Making a House a Home: Immigrant Acclimation to American Society
Read about how the Eldridge Street Synagogue contributed to immigrant acclimation to American society through the lens of a fictitious museum exhibition as imagined by Museum at Eldridge Street intern Jennifer Hernandez.
As someone who lives in a community of immigrants, I was compelled to apply for an internship at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Living in a country that is often defined as a melting pot, I believe it is important to learn and teach others about the groups of immigrants who came to America. How did immigrants incorporate new customs into their traditions and practices? What contributions did they make to American society? The Museum at Eldridge Street tells the story of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States to exercise their right to religious freedom while searching for opportunities for social mobility and prosperity. The Jews of the Lower East Side during the late 19th and early 20th centuries tell the story of the immigrant groups that came before and after them.
This past spring semester I took a Jewish Studies course called Sacred Objects in which I learned about important Jewish rituals, holidays, and religious objects. In my final paper, I curated a fictitious exhibition using objects and rituals that I learned about in class. Inspired by this assignment, I decided to similarly create an exhibition using objects found throughout the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s main sanctuary, the museum’s collections, and the museum’s exhibitions. My focus would be on telling the story of how the Jewish immigrants of the Lower East Side adapted their customs, culture, and religious practices to American culture. This merged my personal interests with the stories embedded in the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
If I had the opportunity to create a Museum at Eldridge Street exhibition, these are the items I would select to display:
Making a House a Home – Introduction
Between 1880 and 1924 two million Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe. Many of them were fleeing pogroms, or anti-Jewish riots, and in search of economic prosperity and upward mobility. This was the second major wave of Jewish immigration to the United States after the American Revolution, the first being by German Jews in the 1840s. German Jews characterized themselves as bourgeoisie; however, they paved the way for the mass influx of Jews that would soon start immigrating in the next forty years by establishing settlement houses that helped immigrants become “better Americans.”
Moving – or fleeing – to a new country was not easy for Eastern European Jews who had little money, spoke Yiddish, and were a religious minority in the United States. This begs the question: how did Jews entering the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s cope with living in a new country? How did they adjust when their customs were so vastly different from non-Jewish Americans and even the German Jews who were already acclimated to American society? Jews immigrating to the United States altered their religious and cultural practices by incorporating American practices; in turn these immigrants attempted to transform themselves from being eastern European Jews to becoming American Jews.
Hebrew Singer Sewing Machine Sign, 1930s
There are many street signs, store signs, and advertisements written in Chinese on the blocks surrounding the Eldridge Street Synagogue today. At the end of the 19th century the streets were filled with signs written in Yiddish and Hebrew. The sign advertising the Singer Sewing Machine is especially interesting because there are Hebrew characters that spell out the American brand “Singer.” The Singer Sewing Machine was especially important for Jewish immigrants who were involved in the garment industry as consumers and workers. This demonstrates the integration of the English language into the language of Eastern European Jews.
The Jewish Daily Forward Interactive Display Screen
Abraham Cahan founded the socialist newspaper, Jewish Daily Forward, in 1897. It was written in Yiddish and helped Jews acclimate themselves in their new home in New York City. This newspaper advocated for working class immigrants. In the newspaper, there was an advice column which published letters sent by readers to the editors. These letters outlined the personal issues that readers faced, whether it was about matchmaking versus romantic love or deciding which language to speak at home, English or Yiddish. Editors would respond to these letters and help readers navigate new American norms.
The Constitution, 1913
Eastern European Jews saw order as deriving from Jewish law. To Americans, order derived from self restraint, control, and political and economic hierarchy. The Eldridge Street congregation wrote a constitution in 1913 based on the Constitution of the United States. Leaders of the congregation wanted to enforce American ideals of order and decorum that went beyond the commandments.
Marble Engraving in the Main Sanctuary, Early Twentieth Century
Similar to the Yiddish signs, the engravings on the marble incorporate English words written in Yiddish letters. The letters spell the words “trustees” and “members” in English. This is another effort that the congregation took to introduce English and Americanization to the synagogue.
Flagpole holders found in the Main Sanctuary, Late Nineteenth or Early Twentieth Century
The flagpole holder with a 5 pointed star cut into its base demonstrates the Americanization of the Synagogue’s congregants. The congregation displayed American flags from these fixtures during national holidays such as the Fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, to display American flags. This demonstrates a growing sense of nationalism and respect for American customs and holidays.
Presenting an exhibition in this way highlights part of a larger trend in the neighborhood’s history: the Lower East Side is home to many immigrant communities from Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and now Chinese. While this museum is a Jewish space, the story of the transformation from Eastern European Jewry to American Jewry is similar to Puerto Ricans in the Lower East Side identifying as “Nuyorican,” along with the transformation of other immigrant groups.
Using objects that I found at the Museum at Eldridge Street helped me learn some of the ways in which this community adjusted their customs and religious practices in order to adapt and acclimate themselves to American society. It also helped me look at the Eldridge Street Synagogue as an institution that both proudly showcased its Jewish roots while expressing American ideals.
Jennifer Hernandez is a 2017 summer intern. She attends the City College of New York and majors in Jewish studies and history.