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The Lower Lower East Side

What most American Jews know about New York's Lower East Side comes from books like Irving Howe's World of our Fathers, perhaps memories of family shopping excursions to Orchard Street or tours of the Tenement Museum. But I was born and raised in the neighborhood at a time when there were still pushcarts along Avenue C, street corner vendors selling knishes or ice cream (depending on the season) and shuls on practically every block.

Relevant Links
Cult of Synthesis  Jack Wertheimer, Jewish Ideas Daily. For over a century, American Jews have asserted that America and the Jews are a perfect fit. Is it true?
Fading into History  Allen Salkin, Wired New York. The Jewish Lower East Side is turning into a museum piece. Walking-tour guides point to where things used to be, not where they are.
The Best Proletarian Novel Ever Written  D.G. Myers, Jewish Ideas Daily. Jews Without Money tells the story of an entire class, but it is not Marx’s proletarian class. The characters who populate Michael Gold’s Lower East Side are poor, but they are not defined by their poverty.
Bagels and Luxe  Stephanie Butnick, Tablet. Can the development of high-end condos lure Orthodox Jews back to the Lower East Side?

By the 1950s, just as the Lower East Side's Jewish heyday was behind it, a wave of post-World War II Holocaust refugees breathed new life into the area. The respite would be brief. Jews in the Alphabet City section (Avenues A, B, C, and D) would be forced out during the 1960s and 1970s by black and Puerto Rican violence, while Jews south of Delancey Street would be incrementally bought out by the Chinese before the dawn of the 21st century. Hard to believe that a hundred years earlier there had been half a million Jews living in the tenements from 14th Street down toward the southern tip of Manhattan. And that these denizens—immigrants and old-timers—were not alone. They shared the "Jewish Lower East Side" with other hyphenated Americans: Italian, Irish, German, and Chinese.

In An Immigrant Neighborhood Shirley J. Yee, a professor of Gender Studies at the University of Washington, focuses on the Chinese who settled on the LES before 1930 in what would become Chinatown. Once the reader gets beyond Yee's unselfconscious political correctness—talk of "normative white heterosexuality," "systems of power relations" and "patriarchal and heternormative assumptions"—there is what to be mined. Yee's basic discovery is that the various ethnic groups interacted "unglamorously" more than is generally appreciated. Chinese businesses employed non-Chinese workers and served a mixed clientele. Irish funeral parlors served the Chinese until the community was sufficiently established to provide for itself. Similarly, the Visiting Nurse Service co-founded by the German Jewish Lillian Wald ministered to the Chinese. Jewish physicians (there were 1,000 by 1907 despite medical school quotas) such as Abraham Jacobi attended Chinese patients. Jewish plumbers unclogged Chinese drains.  Her research even turned up the existence of "interracial households."

Yee devotes a chapter to the Oldest Profession which was thriving in the neighborhood viewing anti-vice organizations as trying to impose "middle-class values on poor and immigrant people." In any event, the Chinese did not have it easy, trapped by policies intended to segregate the newcomers and facing hostility and prejudice from the authorities and from their neighbors—particularly the Irish.

Most Jewish historians note that the Educational Alliance on East Broadway was established by uptown German Jews to acculturate the East European Lower East Side Jews.  Yee's somewhat censorious take is that the Edgies' ultimate purpose was to provide a venue for Jews to meet and marry other Jews. A good thing too because, as she remarks, settlement houses founded by Christian groups sought to proselytize Jews. Orthodox rabbis opposed Jewish settlement houses fearing the immigrants would become too assimilated into the American mainstream; while some uptown Jews worried that outright opposition to the Christian settlement houses would stoke anti-Semitism, according to Yee.

Gil Ribak in Gentile New York sets out to capture how Lower East Side Jews, between 1881 and 1920, perceived their non-Jewish neighbors. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona, Ribak has discovered that Lower East Side Jews were not innately liberal. Many arrived prejudiced and stayed that way. Dislocated, poor, and struggling Jews did not straightaway identify with people more marginalized than themselves.  They stereotyped goyim—particularly the Irish—as Jew-haters, coarse and dangerous. On the other hand, they idealized blueblood Americans, Yankees they called them, as culturally and socially refined and embodying cherished middle-class values. By the end of the First World War some of these very Yankees persecuted the Jews for their socialist and Communist sympathies (real and imagined) as manifested by their celebration of the Russian tsar's downfall.

Ribak provides a history of New York Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to contextualize the images Jewish immigrants held of non-Jews.  "The first real-life encounter with Americans was unquestionably a harrowing experience for many an immigrant. It typically occurred at the port of entry, which in New York was at Castle Garden, at the southern tip of Manhattan, until 1892, and after that at Ellis Island."

While dreadful reports from the Old World served as a stark reminder of what they had escaped, daily life drove home that anti-Semitism was endemic even on the Lower East Side.  German union bosses blocked Jews from jobs, Italian ruffians broke labor strikes, but the Irish were by far the worst. In 1902, as the funeral procession of Grand Rabbi Jacob Joseph made its way along Grand Street past their factory building Irish workers "rained down iron bolts, screws, oil-soaked rags . . . rinds, and sheets of water" on the mourners.  When the police arrived they clubbed the Jews who had entered the building in pursuit of the hooligans leaving more than 200 people in need of medical attention.

One Yiddish paper lamented: "Chinese carry their deceased through the streets of New York and no one assaults them. We are treated worse than the Chinese."  Despite the haughty  inference of those sentiments, Jews found common cause with Asians in opposing immigration restrictions. They saw the Chinese as hardworking and mostly law-abiding like themselves. The Irish, however, were another matter; they were referred to as "vile savages" or simply "Christians" in the Yiddish press. Incessant street violence hardened Jewish prejudices against them and the Germans. Irish louts could get away with a lot because their co-religionists dominated New York's corrupt police force. Even when the attacks were not physical they left their sting as when shouts of "Kill the Jews" rang in the ears of spectators at a 1915 basketball game between the YMCA and the YMHA. Is it any surprise then that immigrant Jews had a low opinion of their Irish neighbors?

Despite this harsh reality, by the 1920s a Yiddish journalist cracked wise that "nowadays a Jew could live in New York City for many years 'without coming across a Christian.'" What he really meant was that as the years passed the Jews encountered a better class of non-Jews—"real" Yankees as opposed to the volatile Irish immigrant goyim who had earlier shared the neighborhood with them.   

As for African-Americans, contacts with them were sporadic and attitudes ambivalent.  Speaking among themselves in the Yiddish press Jews consistently opposed discrimination against blacks. Yet as Ribak says, "identification coexisted with distance." Jewish property owners worried that the arrival of blacks would lower real estate values.  Just like other whites, Jews sought out black domestic workers at so-called slave markets in the Bronx, "sometimes offering them very low wages."  For their part, black demagogues in Harlem such as "Sufi Abdul Hamid," active in the 1930s, virulently scapegoated Jews urging boycott and jihad. "Antipathy and attraction frequently coexisted," Ribak concludes. Mutual distrust competed with instinctive Jewish sympathy.

Gentile New York concludes with the thesis that immigrant Jews did eventually embrace universalism, liberalism, and sometimes Marxism. But in elevating the defense of others over parochial self-interest they were essentially trading assimilation for acceptance.

So what remains today of a definable Jewish Lower East Side? Only an enclave of lower middle-class, largely Orthodox, comparatively elderly Jews residing in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Traces of the Irish have disappeared. Little Italy has become a restaurant district. Only Chinatown, throbbing and vibrant, has expanded to encompass much of the neighborhood. Gentrification has cleared the slums around Alphabet City, including St. Mark's Place where I first lived, and public housing projects abutting the East River erected in the 1960s remain the preserve of the working poor. Back in 1907 when the Jewish Lower East Side was at its zenith, Oscar Solomon Straus, America's first Jewish cabinet secretary, astutely wrote in the American Spirit that "an unprejudiced study of immigration justifies me in saying that the evils are temporary and local, while the benefits are permanent and national." So it was.

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Martin on June 1, 2012 at 9:37 am (Reply)
Just one small point; Edward O'donell pointed out in his article "Hibernians Vs. Hebrews" that the factory workers who attacked the funeral procession of R. Jacob Joseph ztz"l were in fact German and not Irish. However, due to the decimation of the German community on the Lower East Side in the wake of the General Slocum disaster, the Germans had long since been absent from the neighborhood when memoirs of the event began to published. The "Irish", who still abounded, were blamed because no one even remembered that the LES had contained a large German community ("Kleine Deutschland").
Goffman on June 1, 2012 at 9:42 am (Reply)
Was the Irish animus toward the Jews because of their heritage of Catholic anti-Semitism? Or was their animosity toward Italians (also Catholics) just as vicious? That issue needs to be addressed.
Mildred on June 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm (Reply)
The Italians were mostly from southern Italy and Sicily-very tough, somehow all associated with the Casa Nostra (whether true or not) and rumored to always carry a knife (true or not). Italians and Irish did not attend the same Catholic churches. There was the Italian church,the Polish church, the Irish church. During the Union movement Italians were hired by the union leaders to protect the workers against the Pinkerton boys who were bashing strikers.The Jews were considered meek, easy prey. Natural targets.
Nachum on June 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm (Reply)
Martin, in around 1930 Reader's Digest connected the funeral with the General Slocum.
Manny jakel on June 3, 2012 at 11:23 am (Reply)
I know my problem. Which is that i could never get past the political correctness of anyone, including YEE.
And by the way, Elliot, could you tell me what is gender studies?
fANCY SHMANCY way of saying absolutely nothing.
Your writing is always of the highest calibre and accurate.
Nancy kramer on June 4, 2012 at 9:36 am (Reply)
I cannot attest to the historical accuracy of Mr. Jager's piece but i can certainly take issue with his current assessment. I lived on the Lower East Side from 1977 through December of 2011. For for the last eight years my husband and i published a very local monthly magazine, The Grand Street News, and became intimately more familiar with our neighborhood than mere residents. The neighborhood is not just a few orthodox Jews in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge but a vibrant and very mixed neighborhood of Jews of all persuasions and many other ethnic groups living quite nicely side hy side. There is much complaint of major gentrification in the LES as in many other parts of urban America and that is true. But with time there comes change and the change currently underway in the Lower East Side is quite exciting, very diverse and this changing neighborhood is still home to many and varied groups of Jews. it is true that the neighborhod still has only Orthodox synagogues however that does not mean that all of the Jewish residents are of the LES are orthodox. Take it from someone who knows.....they are not.
Mike on June 5, 2012 at 11:30 am (Reply)
I agree with Nancy. The neighborhood still has a strong and vibrant orthodox community as well a strong non orthodox community. It is a wonderful place to live and Nancy we miss the Grand Street News. Hope you guys are doing well.
Proud Orthodox LES resident on June 5, 2012 at 11:04 pm (Reply)
Elliot, you’ve been away from NY and the LES for too many years and your assessment of today's Jewish Lower East Side is incorrect. There is a resurgence of new young Orthodox singles, couples and families who love living on the LES. Our local yeshivas are filled, our kosher eateries are thriving, and the neighborhood though more diverse, is a wonderful community for Jews as well as others.

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