Becoming American on the Jewish Lower East Side

I recently came across a certificate that my great-grandfather received in September 1931, proclaiming him a naturalized citizen of the United States. More than twenty years had passed since he had arrived on the Lower East Side from Galicia (a former area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now part of Poland and Ukraine) in 1907 at eleven years old, but he was finally an American citizen. As I tried to imagine what he felt as he received that piece of paper, I realized that the years leading up to that moment were what had really shaped his process of “becoming an American.” From the moment he stepped off the ship, his traditions, values, and beliefs gradually began to change. Sometime along the way he Americanized his name. I wondered what norms of his old life he began to throw away, and how quickly he accepted new ones.

My great-grandfather’s experience is hardly unique to the millions of Jews who came to America from Eastern Europe. As was the case for all immigrants, becoming an American meant far more than receiving a stamped document. It meant coming to terms with leaving many aspects of a way of life that simply wasn’t feasible in America. But it also meant accepting the freedoms America had to offer, especially when it came to their religion.

As a synagogue, Eldridge Street provided a home base for a religious community, maintaining many of the familiar traditions people had from Europe, while simultaneously allowing that community to set down their roots by adopting American ways. The very magnificence of the  Eldridge Street synagogue, with the Hebrew name of the congregation and Stars of David on the outside publicly celebrating the building and the community of worshipers inside, was unusual in many places in Eastern Europe, where dangers of pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism prevented the kind of public affirmation of Jewish faith that such an edifice represented.

Eldridge Street is full of reminders of the balancing act these immigrants constantly performed as they attempted to reconcile the traditions of their pasts with the creation of new lives in a strange land.

In writing their own Constitution (pictured above), the congregants at Eldridge Street wanted to form an organizational structure reflective of American ideals. They had a president, board and democratic synagogue meetings, as represented by the gavel that can be viewed in the museum’s permanent exhibition. The practice of selling high holiday tickets, the synagogue’s most important way of raising funds, reflected the American capitalist mindset. Over time, more English words found their way into the well-kept synagogue minutes, which were written in Yiddish up until the 1950s. On signs all over the neighborhood, one could read English words written in Yiddish letters. English speaking children often served as the link between the New York streets and their Yiddish speaking parents at home. The evolution of the language of the neighborhood reflects how families reconciled what they were comfortable with and the American language and way of life.

Many aspects of the way the synagogue ran exemplified how the congregation created an American institution. The spittoons, for instance, were a way of ensuring decorum so that congregants did not spit on the wooden floors, something that would not have been as relevant in the smaller, less formal synagogues many were used to. The synagogue constitution also laid out rules for maintaining silence during services. Yet one Rosh Hashanah, a male lay leader’s admonition that the children in the women’s balcony were too noisy and should not be permitted in the synagogue for next year’s service, was met with the cries of the outraged women, proclaiming that “next year there should be even more children!”

The famous kosher meat boycott of 1902, instigated by women who interrupted Saturday morning services throughout the neighborhood to decry the 50% increase in meat prices, would have been an unthinkable action to be taken by women in Eastern Europe. Here, the women utilized the models of the American labor union and women’s movements to ensure The Eldridge Street congregation's constitutionthat families could continue to practice their religion the way they had done back home, by eating only kosher meat.

The congregants of Eldridge Street epitomized what it meant to be Jewish and American at the turn of the century. Some American ways were welcomed; others were rejected. Some people maintained closer ties with traditions and religious observance, while others completely put their pasts behind them and charted a new path.

I think this sentiment is best expressed by Daniella Rabbani’s moving performance of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” at an event hosted by Eldridge Street last week (Sunday, June 26). Written by a Russian Jewish immigrant to the Lower East Side and sung in both English and Yiddish, the song was a reminder that it was possible to embrace both sides of the vast ocean that separated two distinct chapters in these immigrants’ lives.

Written by Jackie Bein, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern

Categories: History, Immigration, Jewish History, Lower East Side

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