The Lower East Side of New York City

On the Jewish Plymouth Rock of New York's Lower East Side, Jewish immigrants began their new lives.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People (Schocken Books).

In 1880, in a Jewish population of approximately 250,000, only one out of six American Jews was of' East European extraction; 40 years later, in a community which had reached four million, five out of six American Jews came from Eastern Europe. Indeed, at that time over a third of East European Jewry had left their countries of origin, and 90 percent of them emigrated to the United States. Such an enormous wave of immigration had a tremendous effect on the American Jewish community. 

CultureThe newcomers tended to cluster in the poorer districts of the metropolises. Most of them settled in the great commercial, industrial, and cultural centers of the northeast (New York in the first place, then Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore) and of the Midwest (particularly Chicago). Certain neighborhoods in these cities became almost exclusively Jewish, congested and bustling with a rich, typically Jewish way of life.

Through hard work and under extremely difficult conditions, these Jews established themselves in the garment industry, petty trade, cigar manufacture, construction, and food production. About 30 years after the beginning of the mass immigration, and not without bitter struggles, the Jewish trade union movement emerged as a formidable force, supported by over a quarter of a million workers. A flourishing Yiddish culture--poetry, prose, and drama--revolved mostly around the themes of the hardships of the Jewish worker's life, expressing the reality of daily existence within a community of immigrants.

Although the majority of the immigrants were Orthodox and attached to the congregational traditions of their forefathers, life in America transformed them. The number of those volunteering to organize corporative bodies of the congregation dwindled rapidly, and former Eastern European institutions were replaced by a host of other organizations, ideological societies, confraternities, trade unions, lay charitable institutions, cultural centers, clubs, and leisure enterprises.

Jewish Choices

Economic pressures, opportunities for social promotion, the cult of liberty and individualism--all these contributed to the disintegration of Orthodox Jewry. How, for example, could one join the American race for succe­ss while observing the Sabbath? Nevertheless, Reform Judaism, although it remained dominant, did not encompass the entire American community. Rivalry between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism was a major contribution to the emergence of a religious pluralism unique to American Jewry.

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Moses Rischin is Emeritus Professor of History, San Francisco State University, and the author of The Promised City: New York's Jews, 1870-1914.