Good Metal in Our Melting Pot, Says Miss Wald
Good Metal in Our Melting Pot, Says Miss Wald
By: Edward Marshall
Date: November 16, 1913
About the Author: Edward Marshall was a writer for the New York Times in the 1910s, writing on immigration, drug policy, and other issues for the newspaper.
During the period 1881–1884 Russian pogroms—targeted attacks against Jewish people—ravaged Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Monrovia after the assassination of the Russian leader Tsar Alexander II. The killer was assumed to be Jewish, and the ensuing riots and mob violence spread throughout the Russian empire. The new tsar, Alexander III, wrongly accused the Jewish people of instigating the riots and cracked down on Jews in a series of strident laws restricting Jewish citizens' rights. Russian Jews fled Eastern Europe, and immigration to the United States increased dramatically. These Eastern European Jewish immigrants spoke Yiddish and were Ashkenazi Jews—of German descent—in sharp contrast to many Jewish citizens in the United States, who were Sephardic Jews, descended from Iberian ancestors.
Another wave of pogroms in 1903–1906 left thousands dead from mob violence, and a new group of immigrants reached the United States, settling in large cities such as New York, Cleveland, and Boston, cities with established Jewish neighborhoods. By 1924, more than two million Jews from Eastern Europe had entered the United States, all within a forty-year span.
The impact on American society was dramatic. The new immigrants were largely poor, observant in their religion, and came from rural backgrounds. Thrust into overcrowded city tenements and low-paying wage labor in factories, the Russian Jews changed New York City and alarmed Progressive Era social workers and reformers with their extensive needs.
Eastern European immigration and the Progressive Era are inexorably intertwined in U.S. history; social reformers such as Jane Addams of Hull House and Lillian Wald of Henry Street settlement house looked at the new immigrants with a mixture of compassion, determination, and social science analysis. Part of a group of well-educated women who worked to professionalize and legitimize human service work, women such as Addams and Wald viewed poverty, crime, disease, and poor education not as the product of character flaws, but of social conditions. By changing society—through government initiative, private efforts, or individually with education—such social problems could, in the opinion of Progressive Era reformers, be resolved.
Settlement houses provided new immigrants with shelter, food, social activities, "Americanization," English language classes, and other support. Over time, while prejudice against Jewish immigrants from white Anglo-Saxon citizens persisted, the Eastern European Jewish immigrants gradually became better assimilated into U.S. society.
Lillian Wald, interviewed in a newspaper article from 1913, expressed the opinion of many reformers who worked with Russian immigrants.
Russian Intellectual Hunger
"The effect of years of revolution upon the many Russian girls among them is to give them a solidarity which the American working girl does not possess at all. They have a definite vision of a better society in which opportunity for real life will be made possible: their intellectual hunger is as extraordinary as their love of beauty."
"Life to them is incomplete that offers nothing but hard, grinding, soul-stultifying labor, insufficiently recompensed to put better things within their reach. That they are willing to struggle to attain what they seek is evidenced by the attendance of hordes of them at night school four nights a week after a hard day's work. They must know, of course, that this will sap vitality and make them old before their time; but, however small it may be, they demand something of the glory and beauty of life."
"The divine discontent, the enthusiasm, the hope and the vision of the Russian Jewish girl and woman immigrant have been and are a vastly valuable contribution to America in general and the American labor movement in particular."
"Even the Italian working women, who are notably kept under the guidance and control of their men, whether fathers, brother, or husbands, are beginning now to feel this elevating influence of Jewish women workers."
"The contemptuous attitude of the American people toward the immigrant has cost the nation much. An illustration of it lies in New York's experience with midwives. Although it was demonstrable that 50,000 childbirths every year were attended by midwives and that midwives attended at not less than 98 percent of all Italian births, it was not until 1911 that a definite public plan for the training of midwives in city hospitals was taken up."
"Thus, through many years, midwives, untrained, unsupervised, were permitted to commit their crimes of viciousness or ignorance unchecked, uneducated. Our native population did not suffer, for it did not employ midwives."
"We must find no defense for our indifference in the fact that foreigners are exploited mainly by their own people. That argument was used by those opposed to or lukewarm in regard to the recent admirable campaign against white slavers. The American public through this moral indifference has condoned too many grave offenses. Why can we forget that in to-day's raw immigrant is really hidden tomorrow's citizen, enfranchised and powerful? For our own sake we should protect and educate newcomers."
"To many foreigners indolence in justice, which condones violations of the laws, failures to meet contracts, and that deplorable sort of thing, have come to constitute 'the American way.' Whose fault is this? Not theirs!"
"An interesting aspect of the immigration problem is political assimilation. The Jewish immigrant, with his tradition of persecution, is naturally interested in movements of protest against exploitation and tyranny. You will find him in sympathy, especially the young immigrant, with the Socialist and other radical movements. But the Jewish immigrant adapts himself to our political life; he soon becomes, like the American, a political opportunist."
"His Americanization makes him more conservative, but always in sympathy with independent and progressive political tendencies. The east side has followed progressive, independent leadership, irrespective of party affiliations. The Jewish immigrant responds to an idealistic appeal, especially when that appeal is in favor of freedom from political dependence. The Americanized Jewish immigrant is not closely attached to the machine. He becomes an independent voter. When he moves from his first way-station into quarters that indicate growing prosperity it means increasing political independence."
"The east side is independent in political revivals. But the Bronx is independent normally. The recent election returns will show how strongly anti-Tammany was the vote in those Jewish districts which had been believed to have been captured by Tammany."
I asked Miss Wald to summarize, in some degree, the changes she had seen on the east side during the score of years through which she has watched it.
"Standards of living are definitely higher here than they were twenty years ago," she answered, "in spite of its increased cost. It was once said that if an east side building was provided with bathtubs the tenants would keep coal in them. I never quite subscribed to that."
"My belief has found notable corroboration in the fact that no municipal bath in the world has so great a patronage as ours on the east side, in proportion to the population which it is designed to serve."
"There have been improvements in the quality of the material coming to us. From Russia, for example, we are getting a much more open-minded class than once came to us from there."
"Perhaps because they emigrated rapidly and in large groups at first, virtually stripping their country of their class, Russian immigration now may show fewer splendid individuals from highly intellectual circles than it at first did. These early coming individuals constituted a notable intellectual circle. There were Gordin, the playwright; Abe Kahn of The Jewish Vorwarts, and many scientific men and physicians."
"But the general level of our Russian immigration is far higher than it was some years ago."
Vicious Conditions Here
"Frequent recent statements to the discredit of the Jews of the east side indicate only the demoralization of our own conditions; prove the fact that these have now become so vicious that they can break down even the fine traditions of the Jew. That we should influence for evil the class of immigration which is so notably more susceptible to good than evil is tragic."
"The reduction in infant mortality in the tenements, so notable of late, could never have been wrought had we not had a fine physical foundation on which to work."
"And intellectually the eastside is capable of anything. The standing of the eastside youngsters in the schools attests that. The results among tenement housemothers of the work of the milk stations prove that. At our station we have not found a mother who could not be educated, or who did not want to be. Last year we had an infant mortality of but one-half of one per cent."
"It is my strong conviction that most immigrants who have gone wrong have fallen, first, because of the environment into which we blindly thrust them; second, because our treatment of them does not dignify, does not even recognize, the personality of the individual."
"The American is arrogant. To him an immigrant is a 'dago' or a 'sheeny.' That does great harm."
By the mid 1910s, anti-immigrant sentiment in urban centers had caused problems for immigrants—especially Jewish immigrants. Many Jewish immigrants, as the article notes, supported more progressive political causes and held left-of-center political positions, supporting unions, Socialism, and at times Communism. The United States appealed to Eastern European Jews for a number of reasons: freedom of political thought, economic opportunity, and the lack of registration requirements present in many European countries for Jewish residents. At the same time, nativism increased in urban centers.
Wald's comments on midwives and the tendency for immigrants to be victimized by their own countrymen are reflected in this passage:
We must find no defense for our indifference in the fact that foreigners are exploited mainly by their own people. That argument was used by those opposed to or lukewarm in regard to the recent admirable campaign against white slavers. The American public through this moral indifference has condoned too many grave offenses. Why can we forget that in to-day's raw immigrant is really hidden tomorrow's citizen, enfranchised and powerful? For our own sake we should protect and educate newcomers.
The "Americanization" movement was a strong element in progressive reform thought; social services, education, and proper moral guidance, reformers believed, could help to make immigrants an important part of U.S. society, but more importantly, molded immigrants into a more conventional form that fit into the progressive era's ideal of scientific management and orderly society. At the same time, many Jews were suspicious of offers for assistance from Christians—Protestants in particular—for fear that acceptance of such offers was contingent upon conversion, or that the support had strings attached.
Wald's portrayal of Russian immigrant women as hardworking, devoted to school and work, and a "valuable contribution to America in general and the American labor movement in particular" was a calculated attempt to sway white citizens toward immigration support. By linking Russian Jewish immigrants to the labor movement, Wald tried to use "good" immigrants to bridge the issues of immigration and labor. More than ninety percent of all Russian Jews who left their home countries settled into the United States; absorbing all those workers into the labor force was a painstaking process, coinciding with massive industrial development and strong union coalescence.
The "red scare" of the late 1910s and early 1920s hurt immigrants from all backgrounds, but had a particularly strong impact on Jewish immigrants. The wrongful arrest, conviction, and execution of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti; the American Protection League that gained 250,000 Americans in its membership, all prepared to report anti-American activities to the federal government; and the Palmer Raids that resulted in activist Emma Goldman's deportation—each fed into an insecurity concerning Jewish immigration and assimilation into American society at a time of great upheaval and adaptation in the American economic and social structure.
Chambers, John Whiteclay. The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890–1920. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Friedman-Kasaba, Kathie. Memories of Migration: Gender, Ethnicity, and Work in the Lives of Jewish and Italian Women in New York, 1870–1924. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Hindus, Milton. The Jewish East Side, 1881–1924. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1996.
Wald, Lillian. The House on Henry Street. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.