A Jewish child’s first impressions of America (1894)

Mary Antin in 1915

Mary Antin in 1915

Mary Antin’s memoir The Promised Land deals with her life as a child and young adult in America after immigrating from Belarus in the 1890s. Her father had come to Boston a few years earlier, and was finally able to send for his wife and four children in 1894.

In this excerpt, Antin describes her first days in America. As a 12-year-old just off the ship, she saw their poor neighborhood very differently than native Bostonians viewed it:


Anybody who knows Boston knows that the West and North Ends are the wrong ends of that city. They form the tenement district, or, in the newer phrase, the slums of Boston. Anybody who is acquainted with the slums of any American metropolis knows that that is the quarter where poor immigrants foregather, to live, for the most part, as unkempt, half-washed, toiling, unaspiring foreigners; pitiful in the eyes of social missionaries, the despair of boards of health, the hope of ward politicians, the touchstone of American democracy…

He may know all this and yet not guess how Wall Street, in the West End, appears in the eyes of a little immigrant from Polotzk. What would the sophisticated sight-seer say about Union Place, off Wall Street, where my new home waited for me? He would say that it is no place at all, but a short box of an alley. Two rows of three-story tenements are its sides, a stingy strip of sky is its lid, a littered pavement is the floor, and a narrow mouth its exit.

But I saw a very different picture on my introduction to Union Place. I saw two imposing rows of brick buildings, loftier than any dwelling I had ever lived in. Brick was even on the ground for me to tread on, instead of common earth or boards. Many friendly windows stood open, filled with uncovered heads of women and children. I thought the people were interested in us, which was very neighborly. I looked up to the topmost row of windows, and my eyes were filled with the May blue of an American sky!…

Union Place (Boston) where my new home waited for me

The three small rooms into which my father now ushered us, up one flight of stairs, contained only the necessary beds, with lean mattresses; a few wooden chairs; a table or two; a mysterious iron structure, which later turned out to be a stove; a couple of unornamental kerosene lamps; and a scanty array of cooking-utensils and crockery. And yet we were all impressed with our new home and its furniture. It was not only because we had just passed through our seven lean years, cooking in earthen vessels, eating black bread on holidays and wearing cotton; it was chiefly because these wooden chairs and tin pans were  Continue reading

Bucharest’s lost Sephardic world: A letter and photos from 1904

Lazar Ascher, president of Bucharest’s Sephardic Kehilla, president of the Bucharest Sephardic Jewish Primary Schools Society, early 1900s.


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is Lazar (Lazaro) Ascher, a board member of several Sephardic organizations in Bucharest, Romania, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a brother of Moscu Ascher, the noted Jewish philanthropist and educational reformer.

In this letter, Lazar writes about Bucharest’s “Spanish Jews” (Sephardim). The synagogue he describes is the Great Spanish Temple, also called Kahal Kadosh Gadol and Kahal Grande. That beautiful building, seen in photos below, stood at 10 Nedru Voda Street from the 1810s until the Iron Guard pogrom of 1941, just months before the Holocaust began.

You can find the complete 1904 letter and other correspondence from Sephardim of that era in Ángel Pulido’s book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language.


EXCERPTS FROM A LETTER TO
SENATOR ÁNGEL PULIDO, MADRID

[Translation from Spanish
© 2016 by Steven Capsuto]

Bucharest, February 16, 1904.

I was… overjoyed to learn that you are writing articles about the Spanish Jews, and that you want me to send photographs of our Synagogue and School. I’m glad to say I acted quickly and had photos taken of two parts of the Synagogue’s Moorish-style interior and of the facade. I also had pictures taken of our Jewish Community Schools for boys and for girls. I hope these are of use…

Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest, 1904.

The Synagogue, built in 1817 and rebuilt in 1852, has 350 seats for men downstairs and 150 for women up in the gallery. The left and right galleries have entrances separate from the lower-level entry.

Great Spanish Temple, Bucharest, looking toward the bimah, 1904.

Great Spanish Temple, looking toward the organ, 1904.

Our Community has had its Boys’ School since 1730. The school did not originally have its own space, but in 1817 four rooms were built for it on the grounds of the synagogue, and in 1894 the current building was erected. It is overseen by a five-man Committee. The Institute bears the name “School for Sons of the Spanish Israelite Community”…

The Spanish-Jewish Primary School for Boys. It was previously known simply as the Talmud Torah, which is what the sign over the door says. By 1904, this and the girls’ school were prestigious private elementary schools whose students attended free of charge, thanks to  funding from the Halfon family foundation.

Our Community has had its Girls’ School since Continue reading

Three Yiddish theaters in New York City and their immigrant audiences (1906)

Exterior of the Grand Theatre

New York’s first purpose-built Yiddish theater, the Grand, opened in 1903 and was bought by actor–producer Jacob Adler in 1904. While the People’s Theatre nearby was staging popular fare, Adler’s Grand Theatre often presented literary plays ranging from Shakespeare to the modern realist dramas of Jacob Gordin. [Photo from the book Jewish Immigrants in Early 1900s America: A Visitor’s Account.]


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is a reporter for the Washington, D.C. Evening Star who wrote a feature in 1906 about foreign-language theaters in New York. In the excerpts below, the anonymous writer describes the plays and ambiance at three well-known Yiddish theaters of that era: the People’s, the Kalich (formerly the Windsor), and the Grand.

Except as noted, the photos and captions are not from the original article. Future posts about Yiddish theater will look at sources that are more specifically Jewish, but this colorful “mainstream” article, with its you-are-there feel, seemed like a good starting point.

It is conceivable the writer might be exaggerating slightly. (Did almost every production at the Grand really end after midnight?) But most of the information matches what I have read in Jewish materials, right down to the prompters at certain theaters who would read the whole script aloud during performances to remind the actors of their lines.


QUEER PLAYHOUSES
in New York That Are Patronized by Aliens

PLAYS IN FOREIGN TONGUES

Nightly Delight of Audiences of Different Nationalities

LEADING JEWISH THEATER
Where Dramas by Suderman
and Hauptman are Given Long
Before they Appear on Broadway

(Evening Star, March 10, 1906)

 

[The People’s:]

…In the very heart of the Bowery stands the People’s Theater, large and pretentious, with signs in Yiddish which proclaim that a melodrama is going on within. The place is always crowded, and there is no fashionable lateness about its audiences. They scramble in as soon as the doors are open. Stout matrons with children at their heels, pretty, dark-eyed Jewesses, long-bearded patriarchs, vegetable venders, ol’ clothes men—they are all there, they and their families. It is a good-natured, animated crowd. As the theater fills there is a hum, then a buzz, and presently the gallery begins shouting and stamping its impatience.

Two photos of Bessie Thomashefsky

Bessie Thomashefsky—half of the famous Yiddish theatrical couple of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky—was beloved for her performances in musicals and comedies at the People’s Theatre. Here she plays the title roles in Dos Grine Vaybl, oder Der Yidisher Yenki-Dudl (The Greenhorn Wife, or The Jewish Yankee Doodle) and Der Griner Bokher (The Greenhorn Boy), both from 1905. [Photos and caption from the Jewish Immigrants book.]


The melodramas offered are like our own thrillers of the “Two Little Vagrants” order, but the scenery and costumes are Continue reading

Purim in 1907 Tunisia: Charity, revelry and Haman’s funeral in the Hara

The Hara (Jewish quarter) of Tunis in 1886.


There are perhaps 1,500 Jews in Tunisia in 2017. Within living memory, though, the country had a Jewish population of more than a hundred thousand.

From the 13th to 20th century, in the capital city, Tunis, the Jewish quarter was a poor neighborhood called the Hara. It was home to an intense, often insular Jewish community that spoke Judeo-Arabic.

This 1907 article suggests that the Hara celebrated every aspect of Purim in a big way: commemorating the story of Esther, widespread charity and hospitality, and, for some Jews, heavy drinking (of which the author clearly disapproves).

The writer’s description of Purim foods may be slightly “off,” but the article gives a vivid account of celebrations in what was once a vibrant Jewish neighborhood in North Africa.


PURIM IN TUNIS
by Mebasser

(Archives Israélites, March 21, 1907.
Translation from French ©2017 by Steven Capsuto.)

Passover is almost here, but perhaps it is still not too late to talk about Purim. In the Courrier de Tunisie, we find a piece by our contributor Mebasser, with picturesque new details about how Jews in Tunis celebrate the victory of Mordecai and Esther over Haman:

On the Saturday before Purim—known as Turnip Saturday or “Shabbat el Lefta,” which refers to a local legend—the young Jewish boys of the Hara are in the habit of celebrating Haman’s death. This mock ceremony is most unusual.

Early that morning, the boys gather in a very old house that lies in ruins at the heart of the Hara, in a place called the kharba.

There, as best they can, they use whatever they find at hand to fashion a small effigy—the kind that people try to knock over at a fair by throwing balls at it. This represents the famous Haman. They place him on a funeral litter and begin walking with it. They are followed by “Haman’s ten sons,” each with a funeral pall or wreath of similarly crude construction. This procession, numbering about a hundred urchins at the outset, travels through all the streets of the Jewish quarter, singing a popular Continue reading

Purim on enemy lines: a French Army rabbi and a minyan of Algerian soldiers celebrate at the front (1915)

Zouave soldiers crossing a river in northern France in World War I, preparing to attack German trenches. A large minority of the North African Zouaves were Jewish. [Image from the London periodical The Graphic, April 10, 1915.]


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is a rabbi who served in World War I. Under the pen name Un Aumônier Israelite (“A Jewish Chaplain”), he wrote articles about his wartime experiences for the French Jewish magazine L’Univers Israélite.

In 1915, he was chaplain to the Jews in an Algerian division of Zouaves (French light-infantry forces, originally recruited from African countries that France had invaded and colonized). Below, our anonymous rabbi tells us how he and his minyan sought Purim joy and comfort in perilous conditions, close to the front line.


Memories of Purim at the front

(L’Univers Israélite, March 24, 1916.
Translation from French ©2017 by Steven Capsuto.)

Circumstances keep me from celebrating Purim among soldiers this year, and so my thoughts return to a year ago when I was just starting out as a chaplain.

I arrived at the front a few days before Purim. At my request, I had been assigned to an Algerian division. I suspected there must be a number of our believers there, but I did not know any of them and did not know how to find them. I considered trying an approach that had served me well a few weeks earlier in Saint-Denis, when I had wanted to identify some Jews among the Zouaves stationed there. I had posted myself outside the door to their quarters, and each time a Zouave came out, I would ask, “Do you know Shema Yisrael?” “No, I don’t,” replied one. “Which company is he in?” asked another. “I knew someone with a name like that, but he’s not here anymore.” After other disheartening responses, finally one Zouave’s eyes lit up at my question, letting me know he had understood. Through him, I met other Algerian Jews, but one after the other, they were all Continue reading

The Jew who told Immigration he was Muslim, and the Ladino newspaper that helped him (1911)

American immigrant stories often start with the person’s life in the U.S., but gloss over the process of being admitted as an immigrant. Getting through the immigrant processing centers was stressful. There were language barriers, crowds, slow-moving lines, stringent medical and financial restrictions, and official questions that forced immigrants to guess what answers the officers wanted. Often, they guessed wrong.

Today we’ll look at the personal experiences of some specific would-be immigrants, as reported in 1911 and 1912 by the U.S. Jewish newspaper La America.

La America (New York), June 9, 1911, featuring the story of immigrant Gabriel Capelouto. Note the Yiddish text in the left column. This Ladino-language paper briefly experimented with front-page Yiddish content to raise Ashkenazic Jews’ awareness of their Ottoman neighbors.

When La America first wrote about Gabriel Capelouto of Bodrum, Turkey, he had been detained at Ellis Island for several weeks and was about to be deported. Capelouto had made the long journey from Turkey to Argentina. There he boarded a ship for New York (without his wife, Sinoru, or their two children) en route to Atlanta, where his wife’s brother, Reuben Galanti, was waiting for him. That’s when things started to go wrong.

In Buenos Aires, people warned Capelouto to expect prejudice in the United States. They told him the U.S. government would turn him away if they learned he was a Jew. Acting on that Continue reading

“The Goldbergs” and “Mama Bloom’s Brood”: Jewish immigrant drama on 1920s-30s American radio

The United States welcomed a wave of immigrants from the 1880s to 1920s, and foreign accents were a huge part of everyday life in the U.S. well into the twentieth century. In big cities, that usually included the Yiddish accents of some of the millions of Ashkenazic Jews who arrived in those years.

Network radio in the U.S. began in 1926. As a result, immigrant roles were a staple of early radio… sometimes played for laughs and sometimes portrayed as multidimensional human beings.


The Goldbergs

Series creator and star Gertrude Berg (center) with cast members from the CBS run of THE GOLDBERGS, probably mid to late 1930s.

Radio’s pioneer of well-developed Jewish immigrant characters was Gertrude Berg, who wrote and starred in The Goldbergs. This series, which ran from the 1920s to 1950s, premiered on NBC in 1929 as The Rise of the Goldbergs. It began as a weekly slice of life about Yiddish-accented Molly and Jake Goldberg and their American kids, Sammy and Rosalie. For most of the run, they lived in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx, and Jake worked in the garment industry. Molly Goldberg’s Uncle David (played by Yiddish theater star Menasha Skulnik) lived with the family.

NBC quickly expanded it into a daily soap opera about the sorrows and joys of the Goldbergs and their Continue reading

“Feminism has not yet reached us”: Micca Alcalay, a Bosnian Sephardic woman in 1904 Austria


 
The ideal for women of my race is education, instruction, and raising girls to be good housewives. In Bosnia, all the young [Sephardic] women now speak three languages: Spanish, German and Slavic, which is the national language. At convent schools, they learn to do beautiful handiwork. A nun in Sarajevo told me that her Jewish students are the most diligent, clever girls she teaches, and they learn German easily. Feminism has not yet reached us here; man is what he is: the king of the world.

—Micca Gross Alcalay, 1904
 


Micca Gross Alcalay, formal portrait circa early 1900s.

This blog often presents newly translated first-person accounts of Jewish life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is Marietta “Micca” Gross Alcalay, a Sephardic Jew born in Bosnia in the 1860s or 1870s. She lived most of her adult life in Trieste, Austria (now Italy). Below, she will tell us about facets of everyday life that history books often skip: greetings, songs, children’s games, a wedding tradition, and attitudes towards women.

Cultured and well-read, she had Continue reading

1904 U.S. elections: Jewish kids stumping for candidates

When the 1904 presidential campaigns began, there were more than 1.5 million Jews in the U.S., most of whom had immigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe in the previous 25 years.

Politicians coveted the Jewish vote, and campaign materials had long since started to appear in Yiddish. Examples include this 1904 mini-biography of incumbent candidate Theodore Roosevelt, published in Chicago. (Photo from the June 1905 issue of the Jewish magazine New Era Illustrated.)

 

Booklet in Yiddish with a drawing of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback.

 

In the final month of the 1904 race, the same magazine ran the following article about young boys who were hired to stump for candidates on New York’s Lower East Side:


Boy Political Orators

EAST SIDE CHILDREN WHO PUBLICLY DISCUSS THE QUESTIONS OF THE DAY

New Era Illustrated, October 1904

ON LATE OCTOBER NIGHTS, in years when important elections are pending, New York’s East Side adds another queer sight to its already long list. Street corners, doorsteps and casual barrel-heads not infrequently present to the astonished stranger the spectacle of boys from ten to fifteen years old delivering with might and main speeches Democratic, Republican or Socialistic. Some of them should have been in bed hours ago, and in their waking moments should have concerned themselves with nothing more complex than the third reader and a baseball bat; yet there they stand, repeating like little parrots of phenomenal intelligence the stock phrases of their respective parties.

A group gathered around a boy orator.

An East Side street corner in campaign time.

They talk as if they understood the meaning of the words, and if cornered by the interruption of a bystander, they will often, with a quick reply, turn the laugh against their opponent ; but Continue reading

Yom Kippur in the “White City”: Kol Nidre at the Chicago World’s Fair

Last time, we spent Rosh Hashanah with soldiers in 1918 France. Now we meet other Jews observing the holidays far from home: Ottoman Jews staffing the Turkish Village at the 1893 World’s Fair.

This description of their Yom Kippur servicespublished in 1901 but probably written earlier—reflects the exoticism that pervaded writings about the fair. 


Entrance to the Turkish Village on the midway of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Most of the village closed for Yom Kippur.


YOM KIPPUR ON THE MIDWAY
By Isidor Lewi

About four-fifths of the inhabitants of the Turkish village on the Midway Plaisance at the Chicago Exposition were Jews. Merchants, clerks, actors, servants, musicians, and even the dancing girls, were of the Mosaic faith, though their looks and garb would lead one to believe them Mohammedans. That their Judaism was not of the passive character was demonstrated by the closed booths, shops, and curio places, by the silence in the otherwise noisy theaters and the general Sabbath day air which pervaded the “Streets of Constantinople” on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement.

A more unique observance of the day never occurred in this country, and to the few Americans who had the good fortune to be present it presented a picture of rare beauty and solemnity.

The Turkish mosque was so arranged that it could be used as a Jewish house of worship also—the paraphernalia was all there and the Moslem is liberal enough to allow religious service other than his own to take place in his houses of worship—a point which he thinks the Western people would do well to ponder.

It was in this gorgeously equipped and dimly lighted mosque that the oriental Jews assembled on Tuesday evening, September 19, 1893, and read the Kol Nidra service. A screen of carved wood was placed across one corner of the mosque, and behind this the women, robed in white, with Continue reading