargantuan in his private appetites, Adler drew the largest crowds and sired Yiddish theater’s royal family—Stella, Jack, Luther, and Frances.
Boris Thomashevsky, another flamboyant star of the time, liked to appear bare-chested and wearing pastel tights that barely covered his roly-poly body, but his black curls and melodious, lisping voice drove girls in the galleries into hysterics. Thomashevsky demanded payment for each performance in gold and in advance, and he became the first to own a chauffeur-driven limousine.
When Thomashevskv out on his version of Hamlet , he played the prince as a yeshiva scholar and the king as the town rabbi. There is an ofttold story about the distinguished actor Louis Calhern returning from Hollywood and catching a cab at Grand Central. The cabbie recognizes him and asks, as a fan, what he is back in town to do. Calhern replies that he will be doing Lear. The cabbie asks: “Honestly, Mr. Calhern, do you think it will go in English?”
Something fantastic clings to the image of that theater: Adler playing Shylock in Yiddish, while the rest of the company spoke English; the great popularity of King Lear in Yiddish, a this-can’t-miss story of ungrateful children and the terrors of old age and loss of power. So affecting was Adler playing the old Jewish Lear that at many performances someone in the audience would rush to the stage, imploring the actor to forget his monstrous children and come home with him to a haven of tea, herring, and sympathy.
Most of the Yiddish plays needed the heart-rending singing of the Kaddish and/or a full-fledged wedding, often a real one with poor, undowered lovers thrust into the make-believe atmosphere of the stage while they were really getting hitched—all this to quiet tumultuous audiences. People came for four or five hours, and if what was happening onstage bored them, they would talk to neighbors, halloo to people across the stalls they had not seen in years, chastise babes in arms, yelp at hawkers of food and candy, and in general make what was called down here a hoo-ha. But that is the point: it was a folk theater in the common language of the people. And the themes engaged the hearts of the often tired and distracted audiences: young lovers overcame arranged marriages, the fanaticism of old fogies, the lust of powerful men with a yen for young virgins, and if the couple had sufficient pluck and a lot of luck, before the last curtain fell, they found an unknown uncle who endowed them with a huge stake to start a new life in America. Villains were almost always, Isaac Bashevis Singer recalled, “Russian oppressors and religious fanatics,” and the majority of audiences cheered and wept when the wig was thrown away and true love conquered.
Years later in many families, certainly in mine, a grandparent or an aunt might be asked what it was like in Poland or Russia. Usually they replied: “Forget about it. That was the old country.” However hard life might be in New York, it was for the better; after all, even the old-clothes man, whose cry “I cash clothes” sounded mournfully in the better parts of town, had put his boys through school into careers in law and medicine.
Some remembered that when the legal man at Ellis Island finished his hurried inquisition, he looked up, offered his hand, and said, “Welcome to America.” Immigrants have recounted this part of their saga with eloquent shrugs, implying, “Who could have predicted all that happened since?” After a night at the theater on Second Avenue, the newcomers returning on foot to their tenements, or taking subways and trolleys to Williamsburg, Harlem, or the Bronx, or the lucky few allrightniks in cabs or cars going uptown to Riverside Drive might have reminded themselves of the legal man’s greeting—the opening lines of one of the greatest dramas, comic, pathetic, and tragic by turns, in life as onstage, ever played out on this city’s streets. America had spoken the tremendous words “In the beginning.”