On The East Side Of New York
( Originally Published 1924 )
One can go to the territory where a particular nationality has settled, and, traveling and inquiring, living there with them, listening to their dreams and aspirations, analyzing their past, one can make some approach to the truth of their being. But there are as many different Jews as there are nationalities in this world. Chinese Jews, Abyssinian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Turkish Jews, Spanish Jews, Russian Jews, Rumanian Jews, German Jews, English Jews; in short, Jews from everywhere. And each variety of them is in itself a special group, with some of the customs its people have acquired from those with whom they have lived, above their own, which in the process of adaptation to those countries have changed so they are not nearly as like one another as the world supposes them to be. There is a vast difference of character, modus of life, and behavior between the German Jews and the Russian Jews, and still vaster difference between the English and the Russian. And though the Rumanian Jews are neighbors with the Russians and Austrians and the Hungarians in their homeland, separated by a river on the one side, by an arbitrary frontier line on another, and a mountain chain on the third, the difference exists nevertheless. The Jews of one nation are friendly or unfriendly with the Jews of a neighboring nation ac-cording to the friendliness or unfriendliness of the nation with which they live. It is true that in a great calamity, which endangers all the Jews as a race, they all come together and act in concerted manner, but in the every-day life there is anything but similarity, anything but friendliness, between Jews of different nationality. The dispute as to whether the Jews are a race or a nation is still raging among the Jews themselves. I dare not hold an opinion on the subject.
One would like to think of the Jewish quarter in New York, the East Side especially, as if it were Palestine. The Jews have independence and freedom as if they were in their ancestral homeland. They elect judges, senators, congressmen, assemblymen. They practically have their own industrial world, their own institutions, their own hospitals, own charities, own libraries; they have their own political factions and newspapers and magazines.
Yet one cannot help upon first going into the East Side, say from the lower end of it, from as far down as Monroe Street or Cherry Street, beyond which the Italians by slow infiltration have formed one of their quarters, one cannot help noting that that part of the East Side is really a vast Russian territory. One hears on the streets a good deal more Russian talk than Yiddish, and even the Yiddish the people speak is much more corrupted with Russian words than it is with English or any other language.
Briefly sketched, the history of the Jews in America is as follows: A ship loaded a number of Sephardic Jews, some three hundred years ago in New York, when New York was yet New Amsterdam. They had fled the Torquemadas of Spain and gone first to Brazil, where the Portuguese then reigned. And as Brazil was not over-friendly to them, those who escaped the auto da fe em-barked again, seeking a more hospitable shore, in the hope that the Dutch living there might be more tolerant, as tolerant as Holland had been to the Spanish Jew refugees. However, fate was again unkind. Peter Stuyvesant was then the head of the city, and he was unfriendly to all non-Dutch people, and still more so to Jews. He argued in council they should not be allowed to remain here, for they were "the scum of the earth."
But the Jews weathered the first storm, worked hard, and prospered. Fearing to antagonize the rest of the population, they built their huts a little westward, eastward, and northward of the other settlers. Humble, hard-working, and saving, they prospered and multiplied and were in time, as the attitude of the burghers toward them changed, looked upon with more favorable eyes than at first. The first cemetery they erected on Oliver Street was frequently defiled by the neighbors and was the cause of much dispute, although it was farther away from the town than any other cemetery. It was practically at the foot of a hill which rose then in that neighborhood, and as near the marshes which were formed by the Kolk, the sweet-water pond which is now Canal Street, and water seeped frequently into the graves. It is because of that that the cemetery was built on an elevation, the ground being probably raised artificially so as to keep it above the seeping waters.
Later on, when the English replaced the Dutch and the city spread westward, the Jews followed the tide. There is another cemetery, the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery, at Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue, back of a pastry-shop, which shows that. But though the English had treated them fairly, most of the Jews were Rebels and warred for independence. They thought that their haven of refuge should be an independent nation, and the wealthy merchant Haym Salomon put all his fortune at the disposal of Washington. There were probably a good many other merchants who had contributed to the Salomon fund, although such a thing is not recorded anywhere.
With the first large German immigration, with the forty-eighters of Germany, there came a number of German Jews, a very cultured element at first, among them the lamented Professor Jacobi. In their wake followed a merchant element from the same country, who, having for many decades previously been trading with the Dutch and English, were better suited to do business with these people then living here, and laid the foundation of the later great fortunes made here by the German Jews, first, so to say, freeing themselves of many imports with which they had burdened themselves. Clerks of the great merchant stores, dealers from Leipsic and Munich soon afterward, after coming here, saw the great opportunity awaiting founders of a clothing industry in this country.
Humbly following the German Jews, mostly merchants, there arrived great masses of Russian Jews, mostly working-men, tailors and weavers, from the great Russian centers. The German Jews put them to tailoring work in the factories and shops; the trade was sectionalized. The sewing-machine had meanwhile made its appearance, and with its help the great factories employing hundreds and thou-sands of men were beginning to turn out clothing for the whole country. Raw material was still imported from England and Germany, but soon after that even this was remedied, and the great worsted factories and cotton-mills were established here.
Attracted by the reports of fabulous wealth and the tremendous earnings of working-men, and because of the persecution in Russia and in Galicia, waves of Jews, comparable only to the great exodus spoken of in the Bible, left Europe to come to work here in the factories established by the German Jews.
Russian and Galician Jews, who had lived on a much lower standard at home than the German Jews, saved considerably from their meager wages. In the first flush of ambition they worked so hard that hundreds, nay, thou-sands, of them perished of the white plague from over-work, bad housing, and underfeeding, in the attempt to accumulate enough wealth to establish themselves in business—sweat-shops in which the newly arrived immigrants were exploited by people from their own villages, importation of cheap labor, child labor, sixteen-hour work-days under the most impossible conditions, in rickety dark shops, which were shops only in the daytime—for at night the owner and his family slept in these windowless houses—with, as a general rule, no sanitary conveniences. These people slaved and slaved, until the ones who had risen to the top superseded the German manufacturers, underbid them, undersold them, because they managed their labor much more cheaply than the Germans, because they knew how to exploit it better; and in a decade the whole industry passed from the hands of the German into the hands of the Russian Jews.
Parallel with the clothing industry, the women's dress industry, the underwear and shirt industry, followed suit.
The Sephardic Jews who had first come here were overwhelmed by the first numbers of the German Jews, with whom, because of their character, they were unable to compete. The Sephardic Jew is too contemplative and Oriental. The German Jews on arriving here had come with their intellectual leaders. They had been as a matter of fact already so thoroughly assimilated in Germany that they were much more German than Jewish, and although the German population here was not over-friendly to them they were content and satisfied with whatever culture they had brought with them. Heine, Goethe, Schiller, Grillparzer, and the rest of the German romanticists and poets were their intellectual fare, next only to the rather perfunctory religious exercises in their temples.
It so happened that at the same time with the Russian Jews' immigration, there also happened a great political exodus. Those were the days of the nihilists in Russia, in which the young Jews had played a very important role. Escaped from Siberia, escaped from other places of exile, from the mines of Saghalin and the mines of Kamchatka, Russian Jewish university students, sometimes more Russian than Jewish, and at other times more Jewish than Russian, thronged here, mostly because their relatives and parents had preceded them, and sometimes because there was no other place to go. London and Paris had mean-while become like midway stations on the way to Mecca.
On the one hand the Russian Jewish merchants built up a tremendous industry, and on the other hand from their own midst those who had formerly languished in the prisons of the czar for the betterment of the Russian
muzhik now began to fight with the same energy against the sweat-shop exploiters here. It was they who organized the big trades-unions. It is they who are the foundation of the big socialist movement in this city. Strike succeeded strike; and strikes were not the polite affairs they are to-day. It was a question of life and death. A good many of these intellectual leaders, fiery, idealistic, passed over into the movements of other industries in which people of other than their own nationality were engaged.
In this striving and battle they established their own culture, a revolutionary culture in Yiddish. The English language had meanwhile remained more or less of a mystery to them. One could address his own people only in their own language. And as a good many of these Russian Jewish students had never known Yiddish, they set about and learned it in order to be able to help their people. Most of the editors of the Yiddish newspapers—and some of them are still conducting these newspapers—learned Yiddish in this country, because it was expedient, because it was immediately necessary. The Russian Jews' philosophy is expediency. It was only in their intimacy that they pursued the culture of their own language, which was Russian. It is owing to them that Russian literature, Russian music, and Russian art had such a tremendous impetus in this country.
Today there are five newspapers printed in Yiddish, several Russian newspapers edited by Jews, several magazines, a dozen Yiddish theaters in Greater New York (which Yiddish theaters are the source of all the Yiddish theaters of the country) ; there has sprung up a whole Yid-dish literature in America which at its best can hold its head with any literature in the world. The East Side is the cradle of all this culture.
If you care to go from Greece to the Jewish down-town quarter, the matter is a very easy one. Walk back to the elevated and continue your way up to Grand Street, after passing at your right the magnificent entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. Perhaps the best. time to go there would be toward evening, when the thousands upon thousands of people arriving from all directions stream homeward in a hurry. Seeing Manhattan Bridge with its magnificent wide plaza, at the entrance, you might think it a good deal too beautiful for the innumerable trucks that pass over it in such a disdainful and careless way, with no regard, with no sentiment for its pillars and porticos that rise so elegantly and eloquently from the flat, large base, turning semicircularly around it.
There is great temptation to turn into Canal Street because of the whirling color about you, the whirling color and noise and bustle, and that imitation of Broadway on the right- and left-hand side of the street, caused by the stores and jewelry shops, and big electric signs everywhere. But we shall come back here soon. Do not stop, for there might be some religious procession at your left hand from the Italian quarter just passing the other side of the street, with children holding big lighted wax candles in their hands and some ikon under a baldaquin of red silk carried by little girls holding on to white poles.
Just walk on until you reach Grand Street under the elevated railway overhead. Then turn to the right. You are now exactly on the spot which was once the summit of a hill from which the early settlers used to espy the country about them when they were warring with the Indians. From here one could have seen the whole island with the undulating valleys and hills about it, and the little gurgling streams that covered network-like the Manhattan Island. Streams and outlets, fresh-water and salt-water ponds, with the largest one, the Kolk, right at the foot of the hill. There are tomahawks and stone axes still being found every time foundations are dug in this neighborhood. It must have been a good battle-ground for the Manhattan Indians, for they were anything but a peaceful tribe. Much of this spirit, multiplied a thousandfold, seizes any one as soon as he enters Manhattan. It is something hovering in the air, contagious, compelling.
We are now on Jewish Main Street. Both sides are lined with push-carts which groan with wares of all kinds. Although there are stores, large stores, selling the self-same wares inside, which are also exposed in the windows, the push-cart trade is brisker than the indoor one. You will see expensive furs and jewels and art objects, fine laces, antiques, pell-mell with holy prayer-shawls, rugs, neckties,' perfumes, and needles and thread, one near the other, one on top of the other, in a continual riot of color ; thrown pell-mell as if some ship had suddenly been emptied in haste after it had gone on the rocks. There seems to be no order. The push-cart venders call out their wares in a Babel of tongues, in the singsong of the Talmud and the wailing of the prayer of the Day of Atonement. Bearded men and mustached men, blond men and high-cheekboned men, with their wives, stout and thick, and their daughters, bob-haired and trim, stand behind the glare of the burning white light of the acetylene lamps, yelling, talking, calling, and singing while dealing and bargaining with the customers pressing around them. One is carried along by the wave of humanity pressing homeward and from all sides. If one wants to buy something at a push-cart one holds on to it as if firm ground in an attempt to get to the shore had suddenly been struck.
A little further is the old Grand Street Theater, now a moving-picture and vaudeville house, which had once been too far up town for the Jews to go to and which is now too far down town. Walk on further down. The tide lets up, for the home-corners diverge into the side streets, and you have more leisure to look at the expensive and beautiful things in the windows of the stores. If you think you can pick up bargains there you may be mistaken, for Grand Street is as expensive as Fifth Avenue and Broadway. But you may find better workmanship. Grand Street knows, for those who buy the expensive dresses and gowns have only yesterday been the ones who have made them in sweat-shops and factories. Jewish women dress and jewel above their means.
You come, on crossing the street, upon several book-stores, the finest one kept by Mr. Maisel, where you may find things you cannot find in any other book-store. A little further down is the Neighborhood Playhouse, founded and built by the Lewisohn sisters. There may be a bill on of which you have not read in the theatrical advertisements in the papers. But you will after inquiry find out that it may be so only because it is much too highbrow for Broad-way. You will feel a different atmosphere on entering the theater. The very sight of Joe Davidson's engraved tab-lets in the vestibule will compel you to know you are at a theater that is different. Ibsen, Bjornson, Hamsun, O'Neill, the best and the newest in the drama of every land has at some time or other been played there by non-professional actors picked and trained from the neighborhood—actors very often superior to some of the most highly praised talent on the professional stage. The incidental music is a delight to hear, and if there is anything at all to be said against it, it is that the place is all too well patronized by the people from up town, by the wealthy patrons and friends of the place, instead of being visited by the people of the neighborhood. The East Side is educating the rest of the city to better theatrical fare.
Turn again to your right and hurry through any of the streets without much looking to the right or the left, until you reach East Broadway, at the corner of Division Street. There is a little coffee-house there which from the outside looks in no way different from any other coffee-house in the neighborhood. It requires no particular audacity to go in and inspect it from the inside. Strangers are welcome. I have been there so frequently that the third table from the window has grooves in the marble top from the frequent resting of my elbows. Nowhere else am I as comfortable.
Each patron of the place has his favorite table, to which he comes to sit at fixed hours. The first one belongs to Abram Raisin, the Yiddish poet. Gray-haired, dark-faced, slender, his black eyes look at one piercingly, penetratingly, then cover themselves with a misty film ; transported as suddenly to another world as if he were in complete solitude. He is undoubtedly at present the greatest living Jewish poet. His songs, set to music, are sung by all the millions of people speaking Yiddish.
Although in his fifties, he is young and alert. The entrance of a fair lady attracts his attention, and, leaving his admirers at a table in the midst of a conversation, he would approach her and inquire and cover her with a thousand delicate flatteries.
The younger poets show him their manuscripts; what they have done or are doing is first shown to him, and Raisin reads everything before it has gone to print. He offers his praise as frankly as he censures, pointing out defects, arguing, teaching, as if the coffee-house were some college and he the professor.
The table next to Raisin belongs to David Pinski, the dramatist, whose works have been translated into English. Pinski is the very opposite of Raisin. He is shy and reticent, seldom speaking in praise or blame in public. Though he has been here a matter of some thirty years, he will pick his English carefully when he wants to say something.
Sholem Ash, the other playwright, and one of the very finest prosateurs in Yiddish, wanders from one table to the other, laughing and talking with Raisin, but very serious in his conversation with Pinski. Boisterous Sholem Ash, always just returned from some long travel in Europe, will have something to say, and he will say it thunderously; for even in his individual conversation he talks as if he were addressing an audience.
There are many other notables who come to that cafe. It is the center of all Jewish culture in America. The place was once owned by a lover of literature and the theater. It is now run on a more businesslike basis; but tea or coffee is five cents a cup, and the rest of the food, though good, is equally reasonable in price.
One day on going to my table I found it occupied. I exchanged glances with the waiter. The face of the intruder, a middle-aged man of the cast and build of a Russian peasant, was so stern and forbidding that Henry, the waiter, did not dare to ask him to give up his place. I saw he could not bring himself to do it.
For the first time in years I tried to drink my tea at another table. But the tea was not half as good; the chair was too high; the place was too noisy. The peasant-looking man was staring vacantly at the white marble top, while his tea was cooling.
Then the telephone-bell rang and the waiter called out: "Matteo Bensman! Mr. Matteo Bensman !"
The man's face lit up suddenly. "Bensman," he said; "I am Bensman." And he went to the telephone booth.
Bensman! In Paris my music teacher had spoken to me about a great composer of that name. Could it be that the great Bensman was sitting there unknown to any of the patrons? Why had no paper in town reported his arrival?
When Bensman returned to finish his tea I was sitting opposite his place.
"Mr. Bensman?" I inquired.
"Yes," he answered, still standing up.
"I know you by reputation."
"So!" he exclaimed, and sat down, placing his elbows in the grooves I had made in the marble top. My grooves ! And then we talked about many things. He had just arrived from abroad, about a month before, and was en-countering difficulty establishing contact with the powers in the musical world of our city.
In 1905 Bensman had won the Verdi prize with his oratorio. His "Opera Nova" was produced there with great success. His violin concerto was played by every great European master in the principal cities of the Old World.
His "Palestine," a symphony with ballet, was performed forty times in one year.
But here the great maestro was neglected, as Wagner had been neglected, as Mascagni had been driven to desperation. And he was sitting at my table and complaining bitterly.
"And what have you done to come into contact with conductors?" I asked. "Have you written to them?"
"I? I? Why should I do anything? They should know I am here. It 's to their interest." Childlike, he sulked and pouted.
"They should know. They should come to look for me, no matter where I am. They should come here to look for me. I am the maestro. I am the creator ; they are only the middlemen between the creator and the public."
And so the great Bensman was waiting for Gatti-Casazza, Bodanzky, or Damrosch in that little restaurant where he deepened the grooves I had made with my elbows on the table.
And they did not come quickly enough. Matteo Bens-man starved. He died the night they gave a first performance of his symphony at Carnegie Hall.
Around the corner from the cafe is the office of the "New Truth," edited by L. E. Miller. Mr. Miller himself is one of the first intellectuals who came here in the wake of the great immigration of thirty years ago. Though a university student, his first occupation in this country was that of a shirt-sleeve maker. Short, well built, with piercing black eyes and a florid face, of which the wide brow is the most prominent part, he laughed, telling me the story:
"A German Jew taught me shirt-sleeve making. Satisfied after my third or fourth day of work, he called the other people of the shop to see how well I had put in a sleeve and said, `The time will come when this young man here will be able to make a whole shirt.' "
Miller is most certainly the best and wittiest and sharpest editorial writer of the Yiddish press, which has since the very beginning, when he was its father, multiplied like the proverbial sand of the sea and stars of heaven. An essay of his, printed in "The Century Magazine," called "A Nation of Hamlets," is a masterful study of the Russian people. The past can be understood and the future deduced.
Further down the street is the office of "Forward," the socialist paper, of which Abram Cahan is the editor. To-day those who have founded the paper and been its first readers while working in sweat-shops and factories have become themselves the owners of shops and factories. A good many of them are very wealthy landowners, living up town, kings of industry, but they still read the socialist paper. It 's a habit. They could themselves when necessary talk as much against exploitation as if they themselves were still working-men. Yet they are the bitterest foes during a strike, fighting the movement they started. Abe Cahan, who still prefers speaking Russian to any other language, came to this country at about the same time as L. E. Miller. In fact, they were members of the same group. Several of his books in English, especially "Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto" and "The Rise of David Levinsky," though thoroughly in the Russian manner, deal with the most despicable characters of American Jewry.
"Forward" is one of the most feared papers on the East Side. It can make or unmake people according to its whim or appreciation. It can make and unmake plays. Woe to the one who has ever antagonized it, politically or in any other way! Two eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth. It is feared more because of its power than because of its strength.
Further below is the office of "The Day," a paper founded by Herman Bernstein but now edited by William Edlin, "Gentleman Edlin," as he is called in the neighbor-hood. Mr. Edlin was the friend of Jack London during the latter's school-days. The readers of "The Day" are those who have more or less assimilated themselves in America and are still desirous of holding on to everything that is Jewish. It has also a wide circulation among the newly arrived intellectuals from Russia.
Next door to "The Day" is the office of the "Jewish Daily News," the oldest paper, the first owner of which used to sell his paper himself on the streets of the East Side, after having written and printed it, meanwhile peddling also other things. It is now one of the wealthiest papers.
There is another paper also, the only morning paper, the "Jewish Morning Journal," which has been inherited by the sons and nephews of the original founder. It is an orthodox religious paper, the policy of which is directed by Peter Wiernikl, whose book on American Jews in this country is probably the most authoritative one. But these nephews and present owners are hardly able to read what is being printed in their own paper, ignorant as they are of the Yiddish language. To the founder it was an ideal, to them a splendid business.
There are also a number of other Jewish publications, magazines, all clustered down together along East Broad-way, within a stone's-throw of one another, forming the Yiddish Park Row and facing Seward Park, across which is the largest American public school in existence. Seward Park is like an open-air forum, where from early morning till late at night bearded men with their tool-bags under one arm and prayer-bags under the other are discussing the policies of the world, as well as the interpretation of passages in the Talmud and the Bible; while the youngsters of the neighborhood do their courting, between games of baseball and football and foot-races that are being organized by the teachers from the neighborhood schools.
Across the park, at Jefferson Street and East Broadway, is the brick building of the Educational Alliance, founded by German Jews in the Russian Jewish district in order to help the assimilation of the people. How far it has succeeded can be known by listening to the people talking on the street. Like St. Mark's Church, which in order to attract people has had to give itself over to the advancement of the arts, the Educational Alliance has had to do the same. The youngsters of the neighborhood are much more interested in art than they are in religion of any kind. There is a very ably conducted art school in the Educational Alliance. Abe Ostrowsky and Auerbach Levy are staff teachers. Its drawing and painting classes are frequented by hundreds of people in the evening, working-men returning from shops and factories, some still in their overalls, anxious to work before they have taken their evening meal. The whole neighborhood is teeming with young artists, the future great artists of America. It is from this district that came such celebrated singers as Alma Gluck and Sophie Braslau, players like Mischa Levitzki, Max Rosen, and Maximilian Rose. There is not a house, no matter how poor it be, where there is not an easel, a piano, or a violin, and where the hope of the whole family is not pinned on one of the younger set as a future genius. Indeed, the question in the neighborhood when two fathers meet is:
"What is your son?"
"A player of the violin."
"And who is his teacher?"
"What is your daughter?"
"A player of the violin."
"And who is her teacher?"
And teachers . . . but that is another story.
But this is only the intellectual Main Street of the East Side Jewry. Back of that, on Henry and Monroe Streets, and Cherry Street, Madison Street, and 'way down to the East River, there live the sweat-shop workers of the mil-lion and a half Jews in this city. They sleep in windowless rooms after a day of terrible toil. Airless, cold, under-clothed and undernourished, they are the ones who form the block-around line at every concert, shivering in the cold, wet to the skin in the rain, waiting to hear this or that or the other opera, with which they are more familiar and from which they derive more genuine pleasure than the people in the horseshoe. Watch a performance of Heifetz, of Mischa Elman, of Zimbalist, or any of the other great players, and you will feel what great desires animate these shop-workers.
On Second Avenue, which is the white-light district of the Jewry, there are several Yid-dish theaters, which, though originally started in the lower East Side, have moved further up town. The farthest one is the Jewish Art Theater, which has won its spurs with our English-speaking audience also. Half of the audience of the Jewish Art Theater is frequently Gentile. It is in this theater that its director, Joseph Schwarz, himself no mean artist, has given plays by Andreev and Ibsen and Chekhov long before the Moscow Art Theater had appeared. It is from this theater that graduated Jacob Ben Ami and Celia Adler, and this is where played the Schildkrauts, father and son, and a host of others too numerous to mention. And Mark Schweide, undoubtedly the best character comedian, combines the profession of actor with that of essayist and poet.
Among the Jewish theatrical critics largely responsible for the present better class of plays acted in the neighbor-hood theaters is I. Friedman, whose witty and trenchant pen has been the cause of the elimination of many a trashy thing from the theater.
But this is largely Russian Jewry only. Its district is apart from the Jewry of other nations living in this city. Below them on the other side of Grand Street and below Avenue A is the Galician and Polish district, with men and women who still believe in miracle rabbis abounding in the neighorhood, the men with side-locks and long caftans and the women with wigs over their hair, which was shorn the day of their weddings. And farther up, encompassing the district from Delancey Street to Houston Street and First Street, and westward to Second Avenue, is the region of the Rumanian Jews, distinguished from the others by the number of cafes and dancing-places, and also by the number of libraries, one of which, the Rivington Street Branch, has the most complete Rumanian library in the city.
At Greenberg's and at Moskowitz's you can hear Rumanian music, haunting melodies, tripping dances, while you eat the highly spiced food waiting for Mr. Volstead's amendment to be forgotten. But nothing is as typically Jewish, typically because it is of all nations, as the market-place under the Delancey Street Bridge or the push-cart section of Orchard Street. Everything under the sun litters the sidewalks and the push-carts: expensive overcoats, pianolas, jewelry, radishes, onions, silk shirts, stockings, corsets, and even the most intimate wearing apparel is sold in the open by the bargaining dealers, whose asking price is at least three times the selling one.
You can pick up some beautiful Russian candelabra and other antiques, brought by families who have discarded them in favor of some trivial New-York-made thing. Bits of rugs and lace, Paisley shawls and other things, brought from the far corners of the earth, are to be found there; not always at reasonable prices, for there have been too many amateurs who have descended lately upon that district, and the venders have learned the value from the increasing demand for such things.
The Delancey Street Fish-market on Thursday or Fri-day gives one the impression that all the seas in the neighborhood have suddenly been emptied upon the slimy cement floor under the bridge. Fishmongers of all nations are proverbially alike. Fat, ruddy, coarse, and quick. Although it is in the Yiddish district, people come from everywhere on Thursday and Friday. The wares are hawked in a hundred different languages, shrilly in every possible voice, by men and women and children.
The poorest of the poor live right and left at the foot of the bridge, on Goerck Street and Lewis Street, where the lower floors are occupied by rag-sorters, with the stench of all the garbage-cans of the world in one's nostrils, and in dilapidated houses, from which the next habitat is one of the consumptive hospitals of the country. Really it would be a great public saving for these institutions if they were to obtain means to raze that part of the city. It could be dumped into the barges of the D. S. C. at the near-by East River to great advantage, with the garbage of the city.
Lewis Street was originally an Irish district. When the Jews began to occupy it there were sanguinary battles, until by sheer numbers and because they offered higher rents the Irish had been pressed up further. But now the Italians are doing the same thing the Jews have done. They are pressing further and further. Upon the painted signs of former Jewish grocery stores can still be seen the Hebrew letters under the Italian "Grocerias."
It would be idle to say that this district has only furnished artists and cultured men. It has also been the home or the stamping-ground of gangsters and thieves, some of whom have already paid their debt to society. The wonder is that there have not been many more, if one takes into consideration the conditions of life there. I know of one home in which the eldest son is a doctor of theology and the youngest son is a pickpocket, while of the two daughters one is a celebrated pianist and one a street woman. I know another home where out of nine children three are prominent business men, three died in consumptive hospitals, and the last three moved away with their families to Riverside Drive and have become charity workers.
The Henry Street Settlement, the Riving-ton Street Settlement, and all the other settlements in the neighborhood, because of the poverty of the newly arrived, bewildered immigrant, can do very little. There is little one can say to men and women who work in impossible sweat-shops twelve hours a day for less than a living wage, or to people who have to make out of their homes a workshop, carrying from the large factories bundles of trousers and coats to finish at night. There is little that can be told to a child who has to help his mother to work on coming from school. Charities only pauperize the people they try to help. The only thought of those who still have strength after a few years of living in this country is to get on commercially and get on financially, and to run away from where they are. The Jews in Harlem, the Jews in the Bronx, on Morningside and Riverside Drives, are the ones who have left all that behind them. It is they who have built up the Bronx from a wilderness into a borough. It is they who have built up the tremendous apartment-houses on Riverside Drive.
A million and a half of people of one race, though of different nationalities, in one city. All the faults of a whole nation are to be found within them, as well as all the virtues.
The Moroccan and Greek Jews living under the elevated along Allen Street, Allen Street where the sun never penetrates and the night is only a little darker than the day, and which was not long ago a red-light district, have apparently little in common with the other Jews. They have their own synagogue, their own newspaper. They are in touch with the original Portuguese Jews who came to this country first and who have now spread all over the city, the home of these Portuguese Jews having originally been, around where Washington Square now stands. These Moroccan Jews, looking as unlike the other Jews as if they were not of the same source and origin, indeed looking like Moroccans themselves, are slowly filtering westward, spreading toward Third Avenue, mingling with the Italians with whom they seem to be nearer akin than with any other people.
Of the numerous synagogues in the neighborhood there are many which were once churches, and were abandoned by their congregations, who moved further up town, driven by the Jewish invasion. A number of these churches of different denominations, though still nominally in existence, have less than a handful of active members. Indeed, St. Mark's Church, until it had got on to the spirit of the people about it, had had its pews practically abandoned and empty. To-day with its statuary in the churchyard and its pointed facade which makes it look more like a medieval French building than a modern one, its pews are steadily occupied by those who think more of their own intellectual advancement than of religious segregation.
Hemmed in between the East River that runs from the south to the east of the city and that other river of steel, the elevated, that runs upward on Third Avenue, in that voluntary Ghetto called the East Side, is perhaps the best reproduction of what Jerusalem was once and what Jerusalem might be. Here are to be found men of the type of Isaiah and Jesus, preachers, self-immolators; and the Sadducees and Pharisees who pray on the street corners are here represented by the soap-box politicians holding forth each near the other.
As after a long thirst the traveler is never satiated with the water he has suddenly found, so have these East Side Jews never satiated themselves with their newly granted political rights. Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives, Anarchists, Bolshevists, Communists, of all kinds are in continual dispute, shouting imprecations across the street to one another from the platforms or the rear ends of trucks at election time. And yet those same elements, so vitally interested in the politics of the country, find their real recreation in dreams of the times in which they lived in the countries of their birth. There is a Hungarian coffee-house in which Reigel, the celebrated Gipsy violinist, is playing Hungarian songs to those who did not fare any too well in Hungary. At the Russian Bear, on Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street, they crowd the place to hear the Russian Balalaika Orchestra play the Russian folk-songs, the songs sung by the same muzhiks who only yesterday killed so many of the relatives of the ones singing them here now. At Moskowitz's on Houston Street the Rumanian Jews sing at the top of their voices the songs of the country they left for more than one reason. There are Polish music-halls where the Jews of Poland gather and sing. There are book-stores, carrying books exclusively each of a particular language, the language of the people in whose neighborhood the book-store happens to be. And though there are other Ghettos they are but the arm stretched out, grasping at something, while the body remains there on the East Side.
In the hectic going and coming, in the continual whirl and noise, and the babble of buyer and seller, there is too much movement for any sensation of sadness. Houses of that district, which only until yesterday were mostly dilapidated old shanties, are slowly growing up and becoming modernized, owned frequently by those who formerly lived in the dark basements of the selfsame places.
And stretching across the river, through the Delancey Street Bridge and under it, the arm still goes further, rounding up on the other shore as if it were merely across the Jordan, making of the quiet and peaceful Williams-burg district in Brooklyn another wing of the great Ghetto. It pulses of its own life. Poverty there is not as prominent as in any other district. It is less than one generation between shirt-sleeves and shirt-sleeves. True, it vomits forth from time to time the worst that is in it. You may have to guard your pockets tightly while passing along its densely populated streets, but they are densely populated because of the toiling many going back and forth. The East Side, which to many, and to most until a few years ago, was akin to the slums of a city, is now fast be-coming something else. Poverty is absorbed much faster here than elsewhere.
Already one can see the strong mixture of several peoples; propinquity is doing its work. Children of mixed marriages, marriages between Italians and Jews, Poles and Jews, Russians and Jews, and Americans and Jews are no longer a rarity anywhere. The curious mixture of black hair and blue eyes, and of blond hair and black eyes, of high cheek-bones and round chins, is becoming more and more an every-day occurrence among those people. But the other half never seems to count with such children. No matter what the mixture, they still remain Jews, partly so because they are considered such by the people with whom they come in contact, and partly because of other reasons too manifold and complicated to discuss here. Though the up-town and the Riverside Drive Jews have abandoned the outward appearances by which they were commonly recognized, eager as they are to assimilate them-selves with the rest of the population, the street inhabited by them is as easily distinguishable from the next street inhabited by another nation as if one had suddenly passed from one country into another. Nay, even when the people are not on the street a glance upward to the windows would surely in some way betray the building which houses the children of Israel.
A million and a half of Jews of all nations and of all degrees of culture, assembled in one city, most of them thrown in one district. A whole race, with all its elements, the worst and the best, most of them, though yearning for a new condition, still longing back to the old one, the present generation nothing but a midway station between what has been and what is to be.
The first Italian ice-wood-coal cellarman who located on Cherry Street gave ample warning to the neighborhood, which was Jewish, of what was to follow. A few months later an Italian grocer moved in. And shortly afterward the old, bearded fellows of the neighborhood dared not go out after dark. The Jewish barber, who knew how to give a hair-cut without violating the ritual by shortening the side-locks, also had to make room for a mandolin-playing son of Napoli la Bella. And in a year all the street, except one block, was thoroughly Italianized.
In that block, very near the East River, lived Nathan Berman. He was there before the invasion. In fact, he was left over from a group of immigrants of which every one had become wealthy. He alone had put the left foot first when he stepped on these shores. Not a single thing that he had undertaken but went to the rocks. His old friends had tried in vain to lift him out of the mire of poverty. His feet were as if glued to misery. It got to be known that there was no use helping him. A curse pre-ceded and followed and hung over everything he did or intended to do.
It seemed that the same curse also followed his children. Though they were healthy and of the average kind, they' had no luck. In school the teachers paid no attention to' them. The other children did not chum much with the red-haired Bermans. When Bessie was sixteen and worked at shirt-waists she was idle half the time. Strikes and city ordinances closed up the shop. She was not to be thrown away either, Bessie; but the boys did not take to her. She was without a sweetheart until she was eighteen, when she married a widower thirty years older than herself.
The Berman boys, two of them, had no better luck. Sad-eyed, slow, plodding printers both of them.
Mother Berman had no time to think of her misfortune. She had too much work to do. She kept the rooms so clean one could mirror oneself in everything.
Nathan Berman sold coal and ice to the Jewish families of his block. When he was not delivering a bag of coal or a chunk of ice he was chopping wood for kindlings. He had settled down to such work for the rest of his life. He never smiled, never laughed. In fact none of the Bermans ever smiled or laughed. This may even have been the cause of their misfortune.
As the Italian invasion became more pronounced, the Italian coal and ice men began to take over the cellar trade. In the summer they threw crusts of watermelons after Nathan Berman. In the winter they bombarded him with snowballs. The little slate and pencil that hung on the cellar door for customers to write their orders on during Berman's absence disappeared every day. It was nothing but ill wind and curses and attacks from the invaders. The Jewish coal man became even sadder than before. He was continually surrounded by enemies. Every non-Jew was his enemy. He began to fear for his life as well as his livelihood. It was with great difficulty that his block held its own.
Then one day Nathan Berman wandered out from his dark hole into the sunshine. It was a cold and crisp morning. The windows of the Italian stores of the neighborhood were resplendent with colored glazed confectionery set between green pine twigs. The street had taken on a different air. . Joe, the terror of the neighborhood, greeted him with a friendly, "Hullo, you old Jew !"
A little further Berman's business competitor, a swarthy Sicilian, stood in front of his cellar in his best clothes and smiled at him.
"Hullo, Nathan; come have a drink." He dared not refuse.
In the coffee-house everybody was friendly. They slapped him on the shoulder. They begged him to drink with them; and before he had left the place Marino, the barber, had filled his pocket with long, black cigars.
Berman walked out into the sunshine again. There was something gay and green in every window. There was something friendly in everything and everybody. He thought of his wife as he !it one of the cigars that were given him.
It was a gift. He had never before received a gift. People had helped him with loans, and even if he had never paid them back, the debt was still there.
He had never made a gift to any one. He had given when it was his duty to give. He had never experienced the pleasure of giving—giving only for the pleasure of giving.
A smile dawned faintly on his face. He felt so nice and warm. He had never made a gift to his wife. Of course, he provided her with what he could, but he had never given her anything unasked.
"Oi! Oi! Oi !" wailed his wife a little later, when Nathan Berman appeared in the doorway with a few packages and a Christmas tree under his arm. "Oi! Oi ! Oi! He has betrayed his faith !" she yelled as she barred the way.
The neighbors assembled. Nathan Berman tried to ex-plain but only succeeded in smiling. It transfigured him. That red beard of his shone as if it were oiled with gold. His wife looked at him. His children looked at him. They did not recognize him. They had never known he could smile!
He smiled as he begged them to take his gifts and the Christmas tree. But nobody wanted to touch any of it. Still smiling, he slowly descended the stairs to see his friend Marino, who had given him the long black cigar he was smoking.
It was midday, and I was on Second Avenue, watching some excavation. There were mysterious thuds within the empty bowels underneath the street—drillings—hissings, hoistings, and the "hey-ho" of men pulling at a rope.
Suddenly a whistle blew and gray overalled men appeared from below, peered upward like so many prairie-dogs, blinked in the light, wiped the dirt off their hands on their trousers and the sweat from their brows with a movement of the back of the hand, and sat down, some on thick pipes, others on the edge of the sidewalk, to eat their tin-pailed lunch.
Meanwhile two young fellows had erected, at a little distance from each other, two portable speaking platforms and were busy performing the usual faker tricks to attract a crowd from the hurrying host of people rapidly filling the street.
One of the fakers was pulling unending lengths of colored ribbons from his mouth; the other one was playing a funeral march on a trombone. In a few minutes each cif them had the nucleus of a crowd round himself. The ribbon-pulling gentleman had the youngest of the crowd, 'ones who would be the first to arrive at a circus.
He closed his mouth with a sharp bite, swallowed hard, worked his Adam's apple up and down comically as if he were choking. When the giggling had subsided sufficiently this wiry faker uncoated himself in one movement, appearing in a sleeveless athletic shirt, rubbed his hands, and began:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to see a young audience to-day. Why is it that the other kind goes where a funeral march is played? Why do they think of death? It is because they are sick. Why are they sick? Because they have not taken care of themselves. Why have they not taken care of themselves? Because they do not know how. I am the only man in whose possession is the Ponce de Leon elixir of youth, of eternal youth. It is rot a drink, it is not a medicine "
As he spoke his hand worked a cardboard box open, and in a second he had gripped the handles of a gymnastic apparatus and was demonstrating its possibilities.
"Five minutes of this every day, and you will be eternally young and happy."
"My brothers," shouted the other faker, "my brothers, I am just out of a sick-bed. I have been ill all my life, and did not know it. Then, last year, I broke down and the doctors gave me up. I should not be here now. I should be buried seven feet below the ground. But I met an old Hindu, and he gave me something that saved my life. And now, brothers, because it has saved my life I have decided to devote myself to saving yours. You are sick, you are ill, all of you. Not one but "
"Only fifty cents and you shall never lose your vigor," shouted the ribbon-pulling man. "Here, thank you, thank you.,,
"You are sick, you are mortally sick and don't know it. I don't charge for the medicine, only for the bottle, fifteen cents. If any one of you has a bottle— You are all sick! Maybe consumptive, as I have been. Asthmatic! You can't sleep. Thanks. Fifteen cents. Who wants another one? Here, thanks. You are all running fast to your grave. You don't digest well. This medicine will give you health, will save you," hoarsely shouted the funeral-march man and grabbed his trombone again.
"Shut up!" shouted the other one. "What you sell is good for the dead. Nobody needs medicine. What you need is exercise, proper exercise. Shut up. Ladies and gentlemen, this little apparatus selling for only fifty cents "
And so it went on for about an hour. The two men debated at a distance about gymnastics and medicine, each winning away from the other's crowd those who were convinced for prevention and those in favor of cure.
And there were some who had bought both medicine-bottles and gymnastic apparatus. Meanwhile the two enemies shouted at one another, mocked each other, and it looked once as if they were coming to blows.
The lunch-hour was dwindling rapidly. The crowds thinned out. At the stroke of one the two men folded their platforms, put on their coats, and walked away in opposite directions.
A little later, entering a little lunch-room in the neighborhood, I saw them at the same table eating. I sat down next them.
"What do we do to-night, George?" asked the athlete. "To-night? Well, let 's see. It 's Thursday, eh ?" "Yes, of course it 's Thursday."
"How about socialism?"
"How many books do we have?"
"About a hundred."
"You take it, then."
"I 'll do the corn-removers."
"Too bad you haven't got another book to sell against mine !"
"Books- is rotten, anyway. I hope we get rid of them soon."
Then each counted his money from the hour's sales. "Sixty bottles."
"Do you know those fellows?" I asked the waiter a little later, as the two were leaving the place.
"Them? Them is two brothers. The best men in their business."