Forget your past, your customs, your ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might. No matter what happens to you, hold on. You will experience a bad time but sooner or later you will achieve your goal. A bit of advice for you: Do not take a moment’s rest. Run, do, work and keep your own good in mind. A final virtue is needed in America—called cheek…. Do not say, “I cannot; I do not know.”
—G. M. PRICE,
AN IMMIGRANT’S ADVICE
MANUAL TO NEW YORK, 1891
Every Friday night, Jacob Schiff gathered his extended family and friends around the table at 965 Fifth Avenue for his weekly Shabbat dinner. Before the meal began, he said grace, not in German or Hebrew, but in English: Our God and Father, Thou givest food to every living being, Thou hast not only given us life, Thou also givest our daily bread to sustain it. Continue to bless us with Thy mercy so that we may be able to share our own plenty with those less fortunate than ourselves. Blessed be Thy name forevermore. Amen.
While Jacob Schiff and his family dined in splendor on the Sabbath, hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered around rickety tables in two-room railroad flats on the Lower East Side. They lit the candles, blessed the bread, and did the best they could to keep their ancestral faith alive in difficult surroundings.
This slum—the most densely occupied in the world—was only five miles away from Jacob Schiff ’s Upper East Side townhouse, but it might as well have been on a different continent. But Schiff was a constant visitor. He spent time at the Henry Street Settlement House, conferring for hours with its director, Lillian Wald, who had forsaken a life of privilege to live among the immigrants as a nurse and educator. Although always immaculately dressed, Schiff refused to drive through the Lower East Side in a carriage. He preferred to walk through the muck of the streets, to be among his fellow Jews and to experience at least some of the life they lived. A leader, Schiff felt, showed no condescension toward those he wanted to help.
Some welcomed his presence and looked up to him. Others didn’t, feeling the gulf between their world and his, and between his capitalist prosperity and their socialist dream, was too wide to reconcile.
The Lower East Side had been an immigrant neighborhood for almost a century. Since the early nineteenth century, the so-called Five Points section of Manhattan had served as the first home for newly arrived emigrants. The area was built atop the former site of the Collect Pond, which was for years the city’s main source of drinking water. But Five Points gradually became befouled by tanneries, breweries, and other noxious commercial enterprises. And because the landfill over the polluted pond had been badly put down, buildings constantly shifted as the air reeked. Accordingly, the Five Points was the least desirable part of the growing city and the cheapest in which to live.
Five Points was only a stone’s throw away from the immigrant processing center at Castle Garden and from the busy East River docks that gave the shipping-based economy of New York City life and sustenance. In the 1850s, it was home mostly to Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Famine and who worked as laborers and domestic servants. It was also a breeding ground for all sorts of vice: gangs, prostitution, saloons, gambling, and pickpocketing. One infamous structure supposedly recorded one murder a day. Soon German immigrants took up residence in the blocks just to the east of the Five Points intersection, moving into townhouses that had been carved up into warrens of small apartments. This neighborhood became known as “Kleine Deutschland.” By the 1880s, the Germans and Irish were joined by Italians and Eastern European Jews. As the city grew northward after the Civil War, the Five Points low-income melting pot expanded to a slum that was bounded on the west by the Bowery, on the east by the East River, on the south by Canal Street, and on the north by Houston Street. This came to be known as the Lower East Side.
In the 1890s, the Lower East Side of New York had a population density of 335,000 people per square mile, the highest of any urban area in the world. Converted townhouses had been replaced by four- and five-story brick apartment buildings called tenements. The exteriors of the tenements might have featured a bit of decoration, but inside they were grim and utilitarian, designed to maximize the rental income by cramming as many people per floor as possible. Until 1879, there were no laws regulating the construction of tenement housing. Most had no indoor plumbing. Instead, there were old-fashioned communal privies in the back. Water came from a communal pump, which was often contaminated from the privies and other sources of disease, including seepage from the old Collect Pond.
The typical tenement apartment consisted of three rooms: a front parlor, a dining room that also doubled as the kitchen, and a back bedroom. In the “Old Law” tenements, only the front parlor, which overlooked the street, received any natural light or air. Often, another bed was squeezed next to the coal stove. In tenements built after a new set of 1879 regulations came into effect, all rooms had to have windows that could let in fresh air. These mandated airshafts backfired, as residents dumped trash and chamber pots out their windows onto the ground below, creating ever-growing piles of fetid waste.
For most middle- and upper-class New Yorkers, the slums of Lower Manhattan were a shadowy netherworld. In 1888, a police reporter named Jacob Riis decided to change that. He brought light to the slum in the form of the newly invented flash photography. For nights on end, Jacob Riis and his team went from tenement to tenement, from boardinghouse to boardinghouse, and from saloon to saloon. They opened doors, quickly set up camera equipment, captured an image, then retreated. Most of the subjects had no idea what had just happened.
“Rather than admiring their work ethic, Jacob Riis repeated standard antisemitic tropes about Jews and money.”
The following year, Riis gave a series of presentations of his images. Then, in 1890, he released his illustrated book How the Other Half Lives. It was a publishing sensation. With its vivid prose and photographs, it pulled back the curtain on the desperate conditions in which more than half of New York City’s residents had to live.
Despite his call for tenement reform, Riis did not have kind things to say about the people who lived there. A devout evangelical Christian, he was especially contemptuous of the Jewish residents of the Lower East Side. Rather than admiring their work ethic, Riis repeated standard antisemitic tropes about Jews and money. “Money is their God,” he said. “Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account. In no other spot does life wear so intensely bald and materialistic an aspect as in Ludlow Street. Over and over again I have met with instances of these Polish or Russian Jews deliberately starving themselves to the point of physical exhaustion, while working night and day at a tremendous pressure to save a little money.”
For their part, most Russian Jews worked hard and saved because they dreamed of making a better life for their children. They made a living as cobblers, butchers, bakers, printers, distillers, and other trades they had practiced in the Old Country. Some even found their way into organized crime. But the most common line of work for Jews in New York was the garment industry. The Yiddish term for this line of work was the schmata (rag) trade. The little engine that powered the trade was the Singer sewing machine, a miraculous labor-saving device that an American, Isaac Singer, patented in the 1850s. Powered by a foot pedal, it could rapidly stitch raw cloth into a garment and made mass production of clothing possible. Russian Jews were familiar with Singer sewing machines because the company had established a thriving branch in St. Petersburg.
The Russian Jews brought their expertise with them. As the nation’s biggest manufacturer of women’s and men’s clothing, New York needed as many bodies in front of sewing machines as possible. In 1897, 60 percent of the Jewish workforce labored in the garment industry, and 75 percent of all garment workers were Jewish. They first worked in garment shops owned by uptown German Jews and then branched off to form their own operations. In a typical Russian Jewish schmata business, the immigrant husband would purchase a Singer sewing machine, usually on an installment plan, and a set of mannequins to be put up in the front parlor. Then the whole family would set to work assembling dresses from raw cloth, using commercial patterns. The roughly assembled garment would be sent on to another shop where finer needlework was done, and it was then put up for sale in a department store like Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s, owned by elite German Jewish families. If the owner of the schmata business was successful, he would hire friends and relatives as they arrived in America. If the owner was especially successful, he would move his operation out of his apartment and into an industrial building farther uptown, usually on Seventh Avenue.
The decentralized production model, known as “section work,” provided plenty of employment for Jewish immigrants. Despite New York’s relatively high labor costs compared with other cities, the sheer amount of labor available, as well as access to quality materials such as silk from Paterson, New Jersey, and cotton fabrics from mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, outweighed the high cost of doing business.
Yet not every garment worker dreamed of starting a shop of his or her own. By the 1890s, a growing number of Russian Jews abandoned that path—and their religion—and embraced the mantle of socialism and organized labor. A small but vocal minority became anarchists. For them, traditional Orthodoxy provided little comfort as they confronted the daily hardship of life in America. The rabbis might preach that the Messiah would one day come and right the wrongs of the world, but that prospect did not feed hungry children or provide better working conditions in the here and now.
Left-wing political organizations offered a solution. They took their cue from the German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx, from Social Democrats, to socialists, to Communists, to anarchists. All were united in a single mission: for the proletariat to wrest control of the means of production from the capitalists. Some thought the best way for this to be achieved was the formation of stronger trade unions, which would negotiate better working conditions and wages. On the Lower East Side, arguably the most colorful advocate of that approach was Joseph Barondess, founder of the Cloakmakers’ Union and a sought-after speaker at celebrations, gatherings of all sorts, and even funerals.
Proof of this came on June 3, 1900, when a large group of organizers and garment workers crammed into the main hall of the Labor Lyceum at 64–70 East Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. They came not just from New York’s Lower East Side but also from Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia. The garment workers, most of them Eastern European Jews, cheered at the announcement of the formation of a new labor union: the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). It was an organization in which women’s rights were linked to workers’ rights, the first of its kind in the United States. The organization, which at its launch had two thousand members, had roots in the Jewish Labor Bund movement back in Russia, which was closely allied with the Social Democratic movement in Germany.
“In contrast to most of the Russian Jewish immigrant population, Jacob Schiff was a staunch Republican who firmly believed business and culture would uplift his fellow Jews. ”
Jewish immigrants Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, sometime lovers and leaders of the anarchist movement, attended speeches by radical activists throughout the city and penned articles in publications such as Der Anarchist and Die Autonomie that called for the violent overthrow of the capitalist system. To Goldman, Berkman, and their followers, there was no room for negotiation or equivocation with the plutocrats, the bourgeoisie, and the federal government. In order to achieve a workers’ paradise, the whole system had to be taken down and rebuilt from the bottom up.
In 1892, Berkman put his beliefs into action. The steelworkers at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead plant went on strike, demanding higher wages and shorter hours. They then surrounded the plant and refused to let managers and scabs enter. Andrew Carnegie decamped to Scotland for a fishing trip, putting his associate Henry Clay Frick in charge of breaking the strike. Frick, who despised unions, sent in a private army of Pinkerton guards to regain control of the plant and brutally beat up the strikers. Berkman traveled to Pittsburgh, gained entry to Henry Clay Frick’s office, and shot him in the neck. Frick survived the assassination attempt. Berkman was sent to prison for attempted murder for 14 years, yet continued to read and correspond with Emma Goldman, who was not charged in the crime.
This, of course, did not seem like a reasonable solution to Jacob Schiff. In contrast to most of the Russian Jewish immigrant population, Jacob Schiff was a staunch Republican who firmly believed business and culture would uplift his fellow Jews. He truly felt that he could integrate Gilded Age capitalism with the Jewish principle of tzedakah as a moral obligation. As a railroad banker, he was suspicious of trade unions. Schiff hoped that, rather than joining a union, Jews would avail themselves of organizations like the Henry Street Settlement, which he lavishly funded. Here, he believed, Eastern European Jews would learn to become proper, sober Americans who practiced thrift, industry, and cleanliness.
Schiff may have been the autocrat of Jewish philanthropy, but he had several powerful lieutenants who put his ideas into action. Louis Marshall was one of America’s most prominent constitutional lawyers, a partner in the German Jewish firm of Guggenheimer and Untermeyer. Schiff pushed Marshall to lead two of his pet philanthropic projects: the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, to which Marshall was appointed chairman of the board in 1905, and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which the two men co-founded. Among the other well-connected German Jews whom Schiff selected to lead the AJC were the biblical scholar Cyrus Adler, Judge Mayer Sulzberger, and the attorney-diplomat Oscar Straus.
On one hand, Schiff’s wealth and connections made him an ideal advocate for Jewish immigrants among the rich and powerful. On the other, his autocratic manner and conservative politics made him an object of suspicion among many of the very people he so generously assisted. An 1894 article in the Yiddische Gazette summed up how Russian Jews felt when ushered into the domain of the German Jewish philanthropists:
In the philanthropic institutions of our aristocratic German Jews you see beautiful offices, desks, all decorated, but strict and angry faces. Every poor man is questioned like a criminal, is looked down upon; every unfortunate suffers self-degradation and shivers like a leaf, just as if he were standing before a Russian official. When the same Russian Jew is in an institution of Russian Jews, no matter how poor or small the building, it will seem to him big and comfortable. He feels at home among his own brethren who speak his tongue, understand his thoughts and feel his heart.
Russian Jewish immigrants began to start their own mutual aid societies, known as landsmanshaftn. These evolved into ersatz fraternities, separate from the synagogues to which many of them belonged. When a new arrival from Kyiv, Bialystok, Minsk, Lodz, or one of the innumerable tiny shtetls set foot on the Lower East Side, often the first order of business for the father of the family was to set up a meeting with his hometown landsmanshaft. Here, those who had come before would help his family find a place to live, learn English, and find a job. Women were almost never permitted to be members. Not only were the landsmanshaftn enclaves of male fellowship but they provided benefits for the entire household. Should he become unemployed, disabled, or die, his fellow landsmen would help support his family. Life insurance policies, like those provided by the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, on whose board Jacob Schiff sat, were beyond the reach of Lower East Side immigrant families.
Condescension, both real and imagined, widened the gulf between the German uptown Jews and the Russian Jews downtown. To bridge it, Schiff and his close friend Louis Marshall came up with a new approach. The Henry Street Settlement House and Montefiore Hospital provided crucial social services for destitute Lower East Side Jews, and HEAS provided loans to would-be small-business owners. But Schiff and Marshall’s new project was different. They planned to start a newspaper, hoping to ease assimilation with the written word.
There was a radical socialist element in the Yiddish press that Schiff hoped to counter. To many of the uptown German Jews, the political ferment on the Lower East Side was not something to celebrate, but to mitigate. Many of them had made their fortunes in banking, dry goods, manufacturing, and mining, industries that depended on unrestricted immigration, minimal regulations, and cheap labor. Jacob Schiff ’s own fortune depended on the lack of regulation on railroads such as the Pennsylvania and the Union Pacific. Radical political ideas threatened Schiff ’s own financial well-being. All the more reason, he felt, these Russian Jews needed to be assimilated as much as aided. Otherwise, they might find themselves locked out of the country.
He thought that this radical socialist element and the action they inspired—like Berkman’s crime—would be detrimental to his longstanding effort to keep the immigration door open for Russian Jews.
In 1902, Schiff helped launch a new Yiddish daily. It was called Di yidishe velt (The Jewish World), and its masthead boasted that Zvi Hirsch Masliansky was its owner and publisher. A renowned Jewish orator and maggid, Masliansky had emigrated from Russia to America in 1895 and gave a popular series of Friday-night sermons at the Educational Alliance, another large settlement house on the Lower East Side. The head of the Educational Alliance was Isidor Straus, one of Jacob Schiff ’s allies, whose heart, according to New York Supreme Court judge Samuel Greenbaum, “beat in responsive sympathy with his oppressed brethren.”
The paper failed within a few years.
Schiff ’s uplift efforts weren’t doing much to change the minds of Russian Jewish immigrants. They weren’t doing much to change the broader public opinion either. Gentiles, especially elite ones, increasingly associated Jews with anarchism, communism, and other left-wing causes. For America’s Protestant upper class, it appeared that anarchy was in the air. One of them, Theodore Roosevelt, owed his own office to the death of President William McKinley, who had been shot by the young anarchist Leon Czolgosz (a non-Jew) at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on August 31, 1901. Although a lone wolf, Czolgosz had been inspired by the speeches of Emma Goldman to overthrow the ruling class. Other prominent victims of anarchist assassinations, in addition to Czar Alexander II of Russia, were Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary in 1898 and King Umberto I of Italy two years later.
“Schiff had been wrong about what the Russian Jewish immigrants wanted, and needed, but he had been right about Jewish radicals being singled out by anti-Semites as representative of all Jews.”
Ultimately, it was fear of politically radical immigrants that led President Theodore Roosevelt to quietly impose more restrictions. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge finally got some of what he wanted. In 1902, Roosevelt selected a new commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island, whose job was to supervise all activities at the facility. William Williams was very much a man in Roosevelt’s mold. A native of New Haven, he was a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School and had served as a soldier in the Spanish-American War. A man of independent means, Williams then worked as a Wall Street lawyer after his return from the war. Like Roosevelt, Williams felt that corruption had to be ferreted out of public agencies. To that end, he sent a number of undercover agents disguised as steerage arrivals through the Ellis Island process, then promptly fired agents who gave “defective” immigrants permission to pass through in exchange for bribes. Although this was productive, he also believed that too many people were being allowed into the country, and that enforcement of standards barring sick and mentally deficient new arrivals was too lax.
Prescott Hall, thrilled to hear about higher rejection rates, wrote Williams asking for updates on his reforms. “It may interest you to know,” Williams wrote Hall in 1902, “that during the first twenty-three days of this month this office rejected and ordered deported 810 aliens, or over 3% of the arrivals. Every day the machinery here is being gotten into better shape to execute the laws. In view of the hardship resulting from deportation, I earnestly hope that the steamship companies will have the wisdom to leave ineligibles in Europe, but if they do not, the deportations next Spring will be very heavy.”
In public, Theodore Roosevelt expressed no overt anti-Semitism, which was unusual given his upbringing and social class. Like Harvard president Eliot, Roosevelt felt that Jews could be integrated into American society, so long as they accepted “traditional” mores and political norms. Roosevelt’s appointment of Oscar Straus as secretary of commerce and labor was not merely an act of philo-Semitism. The cabinet position also gave Straus oversight over the entire Bureau of Immigration, which enforced a new immigration act signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act, the law barred four classes of immigrants from entering the United States: anarchists, epileptics, beggars, and importers of prostitutes. Although not explicitly stated in the law, the radical Russian Jew became the bogeyman of the movement in Congress and eventually among the public.
Schiff had been wrong about what the Russian Jewish immigrants wanted, and needed, but he had been right about Jewish radicals being singled out by anti-Semites as representative of all Jews.
That was one obstacle to Schiff ’s ideal of Jewish assimilation. Another soon emerged, in the shape of a man.
This man, J. P. Morgan, intended to take over the entire North Atlantic passenger business. Even the confident Schiff would admit that he was nervous about doing anything that looked “as if we attempted to play in Morgan’s backyard.” Here was an implacable rival, a member of the American establishment he could not reason with or charm.
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