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THE JEWISH UNIONS IN AMERICA
The Jewish Unions in America
Pages of History and Memories
by Bernard Weinstein, translated and annotated, with an introduction by Maurice Wolfthal
© 2018 Maurice Wolfthal
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0). This license allows you to share, copy, distribute and transmit the work; to adapt the work and to make commercial use of the work providing attribution is made to the author (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Attribution should include the following information:
Maurice Wolfthal, The Jewish Unions in America: Pages of History and Memories. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0118
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ISBN Paperback: 978-1-78374-353-7
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Cover image: Demonstration of Protest and Mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911. The U.S. National Archives. Public Domain, https://research.archives.gov/id/5730933. Cover design: Corin Throsby.
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The Jewish Unions in America: Pages of History and Memories
The First Jewish Immigrants in the United States
How the Jewish Immigrants of the 1880s Earned a Living
The First Jewish Workers in the American Trade Unions
The First “Radicals” Among the Jewish Immigrants of the 1880s and the Beginning of the Jewish Labor Movement in America
The Strange Case of Comrade Wolf
Hymie “the American”
The First Jewish Theater Choristers’ Union
The Jewish Actors’ Union
The Yiddish Varieties
The Jewish Typesetters’ Union
The Founding of the United Hebrew Trades of New York
How We Organized Strikes
The Panic of 1893 and the First Splits Within the Jewish Labor Movement
The Schism in the Socialist Labor Party
The First Years of the Jewish Labor Movement in Philadelphia
The Beginning of the Jewish Labor Movement in Chicago
The Unions of the Cap and Millinery Trade
The Millinery Trade and the Union
The History of the Tailors in the Men’s Clothing Industry
The Struggle of the Tailors’ Union Against the Plague of the “Open Shops”
The Custom Tailors’ Union
The Story of the Knee-Pants Makers’ Union
The Union of the Children’s Jacket Makers
The Union of the Basted Children’s Jacket Pressers
The Union of the Unbasted Children’s Jacket Makers
The Pants Makers’ Union of New York
The Vest Makers’ Union in New York
The Shirt Makers’ Union
The Great Garment Workers’ Strike of 1913 in New York
How the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Was Founded
The Women’s Garment Unions in America
The Jamaica Incident and Other Trials
The Cloak Makers’ Unions in Other Cities
The First Jewish Unions of Waist Makers, Wrapper Makers, Buttonhole Makers, Embroidery Workers, and Other Ladies’ Garment Workers
The Birth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
The Strike of 300 Skirt Makers Against the Firm of John Bonwit in 1905
The Industrial Workers of the World Also Founds a Cloak Makers’ Union
The Reefer Makers’ Strike of 1907
The Historic General Strike of the 18,000 Waist Makers in 1909
The Great Cloak Makers’ Strike of 1910 and the Founding of the Largest Jewish Union
The First Years After the Strike
The General Strike of the Cleveland Cloak Makers in 1911
The Triangle Fire
The Protocol of the New York Ladies’ Waist and Dress Makers’ Union of 1913
The General Strike of the Wrapper, Kimono, and Housedress Makers and the White Goods Workers of 1913
The Hourwich Affair and the First Civil War in the Cloak Makers’ Union
The Organizing Work of the ILGWU in Other Cities from 1915 to 1919
The Breaking of the Protocol and the Strikes of 1916, 1919, and 1921
The General Strike of the Dress Makers in 1923
The Ladies’ Tailors’ Union of New York
The Raincoat Workers’ Union
The Struggle with the Communists in the Joint Action Committee
The General Strike of 1926 and the Expulsion of the Communists
The Rebirth of the Cloak Makers’ Union
The Jewish Bakers’ Unions
The 1927 Bakers’ Strike Against Two Big Firms, Pechter and Messing
The Jewish Bakers’ Unions in Other Cities
The Furriers’ Union
The Founding of the International Fur Workers’ Union
The Union of Jewish Painters
The Pocketbook Makers’ Union
The Suitcase Workers’ Union
The Trunk Makers’ Union
The Neckwear Makers’ Union
The Union of Cleaners and Dyers
The Union of Mattress and Bed Spring Makers
The Seltzer Workers’ Union of New York
The Union of Clerks and Retail Dress-Goods Stores
The Union of Grocery Clerks
The Union of Jewish Waiters
The Union of Paper Box Makers
The Union of Jewish Barbers
The Union of Jewish Shoemakers
The Union of Jewish Tin Workers
The Union of Jewelry Workers
The Union of Butcher Workers
The Union of Jewish Newspaper Writers in New York
The Union of Jewish Bookbinders
The Jewish Laundry Workers (The Steam Laundry Workers’ Union)
The Union of Wet-Wash Laundry Drivers
The Pressers of Old Shirts in Hand Laundries
The Union of Jewish Inside Iron Workers
The Union of Jewish Furniture Drivers
The Union of Workers with Live and Kosher-Slaughter Fowl
The Little Unions
The Disappeared Unions
The New Generation of Jewish Workers in America
The Jewish Carpenters and Wood Workers
Jewish Moving Picture Operators
Jewish Bricklayers, Masons, and Plasterers
Jewish Metal Workers and Machinists
Jewish Workers in Radio and Aviation
Jewish Drivers of Cars and Taxis
American Federation of Labor
American Shoe Workers’ Union
Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union
Cigar Makers’ International Union of America
Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions
Hebrew-American Typographical Union
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
International Sheet Metal Workers
Industrial Workers of the World
Ladies’ Waist Makers’ Union
Neckwear Makers’ Union
Socialist Labor Party
Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance
United Garment Workers of America
United Hebrew Trades
United Leather Workers’ International Union
Women’s Trade Union League
© Maurice Wolfthal, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0118.01
Newly arrived in New York in 1882 at age sixteen from Odessa, where he had survived the 1881 pogrom, Bernard Weinstein was first exposed to the realities of American labor while quartered at Castle Garden with hundreds of other poor, homeless immigrants. An elegantly-dressed gentleman showed up one day and offered jobs to as many men as would come, and many of them eagerly signed up. To his dismay, Weinstein soon learned that they had been hired to break a strike by New York’s longshoremen.
Weinstein had already been exposed to democratic ideas and revolutionary ferment in Tsarist Russia before he traveled to America with a group from Am olam,1 which organized groups of Russian Jews to emigrate with the aim of founding Socialist agricultural communities. But he found work in a cigar factory on the Lower East Side and a place to live in the slums. Two of his fellow workers were Samuel Gompers, a Vice-President of the Cigar Makers’ International Union, and Abraham Cahan, an ardent member of the Socialist Labor Party.
Unionism, socialism, and anarchism were very much in the air, and there had been labor strikes across America. In the 1850s makers of cloaks and flannels struck in Amesbury and Salisbury, MA, as did machine shop workers in Lowell. Shoemakers went on strike in Lynn, MA, in 1860. In 1865 miners walked out at the Marquette Iron Range in Michigan. In the 1860s bricklayers and shipyard workers stopped work in New York City. When shoemakers in North Adams, MA, struck in 1870 they were all fired, and Chinese immigrants were brought in to work eleven hours a day for 90 cents. In the 1870s lumber mill workers struck in Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In 1875 coal strikes swept Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and armed troops were called to break the unions. Railroad workers across the nation struck in 1877 when their wages were cut, and armed militias were sent to break the strikes. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers fought a bitter strike against the Bessemer Steel Works in Pennsylvania in early 1882, a few months before Weinstein landed in New York.
The Knights of Labor, the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, and its successor, the American Federation of Labor, had all struggled to forge a variety of unions into larger, more effective organizations. The Socialist Labor Party had been founded five years before Weinstein’s arrival. Union workers among German immigrants in New York who had come in previous decades — many of them Socialists — had built the Vereinigte Deutsche Gewerkschaften.2 And the same year that Weinstein immigrated, fourteen unions founded the heavily Socialist Central Labor Union of New York.
Abraham Cahan, a Socialist from Lithuania, was a few years older than Weinstein, and he greatly influenced him. Both had immigrated the same year, both spoke Russian and Yiddish, and they shared a secular Jewish cultural outlook. They decided to use Yiddish rather than Russian to educate Jewish workers. In August that year Weinstein wrote handbills announcing a meeting about Socialism to be held in Yiddish, which exhorted workers, “Shvester un brider! Lomir zikh organiziren!”3 He distributed them all over the East Side; that slogan was to be his signature motto at innumerable labor meetings and demonstrations. When Cahan gave that first speech on Socialism in America in Yiddish, the audience was electrified.
Weinstein changed jobs several times and got married. But he never gave up the grinding, frustrating work of organizing unions and promoting Socialism. The obstacles were many. Most of the “green” immigrants on the East Side were unsophisticated and apolitical. They had to be convinced that unions could help them alleviate their poverty and misery. For almost fifty years Weinstein led countless strikes; walked the picket line; rallied strikers with his speeches; investigated sweatshops and factories; enlisted the aid of reformers; and repeatedly testified at government hearings on working conditions, including the New York State commission that followed the horrendous Triangle Fire.4
He spoke for the Socialist Labor Party and wrote pamphlets. He was a founder of the Russki rabotchi soyuz5 in 1884, its successors the Rusish-yidish arbeter ferayn6 in 1885 (and volunteered to be its librarian), and the Yidisher arbeter ferayn.7 He worked on the Ferayn’s campaign to elect Henry George mayor of New York. He organized the Yiddish-speaking Branch 8 of the Socialist Labor Party, and wrote for Di naye tsayt.8 In 1888 he ran for the New York State Assembly on the Socialist Labor Party slate.
Morris Hillquit immigrated from Riga in 1884 and soon joined the SLP. Weinstein and Hillquit shared a vision of uniting all the Jewish unions under a single umbrella. Inspired and supported by the United German Trades, they founded the Fereynigte yidishe geverkshaftn9 in 1888, starting with the Jewish Typographical Union, the Jewish Choristers’ Union, and the Jewish Actors’ Union. Weinstein devoted himself to the UHT, and was elected its first Secretary. Within four years almost fifty unions belonged to it. He was elected Secretary two more times, and by 1922 the UHT had organized 200,000 workers.
Weinstein was keenly aware that the newspapers — in both their reporting and editorials — overwhelmingly reflected the interests of their owners and advertisers, not of the working class. In 1890 he helped organize theArbeter tsaytung10 with the support of the UHT and the SLP. He sold the paper in the streets and peddled it house to house. He wrote for it and translated Russian articles into Yiddish. The paper was both a voice for Socialism and a showplace for Yiddish writers. Weinstein also wrote for Dos Abend-blat,11 an offshoot of the Arbeter tsaytung.
Eventually, bitter dissension within the Socialist Labor Party led Weinstein and others to switch to the Social Democracy of America, which had been started by Eugene V. Debs in 1897. Those dissidents founded the Yiddish-language Forverts.12 The masthead proclaimed its name in Yiddish and English, as well as that of its namesake in German — Forwärts, the newspaper of Germany’s Social-Democrats. Weinstein was a member of its first executive board, and a contributor from its earliest years. In addition to pieces on labor issues, he wrote about Jewish folksingers in Odessa; Yiddish plays produced in Odessa and New York; and the Yiddish actors, choristers, and variety theaters in New York.13
He also wrote for the Niu-yorker yidishe folkstsaytung,14 which was modeled on the United German Trades’ New Yorker Volkszeitung.15 Along with many other Social-Democrats, Weinstein joined the new Socialist Party in 1901. He ran as a Socialist for Alderman in 1903 and for the New York State Senate in 1910. He wrote for the Arbeter velt16 in 1904; for Tsayt-gayst17 — a weekly journal published by the Forverts — in 1907; and repeatedly for Veker,18 the publication of the Yidisher sotsyalistishe farband.19The New York Times reported that Weinstein distributed food to the families of striking garment workers in 1913. The Bakers’ Union donated bread, and Weinstein helped push the wagon through the streets.
When Karl Legien of the Social Democratic Party in Germany — and the head of the Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund20 — visited America in 1911 to lend moral support to labor unions, Weinstein was one of those chosen by the United Hebrew Trades to greet his ship in Hoboken. He did so, carrying the red flag of the UHT. But throughout his life, despite repeated provocations, Weinstein steadfastly refused to support those who would turn to violence to obtain results.
Instead, Weinstein supported efforts by the Jewish unions to provide the communal support that the immigrants had enjoyed in Europe, especially those who no longer looked to synagogues for it or were dissatisfied with their hometown societies, the landsmanshaftn. He supported the construction of decent, affordable, nonprofit housing cooperatives for workers, and he was a founder of the Arbeter ring,21 which organized a free-loan association, health and unemployment insurance, cemetery benefits, Yiddish theater, musical groups, choruses, classes in Yiddish culture, and summer camps for children. He lived his final years in the Bronx in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, whose construction he had championed.
Weinstein collaborated with Hertz Burgin in writing Di Geshikhte fun der arbeter bavegung in Amerike, Rusland, un England.22 In 1924 he published Fertsig yor in der yidisher arbeter bavegung,23 followed by Di yidishe yunyons in Amerike: bleter geshikhte un erinerungen.24 He collaborated with Naftali Gross and the illustrator Kozlowski for his final book, Bilder fun yidishn arbeter-lebn in Amerike,25 which was aimed at younger readers and written for the Arbeter ring Education Department.
Weinstein was fluent in English. But he chose to write The Jewish Unions in America and all his other books in Yiddish, which was still the vernacular language of most Jewish workers in New York, as well as that of about 11,000,000 people worldwide. Yiddish books, newspapers, scholarly journals, and political pamphlets proliferated in both Europe and America. There were Yiddish records, theaters, and radio shows, and there would soon be Yiddish talking pictures. As Weinstein’s subtitle indicates, The Jewish Unions in America is a mixture of history and memoir. He was not an historian, and he sometimes fails to cite his source when he quotes other people, history books, official reports, newspapers, and statistics. Furthermore he himself often cautions the reader that his memory is fallible. His book is the openly partisan work of a passionate idealist.
At the same time Weinstein does not gloss over the weaknesses of the labor movement: the workers who abandoned their unions as soon as they won a strike; the heated debates over when to continue a strike and when to accept a contract; the difficult decision of unions to join — or quit — the Knights of Labor or the American Federation of Labor; the damage done by competing unions within the same trade; the clashes over whether to support the mainstream political parties; the conflicts with anarchists; the corruption scandals; the schisms within the Socialist Labor Party, followed by mass defections to the Social Democracy of America; and the internecine feud by the Communists in the 1920s that nearly destroyed the Socialist Party and the labor movement.
But Weinstein emphasizes that underlying all these disappointments and setbacks was a free-market system that breeds exploitation and inequality and pits workers against workers, both here and across borders. By its nature capitalism drove owners to constantly recruit the poorest immigrants; to move their businesses to other cities, other states, other countries; to fire union workers; to brutalize strikers; and to wield political power to thwart minimum wage laws and safety regulations. In 1911 UHT workers helped organize the protest against the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that had caused the death of 146 garment workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women. In 2013 the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,129 garment workers, most of them women. The Jewish Unions in America is both a testament to the struggles of Jewish workers a hundred years ago and a reminder that working people are still struggling today to live decent lives.
‘B. Weinstein, Led Labor Movement’. The New York Times obituary, April 26, 1946, 21.
‘Distribute Relief to Needy Strikers. Line of Garment Workers in Want of Food Extends for Blocks in Division Street’. The New York Times, February 24, 1913, 7.
‘United Hebrew Trades Aids Miners’. The New York Times, July 12, 1922, 3.
Diner, Hasia R. Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
Dolber, Brian. Media and Culture in the US Jewish Labor Movement: Sweating for Democracy in the Interwar Era (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017).
Epstein, Melech. Jewish Labor in the USA: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement (New York: Ktav, 1969).
Foner, Philip Sheldon. History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1947–1981).
Frankel, Jonathan. Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews 1862–1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Goldberg, Gordon J. Meyer London: A Biography of the Socialist New York Congressman 1871–1926 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013).
Huyssen, David. Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2014).
Kagan, Berl, ed. Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur [Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature] (New York: CYCO, 1960), vol. 3, 389–93.
Katz, Daniel. All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
Kosak, Hadassa. Cultures of Opposition: Jewish Immigrant Workers, New York City 1881–1905 (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000).
Levin, Nora. While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements 1871–1917 (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1977).
Marrin, Albert. Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).
Mendelsohn, Ezra, ed. Essential Papers on Jews and the Left (New York: New York University Press, 1997).
Michels, Tony. A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Michels, Tony, ed. Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
Parmet, Robert D. The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
Rischin, Moses, ed. Grandma Never Lived in America: The New Journalism of Abraham Cahan (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1985).
Sher, Z. B. Weinstein, eyner fun di grinder un boyer fun der yidisher arbeter bavegung [B. Weinstein, One of the Founders and Builders of the Jewish Labor Movement]. Forverts obituary, April 26, 1946.
Shulman, Elias and Simon Weber, ed. Leksikon fun forverts shrayber zint 1897 [Biographical Dictionary of Forverts Writers Since 1897] (New York: Forward Association, 1987).
Soyer, Daniel. A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalism, and Reform in the New York Garment Industry (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
Soyer, Daniel. Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880–1939 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
Tcherikower, Elias. Trans. Aaron Antonovsky. The Early Jewish Labor Movement in the United States (New York: YIVO, 1961).
Zylbercwajg, Zalmen, with the assistance of Jacob Mestel, Leksikon fun yidishn teater [Dictionary of the Yiddish Theater] (New York: Ferlag Elisheva, 1931) vol. 1, 692–93.
1 Hebrew: The Eternal People.
2 German: United German Trades.
3 “Sisters and brothers! Let us organize!”.
4 The fire on March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant women.
5 Russian: Russian Workers’ Union.
6 Yiddish: Russian-Jewish Workers’ Association.
7 Yiddish: Jewish Workers’ Association.
8 Yiddish: The New Times.
9 Yiddish: United Hebrew Trades.
10 Yiddish: Worker’s Newspaper.
11 Yiddish: The Evening Page.
12 Yiddish: Forward.
13 Indeed Weinstein’s love of the theater prompted him to contribute an essay, ‘Di ershte yorn fun yidishn teater in Odes un in New York’ [The First Years of Yiddish Theater in Odessa and New York], in J. (Yankev) Shatzky, ed. Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame [Archive for the History of Yiddish Theater and Drama] (Vilna and New York: YIVO Esther-Rokhl Kaminsky Theater Museum, 1930), 243–54.
14 Yiddish: New York Yiddish People’s Newspaper.
15 German: New York People’s Newspaper.
16 Yiddish: Workers’ World.
17 Yiddish: Spirit of the Times.
18 Yiddish: Alarm.
19 Yiddish: Jewish Socialist Association.
20 German: German Trade Union.
21 Yiddish: Workmen’s Circle.
22 The History of the Labor Movement in America, Russia, and England (New York: Fareynigte yidishe geverkshaftn, 1915).
23 Forty Years in the Jewish Labor Movement (New York: Farlag Veker, 1924).
24 The Jewish Unions in America: Pages of History and Memories (New York: Fareynigte yidishe geverkshftn, 1929), https://ia600209.us.archive.org/6/items/nybc207405/ny bc207405.pdf
25 Sketches of Working-Class Jewish Life America (New York: Arbeter Ring, 1935).
© Maurice Wolfthal, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0118.02
Frontispiece of Bernard Weinstein’s Di yidishe yunyons in amerike: bleter geshikhte un erinerungen [The Jewish Unions in America: Pages of History and Memories] (New York: Fereynigte yidishe geverkshaftn, 1929). Public Domain, https://ia600209.us.archive.org/6/items/nybc207405/nybc207405.pdf
Jewish immigration to the United States is over 250 years old. The first Jewish immigrants arrived in the seventeenth century. That was on September 16, 1654. Ten years before the English captured Hendrick Hudson’s newly found territory, a great sailing ship — the Sainte Catherine — came to the shores of that Dutch colony, Nieuw-Amsterdam, which later became New York.
Among the passengers were twenty-seven Portuguese Jews who had been expelled from their native land by the Inquisition. Those unfortunate Jews had first fled to Brazil, which was then ruled by the Dutch. But a few years later Brazil fell to Portugal and for that reason the Jews living there had to escape anywhere they could. Some of them left for Holland on various ships. But twenty-seven of them who were aboard the Sainte Catherine with other passengers who landed in Nieuw-Amsterdam. New York was then a little town consisting of a few dozen houses, mostly wooden. There were only two big buildings at the time. In one of them they had stores belonging to the West India Company; the other was a hotel. A tall windmill stood nearby, and at the shoreline there was a fort over which flew the Dutch flag. The first twenty-seven immigrants were so poor that they could not pay for their voyage. When the captain reported to the officials that the Jewish immigrants had not paid for the trip, the officials decided that they would be allowed to disembark, except for two who would be held ransom until the others had paid off their fares. It was only a few months later, when the immigrants received money from Holland, that the two were released.
Nieuw-Amsterdam was then ruled by the Dutch corporation, the West India Company. Its directors lived in Holland, and they would appoint a governor for the town. When the first Jewish immigrants arrived, the Governor-General was Pieter Stuyvesant. The history of New York recounts that a year after the Jews came to Nieuw-Amsterdam, they asked the governor to grant them a parcel of land for a Jewish cemetery, to which he replied that they did not need one yet. Two years later, in 1656, when the first Jew died, the authorities granted them land for a cemetery, which still stands today on New Bowery Street near Oliver. That neighborhood is now a densely populated part of New York’s East Side.
The Jews first took up peddling, and their lives were dismal. When the English first took over Nieuw-Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York, the living conditions of the Jews hadn’t improved in the least. But in time they did get more rights under English rule. For example, the English permitted them to build a synagogue to pray in, which the Dutch had not let them do. In addition to peddling and commerce, some Jews took up other trades. Some bought pelts and furs from the Indians, worked them into usable clothing, and sold them to the residents of the city. Other immigrants later came to New York and other towns from Spain and Portugal, and later from Germany.
Until 1848 only a few Jewish families had settled in New York but in 1848 revolutions took place in Germany, Austria, and Hungary. When these revolutions were suppressed, many people from these countries fled to America. There were many Jews among these newcomers, and by 1848 there were about 50,000 in New York, from Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Only very few had come from Russian Poland or Lithuania, and there were not many Jews from Russia itself.
The history of New York relates that in 1845 German Jews founded the first Reform synagogue on the East Side in the Fritz Hotel at the corner of Eldridge and Broome Streets. Then they bought a church on Chrystie Street and renovated it into a Reform temple. The whole East Side was then inhabited by Germans (Christians and Jews) and Irish immigrants. It was only much later that Polish and Lithuanian Jews created their own neighborhoods. The first was on Bayard Street near Market Street, in the area of Chrystie Street on the East Side. Only a few hundred Russian-Polish and Lithuanian Jewish families lived there.
The first mass immigration to America took place in the 1880s, right after the pogroms in South Russia in Odessa, Elizabetgrad, Balta, Kiev, and other cities. The first group of these Russian Jews landed in New York right after Rosh Hashanah2 in 1881. According to the calculations of the American Jewish Yearbook, 5,692 Jewish immigrants arrived in New York during 1881. I came a little later, in June 1882, where I found a new Jewish neighborhood on the East Side that had recently been settled by Russian Jews. The area was bounded by Allen Street, Suffolk Street, Canal Street, and Grand Street. Most of those new immigrants lived among Polish and German Jews. East Broadway was largely Jewish at that time and many German Jews were based there, with some of the earliest Polish Jewish newcomers who had managed to “work themselves up”, so to speak, and live among the Germans. Most of these Polish Jews had come in the 1870s.
When I landed in America, most of the Jews in New York toiled at peddling. Just as now, there were then many kinds of peddlers: house-to-house peddlers, clothes peddlers, pushcart peddlers, country peddlers. Many of the newcomers from Russia immediately took up peddling. It was easy to go house to house, because you did not need lots of capital to do it. A Jew could go into business with just one dollar. He would nail together some thin wooden boards into a little platform, attach a strong cord, and then pull the cord around his neck. Some didn’t even have that. They would just buy a cheap basket, fill it with goods, and carry it from house to house. They generally sold pins, shoelaces, hair combs, garters, and aromatic soaps. That was the entire stock of the Jewish peddlers in those days.
The city government required peddlers to obtain a legal permit. But the police rarely enforced it. When a peddler had finally earned a few dollars, he would go to City Hall to obtain the license for a small fee. The green immigrants would learn everything they needed to know about peddling from the large businesses where they bought their goods, the “supply stores”. Almost all the “supply stores” were then located on Orchard Street. Most of the owners had been peddlers themselves, and they would boast how they had started out as poor peddlers and worked themselves up to be businessmen.
House peddlers would go from door to door, knock, and wait for someone to open. It often happened that an Irishman or a German would beat them up or throw them down the steps because they had dared to disturb him. To tell the truth, peddlers in those days were a real nuisance. They were constantly knocking at your door. That was why there were so many signs that are still visible today: “No Peddlers Allowed”. A peddler who managed to earn forty cents a day considered himself lucky. The more patient and skillful ones would eventually work themselves up to peddling cloth. They would sell cloth and other goods to customers on the installment plan.3
Most of the cloth peddlers whom I met when I first arrived were German Jews who were doing a good business. Later Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian Jews took it up, too. Many of the owners of the large stores on Broadway and Fifth Avenue are the children or grandchildren of those cloth peddlers who had come from Poland, Lithuania, or Russia.
The New York of today looks much different from when I first arrived. Today in the streets, and even from home, you can hear the roar and rattle of the subways, elevated trains, and automobiles. Back then the air was filled with the cries of thousands of peddlers. There were those who sold fish, others who sold fruit, fancy goods, or bread. There was not a single product that was not sold in the streets. The peddlers had their own particular way of announcing or singing out their wares, not individually but according to what they sold. Fish peddlers, for example, blew a horn: two long blasts followed by a very short one. Then they would call out, some with squeaky voices, others howling like a dog. The glassware peddlers did it differently. They were generally elderly Orthodox Jews, and they would chant their wares with the mournful melody of the Ya-aleh ve-yavo4 prayer. Those who sold tinware and copperware would call out very loudly and bang so hard on their pots and plates that the din could have woken up the dead.
The knife-sharpeners would ring a bell or two. In the wee hours of the morning the milkmen would sing out an eerie “Yike! Yike!” which served as an alarm-clock for those who had to go to work early. Many residents complained that they were being disturbed, and some complained to the police, but it was in vain. So people started moving away from the East Side to neighborhoods further away from downtown. But in time the peddlers followed them there, too. They were everywhere and they did well, because they did sell everything cheaper than the prices being charged in the stores.
Obviously not all the peddlers were Jewish. Many were Christians of various nationalities. But while many non-Jewish immigrants took up other trades, most of the Jewish newcomers took up peddling. The same pattern is true today in Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and other countries of South America where Jews have recently begun to settle.
Still, not all Jews took it up. Even before the mass immigration of 1881–1882, there were a number of skilled Jewish laborers and factory workers. And in the 1880s, too, there came a number of Jews who had already been skilled workers in the old country. Plus there were some bright young people, well-intentioned idealists, who had left the old country hoping to start communal agricultural colonies in America. But since those colonies did not succeed, most of them chose to work in the shops and factories. There was no great appetite among them to become a peddler in America.
Most of the Jewish newcomers had no relatives or townsmen here to stay with. When they disembarked, the vast majority did not have enough money to rent a room for the night. That was why the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of New York, an organization devoted to helping new Jewish immigrants, arranged to have them land at Castle Garden (which is where the Aquarium is located today).5 All the immigrants came through Castle Garden then, not through Ellis Island, as today. The Committee of rich local Jews used to distribute tickets to the immigrants a few times a day so that they could get free sandwiches of bread and sausage. The Committee office was right across from Castle Garden in a huge basement where they would distribute old clothes to the immigrants. The Committee also tried to find jobs for those who wished to work. Fortunate were those who had been skilled workers in the old country: tailors, carpenters, and other craftsmen would find work much faster. Almost every day owners of tailor shops would come to recruit them in Castle Garden, but most of the immigrants in those days had no skills. In addition, most of the factories were owned by Christians, where only English was spoken. Many of the immigrants, therefore, were totally dependent on the charity of those Committee members who owned factories and the owners and their friends would hire the immigrants in their shops and teach them their trade. One of those owners, for example, was a certain Mr Stachelberg, a cigar manufacturer, who employed 300–400 workers. Another Committee man, Mr Bloch, had a huge tin factory. He also used to recruit newcomers for work. There were by then already quite a number of Jewish manufacturers, and this number grew with time.
The immigrants of those years had one thing in common: they were all paupers. Even if any of them had saved some money when they left the old country, they spent it all on their voyage. Most of them had to spend months wandering through the towns of Galizien6 or Germany before they ever managed to get to America. As already mentioned, they had no kin or friends here, so they were compelled to stay in Castle Garden at the shoreline.
There was a large courtyard there, and the German Jews of the Committee convinced the Commissioner of Immigration to let the newcomers sleep in that courtyard and on the barges that were moored at the seaside. The German Jews on the Committee found an apartment for the immigrant women and children on an island near New York called Ward’s Island, where there now stands the largest insane asylum in the United States. There they were given food and drink. I remember that when I was just a newcomer, and I was sleeping in Castle Garden along with a huge number of other Jewish immigrants, one night a hard rain began to pour down. It was summertime, but still we were miserable, for we had nothing against the rain. We lay down; we sat up. But the rain kept pounding us and we couldn’t do anything about it. The older Jews bemoaned their fate and cursed those “good-hearted people” who had led us to America, the “Golden Land”.
A friend of mine and I were lying on filthy bags. Those were the bags that we had brought with us from the old country. Now they were black and soaking. My friend had come with his parents. The Committee had sent his mother and two little sisters to Ward’s Island, where they lived in a room. But my friend and his father “resided” in Castle Garden. I can still remember today how my friend’s father, a pious Jew, complained out loud: “How come in such a big city as New York where, they say, tens of thousands of Jews live — and there are some rich ones among them who came from Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Germany — there are no synagogues? But if there are indeed synagogues, then why don’t their congregations come and take us newcomers who are strangers in the land to their homes for at least one night?” The young men laughed at him.
“It’s all well and good for you”, he screamed, “you young and hardy boys. On a rainy night it’s easy for you to jump into some of the boats that are anchored nearby and get out of the rain. But what are old Jews like me supposed to do, who just can’t jump any more?” We laughed at him and his lament, but we felt bad deep in our hearts. The majority of people quarantined in Castle Garden were young men who had come from big cities like Odessa, Kiev, Elizabetgrad, Warsaw, Kovno, etc.
Near us lay an immigrant who had lived in New York for a time. He told us that he had lived on Hester Street but he was out of a job, so he had returned to the Committee to look for work, and that was why he was sleeping with us at Castle Garden. He informed us that the East Side had many synagogues and Reform temples for Spanish and German Jews and that our Orthodox Polish Jews had theirs, too. The Kalvarija townspeople had a large synagogue on Pike Street; the Great Synagogue was on Ludlow Street; and there was yet another one there, too. Plus there was a magid7 on the East Side who drew crowds of men and women every Saturday.
Forty-seven years have passed, but I still cannot forget that rainy night in Castle Garden. And I cannot forget the joy we felt when the officials there took pity on us in the middle of the night, and opened a large hall, and let us lie down there on the floor and go to sleep.
As I have said, Jewish manufacturers would come to the Committee office to recruit workers among the newcomers. Immigrants who were already living in New York learned of this, so they, too, would go there looking for work. As a result, that office turned into an employment bureau. In the summer, it was not only manufacturers who came, but also farmers looking for cheap “hands”. Quite a number of Jewish newcomers went off to be hired hands on the farms, but few of them stayed long. Most were not used to the heavy physical labor, so they could not do the difficult work that American farmers required of them. They would work until they had earned enough money to pay for a train ticket “back home”, to rent-free Castle Garden.
Many newcomers would work loading and unloading ships at the harbor, or the trains on the railroads, or in large factories. Very often the immigrants would be sent to worksites where the workers were on strike. In general the Jewish newcomers were at the mercy of fate when they started out. They were treated callously. They did not know the language and they were not accustomed to heavy manual labor. But they were hungry, so they were exploited in a variety of ways.
By the time I arrived, there were already a number of Jews who owned large factories. But there was a far greater number of contractors who would take the work from the factories and spread it out through the tenement houses where they lived. Most of the Jewish owners, both big and small, were Germans. Only a few were Polish. In all the shops, the newcomers worked from fifteen to eighteen hours a day, for a wage of three or four dollars per week.
I remember — it was the summer of 1882 — while I was staying at the Castle Garden “free hotel”, some of the rich manufacturers who were members of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society would come every day to hire workers for their factories or send them to contractors in the sweatshops of the East Side, to work on the machines producing shirts, pants, cheap dresses, vests, linens, and other clothes. That was how the masses of new immigrants became “Columbus’s workmen”. By the end of 1882 most of the newcomers who were “free boarders” in Castle Garden and Ward’s Island had gotten jobs and managed to move to the tenement houses of the East Side.
It is almost impossible to describe the troubles and suffering of the Jewish immigrants during their first years in America. Many had come with the illusion of scooping up gold by the shovelful. But it turned out, of course, that they all had to toil hard and bitter for a bit of bread. In that era Jewish immigrants would earn only a few dollars a week. They were paid by piece work, and the most that a newcomer could manage to produce would yield between two dollars fifty cents and three dollars per week, working between fifteen and eighteen hours a day. They worked mainly sewing shirts, children’s pants, cheap dresses. Some of them also worked in tin factories and cigar factories.
As I’ve said, few of the new immigrants had brought a skilled trade from home. So they worked at trades that were not difficult to learn. They all had to somehow earn enough to get through the day, so they just took the first job that they could get. In those years there weren’t yet many large workshops. Therefore most of them worked for small bosses, most of whom had been immigrants themselves and hadn’t become fully Americanized. Those small businessmen would take in work from the large factories by buying pre-cut clothing parts, and the new immigrants would stitch them together in the small workshops in the tenement houses. Those were the infamous “sweatshops” which were both an apartment and a workshop. The boss would live there with his family, so the front room and the kitchen were used as workshops while the whole family would sleep in another, dark room. Near the windows the operators would work on the sewing machines; the basters would sit on stools at the sides; and in the middle of the room there lay the big bundles of material, covered with dust and waste scraps. The finishers sat on those soft bundles, putting the final touches on the new clothes. The older workers would heat up the irons and, by the light of a gas lamp, would press the coats, dresses, pants, and other clothes on a special ironing-board.
Early in the morning the contractors would commonly oil the little tables where the finishers and the button-sewers worked, so that they couldn’t put their food on them. And the bosses would often make new rules every day. One boss suddenly announced that from then on the workers themselves would have to carry up the bundles of material that the horse “express wagons” had dropped off from the warehouse. One fine day another contractor announced that from then on he would pay the workers every two weeks rather than once a week as before. Every owner decided what to pay his workers depending on his whim. The sweatshop bosses were mostly coarse, uneducated men who were like leeches that sucked the blood of their immigrant brothers and sisters who had come looking for happiness in the Golden Land.
In those days among the Jewish immigrants there were a small number of bright young people who had taken part in the revolutionary movement in Russia. But the overwhelming majority of newcomers were the uninvolved masses, uninformed, and miserable. Life was hell for them. It is very difficult today to imagine how people lived in that era. I myself had a taste of that hopeless poverty and heartless exploitation that was the rule for those Jewish immigrants.
In the tenement house where I first lived I met a young man who was already dressing like an American. He had been here about six months, and he told me how he earned a living in New York. He worked in a tin factory on Hester Street. His salary was two dollars and fifty cents a week. He worked on a metal press that produced little tin plates. The work itself was not that difficult, but you had to be careful to not let your fingers get trapped in the machine. When I asked him how he managed to survive on two dollars and fifty cents a week, he answered that he paid seventy-five cents a week for lodging. He slept in the front room on a couch that he opened at night. The rent also included a glass of coffee in the morning. He bought a two-pound loaf of black bread for three cents, and that was breakfast. His lunch consisted of the bread and a banana, which he bought for two cents. For dinner the landlady gave him a couple of glasses of tea, for free. He bought stale bakery goods at the grocery for two cents. So that was his dinner. The landlady gave him cooked food Friday night and Saturday, for thirty cents a week. She also washed his clothes, which was also included in the rent.
His hat looked brand-new. It had cost him only fifty cents because it had no lining. He bought collars at eight cents a dozen. They were made of paper, and when they got dirty he would turn them over to the other side. His shoes had cost one dollar and twenty-five cents. He bought his used clothes on Baxter Street, which was where the second-hand market stood, and he had bought a used suit for two dollars and fifty cents. That was how most Jewish immigrants lived then. Today we can still see some of those old tenement houses on the East Side where the first immigrants had lived. In 1886, forty-three years ago, a New York State investigative commission had condemned them as mousetraps unfit for human habitation, because they were dangerous to the health of their residents and they had been constructed in such a way that sunshine did not penetrate into most of the rooms. The walls were damp and breeding places for various diseases. Nowadays such houses are rarely seen even in the poorest sections of the East Side, but back then, probably ninety percent of Jewish immigrants lived in such buildings.
The vast majority of those houses had no fire escapes. When there was a fire, the residents would lose all their things, and often their lives. I remember that a fire once broke out in the middle of the night in a house on Allen Street, and seven people were burned to death. It was only after that tragedy that they passed an ordinance requiring every tenement house to have a fire escape with ladders. And it was only years later, in 1901, that a law was issued forbidding the construction of more old-style tenements.
The apartments of the East Side resembled prison cells, lacking sun, air, or light. Most consisted of two or three rooms. The front room had two windows overlooking a tiny courtyard or a filthy, narrow alley. That room served as dining-room, living room, kitchen, and laundry. That was where the family spent most of the day, and it was where guests were received. There was usually a couch that could open up, which was where boarders commonly slept. The back room was the bedroom, and it was usually smaller and darker. As a rule only one bed could fit there. In general it had little windows with iron bars, overlooking a black airshaft along the staircase, where there stood a water pump and a wash-stand for all the tenants on that floor.
A few apartments had a third room between the front room and the bedroom. That room almost never had windows, so it had neither light nor air. It was called a kitchen, but there was almost always a sofa for sleeping in it. A candle would burn there all the time. (There was no electric lighting anywhere then. Gas lights did exist, but who could afford one then?!) Most apartments used kerosene lamps that gave off a black light. When the lady of the house cleaned out the bulb, she would suddenly see hordes of cockroaches crawling around, climbing into pots, pans, and everything else.
The plague was fostered by the damp and the overcrowding. The tenants suffered terribly from that pestilence in both summer and winter. Our only relief was to run outside to the dirty streets. That was why people always crowded the stoops (the steps leading up to the front door). People ran there to get away from the dark, suffocating homes to get a bit of fresh air. The life of the workers in the sweatshops was hard, but the ladies of the house had it worse, and homemaking was dangerous. In the winter they had to cook in the ovens, which were fired by coal. In the summer the heat in the little rooms was unbearable. So they often cooked on little tin kerosene ovens which often tipped over and the kerosene would pour out, starting a blaze in the apartment. Many women died in those fires.
At night, when you thought you could finally get some rest after a hard day at work, it was often impossible to fall asleep. The buildings were infested with bedbugs that swarmed over the beds, the mattresses, the walls, and even the ceiling. Try as we might to clean out the beds and the closets with kerosene or benzene, we could never really eradicate those pests. That was why, especially in the summer, the streets of the East Side were still filled with people all night.
Many poor mothers would take their children out on the sidewalk, lay them down, and put them to sleep, while they sat on stools watching them. They themselves would fall asleep from exhaustion. On those hot nights the fathers would take the boys up to sleep on the roof of the tenement building, or they would lie down in the horse “express wagons”, which in those years were kept out on the street at night, rather than in stalls.
I would see such scenes almost every evening when I passed by a Jewish tenement building. People were sleeping everywhere in the streets. The toilets in the tenements were in a narrow courtyard. But buildings at street corners had no courtyard, so the toilets were down in the dark cellars. The tenants — both young and old — would have to run all the way down from the fourth or fifth floor. Then it was off to work twelve or fifteen hours a day, or more. Late at night you would see people carrying little containers in their hands. They were coming from the beer halls with a pint, which cost seven cents. A pint was good for five or six drinks, and the workers would refresh themselves with a cheap beer in the evenings.
The mothers often fed their children a kind of spread called “apple butter”, which was mashed from rotten apples ready to be thrown away. They would spread the apple butter on bread, and the children loved it. It had a sweet and wine-like taste. There was nothing more delicious! But that was why the pharmacy at Broome Street and Essex was always full of Jewish mothers with their little kids who had gotten sick from that vile food.
Mortality was high among the children on the East Side of New York. But grown-ups, too, who suffocated in the sweatshops and the tenements, would often die young from tuberculosis and other illnesses. According to the New York City Health Department’s statistics, one out of seventeen residents of the East Side was suffering from tuberculosis at the end of the 1880s. Jewish workers who came down with tuberculosis would go to Mount Sinai Hospital, which was then on 67th Street at Lexington Avenue. But it was difficult for the immigrants to go to a hospital, because they did not yet belong to workers’ associations or unions. So if they got sick they could only turn to the United Hebrew Charities, which we used to call the “Eighth Street Charity Institution”, but the immigrants found charity hard to come by from that “Charity Institution”.
Living conditions were dreadful for boys and girls, the children of those first Jewish immigrants. Instead of going to school, most of them filled up the sweatshops of the East Side. The finishers and button-sewers, most of them young girls, would sit on the filthy floors of the shops for twelve to fifteen hours a day. The only pleasure for those poor kids was to go for a walk on Saturdays. In those days most of the sweatshops did not operate on Saturday. So the girls would get dressed up in their nice clothes and take a walk on the best street in the East Side, Grand Street, which we used to call “the Jewish Fifth Avenue”. It was heartwarming to see those girls so nicely dressed. Their faces were pale and worn out from their long hours of work in the cramped, dirty shops.
No laws had yet been passed requiring children to attend school till the age of 16 or till they had completed a certain grade. Not only on the East Side, but everywhere, in the big factories too, you would find children ten or twelve years old at work. Most of them went to work to help their impoverished parents earn a living. It was extremely rare for workers then to be able to afford to eat in a restaurant. They had neither the money nor the time. They would eat right in the sweatshop, or in the evenings at home, or with the lady who was boarding them. Years later the New York Labor Department took an interest in these miserable young ladies in the sweatshops. It investigated their conditions and issued a report on their circumstances. Here are some of the Labor Department’s findings:
Gertie S. Fifteen years old. From Russia. Works as a dress finisher. Earns three dollars and fifty cents a week. Her mother, a widow, also works. Washes laundry and scrubs floors. Earns three dollars a week. Gertie’s brother, eight years old, goes to school.
Frieda F. Twenty-three. From Russia. Works as a baster. Earns seven dollars a week. Her father and sister are too sick to work. Her mother does laundry for others. Frieda is the main breadwinner for her family.
Becky T. Nineteen. From Russia. Only here a few months. She works making paper baskets and earns three dollars and twenty-five cents a week. Her parents are still in Russia. She has a younger brother here who earns six dollars a week. He had sent her money for the ship’s passage and he supported her until she was able to get work. The family with whom she boards has an apartment of three rooms. They are a father, a mother and four children. Becky sleeps on a couch in the “kitchen”.
Rosie E. Twenty-three. Has been here five years. She makes artificial flowers. Started out at three dollars a week, and has worked up to five dollars and fifty cents after five years. Can read and write Yiddish. A few times a year she sends her mother in Russia a five-dollar bill. Pays three dollars a month for boarding, and sleeps on a leather sofa in the front room. Spends five to ten cents per day for breakfast, which is a roll and a cup of coffee. She buys lunch from a peddler for fifteen cents, sometimes a bit of fish, sometimes a cutlet, with bread. She pays her landlady twenty cents for supper: soup, meat, and bread. She generally spends three dollars and seventy cents a week. But the girl was unemployed for fourteen weeks during the last slack season. And her wages went down to four dollars and twenty-five cents per week for the rest of the year.
Sarah J. Twenty-three. From Russia. Has been here nine years. Her parents are still in the old country. She has an aunt here and three unmarried sisters. Together with her older sister she brought over her two younger ones. She started working in New York aged fourteen in a shirt factory at one dollars and fifty cents a week. She changed over to making paper baskets at two dollars and fifty cents and worked herself up to four dollars. She later worked in candy, still at four dollars per week. She switched to making silk ribbons, at four dollars and fifty cents. Then she went back to paper baskets at five dollars, and after a few years worked up to nine dollars. The apartment where she boards has three rooms. Besides the landlady and her, two male boarders and two women live there. She pays three dollars a month rent.
The wages that families earned — both the main breadwinner and the children — were so paltry that they did not suffice to satisfy their hunger and pay the rent. They generally wore second-hand clothes that could be bought cheaply at the market. The wives, in addition to doing the cooking, the laundry and the rest of the housework, commonly took in work from those shops that would farm out jobs like embroidery, neckties, children’s clothes, artificial flowers, and feather work. Some of the factories would bring the work to the women by wagon or even through the mail, but generally the women would walk to the factories and carry the work back home. They often worked from early in the morning until late at night. Despite all this labor, most families did not manage to earn more than five or six dollars a week. The English-language newspapers often described how the workers lived on the East Side of rich New York.