According to Takaki, Caliban could have likewise been Jewish. In Russia, Jews were “degraded as the ‘Other’” and faced intense prejudice and violence. They came to the US with no hope of returning to the land from which they’d come. The Russian poor had been brainwashed into believing that Jews were to blame for their problems, rather than the wealthy and oppressive elite. Forced to live in a single region of the country, Jews were prohibited from owning land. Most lived in urban areas and worked in manufacturing or commerce. They faced the terror of pogroms, outbursts of violence where Jews were massacred and synagogues and businesses destroyed.
In a way, Jews faced the most stark and explicit oppression prior to coming to the US than any other group readers have witnessed so far. Indeed, perhaps the most important factor was that they were already explicitly unwelcome in their home country. This prepared them to embrace the US as their true home—after all, they were a people in search of one.
Pogroms left Russian Jews in search of another homeland, and many found it in the US. By 1914, a third of Jews in Eastern Europe had left, with most moving to America. Rumors spread characterizing the US as a land of freedom and abundance. Thrilled by stories of life there, many Jews became desperate to go, selling practically all their possessions in order to raise money for the journey. Most Jewish immigrants felt that they were participating in a landmark point in Jewish history, where homeless Jews would finally have a land of their own. When the ships carrying immigrants finally arrived on American shores, people were overcome with excitement and wonder at the beauty of the landscape.
In a way, Jewish optimism about the US connected their experience to that of English settlers. Like the settlers, Jews felt that there was a sense of destiny surrounding their arrival in the US. However, unlike English settlers, Jews did not constitute a genocidal presence in America. Indeed, it was Jews themselves who had been fleeing genocide. For many of them, the US was their only chance of survival.
Most of these new arrivals had no money, but they tended to be well-educated skilled workers. They usually came in family groups, and about half were women. Most chose to settle in the Lower East Side of New York City, where “a new Jewish community blossomed.” The concentration of Jews in this neighborhood could make it seem as if one had never left Russia in the first place. The neighborhood was a poor “ghetto,” where conditions were cramped, unpleasant, and “prison-like.” The tenements lacked bathing facilities, and on hot summer nights, residents would languish in the park to get some fresh air.
Again, this passage exposes both the advantages and disadvantages of segregated communities where a particular ethnic group is concentrated. While these areas often tended to be poor and lacking in resources, they were also places were a feeling of community and mutual support thrived, which was especially important to new arrivals in the US.
Organizations such as landsmanshafts (lodges) sprang up in the community, and people congregated in bathhouses and cafes. They attended lectures in droves, or went to the movies. The neighborhood had an abundance of peddlers, many of whom were highly educated scholars who had been supported by their wives back in Russia. In the US, many wives insisted that their husbands needed to earn a living themselves. The majority of Jews in New York City worked in the garment industry. Many brought sewing skills with them when they moved to the US, and their arrival coincided with the expansion of garment manufacturing in the country. In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of clothing factories, and Jewish garment workers “revolutionized the way clothes were made and what Americans wore.”
Unlike in many of the other cultures Takaki has written about thus far, in Russian Jewish culture the norm was for women to work outside the home while men committed themselves to religious scholarship. Yet as this passage shows, Jewish women were eager to embrace a different way of life in the US. This was surely in part because they wanted their husbands to contribute to earning wages for the family; yet it was also more of a symbolic gesture, a way of demonstrating assimilation into American society.
The competitive nature of the garment industry pushed both laborers and contractors to work at incredible speed. Workers would collaborate in teams, with each member forced to keep up with the rapid pace of production. Conditions in these sweatshops were harsh; one female garment worker asserted: “We were like slaves.” Accidents were common, and workers described feeling like extensions of the machines at which they sat. Laboring for 11-15 hours a day, these workers still strived to use their precious moments of free time pursuing pleasure activities like dancing. Many garment workers were young women, who had also worked in the clothing industry back in Russia. Most were single, hoping to get married after a few years of work.
Despite the horrific conditions in which Jewish garment workers labored, they were determined to embrace the fullness of life in their new home—as demonstrated by the act that they spent their free time dancing and pursuing other enjoyable activities. The sheer energy required to pursue life with such enthusiasm shows how exhilarating it must have been to be a young Jewish immigrant in New York City during this time, even as exploitative work conditions would have been demoralizing.
Many of these young women were forced to leave their studies at a fairly young age, even if they wanted to continue, in order to work full-time. In 1911, a terrible tragedy struck at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The building caught fire, trapping 800 workers inside, most of whom were young women. Many of the girls jumped to their deaths rather than be consumed by the heat and smoke, while another 146 died inside. Most of the dead women were Jewish and Italian, and news of the disaster horrified the Lower East Side. Before the fire, many of the women who ended up dying had gone on strike in 1909.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire became a horrifying single of the degradation and danger to which working-class immigrant women were exposed. By making them suffer such conditions, employers treated them like their lives were disposable, as became painfully clear when so many died in the fire.
One of the leaders of the strike, Clara Lemlich, was a charismatic teenager who compared the plight of the garment workers to enslaved black people in the South. Although the strikers faced police violence, they remained steadfast, and their courage impressed the wider community. More strikes followed in the months and years to come, and these efforts “represented a watershed in Jewish-American history.” The energy that emerged from them was not just boldly working class, but also distinctly Jewish. The strikes intensified “a shared sense of ethnicity,” and of a particular Jewish-American identity.
As Takaki shows here, labor struggles have long been a vitally important part of Jewish American history. Many of the US’ greatest leaders of the socialist and anarchist movements have been Jewish, and Jews were crucial to the wave of labor organizing that took place in the early 20th century.
For new arrivals, the worst possible thing was to be called a “greenhorn.” Jewish immigrants pursued the goal of assimilation with enthusiasm. They rid themselves of their old clothes, making an effort to dress in the latest American fashions, and set their minds to mastering English. Many people changed their names to more Anglicized versions. Some gave presents during Christmas to demonstrate that they were not greenhorns, and many started taking summer vacations in places like the Catskills. All this was done in spite of the fact that most Lower East Side families had very little money. These immigrants still did everything they could to appear wealthy and assimilated.
Whereas at other points in the book, immigrants assimilate due to pressure or fear, in this case many Jews enthusiastically embraced an American identity because they truly wanted to. This was true even if it meant contradicting aspects of one’s Jewish identity, such as by giving gifts on Christmas. Over time, many Jews would come to realize that assimilation would not require such a dramatic shift away from Jewish tradition, although some would continue to pursue practices such as Christmas gift-giving.
Unlike in Russia, Jewish wives in the US largely did not participate in wage labor, instead being charged with running the home. According to one historian, having arrived in the US “Jewish immigrants became increasingly sensitive to bourgeois notions of respectability” as part of their assimilationist mission. Upward mobility came when unionized workers slowly built up the capital to pay for their children’s education. However, it was mostly only boys who received support for their education; their sisters continued to work in sweatshops in order to send their brothers to college. Young women’s earning often also helped support their parents.
Here, a quite different side of the Jewish community emerges from the radical labor organizers mentioned in previous sections. Indeed, where some Jewish immigrants committed themselves to socialism and anarchism, arguing for the liberation of the working class against bourgeois oppression, others embraced bourgeois identity and focused their efforts on accumulating wealth and status.
By the First World War, colleges in New York City had a high proportion of Jewish students. By 1920, Harvard was 20% Jewish, and this sparked an anti-Semitic backlash. Lowell publicly announced that although Harvard was the least anti-Semitic place in the US, it would still be necessary to restrict Jewish enrollment to the college in order to prevent anti-Semitic feeling from developing among the students. The college established certain criteria designed to ensure there was a Jewish quota each year. Jewish enrollment to Harvard declined to about 10-16% per year through the 1930s. The Irish mayor of Boston, meanwhile, criticized Harvard for this decision, arguing that anti-Semitic restrictions could be an ominous sign of what was to come for Italians, Spanish, Poles, and Irish-Americans.
The Irish mayor of Boston’s support for Jewish enrolment at Harvard again highlights the importance of interethnic solidarity. As Takaki has mentioned, by this point the Irish were seen as an acceptable and welcome contingent of the Harvard student population. Nonetheless, the mayor realized that this acceptance was contingent, rather than guaranteed. One way to protect it was to protect the rights of other European immigrants to access Harvard, including Jews.
What happened at Harvard was part of a broader “nativist movement.” In 1924, Congress passed an act that severely limited immigration, particularly from southern and eastern parts of Europe. Where Jews had initially been seen in a fairly positive light, as more came, they began facing harsher and harsher resentment. Anti-Semitic stereotypes proliferated, violence erupted, and Jews faced discrimination from employers who listed their jobs as available to “Christians only.” Anti-Semitic feeling intensified as Jews began leaving the Lower East Side and settling in other areas, such as Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. However, they tended to move in concentrated groups, keeping established networks of kinship and support.
The nativist movement Takaki refers to here was part of a historical moment in which white Americans began to noticed that the category of whiteness was expanding. This produced anxiety and anger in a group of people who had worked hard to keep their new country strictly hierarchized according to race. Hindsight shows that ultimately this nativist backlash didn’t work, and the category of white was indeed expanded to include Jews and other European immigrants.