Assimilation came quickly. “I remember seeing the students coming into the classroom of P.S. 20 two or three days after they’d left the boat,” Golden recalls. “They were shy and afraid. By the next morning they had learned the Pledge of Allegiance and three weeks later they sat at their desks writing a poem about George Washington.”
Education was the new passport for the Jewish immigrants in New York, as they immediately recognized it was their ticket from poverty, or for a better life for their children. They zealously embraced the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine’s sober exhortation, “Remember, we must be twice as good to get half as much.” They accepted this mantra as their lot, not with despair but with ineradicable optimism.
Such was the mindset back then, Golden fondly recalls, that when the young immigrant mother is asked how old her children are, she buoyantly replies, “The doctor is four and the lawyer is two-and-a-half.”
By the late 19th century, Yiddish theater in New York had blossomed from a burgeoning form of entertainment to a beloved pastime for its Jewish residents. Reflecting the Jewish immigrant experience through pathos, comedy, and song, the Yiddish theater set off whorls of emotions in theatergoers. Stars such as David Kessler, Bertha Kalich, and Jacob Adler brought tears and laughter to their adoring audiences. Everyone from the common laborer to the college professor avidly attended these performances, or “benefits” as they were commonly known, as immigrant organizations would share in the profits for tickets sold to their members.
“Nine out of every ten Jews go to the theater,” Golden quotes one astute observer as saying, “while one out of every ten Jews goes to synagogue.” But observant Judaism was flourishing. “The Eastern European immigration after 1880 put Orthodox Judaism in the forefront,” writes Golden. “In 1870 there were seven Orthodox shuls in New York. By 1914 there were 350 Orthodox congregations with over 100 buildings.”
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Despite its advantages over life in the old country, New York was still no Garden of Eden for the Jewish immigrants. Working conditions and wages for those employed in sweatshops were deplorable (the infamous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 tragically resulted in 146 deaths, including many teenagers). Poverty would endure, and anti-Semitism and exclusion from various social, business, professional, and academic circles in the city would continue unabated well into the 20th century (some would say it still hasn’t entirely disappeared).
But the immigrant Jews were savvy, resourceful, and ambitious enough to stake out their own claims in a prejudiced society. Garment district businesses became largely owned by Jews, who became responsible for producing much of the nation’s schmattas. Jewish-owned department stores such as Macy’s (which catapulted to success and fame when brothers Isador and Nathan Straus took it over in 1895), Ohrbach’s, Gimbel’s, and S. Klein’s became well-known retail fixtures in New York City.
Jews founded major investment firms such as Goldman Sachs, Speyer and Company, Lehman Brothers, and Kuhn, Loeb & Company. The diamond district in midtown Manhattan was largely populated by Jewish merchants. Prestigious book publishers such as Alfred Knopf, Simon & Schuster, and Random House had Jewish owners or founders. Jews readily found jobs in teaching, in social work, or at the post office.
Legions of Jews, many of whom were born in the city, made their mark in show business, Golden observes. A small sampling of Jewish stars with ties to New York City include Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson (acting); the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye, Red Buttons, and Phil Silvers (comedy); Roberta Peters, Richard Tucker, and Jan Peerce (operatic singing); and Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rodgers (songwriting).