This Friday will mark the beginning of Tu B’Av. It is perhaps the most joyous Jewish holiday, for it is dedicated to the celebration of one of the most cherished and human experiences – love. And while it’s regarded only as a minor holiday today, it has a long legacy in Jewish life. And even when disaster or destruction forced Jews to leave their homes, they adapted and carried on Tu B’av’s traditions in new, progressive ways.
Tu B’Av first appeared in an ancient text called the Mishnah, where it was recorded that “No days were as good for Israel as the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, on which the sons of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes [Ed note: borrowed so no one would be embarrassed if they didn’t own any themselves]…and the girls of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.” Tu B’ Av was a day for marriages, wine and celebration. It was a day where the tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle, marry and be merry. Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, the holiday also occurs during a full moon, which, as it does for many ancient cultures, symbolizes abundance, fruitfulness and fertility.
Fast forward a few thousand years later and conquest, destruction and diaspora had forced the Jewish community to flee to the corners of the Earth, winding up in places like Eastern Europe’s Pale of Settlement. It was here that Tu B’Av was reduced to a minor footnote. Rather than leave love up to holiday frolicking, parents and shadchans (matchmakers) decided who would make the most suitable matches for their children. Torah scholars were considered ideal husbands. And a woman who could maintain a proper Jewish home, raise a family and be a supporting partner in her husband’s pursuit of study was nothing less than a woman of valor.
By the late 1800’s, violence and poverty would once again force Jews to seek out safer shores, with millions immigrating to the United States. Among the crowded streets, tenements and sweatshops in places like New York’s Lower East Side, Jewish immigrants were far removed from bountiful fields of wheat and cool green vineyards of ancient Jerusalem. Life was much different; but still, they sought out new ways to carry on Tu B’Av’s traditions and new customs experience and celebrate love.
Of Sweethearts & Shadchans
For over 130 years, couples have stood under the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s domed canopy of star-studded ceilings and issued ancient declarations of love. But one of the first weddings connected to Eldridge Street marked a complete break from centuries of tradition. In 1889, just two years after the grand shulopened its doors, a story appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle chronicling the love of a young Bowery Street tailor and the daughter of an Eldridge Street congregant, who, against their parents’ wishes (the parents wanted them to wait), “took matters into their own hands”. After sneaking out of their homes “the young couple were duly married in the presence of witnesses in a Broome Street safe retreat by the rabbi of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.” The “rabbi” was most likely Eldridge Street’s famed cantor Pinchas Minkowsky. While we might think of a nineteenth-century elopement as controversial, in reality, the stage was already being set for such behavior. By learning and exploring their new home, young immigrants were being introduced to American notions of love as something that was determined by the couples themselves and not parents or community members. Unsurprisingly this proclivity for choice did not sit well with local matchmakers, whose livelihood depended on being the deciders.
“I would starve to death in a month if I depended on matchmaking for a living” bemoaned one matchmaker in a New York Tribune story. “Once I lived on the fat of the land, and most of the marriageable young men and women in the quarter depended on me to make them happy for life. Now they believe in love and all that rot. They are making their own marriages, and many of them will be unhappy….They learned how to start their own love affairs from the Americans, and it is one of the worst things they have picked up.”
The Public Becomes Private
For most Lower East Side immigrants, their first American homes were tenement apartments. Typically about 325 square feet, Jewish families occupied these spaces with upwards of 10-12 people, rendering privacy virtually nonexistent. With nowhere to be alone, couples seized their moments of intimacy in public. One such public space was Seward Park and Playground. After opening in 1903 as the first municipal playground in the United States, people of all ages, including young lovers, flocked to take advantage of the park. In his autobiography A Lost Paradise, pianist Samuel Chotzinoff recounts his immigrant boyhood on the Lower East Side recalling how the “the streets in the evening were thick with promenading couples, and the benches around the fountain [at Seward Park] and in Jackson Street Park and the empty trucks lined up at the river front, were filled with lovers who had no other place to meet. Boys of my age were required to be at home around ten at night. Those of us who were still in the streets at that hour might decide perversely to hang around the fountain with the intent of embarrassing the lovers on the benches. We would sneak up on them from behind and imitate the amorous confidences we imagined they exchanged…”
In a time of DMs, texts, and emojis, the old-fashioned love letter might seem extinct, but in the early 20th century, it flourished as a means of intimate communication between couples. But even a simple letter had its challenges. For newly arrived immigrants, written communication could be difficult. Paired with a needed understanding of American cultural norms, writing a good a love letter could carry a double barrier. Enter Alexander Harkavy. A prominent writer, lecturer, and lexicographer of the Yiddish language, Harkavy sought ways to help immigrants learn their new language and culture. His 1902 publication Harkavy’s American Letter Writer and Speller included letters in Yiddish and English centering on a variety of topics including business, lifecycle events, and love. In a sampling of love letters addressed to “Dear Tillie,” “Dear Henry” and others, immigrants now had access to fully fleshed out letters where the only thing that might need to be edited was the name of the intended recipient. The letters brim with longing and passion. “I have long been in love with you, but was afraid to tell you”, begins one such Dear Tillie letter, “I think of you all day, and at night I dream of my Tillie….how happy I shall be to hear from you, but a thousand times more happy to think you’ll be mine.” For the benefit of the intended, Harkavy also included samples of acceptance and rejection letters.
An “American” Way to Love
The years between 1880 and 1910 saw a historic boom in the number of women joining the American workforce. At the forefront were young, first and second generation immigrant women, who, for the first time, were leaving the confines of home and community to take jobs in factories, shops and offices across the city. Toiling 10 to12 hours a day, six days a week, the little money left over after family contributions or rent could be spent on the burgeoning entertainment industry – theaters, cafes, amusement parks, movie palaces and dance halls. Dance halls in particular dominated the New York entertainment scene, with more than 30 venues located on the Lower East Side alone. With many of these venues offering reduced or free admission for women, dance halls became a place where women could enjoy their newfound freedoms, explore their identity and sexuality and have fun in the process.
Of course this was still a time of strong Victorian cultural beliefs about assimilation and anti-immigrant sentiment, so dance halls were sometimes perceived by the white middle class as a harbinger of evil and a gateway to loose, immoral and un-American behavior. A particular concern was the practice of “treating”, a form of the quid pro quo economy in which women would offer men varying degrees of sexual or emotional favors in exchange for entertainment, carfare, and gifts. White middle- and upper-class social reformers waged campaigns that increased the presence of government legislation inside the dance halls, including prohibiting the sale of alcohol. They also took it upon themselves to instruct immigrants on what they deemed to be the proper and “American” way to love. Neighborhood settlement houses hosted their own chaperoned dances and offered dance classes that were meant to mold the immigrant body into what society deemed to be moral and progressive Americans.
In contextualizing Tu B’Av through the lens of our historic immigrant community, it is a day to remember and celebrate how the choice to love can be a radical and defining act. And in a year in which we have all endured degrees of separation, longing, and a near-universal desire for contact and connection with each other, perhaps Tu B’Av is a timely reminder of the choice we all make to make our world a little more abundant in love. May you carry on Tu B’Av’s traditions this year, in whatever way fits for you.
Rachel Serkin is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Director of Education.