The last two decades of the 19th century brought a tremendous change in Jewish life the world over, especially to Eastern European Jews. It was as though, from Heaven, a signal was sent to them that it was time to leave.
There occurred a mass migration that had not occurred in the Jewish world since the time of the expulsion from Spain. Then, in the 1490s, about 250,000 Jews left their homes on the Iberian Peninsula, most of those in 1492. Here we are talking about 2.5 million Jews leaving within a period of 30 years.
The Hidden Hand
Why didn’t it happen earlier? There are many reasons – but one all-encompassing one.
God presents Himself in history in a semi-logical fashion. In other words, there are seemingly natural reasons behind events. However, when one looks at the larger picture those reasons do not explain it properly. In actuality, a Hidden Hand has manipulated things.
The outward causes for this mass migration in Jewish life include the invention of the steam ship, the opening of the United States as a major country that needed immigration and the feeling that somehow the situation could be improved. All of those factors conspired to make Jewish immigration to explode in the 1800s.
Most came first to Ellis Island and settled in New York City. In 1880 there were about 80,000 in New York City. In 1910, there were 1.1 million Jews.
The place of the United States generally, and in Jewish history particularly, has yet to be written. We are still in the middle of it. However, from what we know of the past 100 years the United States is not only the exception to all rules of Jewish life in the Diaspora but a phenomenon that never before existed in the world.
The “Golden Age” of the Jews in Spain was nothing in comparison. It was not a Golden Age in comparison to the opportunities presented to Jews by the United States.
In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The assassination unleashed terrible oppression. For various reasons, the Jews were disproportionately represented in the revolutionary parties. It was not hard to paint them as the scapegoat for all the ills of Russian society.
From 1882 on, there ensued a series of pogroms. Indeed, the word pogrom, which is Russian for “to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently,” came into the English language via Yiddish-speaking Jews. These pogroms were not merely spontaneous outbursts of mob violence against Jews, but destructions and killings orchestrated by the Russian authorities.
The Russians did not publicly announce they were organizing a pogrom. That was too crude even for the Czarist government. Instead, the police announced that they were not going to be in the vicinity on certain dates. That was a signal to anti-Semites and thugs alike that they could rampage without compunction; without fear of interference or repercussions.
Many times Jews fled in anticipation and never returned. Usually, there was nothing to return to. Many Jews stayed and paid the price, either through their lives, the ravishing of their women, the kidnapping of their children or the looting of their property – or all of those combined. Entire villages simply went up in smoke.
From 1882 onward, the pogroms had a pronounced effect on Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe. They are one of the great factors that caused immigration. The people sensed – and sensed correctly – that it was not just the random acts of hooligans and ruffians. It was a clear message from the authorities telling them that they were not wanted.
This Magic Land
The country that was open for Jews was the United States. The American Civil War had ended. The American Indians were being decimated and pushed off their lands. The continent was being opened. In short, America became the land of opportunity for Europe’s fleeing masses, not just Jews.
Irving Howe wrote World of our Fathers. A secular Jew, Howe writes about Jewish immigration from 1880 to 1910 as if Jewish religion didn’t exist or factor into the lives of the immigrants. That was the bias he had and had inherited from his father, a secularist-socialist Jew. Nevertheless, the book is marvelous in many ways.
Wisely, he told this story mainly through the memoirs of those who lived through the experience. Here is an excerpt from one Jew, written in 1891, about market day in her little town in Russia:
America was in everybody’s mouth. Businessmen talked of it over their accounts. The market women even made up their quarrels that they might discuss it from stall to stall. People who had relatives in the famous land went around reading their letters for the enlightenment of us less fortunate folk. Old folks shook their sage heads over the evening fire and prophesied no good to those who braved the terrors of the sea and the foreign gold beyond it. Yet everyone talked of it. But no one knew one true fact about this magic land.
That is a very representative memoir expressing how Eastern European Jews thought about America.
Great Waves of Immigration
The year 1882 marks the beginning of Eastern European migration to the United States. Jews actually came in four great waves.
- 1882 — following the pogroms that occurred in the wake of Alexander II’s assassination
- 1891 – following decrees that drove Jews out of Moscow and other Russian cities
- 1903 – following the horrific Kishinev pogrom
- 1905 — after the failed revolution against Czar Nicholas
There was a company in Bremen, Germany, called the Hamburg-America Shipping Line. It was directed by a Jew, Adolf Ballin (1857–1918), who was extremely successful in developing the business. He loaded to the point of overflow his company’s transatlantic ships with steerage class passengers. The fare from Bremen to New York was $33, which in 1900 was a lot of money. Yet, most of these ships were more than filled. He made a fortune for the company and himself.
Despite their enthusiasm, and their success most of the time, there were also terrible tragedies that occurred in the process. Many of the ports had doctors whose job was to inspect all the passengers for things like diseases such as tuberculosis and trachoma. If he found something wrong it was his job to not let the person to board.
Howe describes a heart-breaking scene. A Jewish family with six children made its way to Antwerp where a doctor inspected them. The youngest child, Faigeleh, had trachoma and the doctor refused to allow her on the ship. The family had already purchased their tickets, which were only good for this passage; it was their one chance to get out. What were they going to do with Faigeleh?
They felt they had no choice but to leave without her. She stayed behind, grew up in Antwerp and became a famous Jewish woman. But she never had anything to do with her family the rest of her life.
That was not a rare incident. Stories like this happened with regularity.
Those who Stayed
There were Jews who chose not to go to America. They can be divided into three main categories.
First were the deeply and truly pious and religious. They rarely went. A typical letter written to family remaining in Europe complained that in America there were Jews who ate food on Yom Kippur, did not observe the Sabbath and ate non-kosher meat. Religious Jews referred to the United States as the “treife medina,” the “unkosher country.”
Most of the Jews who came to America were under 40 and had a minimal commitment to Judaism, even though externally they may have looked the same as those in the Jewish Eastern European societies they left behind. As someone once phrased it, “Their commitment was an inch deep and a mile wide.” An inch deep was not enough to survive the jolting adjustment of coming to the New World. One had to really want to observe the Sabbath, eat kosher and give one’s children a Jewish education. One had to do so as a matter of conviction, not as a matter of convenience. Therefore, the most committed Orthodox Jews consistently resisted coming to the United States.
The second group that did not want to go to the United States was the Marxists, Socialists, Communists, etc. They were determined to build the paradise of the proletariat in Russia – especially after the Russian Revolution. People were willing to rot in the Czar’s jails and hang from his gallows to bring it about. They were not interested going to the United States, the capital of capitalism.
The third element was people of scholarship and wealth, who really could have made an impact. But the general rule in immigration is the one who has the most leaves the last. A person with everything, or at least quite a bit in comparison to others, does not move unless there are compelling forces motivating him. Even if the Messiah had come in their time they would have found it very inconvenient. They were gripped by a powerful inertia caused by their wealth, status or position.
However, the underclass and the young had nothing to lose. Therefore, they were the ones who came to America and gave American Jewry its stamp. And they brought with them a little vulgarity, tawdriness, brashness and roughness around the edges, which became part of the New York Jewish cultural caricature. The genteel, courtly European Jew was not going to stand in line and push his way into steerage; he was not going to undergo those privations.
The open door policy in America did not last forever. It was gradually shut with each successive wave of immigrants.
Congress passed many laws aimed at limiting immigration from countries in Central and Eastern Europe, a euphemism for Jews and Poles. Since there were many more Jewish immigrants than Polish ones these laws were really aimed at Jews.
In 1882, an act was passed prohibiting immigration into the United States from anyone who was classified as a lunatic, idiot or someone unable to take care of himself without becoming a public charge. That last category covered a lot of people. It left wide open to interpretation a vast swath of humanity.
In 1891, they added to the act paupers, polygamists, persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease and persons whose tickets had been paid for by someone else. That excluded most individuals. The only way that people in Europe could afford it was if relatives sent tickets or money to them. This officially excluded many Jews.
In 1891, Congress passed another act. This prohibited the encouragement of immigration by advertising, which was how the shipping lines were so successful. They put up posters in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Romanian and any other language that could attract passengers. Now anyone who had been attracted by a poster was officially prohibited from immigrating.
Entry in America was often dependent upon the caprice and whim of the immigration inspector. There were many ways to deny entry. Almost 20% of the immigrants were turned back for one reason or another. From memoirs of the time we know of one man who came back and forth 16 times until he was successful.
Finally, in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “We should aim to exclude absolutely not only all persons who are known to be believers in anarchistic principles but also all persons are of a low moral tendency or of an unsavory reputation.” That eliminated many Jews.
Despite all the obstacles, Jews came in droves and changed the face not only of the Jewish world, but of the European world they left behind and the New World they were now citizens of.