Love on the Lower East Side
By Meredith Carroll, Museum at Eldridge Street Summer Intern
I am a young man of twenty-one; I have a seventeen year old cousin, and she and her parents would like me to marry her. I like the girl. She’s educated, American-born, not bad looking. But she’s quite small… Another thing: she is very religious and I am a freethinker. I ask you, esteemed Editor, could this lead to an unpleasant life if we were to marry?…
Love conquers all. Many such couples live happily, and it is better for the man to be taller and the woman shorter, not the opposite… Also, the fact that the girl is religious and the man is not can be overcome if he has enough influence on her.
In 1906, a concerned youth penned this letter to the “Bintel Brief,” an advice column in the Jewish Daily Forward. Like advice columns everywhere, the “Bintel Brief” addressed questions of love, conflict, and family. Over a century later, the column sounds antiquated, strange, even sexist. But even now the issues its readers confronted — generational tensions, economic aspirations, and dreams for a better life — speak to the immigrant experience.
Even in the ways they met and fell in love, the children of Lower East Side Jewish immigrants often clashed with their more traditional parents. In Eastern Europe, matchmakers known as shadkhen matched young couples — often at the behest of parents. But in America, dance halls, movie theatres, and even classrooms beckoned young singles. In 1900, one matchmaker interviewed by the New York Tribune bemoaned the loss of tradition:
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…The love which they have learned to put so much faith in dribbles out in trips to Coney and walks around the parks before marriage…They may come back to the old way of doing things, and for their own sakes I hope they do.
But if meeting and courtship were steadily “dribbling out” of parents’ control, weddings continued to symbolize a family’s aspirations for their children. These aspirations, though grounded in religious tradition, aimed at upward mobility. For instance, Michael Karp, a Romanian immigrant better known as the “pickle millionaire,” celebrated his newfound wealth by throwing a massive wedding for his daughter. A 1909 New York Times article marveled at the spectacle: the 2,000 invitations, Karp’s gift of a $10,000 house, the two city blocks cordoned off for the festivities. American flags festooned the synagogue; the wedding showcased not just the Karps’ wealth but also the country that allowed them to earn it. Still, vestiges of tradition lingered. “The breath of orange blossoms and roses mingled heavily with the odor of pickles and dried herring,” according to the article. And the couple met not in a dance hall or movie theater but in a synagogue.
The Karp wedding may have been an extreme example, but immigrants everywhere looked to marriage to improve their circumstances. One 1901 article in the New York Sun discussed “diploma marriages,” in which young women would labor in factories to support their fiances’ education. The hope? Said fiances would become doctors or lawyers, move uptown, and “uplift” their wives socially and economically. The couples, often just one generation removed from persecution, would move one step closer to the American dream.
Like so much of the immigrant experience, therefore, love could be complicated. For the men and women who lived, worked, and prayed on Eldridge Street, love exposed rifts between young and old, secular and religious, rich and poor. But then as now, love could bridge those gaps, building on aspirations shared by the entire community.
After all, the experience of love hasn’t changed that much. Take, for instance, these words a “young workman” wrote to his “sweetheart”:
I have long been in love with you, but was afraid to tell you. When I go with you to the theatre or park I am almost like a fool, and altogether unfit for company. I think of you all day, and at night I dream of [you]… How happy I shall be to hear from you, but a thousand times more to think you will be mine!
Shyness, awkwardness, and endless dreaming: falling in love has never seemed so timeless.
Want to learn more about love on the Lower East Side? See the parks, dance halls, and cafes that turn-of-the-century couples frequented? Then please join us on Sunday, August 10th at 2:00-3:30 pm for our Love and Courtship Walking Tour! Sign up here — space is limited, so reserve your spot soon.