I walked the streets of the Lower East Side last month, reflecting on the Jewish life that thrived there in the early decades of the 20th century.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, my parents and grandparents streamed from the small towns of Eastern Europe to the ‘goldene medina.’ They fled to escape abject poverty and anti-Jewish decrees, but above all to get away from the pogroms.
How well I remember the stories my parents told me. Jews of Eastern Europe were second class citizens. They were treated with contempt, scorn and derision. They were persecuted as ‘outsiders’ despite having lived there for centuries. Sudden and violent attacks on small Jewish communities resulted in death, mutilation and destruction. Such was the way of life for the Jews of Eastern Europe ever since King Boleslav of Poland invited the German Jews to settle in that country in 1264. As a school teacher, I delved into the history of the Jews in Europe trying to make sense of the forces that brought so many Jews to America’s shores.
After the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881, daily life, already insufferable for the Jews of Czarist Russia, became intolerable. Alexander III was a cruel anti-Jewish dogmatist who ratcheted up the controlled persecutions of Jews throughout his vast empire. Normal life was but a dream for four and a half million Jews. Suffering deprivation and with no hope for relief, more than a million and a half of those Jews came to the United States between 1881 and 1918. Many more came between 1918 and 1924, the year the immigration gates were closed.
This mass relocation of Yiddish-speaking Jews was not so much a voluntary migration to America as it was a flight from an agonizing and excruciating milieu. While other nationalities also immigrated to America, they left behind a homeland to which they could return. Not so for the Jews. They had no homeland. They fled a regime that vilified, degraded, hounded and bullied them as a people.
I stop now at 97 Orchard Street, a five-story walk-up tenement built in 1863, much like thousands of similar tenements that mushroomed on the Lower East Side during the nineteenth century. It is said that between 1863 and 1935, 7,000 tenants lived in 97 Orchard Street. When it was built it did not have gas for light and heat. There were no indoor toilets and no running water. (It wasn’t until 1867 that the city forced tenement landlords o install gas lines, running water and interior flush toilets.)
Today, 97 Orchard is ‘The Tenement Museum.’ It recounts the history of tenement life on the Lower East Side. Vastly improved from its original condition, it stands as a testimonial to the horrendous living conditions of the tens of thousands of poor immigrants – Jews and non-Jews alike – who called this lump of Manhattan home.
A Different World
My relatives told me horror stories about packed living conditions and squalor in these tenements. Only a miracle prevented infectious epidemics from wreaking havoc on these poor immigrants. Each floor of a standard tenement building contained four three-room apartments – two in the front and two in the rear. There were no elevators. A central wooden staircase was the only means of reaching any of the upper floors. A typical apartment (or flat, as it was called then) consisted of a front room (11′ x 12’6”) with a kitchen and one tiny bedroom behind it. Seven or more people (often borders) lived in an area of 325 square feet. Only the front room had a window to the outside.
The apartments, as originally built, lacked toilets, showers and baths. Each building had privies (outdoor toilets) located in the rear yard. Few, if any, were connected to sewer lines. The kitchens had fireplaces and cooking stoves, capable of burning coal or wood. By the turn of the century gas was piped in.
As I turn into Delancey Street, I recall my parents telling me of the exploitation, crushing poverty, dilapidated housing, sleaze and vice that existed in this area in the early 1900’s. This neighborhood witnessed the birth of the Jewish experience in America. Our relatives and landsmen were peasants, peddlers, tailors, rabbis, mohels, shochets, shoemakers and tradesmen. Eighty to one hundred years ago it must have been a wonder of urban human experience for so many Jews. They came dreaming of a golden land filled with a vision of hope and faith for a truly meaningful life free of daily torment. They clung to their dream for re-humanization and renewal. Whatever beauty and marvel existed was tainted by the reality that surrounded them. Yet they were undeterred. Despite backbreaking work and drudge, they toiled away, working their fingers to the bone to eke out a meager sustenance. They struggled and strained laboriously under harsh conditions for the promise of a better life. But at least they were free! No more pogroms, no more anti-Jewish decrees.
Sweatshops of ‘New Israel’
I am now at Rivington Street, the northern border of what was then called the Tenth Ward, the so-called ‘New Israel.’ Historians claim that the Tenth Ward was the most densely populated place on earth in 1900. More than 75,000 people (15,000-plus families) were crammed into 1,100 tenement buildings. The ward contained 109 acres bounded by Rivington Street on the north, Division Street on the south, the Bowery on the west, and Norfolk Street on the east.
I picture in my mind’s eye the sweatshops of ‘New Israel.’ I see my aunt Malka, her steam iron hissing away. There is my tante Freidel, her foot pivoting up-and-down at incredible speed as she sews on the foot-pedaled sewing machine. In the back, I see my uncle Morris at the cutting board deftly slicing through a foot high stack of fabric. Cheap, ready-made clothing factories drew Jewish immigrants by the thousands. Many of them, with hungry families to feed and rent to pay, soon abandoned the Sabbath and worked six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day.
I recall the stories about the vibrant Hester Street market where my zeidi Binyomin sold bananas from his pushcart. On Friday afternoons, as Shabbos approached, Hester Street swelled with shoppers examining pushcarts laden with fruit and vegetables, bargaining with the peddlers. Many waited until later in the afternoon when the peddlers dropped prices to unload left-over and over-ripe produce.
Here I am at the corner of Hester and Orchard, the location of the famous Walhalla Hall, witness to many a wedding. This great civic and social center sponsored dances and hosted countless union meetings where organized labor found its voice.
As I enter Essex Street I assure myself that those living here have escaped the poverty, exploitation, and inequality which plagued my people. Surely the people, times, and conditions have changed. Or have they?
If these streets could talk, they would eagerly share countless stories. These streets, purportedly ‘paved with gold,’ would unfold narratives of dreams and expectations, of disappointment and hopelessness, of logic and emotion, all told with sensitivity and compassion. In short the pavements would chronicle the stored-up imagery of Jewish life in the Lower East Side as it inexorably moved forward from day to day and from year to year in the early 1900’s.
I am far from being a sentimental old fool, yet every stroll through this part of Manhattan brings to mind images of Jews, Italians and others packed into tiny apartments in six-story buildings with no elevators. Water was supplied to tenants from one tap on each floor. My great-uncle, an ‘old-timer’ who came here in 1902, lived with his wife and four children in a tiny three-room apartment on Allen Street. Rent for the sixth floor flat was $ 8.50 per month. The tenants would pile up the garbage in a corner of the hallway at the head of the stairs. They had to take in ‘homework’ to make ends meet. The work was done in the kitchen. The sewing machine was ‘on loan’ to them. During the daytime, my great-aunt would sew pre-cut fabric to make work pants. When my great-uncle came home, he would eat a meager supper and sit at the machine until midnight. They were paid by the piece. In the evening my great-aunt would make button holes, while her 11-year-old daughter would sew the buttons on. Pants did not have zippers in those days.
When my great-uncle’s arthritis prevented him from walking up and down six flights of stairs, he was forced to give up his daytime factory job. They took in a border to make up for part of the lost income. At bedtime, the border would remove the inner door separating the front room from the kitchen. He would position it horizontally on two chairs to form a bed. His winter coat was used as a substitute mattress.
I pass by Henry Street, where the legendary nurse Lillian Wald dedicated her life to acts of true chesed (loving-kindness). Founder of the Henry Street Settlement, Lillian Wald was a true friend of Jews in distress.
Further north at Houston Street I can almost smell the knishes and taste the schmaltz herring. I can see clearly people bent over barrels of pickles and herring, reaching, fingering, searching for that special meichel. The odors take me back some seventy-five years. The stench in the streets was beyond description. The streets smelled of horse droppings, rotten produce, unwashed bodies, and, above all, clothing that reeked of perspiration in the summer. Those who could afford it would go to the baths just before Shabbos. The rest made do with sponge baths from the kitchen sink. Private showers and tubs were still a luxury.
Sabbath Chickens
I turn the corner to where the live chicken market used to be. The place was empty most of the week. It came to life on Thursdays and Fridays when those who could afford it would buy a chicken for Shabbos.
Selecting a chicken for Shabbos was a matter of some importance. Row upon row of chicken coops lined one wall. Your eyes would scan each coop. Yankel, who owned the chicken market, would wait patiently as you made your preliminary selection. You would point to your pick, and Yankel would take out the cackling chicken and almost mechanically hold it by its legs. That was the prompt for you to press your fingers into its breast. (An experienced finger can detect whether a chicken has an adequate build-up of white meat.)
Without any additional instructions from you, Yankel would turn the chicken upside down, at which point you blew into its rear feathers. This is the litmus test to determine whether the chicken has enough yellow fat – essential for a successful soup. The poor chicken, its privacy rudely invaded, flapped its wings and squawked, but to no avail. Having paid for the chicken, we would follow Yankel to the rear where the shochet ritually slaughtered the chicken. Then it was off to the other side where a row of poor women sat on a low bench plucking feathers and burning off any lice.
Separation and Uncertainty
Each visit to the Lower East Side evokes images of my parents and grandparents walking with trepidation through Ellis Island. The dreaded inspection procedure, told and retold to me many times, during which Jews were examined for sickness, abnormalities, afflictions or other disorders. Those failing the rigorous scrutiny were denied entry.
If you listen carefully, you too will hear the quiet sobs and the loud shrieking, despite the passage of more than eighty-two years. Even those most confident of entry felt a sympathetic pang for those who were rejected. Families with a rejected member were torn apart. Nerves, already frayed by the inhospitable voyage, now had to be steeled for a major decision. Each rejection meant a return trip to the old life, with all that it encompassed.
Few today can imagine the courage of these hopefuls who hacked their roots so radically by parting from family, friends, and religious environment for the vagueness – and too often elusive – new life in the New World. They all knew it was a one-way trip. For most of them, leaving the shtetl was irreversible; there was no going back.
It is difficult to imagine the separation. It was more than a farewell or goodbye. There were no phones, faxes, or e-mails. Passenger flights were but a dream. For my grandparents, this meant never again seeing, or speaking to, the relatives and friends they left behind. Their only means of communication was by sea-mail, which was delivered weeks after being posted. I can just imagine the anxieties my grandfather, Reb Binyomin, with his long white beard and peyos, must have had about making a living. He was confident that Hashem would provide for him and his family. He was determined to maintain his Orthodox lifestyle — Shabbos observance, kashrus and Torah learning. But what about his grown children and his other relatives? These questions had no immediate answers.
My head is spinning. I have harked back to a difficult time, and the experience is somewhat overwhelming. I head for the Brooklyn-bound subway to take me home. The train is crowded – standing room only. I look around me at the tired passengers of various ethnicities. How many of those on the train can trace their parentage to a man, woman, or child who made a steerage voyage across the Atlantic to arrive at these shores?
I doze as my mind wanders again to the immigrants’ stories. Fortunately, a jolt from a passenger trying to get off the train rouses me. It is my stop, too.

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