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 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

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

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