The Rest of Us: The Rise of America's Eastern European Jewsby Stephen Birmingham
In the last of Stephen Birmingham’s historical trilogy, he spotlights the successes of Eastern European Jews, from Samuel Goldwyn to Helena Rubinstein and Irving Berlin, and what each individual brought to that changing early-century American landscape.
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"The Rest of Us"
The Rise of America's Eastern European Jews
By Stephen Birmingham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Stephen Birmingham
All rights reserved.
In the early summer of 1906, a huge and unruly mob of screaming Jewish women and children suddenly descended on a number of public schools on New York's Lower East Side and began hurling stones and brickbats at the buildings. The riot extended from Rivington Street to Grand Street, and from the Bowery to the East River, with the greatest violence concentrated in the most easterly sections. Windows and door panels of the schoolhouses were smashed, and certainly many frightened teachers — cowering within their classrooms — would have suffered bodily harm if a police task force, wielding nightsticks, had not quickly appeared and been able to quell the mob. It was not immediately clear, furthermore, what the uprising was all about.
The year 1906 was one of militancy by women. The charismatic Jewish-American anarchist Emma Goldman, then thirty-seven, had just founded her publication, Mother Earth, with her beloved "Sasha," Alexander Berkman, who had recently been released from prison for attempting to murder the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick in the Homestead Strike of 1892. The London Daily Mail had coined the terms "suffragettes" to describe women like Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, who were campaigning for woman suffrage. And the Lower East Side was by then no stranger to scenes of social unrest. The rent strikes of 1904 had been particularly disquieting and that same year, in the so-called Children's Strike, more than a hundred young women, many in adolescence, most of them Jewish, who had been earning pennies for piecework in a local paper-box factory, marched to protest a pay cut of ten percent. The irony was that their employer was one Mr. Cohen, a Jew.
Meanwhile, from the trickle of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe — Russia, Poland, Rumania, Austria-Hungary — that had begun in 1881, there had grown a flood. By 1906, nearly two million Jews — roughly a third of the Jews of Eastern Europe — had left their homes. Over ninety percent of these had come to the United States, and most of them had settled in New York City, where Ellis Island was attempting to process as many as fifteen thousand immigrants a day. The Lower East Side was bursting at its seams. Yet none of these turbulent forces seemed immediately to account for the violent outburst of the women and children against the East Side public schools.
When the dust had settled, however, it turned out that a rumor had somehow billowed in the ghetto to the effect that doctors were murdering children in the schools by slashing their throats and then burying their bodies in the schoolyards. And blame for the incident — later labeled the Adenoids Riot — was laid at the doorstep of a much beleaguered lady educator named Julia Richman, the district school superintendent, who was herself Jewish.
In fact, it was a case of a Julia Richman program that had backfired. Among other innovations, Miss Richman had introduced seasonal smallpox vaccinations for East Side children. There had been much resistance to this at first, from immigrant parents who couldn't understand why their children were being pricked with needles, which resulted in sore arms. But eventually the vaccination program had been accepted. In 1906, however, at one school — P.S. 100 at Broome and Cannon streets — the vaccinating physicians had discovered that a number of children suffered from adenoids, or swollen lymph-node tissue at the back of the throat, which could be removed by simple surgery. The principal of P.S. 100, one Miss A. E. Simpson, had sent home carefully worded notes to the parents of the affected children, explaining that, if possible, parents should have their own doctors perform the operation. If not, Miss Simpson explained, Board of Health physicians would do the work at the schools at no cost, and if they wished this, parents were asked to sign forms and releases, giving the board their permission. Unable to read English, not knowing what they were signing, but doing their best to comply with strange new American customs and procedures, many parents had dutifully signed the forms. Thus it was the routine snipping of adenoids that had led to the throat-slashing stories.
The Christian press, typically, blamed "excitable, ignorant Jews, fearing Russian massacres here, knowing nothing of American sanitary ideas and the supervision exercised over school children by the Health Board," for the riots. The New York Tribune, among others, praised the police for their "vigorous application of the slats to the most convenient section of the nearest 'Yiddisher.'" But for the Lower East Siders it was another case of unwanted interference from Miss Richman.
Julia Richman was, in the somewhat disparaging phrase of the day, an "uptown do-gooder." She followed in the noble tradition of women like Lillian Wald, a German-Jewish young woman who had come from a family of comfortable means, had gone into nursing, and, in 1893, had gone to the Lower East Side to devote her life to the healing of the sick and needy. With the financial backing of the German-Jewish philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff, Lillian Wald had established the Henry Street Settlement, where thousands of immigrant Jews were welcomed after their long journey in steerage, where they were fed, housed, and cared for — deloused, dusted off, taught rudimentary English, and otherwise eased through the shock of entering a new culture.
A number of prominent uptown Christians had also become involved, as volunteers, with settlement house work. Just as it had become fashionable for every New York lady to support a "favorite charity," a favorite settlement house was adopted — the Henry Street, the University Settlement, and so on. The aim of the settlement houses was to form a bridge between the old and new worlds — to instill within an immigrant population a sense of personal purpose and spiritual fulfillment in American democracy. It was true that the settlement houses tended to concentrate their efforts on children and young people. There was a strong feeling that children were often "held back" in the Americanization process by immigrant parents who were too fixed in their Old World ways to adapt to a different society, or too timid or shy to try. But if children could be persuaded to influence parents, the theory went, the parents too might be persuaded to see the light. There were, however, no overt efforts to Christianize children, but only attempts to make them feel comfortable in a predominantly Christian American world. The settlement houses provided courses and lectures on everything from American politics to American sports, from manners to modes of dress. They were, in other words, trying to supplement and augment what Julia Richman was doing in her schools.
And in many ways they were successful. But there were still stirrings of unrest and distrust among these incursions by Christians and Jews who were "different" among the Jews of the Lower East Side.
Lillian Wald — in her off-duty hours, at least, when not teaching tenement dwellers how to unstop drains, dispose of garbage, deal with rats, or swallow unpleasant-tasting medicines — affected a rather grand and patrician manner, favoring large flowered hats and face veils. Still, she came to be much loved on the Lower East Side, and as her legend grew she was transformed into something of a latter-day Florence Nightingale. Had there been candidates for sainthood in the Jewish faith, she would have been one of them. Not so Miss Richman, whose goals — helping the new immigrant to assimilate — were essentially the same. It was probably the difference in the two women's personalities that accounted for the different ways in which their activities were regarded. Lillian Wald was soothing, motherly, comforting, a hand-holder. Julia Richman was a whip-cracker, with no patience for sloth and inefficiency, a woman of easily elicited opinions, with no hesitancy about saying exactly what was on her mind, on almost any subject.
And of course the two women's fields of expertise set them apart, from the point of view of the people they were both trying to serve. Lillian Wald's concerns were more concrete and immediate — healing the ailments of the human body. Julia Richman's bailiwick was more subtle and elusive — Americanizing the immigrant mind.
Like Lillian Wald, Julia Richman grew up in a world of moderate affluence. Her family, who had emigrated from Germany two generations earlier, had prospered to the point where they were solid city burghers. Her father owned a paint and glazing business and had, among other things, supplied all the original glass for the old Cooper Institute, a particularly lucrative contract. The family was also very ancestor-proud, and could trace itself back to 1604, to the city of Prague, in what was then Bohemia, and Julia liked to note that her family tree was studded with illustrious physicians, teachers, and rabbis.
She had been born October 12, 1855, the middle child of five, in New York City, where the family lived at 156 Seventh Avenue, in the heart of the then fashionable Chelsea district. She had attended P.S. 50 and then, after the family's move to suburban Long Island, Huntington High School. At Huntington, though she got excellent grades, she was known as something of a tomboy and a show-off. With her long skirts pinned between her legs, she would climb tall trees and swing from their branches. She was also a bit of a troublemaker, and was famous for her imperious manner and quick temper. At age twelve she discussed the future with a young contemporary, and the following exchange is reported to have taken place:
The friend: "Julia, I'm pretty, and my father is rich. When I finish high school I'll marry a rich man who will take care of me."
Julia (indignantly): "Well, I am not pretty, my father isn't rich, and I'm not going to marry, but before I die all New York will know my name!"
Growing up in a rigidly disciplinarian Jewish household, Julia and her sisters were instructed in the domestic arts by an exceptionally demanding mother. Each girl, for example, was required to take her turn at setting the table for family dinners — no small chore, considering the fact that the dinners consisted of six courses and involved seven place settings. Once, after setting the table as instructed, Julia called her mother into the dining room to inspect the results. Mrs. Richman circled the big table slowly, checking each item. All the silver and glassware, china and napkins were properly placed, but Julia's mother spotted one discrepancy. The lace tablecloth hung a bit lower on one side of the table than the other. "Julia," said her mother, "take everything off the table, put it all back in the drawers and cupboards where it came from, straighten the cloth and start over." Julia did as she was told. It was a lesson, she liked to recall in later years, that had taught her the importance of "exactness."
She was more independent, however, when it came to choosing a career. Much to her parents' dismay, she announced, at age fourteen, that she intended to become a schoolteacher. Her Victorian father was particularly distressed at this decision, since teaching inevitably meant spinsterhood; in those days, a teacher's pregnancy was grounds for dismissal. But Julia prevailed, and, at fifteen, she enrolled at New York's Normal College.* She graduated in 1872, after completing what was the standard two-year teaching course, but because she was not yet seventeen years old — the minimum age for a teacher then in New York — her license to teach had to be withheld until her birthday.
Julia Richman's first teaching assignment was in a classroom full of boys, where, since many of her pupils were her own age and older, she had certain difficulties instilling the kind of discipline she had in mind. Soon, however, she was transferred to girls' classes, and here she did considerably better. Presently it was being said of Julia Richman that she was "born to command," and as her reputation grew so did her executive ability — and, no doubt, her ego. She began moving steadily upward in the public school system — first to vice-principal of P.S. 73 and then, in 1884, to principal of the girls' department. She was not yet thirty, and she was the youngest principal in the city's history, as well as one of the first women — and the only Jewish woman — principals.
She was already a woman to be reckoned with. As an extracurricular task, she had volunteered to teach the Sabbath school at her family's temple, Emanu-El. Here she found herself obliged to deliver religious instruction to one particularly obstreperous young man. She took her problem to her supervisor, recommending that the youth be suspended or punished. Her supervisor wrung his hands and said to her, "But we can't do anything about him. Don't you realize he's the son of one of our richest members?" Miss Richman handed in her resignation on the spot.
In 1903, Julia Richman was appointed district superintendent of schools, and here were more firsts. She was the first woman school superintendent in Manhattan, again one of the youngest of either sex, and again the first Jewish woman to hold such an exalted position in the city's school system. Her prediction was beginning to come true, and all New York was beginning to know her name.
Miss Richman was now regarded with no small amount of awe in educational circles. As a result, she was given the almost unprecedented option of selecting her own school district to supervise, and after considering several others, she made a choice that was as audacious as it was dramatic and newsworthy. She chose the most difficult and challenging district of all: the Lower East Side, the ghetto of Jewish poverty, where older and tougher male superintendents had dreaded being assigned.
Here, under the mantle of her stewardship, would fall the education of some twenty-three thousand children, along with the supervision of six hundred teachers, and the running of fourteen different day and night schools. The "children," meanwhile, were of all ages — from six-year-olds to men in their twenties and thirties who were just starting to do the equivalent of first-grade work. What made teaching on the Lower East Side especially difficult, of course, was that most of the pupils could not speak English.
Immediately, Julia Richman began to impose upon her district her own personal style. She was on early advocate of "progressive education" — a concept that was then quite new — but her vision went beyond that. She saw the combined role of her schools as extending farther than the limits of the classroom walls, and out into the East Side community at large. She believed that her schools' influence should be stretched out into the crowded streets and tenements and little shops. She believed that the daily lives of the East Side poor — not just the children but their parents and grandparents as well — should be embraced by the school system. In addition to academic subjects, she decided that her pupils would be instructed in such matters as hygiene, sanitation, table manners and etiquette, the importance of learning American customs, the American legal system, and civil obedience. She even — though the notion shocked her fellow educators whenever she brought it up — toyed with the idea of introducing sex education into the curriculum.
She swept aside everything and anything that smacked of pro forma ritual. "It is much easier," she once said, "and so much prettier to teach the oath of allegiance to the flag than to teach a community to keep the fire escapes free from encumbrances." At the same time, she exercised her passion for "exactness," and her surprise visits of inspection to her schools were dreaded throughout the district. Her beady eye caught everything — improperly washed blackboards, broken pieces of chalk, unsharpened pencils. One of her staff moaned, "Every time she visits a school it is like Yom Kippur!" — the Day of Atonement.
Naturally, with a role as broad and sweeping as the one she assumed for herself, a woman such as Julia Richman was bound to make enemies. And make them she did. But along the path of her career she had also managed to make friends in high places. Under the umbrella of her superintendency, for example, she had gathered the New York Police Department, and one of her targets became community vice. A particular bane was a group of young men who, in the idiom of the day, were called "cadets" (pimps) and who were charged with being in the business of leading young girls into "lives of degradation." The cadets and other young hoodlums hung out in and around Seward Park, and Miss Richman was soon spearheading a cleanup of that area. In at least one Richman-inspired raid, two hundred fifty truants from her schools were arrested, along with a quota of cadets. At the same time, she busied herself with other good works. She rented a house in the ghetto and had it converted into a social center for her teachers. She made an incursion into Lillian Wald's territory, and supervised the conversion of an old ferryboat into a floating sanitarium for consumptives, who were believed to profit from fresh salt air. In her spare time, she helped found the National Council of Jewish Women, an organization whose original purpose was to protect young Jewish girls from white slavers, who, lying in wait for them at the docks, had their own plans for degradation. She was also the first president of the Young Women's Hebrew Alliance, and for a number of years she edited a magazine called Helpful Thoughts. Helpful Thoughts was directed at the children of Jewish immigrants, and devoted its contents to what its title promised — helpful thoughts by which children could be Americanized and could assimilate as quickly as possible. She lectured tirelessly, and wrote magazine articles on her educational theories. None other than Louis Marshall — the foremost Jewish lawyer in New York, who, along with Jacob Schiff, was the leader of the German-Jewish community — had praised Julia Richman for her "years of acknowledged usefulness."
Excerpted from "The Rest of Us" by Stephen Birmingham. Copyright © 1984 Stephen Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Stephen Birmingham has written more than twenty-five works of fiction and nonfiction including best-selling books such as Our Crowd, The Aurbach Will, and The Rothman Scandal. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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