The Lower Lower East Side

By Elliot Jager
Friday, June 1, 2012

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.

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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