From Russia to the Lower East Side in the 1890s
From Russia to the Lower East Side in the 1890s
By: Rose Gollup Cohen
Source: Reprinted in Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773–1986. Dublin, Thomas, ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
About the Author: Rose Gollup Cohen (1880–1925) was a Jewish Russian immigrant who arrived in America in 1892 at the age of twelve to join her father who had settled there a year earlier. She lived in a poor Jewish community on New York's Lower East Side and initially worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop. She began writing her autobiography Out of the Shadow soon after she arrived in the United States; it was published in 1918. She continued to write and to publish short stories until her death in 1925.
This is an autobiographical account of a Russian Jewish immigrant's arrival and first experiences of living in America. Rose Gollup Cohen arrived in New York in 1892 as a young girl of twelve years old to join her father who was already living there. The family could not afford to migrate to America together, so Rose's father went first and saved up to pay the fares of his wife and children. Rose's mother reportedly joined them a year later.
Rose's emigration to America was part of a massive wave of Jewish immigration between 1881 and 1914. It was estimated that around two million Eastern European Jews entered the United States at this time. The main reason for the large-scale emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe was the economic and social persecution they were facing at that time, but other contributing factors were population pressures and the growing industrialization which was threatening traditional Jewish communities and livelihoods.
In the nineteenth century the majority of Russian Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement, an area adjacent to Poland that was under the control of Russia and Austria-Hungary. The region was very densely populated, partly due to rapid population growth among the Jewish population at this time and also because of the Russian laws that restricted their residence to this area. It became very difficult for Jews to make a living, because their traditional occupations as middlemen were largely dependent on an agricultural economy, and also because they were banned from working in many of the new sectors of the industrialized economy. As a result, many Jewish families in Russia fell into poverty in the late nineteenth century.
These factors created pressure for migration, but the large scale mass emigration that did occur was sparked off by the violent riots and pogroms against Jewish people that occurred after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, for which the Jews were used as scapegoats, and by the May Laws brought in the following year, which imposed even narrower restrictions on Jewish residence and economic activity.
Although Jews had increasingly been moving out of Russia since the 1870s, most of the earlier migrants settled in European cities such as Berlin and Warsaw. From the 1880s onwards, however, the United States became the most popular destination, and more than eighty percent of all emigrants at this time settled there, mostly in the New York area. Chain migration was very important, with emigrants joining friends who already lived in America. As a result, a very large community of Eastern European Jews developed in New York's Lower East Side, where Rose Gollup Cohen went to live. As noted by Rose and in other sources, the area was almost exclusively Jewish, with Yiddish signs and clothing to be seen everywhere. This area reportedly became the most densely populated urban neighborhood in the world by the early twentieth century. However, despite the retention of some aspects of their Jewish culture, many Jewish immigrants were keen to assimilate into American society and soon adopted American styles of clothing, dropping some of their traditional customs, such as the wearing of long beards by the men and of wigs by married women. This was encouraged by the Jewish community leaders who established programs to help new immigrants integrate into their new country. Rose's autobiography traces her own transition from being shocked at the western appearance of her father when she first arrives in America, to persuading her mother to adopt American clothing when she came to join them a year later.
On arrival in New York, most Jewish immigrants, including young girls such as Rose, had to go out to work, many of them in the garment industries and sewing trades which were dominated by Jewish entrepreneurs. Despite Rose's tender age, it was normal in Jewish society for women and girls to be employed outside the home, and many were trained in skills such as sewing and knitting when very young. Young girls were in demand for lower-skilled occupations in the garment trade, as they were often good workers and could be paid less than men.
… From Castle Garden we drove to our new home in a market wagon filled with immigrant's bedding. Father tucked us in among the bundles, climbed up beside the driver himself and we rattled off over the cobbled stone pavement, with the noon sun beating down on our heads.
As we drove along I looked about in bewilderment. My thoughts were chasing each other. I felt a thrill: "am I really in America at last?" But the next moment it would be checked and I felt a little disappointed, a little homesick. Father was so changed. I hardly expected to find him in his black long tailed coat in which he left home. But of course yet with his same full grown bead and earlocks. Now instead I saw a young man with a closely cut beard and no sign of earlocks. As I looked at him I could scarcely believe my eyes. Father had been the most pious Jew in our neighbourhood. I wondered was it true then as Mindle said that "in America one at once became a libertine?"
Father's face was radiantly happy. Every now and then he would look over his shoulder and smile. But he soon guessed what troubled me for after a while he began to talk in a quiet, reassuring manner. He told me he would take me to his own shop and teach me part of his own trade. He was a men's coat finisher. He made me understand that if we worked steadily and lived economically we should soon have money to send for those at home. "Next year at this time," he smiled, "you yourself may be on the way to Castle Garden to fetch mother and the children." So I too smiled at the happy prospect, wiped some tears away and resolved to work hard.
From Mrs. Felesberg we learned at once the more serious side of life in America. Mrs. Felesberg was the woman with whom we were rooming. A door from our room opened into her tiny bedroom and then led into the only other room where she sat a great part of the day finishing pants which she brought in big bundles from a shop, and rocking the cradle with one foot. She always made us draw our chairs quite close to her and she spoke in a whisper scarcely ever lifting her weak peering eyes from her work. When she asked us how were liked America, and we spoke of it with praise, she smiled a queer smile. "Life here is not all that it appears to the 'green horn,'" she said. She told us that her husband was a presser on coats and earned twelve dollars when he worked a full week. Aunt Masha thought twelve dollars a good deal. Again Mrs. Felesberg smiled. "No doubt it would be," she said, "where you used to live. You had your own house, and most of the food came from the garden. Here you will have to pay for everything; the rent!" she sighed, "for the light, for every potato, every grain of barley. You see these three rooms, including yours? Would they be too much for my family of five?" We had to admit they would not. "And even from these," she said, "I have to rent one out."
Perhaps it was due to these talks that I soon noticed how late my father worked. When he went away in the morning it was still dark, and when he came home at night the lights in the halls were out. It was after ten o'clock. I thought that if mother and the children were here they would scarcely see him.
One night when he came home and as he sat at the table eating his rice soup, which he and Aunt Masha had taught me to cook, I sat down on the cot and asked timidly, knowing that he was impatient of questions, "Father, does everybody in America live like this? Go to work early, come home late, eat and go to sleep? And the next day again work, eat, and sleep? Will I have to do that too? Always?"
Father looked thoughtful and ate two or three mouthfuls before he answered. "No," he said smiling. "You will get married."
So, almost a week passed and though life was so interesting, still no matter where I went, what I saw, mother and home were always present in my mind. Often in the happiest moments a pain would rise in my throat and my eyes burned with the tears held back. At these moments I would manage to be near Aunt Masha so that I could lean against her, touch her dress
On the following day father came home at noon and took me along to the shop where he worked. We climbed the dark, narrow stairs of a tenement house on Monroe Street and came into a bright room filled with noise. I saw about five or six men and a girl. The men turned and looked at us when we passed. I felt scared and stumbled. One man asked in surprise:
"Avrom, is this your daughter? Why, she is only a little girl!"
My father smiled. "Yes," he said, "but wait till you see her sew."
He placed me on a high stool opposite the girl, laid a pile of pocket flaps on the little narrow table between us, and showed me how to baste.
All afternoon I sat on my high stool, a little away from the table, my knees crossed tailor fashion, basting flaps. As I worked I watched the things which I could see by just raising my eyes a little. I saw that the girl, who was called Atta, was very pretty.
A big man stood at a big table, examining, brushing and folding coats. There was a window over his table through which the sun came streaming in, showing millions of specks of dust dancing over the table and circling over his head. He often puffed out his cheeks and blew the dust from him with a great gust so that I could feel his breath at our table.
The machines going at full speed drowned everything in their noise. But when they stopped for a moment I caught the clink of a scissors laid hastily on a table, a short question and answer exchanged, and the pounding of a heavy iron from the back of the room. Sometimes the machines stopped for a whole minute. Then the men looked about and talked. I was always glad when the machines started off again. I felt safer in their noise.
Late in the afternoon a woman came into the shop. She sat down next to Atta and began to sew on buttons. Father, who sat next to me, whispered, "This is Mrs. Nelson, the wife of the big man, our boss. She is a real American."
She, too, was pretty. Her complexion was fair and delicate like a child's. Her upper lip was always covered with shining drops of perspiration. I could not help looking at it all the time.
When she had worked a few minutes she asked father in a very imperfect Yiddish: "Well, Mr.―, have you given your daughter an American name?"
"Not yet," father answered. "What would you call her? Her Yiddish name is Rahel."
"Rahel, Rahel," Mrs. Nelson repeated to herself, thoughtfully, winding the thread around a button; "let me see." The machines were going slowly and the men looked interested.
I was surprised at the interest every one showed. Later I understood the reason. The slightest cause for interruption was welcome, it broke the monotony of the long day.
Mrs. Nelson turned to me: "Don't let them call you Rachel. Every loafer who sees a Jewish girl shouts 'Rachel' after her. And on Cherry Street where you live there are many saloons and many loafers. How would you like Ruth for a name?"
I said I should like to be called Ruth
I liked my work and learned it easily, and father was pleased with me. As soon as I knew how to baste pocket-flaps he began to teach me how to baste the coat edges. This was hard work. The double ply of overcoat cloth stitched in with canvas and tape made a very stiff edge. My fingers often stiffened with pain as I rolled and basted the edges. Sometimes a needle or two would break before I could do one coat. Then father would offer to finish the edge for me. But if he gave me my choice I never let him. At these moments I wanted so to master the thing myself that I felt my whole body trembling with the desire. And with my habit of personifying things, I used to bend over the coat on my lap, force the obstinate and squeaking needle, wet with perspiration, in and out of the clothe and whisper with determination: "No, you shall not get the best of me!" When I succeeded I was so happy that father, who often watched me with a smile, would say, "Rachel, your face is shining. Now rest a while." He always told me to rest after I did well. I loved these moments. I would push my stool closer to the wall near which I sat, lean my back against it, and look about the shop
Father began to strain all his energy to save the money to send for mother and the children. In the shop one morning I realised that he had been leaving out of his breakfast the tiny glass of brandy for two cents and was eating just the roll. So I too made my sacrifice. When as usual he gave me the apple and the roll, I took the roll but refused the apple. And he did not urge me. When a cold grey day at the end of November found him in his light tan suit quite worn and me in my thin calico frock, now washed out to a tan colour, we went to a second-hand clothing store on Division Street and he bought me a fuzzy brown coat reaching a little below my waist, for fifty cents, and for himself a thin threadbare overcoat. And now were ready for the winter.
About the same time that the bitter cold came father told me one night that he had found work for me in a shop where he knew the presser. I lay awake long that night. I was eager to begin life on my own responsibility but was also afraid. We rose earlier than usual that morning for father had to take me to the shop and not be over late for his own work. I wrapped my thimble and scissors, with a piece of bread for breakfast, in a bit of newspaper, carefully stuck two needles into the lapel of my coat and we started.
The shop was on Pelem Street, a shop district one block long and just wide enough for two ordinary sized wagons to pass each other. We stopped at the door where I noticed at once a brown shining porcelain knob and a half rubbed off number seven. Father looked at his watch and at me.
Unlike many other immigrants to America in the late nineteenth century who migrated mainly for economic reasons, the Eastern European Jews mainly left their homes to escape persecution, and were therefore more likely to regard their move as a permanent one. This is likely to have been one factor contributing to their very successful integration into American society, as well as the fact that many Jewish immigrants were more likely than other groups to arrive with some resources in which to start up businesses. Jewish immigrants became, arguably, the most successful ethnic group of immigrants that has ever entered America. Over the following decades, they became upwardly mobile at a time when it was very unusual in American society to move from the working classes into the middle classes.
Further major waves of Jewish immigration continued in the early decades of the twentieth century, with thousands of new immigrants arriving every year. This might have threatened the economic and social well-being of the established Jewish community in New York, where unemployment was already very high, had not the Industrial Removal Office, part of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, promoted and assisted the dispersion of Jews from the area to other parts of the United States. Over two decades, the IRO helped 80,000 Jewish people to move to around 1,000 towns and cities throughout the United States where many continued the Jewish tradition of entrepreneurship and contributed to the demographic, cultural, and economic profile of many parts of the country.
Some historians have noted that the mass migration of Jews from some areas of Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century played a significant role in preserving the Jewish population, as Jewish immigrants to the United States escaped the looming Holocaust during World War II (1939–1945).
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Dublin, Thomas, ed. Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773–1986. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Glazier, Jack. Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants across America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Godley, Andrew. Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London, 1880–1914: Enterprise and Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Joseph, Samuel. Jewish Immigration to the United States from 1881 to 1910. New York: Columbia University Press, 1914.
Rockaway, Robert A. Words of the Uprooted: Jewish Immigrants in Early Twentieth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Weinberg, Sydney Stahl. The World of Our Mothers: The Lives of Jewish Immigrant Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.