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

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

“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

Jewish women beyond the balcony, Pt. 1: Romania

In a Jewish magazine from the 1890s, I recently spotted a letter to the editor from a Sephardic Jew in Romania. It was like many other letters in old periodicals, except that in the middle, he slipped in this gem of a story about an Ashkenazic shul in Bucharest:


…During the High Holidays, I attended a Selichot service at an Ashkenazic synagogue at 2 o’clock in the morning, attracted there by a strange event that, at least to me, was completely new. This is because the chanting of Selichot was performed by a woman, with a self-assurance and a voice that would put the most talented Hazzan [cantor] to shame. Strangely, not only was the Hazzan a woman, but so was the person serving as Shamash, and so was the whole congregation. This happened daily at 2 a.m., and we men had to remain segregated. Honestly, it was curiously interesting to note the devotion and silence with which the congregants listened to their officiant praying. The Kaddish, however, was not included…

—Haim Cohen, Bucharest, Oct. 23, 1891
Il corriere israelitico, vol. 30, no. 6, p. 132
Translation © 2016 Steven Capsuto


These few sentences tell us so much about what was happening then. On the one hand, some congregations were already seeking ways for women to participate more fully in prayer services (sometimes in segregated services, sometimes not). On the other hand, such services were so rare that even Mr. Cohen, who was very active in Jewish life in a major city, had never heard of such a thing.

This got me thinking about the changing role of women in 19th-century Judaism. And that reminded me of letters in other 19th-century Jewish magazines, which talked about an early form of Italian bat mitzvah, similar to a kind that was already gaining traction in some German synagogues.

So for this week’s main post (which will be online this Wednesday), I’ve translated some letters that appeared in Jewish magazines at the time, describing girls’ religious initiation ceremonies in Italy in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. These group ceremonies, held annually, combined elements of Jewish bar mitzvahs with some of the visual aspects of their Catholic neighbors’ First Holy Communion ceremonies.

Stop by the blog this Wednesday.

Exterior of the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest in 1904

We don’t know what Ashkenazic shul Haim Cohen visited that night, but we do know which Sephardic synagogue he belonged to: the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest (Kahal Kadosh Gadol), seen here in 1904. Built in the 1810s, it was in use until its destruction in a 1941 pogrom.

Book announcement — “Jewish Immigrants in Early 1900s America: A Visitor’s Account,” with 50 vintage pictures

Book cover: "Jewish Immigrants in Early 1900s America"

Fifty vintage photos and illustrations enhance this booklet by political writer Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu. Originally published in French in 1905, it’s the text of a talk he gave shortly after his two-month visit to America.

Leroy-Beaulieu toured Jewish communities in the northeastern U.S. in the spring of 1904 to see how the throngs of recent Jewish refugees were doing in the New World. He was so impressed with what he saw that, when he got home to France, he gave this detailed and celebratory talk to the Jewish Studies Association in Paris, kvelling about how Jewish refugees were thriving in “that land of wonders and liberty,” the United States.

This new translation features Continue reading

Tradition and assimilation in a Jewish immigrant family in Boston (1890s)

Mary Antin in 1915

Mary Antin in 1915

This blog will often feature personal narratives written by Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They’re like guest bloggers from our past, telling us their stories.

Today’s “guest” is immigration rights activist Mary Antin (1881-1949), who emigrated from Russia to Boston with her family in the 1890s. In her teens, she wrote a short book about her journey: From Plotzk to Boston (Boston: W.B. Clarke & Co., 1899), which she originally drafted in Yiddish. In the preface, she tells us:


In the year 1891, a mighty wave of the emigration movement swept over all parts of Russia, carrying with it a vast number of the Jewish population to the distant shores of the New World—from tyranny to democracy, from darkness to light, from bondage and persecution to freedom, justice and equality. But the great mass knew nothing of these things; they were going to the foreign world in hopes only of Continue reading