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

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

“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