Uptown/Downtown: The Settlement Movement and Jewish Immigrants

This paper tells the story of a colonial encounter. Between 1880 and 1915, some 3 million East European Jews migrated to the United States, fleeing from the violent pogroms and repressive policies of Czarist Russia under Alexander III. For these immigrants, America represented an uneasy mixture of di goldene medine (the Golden Land) and di treyfe medine (the Non-kosher Land), a country in which freedom of religion was a guaranteed right, if not always a practiced one. Already poor in the Old Country, for the most part they arrived in America penniless and made their new homes in the growing tenements of America”s major cities–Chicago, Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, and especially New York City, where over one-and-a-half million Jews settled over those 35 years. The pressure of the tremendous inflow of immigrants, Jewish and otherwise, quickly outstripped the ability of the nation’s established institutions to cope with them, as poverty on a never before seen scale became the norm in America’s urban centers. Thus there is a two-part movement in American culture at this time–the new immigrants adapting to America, and America adapting to the new immigrants. Although the extreme poverty of slums like the Lower East Side in New York was, for most Jews, a temporary state, the myth of Jewish mobility as an American “success story” of hard work and the immigrants’ willingness to adopt the American Dream as their own is problematic. The creation of new social planning strategies and the intentional mobilization of Americanizing forces demonstrate the effort expended to ensure that the East European immigrants became not just Americans, but the “right kind” of Americans. But equally problematic is a view typical of some representations of colonial practice, a sort of “good guy/bad/guy” model of colonial coercion in which the bourgeois norms of the dominant culture are imposed fully formed on the minority newcomers as part of a monolithic cultural imperialism. Both of these views imagine an American culture and an immigrant culture which are fixed, already established, complete, and whose interaction simply plays out the inevitable absorption of the less powerful, alien immigrants into the more powerful American society, the myth of the American melting pot or crucible in which differences are dissolved (willingly or not) and from which only timeless Americans can emerge.

In an attempt to capture some of the complexity of the cultural changes which occurred during the waves of mass Jewish immigration, this paper focuses on the development and impact of a new model for social work, the settlement house. Settlement work was a small but important part of the overall “Americanization situation”, a term self-consciously adapted from G. Balandier’s idea of the “colonial situation” (see Balandier 1966). The settlement workers, generally young, unmarried, and educated women from middle-class backgrounds, appalled at the conditions of tenement life and recognizing the inability of traditional charities to cope with the new situation, “settled” in the tenements with the intent of teaching the immigrants, through formal instruction and informal example, the “civilized” American ways of eating, dressing, behaving. By focusing on this process as a “situation” I hope to avoid the common reductiveness of colonial narratives whereby one culture is simply opposed to and imposed on another, while at the same time recognizing the power imbalances ignored (perhaps willfully) in the “rags-to-riches” view of Jewish upward mobility. I mean to portray the settlement encounter as an entanglement of dynamic cultures and ideologies, as movement by variously motivated persons in and between overlapping fields of experience and meaning. What emerges is a picture of multiple processes of change and crystallization, caught at a particular moment in time when definitions of American, Jew, immigrant, woman, worker, and middle-class were anything but static.

The East European culture left behind can be considered a “middleman” culture: excluded from the landed gentry before the 1861 emancipation of the serfs, forbidden again to own land after 1881, and finding little time for major relocation in the twenty years in between, East European Jews were never peasants; confined to the twenty-five provinces of the Western Russian Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement, they were excluded form large-scale merchantry; systematically oppressed by the anti-Semitism of Czar and neighbors alike, they were fairly limited in local employment options. For most Jews the shtetl (market town) was home, where they engaged in small-scale artisanal occupations disdained by the aristocracy and requiring too much skill and training for the peasant ex-serfs: clothing and shoe manufacture, baked-good production, and woodwork, as well as petty trading. In the markets of these marginal towns, their produced commodities were traded with the surrounding peasantry for the raw foodstuffs essential to their survival. Very few shtetl Jews managed to accumulate enough wealth to ensure more than a sustenance existence, and fewer still to afford the greatly limited access to the Universities of the Russian urban centers. Shaped by Orthodox tradition no less than economic circumstance, the family was the basic unit of shtetl life. Although the gendered division of labour was similar to the public/private division common to the West, the definitions of these realms had greatly different consequences in East Europe. The rights and responsibilities of husband and wife were spelled out in the marriage contract, written up according to the Shulhan Arukh, the 16th century codification of Jewish law. In addition to the promise of the husband to provide for his family and of the wife to keep the home clean and in accordance with kashruth (kosher) laws, the contract spelled out such things as the conditions for divorce and the minimum frequency of sexual relations (variable according to husband’s occupation). Men in Orthodox tradition also have the obligation (from which women are “exempted”[Shepherd: 45-6]) to study and pray in the synagogue. Women’s exemption from this obligation is based on the assumption that all of their time will be consumed in the care of their houses and families: making and washing clothes, cleaning floors and household goods, acquiring, processing, and cooking foodstuffs, educating young children and attending to their everyday needs, all according to the dictates of Talmud and Torah, in order to assure the holiness of the family and their dwelling. Because of the importance of men’s ritual obligations, women often took on additional burdens in order to maintain the integrity of their homes. So highly was scholarly learning and prayer valued by Orthodox Jews that many women “relieved their husbands entirely of economic obligations so they could devote themselves to study” (Baum et al.: 15). In order to meet their households’ economic needs, women ran small shops or worked on the market, selling or trading the goods produced by their husbands, or worked as clothing makers, hairdressers, midwives, mikveh (ritual baths for purification after menstruation) attendants, peddlers, and folk medics (Ewen: 40). Even when they were not direct financial providers for the family, women generally controlled family spending, in keeping with the masculine conceit that true scholars should not be concerned with money, as well as a general Jewish attitude about the impurity of money itself.1 Barbara Meyerhoff (quoted in Ewen: 39) describes the general contours of shtetl roles as follows:

The men made the important decisions; when the messiah will come, what the Torah means, and what are the attributes of God. The wife decided how much money to spend on clothes, whether or not to pawn the family candlesticks, to apprentice the son, when the daughter would marry, and whether it was better to buy fish or chicken for the Sabbath meal.

Ultimately it was men who were responsible for the family’s sacred obligations in the “public” sphere of the synagogue and women who attended to the profane obligations of the “private” home, obligations which often kept men studying far from the “public” arena of shtetl life while women were rarely confined to the “private” space of the home.

This life began to change with the beginning of industrialization in Russia under Czar Alexander II who, recognizing Russia’s disadvantage against the industrial Western nations in its defeat in the Crimean War, entered into a program of modernization, borrowing foreign capital for the construction of factories, building a network of schools and relaxing the restriction on education, and emancipating the peasantry to create a pool of labour (Epstein: 6). Although anti-Semitism and competition with the newly-freed ex-serfs kept Jews out of all but the most skilled jobs, thousands moved to the cities of the Pale to work in the new factories and provide services for the new proletariat. Doubly oppressed, as workers and as Jews, they developed the trade unions and revolutionary politics which would provide the ideological framework for the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions and for socialist politics throughout the world. Circumstances made it impossible for the new movements not to recognize women’s participation as equally oppressed industrial workers, as well as their traditional roles as decision-makers and educators, allowing women to play large roles in the new political movements, especially after mass arrests of male dissidents left women to maintain political momentum in the men’s absence (Shepherd: 139).

The rise of the Jewish labour movement coincided with the arrival if the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment carried to Russia from Western Europe. Maskilim (enlighteners), influenced by 18th century Enlightenment ideologies, protested against the limitations of women’s roles as part of their wider attack on Jewish Orthodoxy. Although the ideas propounded by the maskilim were meant not so much to liberate women as to reassign them to the place occupied by Western bourgeois women, the questions they raised, combined with women’s new-found political and economic agencies, caused many women to agitate for greater autonomy than either Orthodox or maskil (enlightened) Jews were initially prepared to accept. Women such as Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the Polish Social Democrat party, and Esther Frumkin, a leader of the Jewish Worker’s Bund, struggled to build lives for themselves outside of the dictates of Orthodoxy, learning, travelling, and leading in a world where these were considered to be the prerogatives of men (see Shepherd 1993). The move away from Orthodoxy would continue in the New World under conditions sometimes similar, sometimes vastly different. from those under which it began in Czarist Russia.

In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Instead of the general revolution the assassins hoped would ensue, the presence of a Jewish woman, Hessia Hoffman, among the conspirators ignited a wave of pogroms against the Jews which lasted over a year (Sanders: 4). By the time the attacks ceased in 1882, thousands of Jews had been killed, tens of thousands left homeless, and over 100,000 financially ruined (Dawidowicz: 13). Thus began the wave of migration which would bring almost a third of Russia’s 8 million Jews to the United States over the next 40 years, periodically renewed by the pogroms following the 1903 blood libel2 at Kishinev, near Odessa, and pogroms following the failed 1905 Revolution, and which would only cease with the end of America’s “open door” immigration policy in the early 1920s.

The fleeing Jews sold what few possessions they could and set out, mostly on foot, travelling overland to Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, and other Western cities, some settling, some travelling across the Channel to London, most travelling by Sea to America, arriving in the port cities of Boston, Baltimore, Galveston, and especially New York. Only after the grueling passage through immigration centers such as Castle Garden or its replacement, Ellis Island, where they were interrogated about their trades, family backgrounds, marital status, and connections in America, and examined for literacy, feeblemindedness, disease, and, later, political views, were they allowed to land. They sought out theirlandsleit (countrymen), the few familiar faces from their shtetl or province back in Russia. With the help of landsleit or one of the immigrant aid societies, the newly-arrived Jew found work and a place to stay. Unlike immigrants from other parts of the world, the East European Jews came with their families or brought them over as soon as they were established, resulting in a total immigrant population that was almost evenly split between men and women and over 25% of which were children. Also unlike other immigrants, return migration was nearly nonexistent, less than 5% leaving America after arrival as opposed to the over 30% return rate for immigration as a whole over the same period (Howe: 58).

Most of the immigrant Jews found work in the growing garment industry. The invention of the sewing machine in the 1840s had made it possible to produce affordable and fashionable clothing in large quantities, and the division of labour accompanying the growth of American industry made it difficult for women to find time to produce clothing for themselves and their families, creating a growing demand for ready-made clothing. The growing field eagerly absorbed the cheap labour of the East European immigrants. Many Jews had been clothing workers and tailors in Russia and found their skills in high demand, but even those without formal skills found jobs in the garment industry, as the factory system broke down the production process into simple and easy to learn steps. Furthermore, many of the garment manufacturers were German Jews who had immigrated a generation before, under much different circumstances, and who, though sharing neither the Yiddish language nor the Orthodox religion of the newcomers, would at least excuse their Jewish employees from work on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. The institution of homework meant even mothers and their children could contribute to the their family’s incomes, providing a much-needed addition to the wages of husbands and older sons and daughters who worked in the “inside” shops.

In addition to needleworkers, immigrant Jews worked as cigar- and cigarette-makers, a job which could be learned in a six- to eight-week unpaid “apprenticeship”, jewelers, melamidim (elementary Hebrew teachers), peddlers, launderers, and small shopkeepers. After the invention of motion pictures, Jews were first major consumers, then major producers, of the new medium, running nickelodeons and small, then large, movie studios. Mothers kept home by the need to take care of small children took in laundry and boarders in addition to homework. Their homes were the tenements such as the Lower East Side in New York–dark, poorly-ventilated, dirty, infested with rats, cockroaches, and other vermin, and over-crowded. The typical three-room flat–bedroom, kitchen, and “parlour”–housed up to 15 people, counting family and boarders, and often served double-duty as a sweatshop in the daytime hours, such as the flat at No. 7 Ludlow Street, described by the secretary of the United Hebrew Trades:

The delegate took us into a yard. Dirt was piled up to the windows. Scraps of goods and dirt were strewn over the narrow filthy stairs. The first shop we entered consisted of a small room with two little grimy windows and a still smaller doom which had formerly served as a bedroom, without windows, only bars looking out on a dark hall. Several sewing machines stood in the first room. It was so small that we had difficulties in approaching the operators, who sat very close to each other. Under the mantelpiece was the fireplace with a burning stove surrounded by flat-irons. The floors were filthy and littered with scraps of material. Several girls were sitting on the floor and working. They were the finishers…. We went over to the small dark chamber where the pressers worked, but could not enter because there was no room for us. A few bearded men stood there pressing the kneepants, bathed in sweat. The room being totally dark, they worked by the light of a kerosene lamp. [We asked one in German:] “How many hours do you work a day?” “Eight hours,” the old presser hastened to reply, fearfully. But the second presser mumbled: “We work eight hours on each side….” He wanted to let us know that on both sides they worked sixteen hours a day (in Epstein: 92-3).

Poverty such as existed on the Lower East Side was unprecedented in American history, and required unprecedented strategies to deal with. One such strategy was the settlement movement. Jewish settlement work has its prehistory in the earlier wave of German-Jewish migration which began in the 1840s. Unlike their East European counterparts, the German Jews had already abandoned many of the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, adopting the Reform liturgy which reflected the influence of Christian Protestantism, dropping or relaxing many of the dogmatic prescriptions of traditional rabbinical law and focusing instead on the cultural and aesthetic qualities of Jewish ritual. They adapted much more easily to American life with its secular quality, foregoing daily observance for the congregational model of the American Protestants which meant the restriction of religious life to synagogue worship and the “private” home (Johnson: 367-9). By 1880, the German-Jewish population of the United States was already well-established, identifying readily with their newly-won middle-class status (Dawidowicz: 39).

The reform German-Jews set up charities based on their Old World counterparts, mutual-aid and burial societies, which reflected the commitment of the community to its members. As Jewish life in America secularized, these early charities separated from the synagogues and became philanthropic institutions, such as the national B’nai Brith, a fraternal society loosely based on the Masonic lodges, or the United Hebrew Charities of New York, a union of local Jewish charitable organizations. But these organizations were intended to serve a Jewish-American community which numbered only 150,000 in 1860, the peak of German-Jewish immigration (Johnson: 366). They were hopelessly unprepared to deal with the influx of East European Jews beginning in 1881: “They could not raise enough money to provide the resources to cope with destitution on a scale never before encountered in private charity” (Dawidowicz: 56). The established Jews were not overwhelmed by the sheer number and poverty of the newcomers, but by their culture as well. To the respectable middle-class, largely assimilated Jew, the “greenhorns”, living in poverty and filth, speaking their Yiddish “jargon”, with their large families, odd dress, and strange foods, were an embarrassment.

The reaction of the established Jews reflects this embarrassment:

Central to the attitude of American Jews was the way they viewed the impact of mass immigration upon their own situation. They were convinced that providing for the needs of impoverished immigrants would bankrupt their institutions. More importantly. they feared that they would be identified, as Jews, with the lower-class and (at least in Western terms) uncultured immigrants and blamed for the latter’s social lapses (Baum et al.: 164).

This fear of a “misdirected” anti-Semitic backlash prompted some Jewish leaders and organizations to call for an end to “indiscriminate immigration” (Dawidowicz: 56), either directly through legal restrictions, or indirectly through appeals to European Jewish agencies to dissuade potential immigrants. But this tactic seemed to many to further foster anti-Semitism, rather than assuage it, and they attempted to modify their philanthropic institutions not only to aid immigrants but to facilitate their Americanization. With the established Jews’ guidance, “it was hoped, the immigrant Jew from Eastern Europe would wisely choose to resemble his middle-class coreligionist of German origin” (Baum et al.: 165).

The initial thrust of Jewish philanthropy is easily identified with similar work performed by Protestants with the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants whose arrival coincided with the East European Jews’. Central to this brand of Victorian largesse was “moral philanthropy”, which

perceived poverty as a character flaw, a problem of bad habits or intemperate behavior. Regeneration was possible if the poor would adopt the Protestant ethic: hard work, discipline, order, punctuality, temperance, and “clean Christian living” (Ewen: 78).

Thousands of “friendly visitors” scrutinized the immigrants’ lifestyles, lecturing them on their shortcomings and lack of values. The Jewish author Anzia Yizierska took aim at these moral reformists in her novel Hungry Hearts:

She comes to see that we don’t overeat ourselves. She learns us how to cook corn meal. By pictures and lectures she shows us poor people how we should live without meat, without milk, without butter, and without eggs. Always it’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her, can’t you yet learn us how to eat without eating (In Ewen: 78)?

The friendly visitors’ English language, sporadic involvement, and high moral tone made them easy to distrust and resist, making their impact on actual lives minimal. But they set the stage for a younger generation of women to transform philanthropy and themselves in a new vision of reform and progressivism, of which the settlement house was a major part.

The new social worker represented both continuity of and break from the past. For the educated daughters of middle-class Jews, philanthropic work represented one of the few areas where they could utilize their educations and enjoy (relative) freedom while remaining respectable. But their initial experiences forced them to question the way their class viewed the poor, and they came to see the immigrants not as lacking morals but instead lacking proper education and resources. The settlement movement reflects this shift in thinking, as young women moved into the tenement neighborhoods, hoping to accomplish through close contact and hard work what the friendly visitor had failed to do with occasional contact and hard words.

Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement in New York, was perhaps the best-known and best-liked of the settlement workers. The daughter of a comfortable German-Jewish family in Rochester, NY, Wald had graduated from a nursing school in New York City and had begun teaching a class in home nursing on the Lower East Side. In 1893, after visiting a sick person in his family’s “dismal two-room apartment that housed a family of seven plus a few boarders” (Howe: 90), she decided to move to the East Side where she could have a direct impact on the lives of these unfortunates. She took an apartment with another nurse, Mary Brewster, and the two began their campaign to aid and educate New York’s immigrant poor.

Wald had no program as to what sort of work she would do; she kept herself available, visiting tenants, instructing them on proper care of the sick, encouraging them to call doctors or visit hospitals, directing them to clean their flats, helping them to raise money for rent, clothes, and food. She obtained the support of Jacob Schiff, a German-Jewish banker and philanthropist who bore much of the financial burden her work entailed. Surprisingly, a number of nurses volunteered their services, and Wald took over a building at 265 Henry Street. As the settlement grew, Wald became more well-known and more powerful, which, to her credit, she turned to the benefit of her charges, advocating a public nursing system in New York City, getting nurses in public schools, establishing and maintaining subsidized milk stands where pasteurized milk could be bought at affordable prices, speaking out against child labour and in support of strikers. By 1916, he settlement consisted of half a million dollars in property, a staff of 100 nurses, and its educational facilities (Howe: 90-94).

While their forerunners had focused on moral health, Wald and her colleagues focused on “personal and environmental cleanliness”:

Like their non-Jewish counterparts, they were strong believers in the salubrious effects of a wholesome environment and focused almost exclusively on the cultural ramifications of dirt. As they understood it, the elimination of dirt was by no means an exclusively physical act but one fraught with social and cultural meaning, intrinsic to the process of integration (Joselit: 25).

Wald taught courses in practical nursing, bed-making, ventilation, and hygiene in her cultural battle against “dirt”. The Henry Street Settlement had a model tenement apartment known simply as “the Flat” where tenement-dwellers could observe and study the ideals of household arrangement and cleanliness advocated by their instructors. With its Spartan Mission-style furnishings and lack of decoration, the Flat embodied an ideal of household sterility and taste.

In the ideal world of the Flat, the kitchen reigned supreme. A typical tenement flat consisted of three rooms: a bedroom, a “parlour” (generally doubling as additional sleeping space), and the kitchen, usually between the other two. The physical centrality of the kitchen reinforced its symbolic centrality as the focus of domesticity or, as the Settlement Journal called it, “the hub of the home” (in Joselit: 29). The workers of the settlement initiated their charges in the arcana of home economics and domestic science, instructing the tenement women on how to select and use the proper kitchen equipment–for example, the Dover eggbeater, “a particular favorite of the domestic science community thanks to its efficient combination of design and function” (29).

No less important than the cleanliness and efficiency of the kitchen space was the food prepared there, and rightfully so. Judaism is often (sometimes disparagingly) called a “kitchen religion” (Kirschenblatt-Gimblett: 77). For the Jews of the shtetl, for whom food was often scarce,

Food is always good for people, always a token of good feeling. There is no malicious food sorcery in the shtetl. To give food symbolizes not only maternal love but also the friendliness of the household to its visitors (From Zborowski and Herzog’s Life is with People, quoted in Baum et al.: 65).

Central to East European food culture were the kashruth (kosher) laws, which forbade the consumption of unclean foods such as pork, rabbit, and shellfish, provided guidelines for the humane slaughter of livestock, and dictated a strict separation of meat and dairy products. For the German-Jewish Americans, whose Reform practice did not require strict adherence to kashruth, the East Europeans’ insistence on eating kosher “loomed large as a symbol of cultural backwardness” (Baum et al.: 181). Although settlement classes rarely flaunted the kosher rules directly3 they did strive to replace the East Europeans diet with one more typically American. In classroom kitchens

reminiscent of a laboratory, young girls and their mothers donned starched caps and pressed aprons to learn the intricacies of American measurements, the rudiments of “scientific” cooking, and the artistry4 of table settings. Laboring over recipes for rice pudding, corn muffins, green vegetables, and casseroles, students learned how to “cook American” (Joselit: 30).

In their campaign against traditional foods, dietitians criticized the “inadequately balanced, over-rich and over-seasoned” (30) East European diet, heavy on meat and brine-preserved foods like pickles and herring, light on dairy products and fresh produce. Although this characterization was contested among many reformers, in practice “Ideas of ‘nutrition’ and ‘food value’ were scientific euphemisms [to degrade] ethnic cooking and… to replace it with Anglo-American tastes” (Ewen: 175).

The settlement workers’ focus on home furnishings, cleanliness and hygiene, and diet–and their focus on “female” spheres of activity, specifically the kitchen and home–were consistent with both the overall strategy of Americanization through consumption and the division of labour then developing in the field of social work and in women’s roles overall.

On the first point, Bourdieu has noted the connection between “the different–and ranked–modes of cultural acquisition… and the classes of individuals which they characterize” (1984: 2). At work in the ideology of the settlement workers was the attempt to erase the cultural differences which marked the East European Jews apart from the “normal” (middle-class, bourgeois, Protestant) American, differences apparent in the food the immigrants ate, the furniture they bought, the arrangement of their homes, the way they dressed–everything about the material goods immigrant Jews surrounded themselves with. To the German-Jewish Americans, the Old World customs of the immigrants–carried over from a situation in which food, clothing, furniture, and decor were either made for oneself’s use or to trade for those things others made–were a clear sign of East European cultural inferiority and social backwardness (Baum et al.: 180).

The discourse surrounding instruction in “proper” habits of consumption reinforced the Americanization effort, on a more profound level. For the settlement movement was not merely about the substitution of American food, furnishings, and clothing; rather it was about the replacement of “primitive” behaviours with “civilized” ones consistent with the scientific dictates of medicine and nutrition, home economics, domestic science, fashion. The use of scientific discourse in the creation of socially regulated bodies is described by Michel Foucault in his analysis of sexuality (1978). According to Foucault, the scientific studies of population, physiology, medicine, and physical anthropology made possible the quantification of human differences necessary for the “controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the population to economic processes” as well as providing “methods of power capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern” (141). The importance of this scientific surveillance is the creation, through the grounding of behaviours in the physical body, of the “individual”–the human body as self-regulating bearer of scientifically determined social norms (144). Likewise, the discourses of nutrition, domestic science, and so on, besides giving legitimacy to the outward forms of Americanization, also played a part in the individuation of immigrant life by removing diet, dress, and household habit from the (external, collective) realm of Orthodox tradition to the (internal, individual) realm of the body, allowing the “controlled insertion” of persons not into the system of production but into its corollary, the system of consumption.

Bourdieu conceptualizes this grounding of consumption patterns in he human body as “taste”. The importance of “taste” lies in its double-meaning–o one hand, referring to the physiological act of perceiving flavors, on the other to the cultivation of preferences and distinction. By an ideological sleight-of-hand, a tendency to consume and appreciate a certain category of commodities is naturalized as the mere ability to perceive (ostensibly objective) qualitative differences in the “flavor” of those goods. By naturalizing consumption patterns, “taste” legitimizes the place of persons in a supposedly natural social hierarchy, while at the same time reproducing their positions and restricting access to power to those capable of cultivating the right “tastes” (especially the “taste” for power). It also contributes to the ideology of the “individual” by assigning preferences to single persons, mystifying the larger class-based system of preferences and reducing consumption to the level of individual decisions (Bourdieu: 56-7).

Part of the settlement workers’ self-appointed task was to shift the immigrants’ tastes from an empty emulation of middle-class styles to one more appropriate to their income and social station, as epitomized by the clean, simple lines of the Mission-style furnishings of the Flat at the Henry Street Settlement. In its Puritan simplicity, the Flat was the very model of scientific efficiency and bourgeois taste, carefully designed to reinforce at every turn the poor worker’s place in the capitalist order of things. It could not have been further removed from the actual dwellings of the immigrant workers, shaped by Old World standards and financial contingencies:

“Packed with furniture,” the kitchen was a far cry from the neatly organized work space envisioned by the reformers, at once a room for eating, preparing homework, socializing, and manufacturing a startling array of commercial products, from cigarettes to shirtwaists [blouses]…. Although mothers’ clubs and cooking classes enjoyed considerable success downtown, the women who attended them did not readily give up their trusted Old World possessions (including recipes) for the new-fangled implements favored by domestic reformers (Joselit: 31).

Instead of the austere furniture of the Flat, East European Jews filled their tenements with plush, heavily upholstered facsimiles of late-Victorian parlour suite, which doubled as beds for the children, relatives, and boarders which made up the typical household. The disjunction between settlement theory and tenement practice arose from many factors, not least the nearly irreconcilable differences between middle-class conception of immigrant culture and the immigrants’ reality:

[T]he severity of Mission style furniture had little appeal to the immigrant consumer who wanted his or her couch and English oak-finished sideboard to have heft, color and strong lines: in short, to be an object of substance (Joselit: 33).

Not only of substance, but versatility. The impoverished Jewish family could not afford the luxury of furniture that served only one purpose–an armchair had to serve also as a bed, a dining-table as a sewing machine stand.

The bourgeois ideal of personal privacy also fell outside the constraints of the immigrants’ household economy. Most immigrant households took in boarders at one time or another, satisfying both the Orthodox tradition of tzedakah (charity) and the financial needs of the struggling families. Boarders were often either relatives (however distant) not yet able to afford their own lodgings or single landsleit (countrymen) trying to save enough money to bring their families over from Russia. Taking in boarders was seen within the immigrant Jewish community as an essentially respectable way to supplement the family income, although occasional problems did arise. To the settlement workers, however, taking in boarders “was perceived not as a functional economic and social arrangement but as a source of rampant immortality and consequently as a threat to the institution of the family” (Joselit: 34). In the bourgeois conception of the family as a private sphere, opposed to the public world of work and non-kin and based solely on relations of sexuality and nurturance, the flow of strangers into and out of the home and the conversion of domestic relations into economic arrangements could only be perceived as a derangement of the institution itself. Similar feelings also characterized the settlement workers’ reactions to the homework system, against which many of them fought. In addition to the exploitation of the women’s and children’s labour, settlement workers cited the invasion of the private home by work as an offense against the bourgeois ideal of the home as a refuge from everyday economic concerns (exactly opposite the traditional Orthodox linking of public and sacred spheres). Although exploitation was certainly common in the homework system, to the immigrant women confined to their home by their small children’s needs, homework provided a much-needed addition to the family income, one whose decline in the face of growing unpopularity among reformers and ensuing government control forced many women to adopt less desirable strategies of child-rearing in order to work in factories and sweatshops.

Settlement workers did not focus only on the mother, in her role as homemaker, but also on their daughters in their roles as workers. Many of the programs run at settlement houses were intended to teach marketable skills to young women. The cooking classes at the Clara de Hirsch Home for Girls and at the Louis Downtown Sabbath School were expressly intended to create “a disposition to enter domestic service” (Joselit: 29). Classes in English, typing, nursing, and citizenship all helped young women to succeed n the turn-of-the-century workforce. In this connection, women were taught fashion and manners in accordance with those of Late Victorian expectations for women. Lillian Wald held regular “coming out” parties at the Henry Street Settlement, where 18 year olds were formally introduced into society, aping the debutante balls of upper-class America (Ewen: 91). The emphasis on fashion and women’s education contributed to one of the most fundamental changes the immigrant families went through–the breakdown of authority between the Old World parents and the Americanized children, particularly the daughters.

The role of daughters had been shifting in the Old World as young women responded to the ideas of the Haskalah and radical politics, ideas carried to America by women such as anarchist Emma Goldman and labour organizer Rose Pesotta. The institutional signifier of this shift in America was a daughter’s request to “pay board”. The immigrants generally retained the mother’s control of household finances–it was considered a sign of respect that each worker I in the family brought his or her pay envelope, unopened, directly to the mother, who would provide them with money for carfare and incidentals. Many daughters, though, preferred to “pay board”, paying a set amount to the mother each week and keeping the rest for herself, usually to spend on clothing and accessories for herself, or to save for educational expenses. This show of independence was often a double blow for the mother, who felt her family slipping away at the same time her economic resources were diminished. The issue of paying board and the often frivolous purchases made by the daughters, became a source of friction in many families. Many settlement workers like Lillian Wald were often called in to help settle disputes over clothing, generally siding wit the daughters who, after all, had spent their “own” money–a logic not always appreciated by Orthodox parents (Ewen: 200).

The settlement workers’ concern with women’s lives and particularly in the “feminine” domestic scene was determined not only by the ideological necessities of Americanization but by the practical contingencies of the development of social work as a field. As the need grew for efficient, large-scale social programs to deal with issues such as poverty, public health, labour abuses, education, and housing, a field of professional social work opened, into which a number of men trained in social science, administration, and medicine entered. The volunteer charities–the amateur friendly visitors and settlement workers, generally women–were seen by these men as a dangerous barrier to the implementation of “scientific” planning: as volunteers, they could not be easily controlled; as women, they could not be counted on to act rationally. Furthermore, the men perceived the need for “leadership” in the organization of the large-scale social projects they envisioned–and leadership, they knew, was a masculine trait. As in the labour movement, where Jewish immigrant women were fighting similar battles for recognition and a voice, the educated and accomplished German-Jewish women who built and ran the settlement houses “were constantly put down by the Jewish [men] for their self-assurance as women” (Shepherd: 255).

A clear division of labour developed: men dealt with the scientific and “technological aspects of tenement living, like increasing the amount of cubic feet of air space, and used impersonal statistics to press their cases” (Ewen: 82) while women were the fieldworkers ad liaisons between the immigrant communities and the male leadership. In essence, Jewish charity was divided along public/private lines, with the men advocating on the immigrants behalf to the political and governmental “public” and the women attending to the “private” needs of daily immigrant life. This statement by a biographer of Lillian Wald neatly encapsulates this division in housing reform:

[By 1912, the movement] had attended to all of the structural and scientific points of tenement living so that the men who started it no longer made inspections, only speeches, and turned the field work over to women (in Ewen: 83).

At issue in these struggles was not only women’s position in their profession but their position in American society in general. Raised with privilege and excused from the need to make a living, the educated daughters of middle-class Jews began to wonder if their only source of gratification in life was to come from marriage and child-rearing. Many found in the settlement movement an opportunity to find meaning in the up-until-then male domain of a career. Indeed, many of the social workers, for instance Lillian Wald, never married and instead spent their whole lives in service to the immigrant communities. Many came to respect the strength of the women they met I the tenements, who worked so hard to anchor their families. Likewise, a few became interested in the radical activism of the young women activists. For the most part, though, these glimpses of dignity among the immigrants’ poverty, and their own struggles for recognition as social workers with a real contribution to make to the field, did not deter them from their goal of helping the East European Jews to become the settlement workers’ idea of “civilized” Americans.

Of course, immigrant women had their own ideas about what they wanted from American “civilization”. “[I]nfused with old-world radical traditions and new-world ideas of freedom, [Jewish women] took part in creating a militant, organized labor movement…, electrifying a stagnant American labour movement) (Ewen: 252). While settlement women fought for their positions within the field of social work and middle-class society, immigrant women, at the bottom of the hierarchy both at work and in the unions, striked and picketed to improve their working and living conditions. In 1907 and 1908, depression years which put tens of thousands of Jews out of work, a wide-scale rent-strike was organized by Jewish women whose responsibility the raising rents were. Over 2000 households participated, forcing landlords to lower rents (Ewen: 126-7). Women’s position as household financiers also made them important parts of efforts against exploitive employers or those who hired scabs to break strikes, as women organized and carried out boycotts of those companies. And, as in the industrial centers of Russia, women became an important part of the labour movement, fighting not only for less exploitive working conditions but for a greater voice in the male-dominated unions as well. Perhaps their greatest moment was the 1909 “Uprising of 20000”, a strike of 20000 women shirtwaist (blouse) makers which inspired the 1910 Cloakmakers strike of 550000 workers, and the settlement of which, known as the Protocol of Peace, provided guidelines for owner-labour relations for the following years.

For decades Jewish workers had been almost impossible to organize. Labour activists were astounded at the ease with which Jewish workers could be convinced to strike and the difficulty in maintaining momentum after the strike had been settled (Epstein: 108-31). The United Hebrew Trades had been trying to organize workers in the New York garment industry for years when two women picketers were arrested in 1909. The public reaction to this arrest convinced the organizers to call a meeting at Cooper Union to discuss the possibility of a general strike, which thousands of workers attended. Cautiously, the union men deliberated for several hours, debating the wisdom of a general strike at that time. Suddenly, Clara Lemlich, a teenage worker and boardmember in her local, asked for the floor and cried out in Yiddish:

I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now (In Epstein: 391).

Inspired by the young woman’s words, a strike was immediately voted and ultimately lasted for months. Jewish women were at the forefront, picketing and suffering arrest and police beatings for their effrontery. The voice of justice had a decidedly patriarchal tone with regard to the activist women–one judge convicted a striker with the admonition “You are on strike against God and Nature, whose firm law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God” (In Ewen: 258). In striking, she had violated two mandates of American society: 1) that work is everyone’s duty, and 2) that docility and submission are women’s duty.

One woman for whom docility and submission held little attraction was Rose Pesotta. Born and raised in Ukraine, she had rejected her father’s efforts to marry her off at sixteen and instead sailed for America to join her sister in New York City. Her family provided a strong background in leadership and activism–her father had organized a cooperative bakery in order to break a price-setting monopoly in his town, her mother was a bookkeeper and leader of the women’s section of their synagogue, and her sister in America was a radical activist who had worked at the Triangle shirtwaist factory where a fire had killed 146 Jewish and Italian women who had been licked in to prevent them taking unauthorized breaks in 1911–an event which provided the impetus needed to sustain the momentum of Jewish labour activism after the settlement of the strikes in 1909-10 (Howe: 304-6). Pesotta worked several years in the garment industry, becoming a skilled worker and an executive in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) Local 25. In her early 20s, she won a union scholarship to Bryn Mawr, where she studied social science and labour history, emerging a powerfully effective labour organizer. She went on to become the third ever woman on the Executive Board of the ILGWU, travelling extensively throughout the United States and organizing strikes in towns thought firmly anti-union by her male peers. Despite her accomplishments, Pesotta was frustrated as “a woman struggling alone against male cabals” (Shepherd: 277) of union leadership. Her several failed marriages and frequent affairs made her a source of embarrassment to the union’s male leadership, who would repeatedly replace her in the field with male organizers who would then take the credit for Pesotta’s achievements. In 1942, bitter over the lack of recognition for her accomplishments and the union’s attempt to disempower her, and also recognizing the failure of the unions–despite their many successes–to achieve anything close to general socialist reform, Pesotta retired form organizing and went back to work in the factory. In a letter written a year later, she expressed her disappointment in the state of American labour:

[W]e are entering a new era–the era of arbitration by disinterested individuals, mostly on government payroll, who will consider this sometimes an unpleasant duty, while the workers will remain aloof, the leaders will disclaim any responsibility, and thus the old labor movement will die a natural death (In Shepherd: 277).

Despite her personal failures, though, Pesotta had stretched the boundaries of her society’s expectations, proving through her actions the ability of women to lead in places where even men had failed, and leaving a lasting impression on the ILGWU and the labour movement in general. Like the middle-class settlement workers such as Lillian Wald, Pesotta had taken advantage of a new field to define, for a while at least, her own place in American society.

In her book on working-class nationalist women, Shattering Silence, Begona Aretxaga develops the concept of “choiceless decisions” (1997: 61): decisions actively taken when no alternative action is possible. Although her use of the term is in the context of moral decisions, the concept applies well to the lives of the East European Jews described here. For the immigrant Jews, certain decisions were necessary to survival in America: one had to learn English, buy food and clothes ready-made, earn and spend money. Many changes and adaptations were inevitable in the realization of these “choiceless decisions”–not all of them welcome. One way to learn to adapt was to accept the help of the settlement workers, which many did. But accepting their help did not necessarily mean accepting their judgments–women often used the settlement houses’ teachings selectively, following them at some times, at others finding their time-tested traditional ways more reasonable, less difficult, or just more comfortable. Despite the efforts of settlement workers to Americanize their coreligionists, East European Orthodoxy did not disappear with the publication of a new cookbook or the introduction of the latest advances in housework as physical-culture5. In fact, until well into the 1930s, East European Jewish culture enjoyed a fluorescence never experienced on its native soil. The growth of a unique Yiddish literature, theatre, and press was accompanied by the establishment of Yiddish secular schools, publication of Yiddish-language scholarly works and Western literature in translations, and the particularly Jewish forms of radical politics which the immigrants brought to the American labour movement all testify to the vitality and durability of Yiddish culture, as well as its adaptability and re-invigoration in the response to the American milieu. The decades before and after 1900 were critical ones for the development of American industrial capitalism, and men and women, whether Daughters of the American Revolution or daughters of Polish shoemakers, were finding and making new places for themselves in society, as well as new meanings for the old places. Of course, the Yiddish cultural renaissance eventually ended, its demise fueled by the loss of Yiddish as a first language, then as a second, among the immigrants’ descendants; by the opportunities for education–and therefore social mobility–offered by free universities such as City College in New York; by other opportunities available after World War II through the GI Bill and new technology industries; and–not least of all–by the Americanization of immigrants and their children. Most of the East European Jews who came to America had made up their minds to leave behind the oppression of the Czar and make their ways as best as possible in the New World–and most were well enough informed to know that meant change.

Of course, acceptance of the inevitability of change does not simply the acceptance of the shape of those changes. Yiddish-speaking parents encouraged their children to learn English, and were disappointed to discover the barrier erected between them and their children by the lack of a common language. Likewise, Jews accepted the necessity that their daughters contribute to the family income, but not the independence that their daughters discovered when out from under their parents’ watchful gazes. The ultimate impact of the settlement movement is hard to assess with any accuracy–one gets the feeling that, for Jews as a whole, things would have worked out more or less the same one way or another. But for the women involved, Reform middle-class and Orthodox working-class alike, the settlement movement had an important impact. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. describes the women of the settlement movement as having a “subtle and persistent saintliness [which] was in the end more deadly than all the bluster of [politicians]” (In Howe: 94), a fitting testimony to the memory of women such as Lillian Wald, “known and adored on every street” (Howe: 90). Wald herself was deeply touched by her experiences with the immigrants. She was once asked by one of the young women in her tenement how to go about organizing a trade union, something which Wald had hardly heard of before. Concerned about her ignorance, Wald spent the next day studying trade unionism in the library, and attended a meeting with her neighbor:

I listened to the broken English of a cigarmaker who was trying to help the girls, and it was interesting that what he gave them was… that collective power might be employed to insure justice for the individual, himself powerless (In Ewen: 90).

Wald became active in labour issues, supporting strikes and risking physical injury along with the strikers to bring food and encouragement to the immigrants on the picket lines. The questioning of their own values was not limited to political and economic concerns. Mary Simkhovitch took issue with the roles assigned husband and wife according to middle-class values, defending the East Europeans:

The family pattern had a conservative cut, but on the whole it worked. The position of the mother was a strong one, much stronger than often obtains in families of higher economic level. She paid not only the rent, insurance and food, but also bought the family’s clothing and gave the husband and children enough for carfare and lunches. They built up a solid family life where each was dependent on the other. Clash and conflict were necessary corollaries of this closeness, but there was something loving about such a home life in which no individual could live for himself alone. It made of sacrifice not a beautiful thought, but a common custom (In Ewen: 87).

Simkhovitch was so disappointed in the paternalism typical of middle-class philanthropy that she started her own settlement, Greenwich House, based on her conviction that the primary task of settlement work should not be “the rendering of specific services” in the interests of Americanization, but “to understand their problems, to stand by their side in their life struggles, to welcome their leadership, to reveal to others who had not had the opportunity of direct contact…” (In Ewen: 81). For the few women who saw in the plight of the Jewish immigrants not the inherent primitivity of their Old World cultures but the oppression and exploitation of those unlucky enough to be poor workers in American society, the settlement movement was not only one of the few positions open to women at the time, but a point from which to change the society in which they lived.

For the sons and daughters of the immigrant Jews, the issue of Americanization would become a moot point–raised in public schools, speaking English, having abandoned the strict doctrines of Orthodox Judaism, and with no memories of the Old World or their parents’ hardships, new issues would arise. Mostly middle-class by 1950, Jewish concerns would shift to the re-Judaization of their families, new kinds of Jewish identity and practice. The 1950s, with its overall emphasis on children and the nuclear family, would see a new emphasis on celebratory holidays–especially Chanukah, which falls at the same time as Christmas and has a festive tone well-suited to children’s involvement–and a kind of Jewish-ness which reflected the Eisenhower era’s conservativism and wholesomeness. A new material culture would arise to meet the needs of a now-powerful cultural minority. Jews, for better and for worse, had become Americans.


1 Money, as embodied labour, is impure in relation to the purity and sacredness of prayer. On the Sabbath and other holy days, it is plainly forbidden to touch money or carry out financial transactions. With her greater involvement in profane everyday life, a women was in less danger from contamination than a man who was (ideally) in constant contemplation of God.

2 The blood libel is a recurring pleasantry of Christian anti-semitism born in the 12th century. The accusation is that rather than obtaining Salvation through “the blood of Christ”–that is, through Christianity and Communion–Jews sacrafice a Christ substitute, usually a Christian boy or infant, whose blood is used to make the Passover Matzoh, Passover falling at the same time of year as Easter and thus recalling the Crucifixion (Johnson: 209-10).

3 There are notable exceptions: “The Clara de Hirsch Home for Girls… did not provide kosher food for its immigrant residents until 1913” (Baum, et al.: 181); “The [Milwaukee] ‘Settlement’ Cook Bookwas treyf in the characteristic way: There were recipes for broiled live lobster, frog legs a la Newburg, shrimp a la creole, fried oysters, creamed crab meat, and crawfish butter… and butter and cream appeared in meat recipes” (Kirschenblatt Gimblett: 97).

4 Reform Judaism emphasized the aesthetic quality of Jewish life, especially of the home. The reform practitioner would realize his or her faith by surrounding him- or herself with (Jewish) spiritual beauty, rather than by daily observance and prayer.

5 “Sweeping gives much the same motion as is used in handling golf clubs. For perfection of arms and shouldes there is nothing better…. Dusting should have a chapter by itself. First you are down on all fours, then on tiptoe to see how far the cloth will reach. The tiptoeing for calf-development is superb” (from The Auxiliary Cookbook; quoted in Kirschenblatt-Gimblett: 100).

Work Cited

Aretxaga, Begona.

1997. Shattering Silence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.

Balandier, G.

1966. “The Colonial Situation: A Theoretical Approach”. In Immanuel Wallerstein, ed. Social Change: The Colonial Situation. Pp. 34-61. New York: John Wiley and Sons,Inc.

Baum, Charlotte, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel.

1976. The Jewish Woman in America. New York, Plume Books.

Bourdieu, Pierre.

1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S.

1984. On Equal Terms: Jews in America 1881-1981. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Epstein, Melech.

1950. Jewish Labor in U.S.A.: 1882-1914. New York: Trade Union Sponsoring Committee.

Ewen, Elizabeth.

1985. Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars. New York: Monthly Review.

Foucault, Michel.

1978. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Press.

Howe, Irving.

1976. World of Our Fathers. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Johnson, Paul.

1987. A History of the Jews. New York: HarperPerennial.

Joselit, Jenna Weissman.

1990. “‘A Set Table’: Jewish Domestic Culture in the New World, 1880-1950”. In Susan L. Braunstein and Jenna Weissman Joselit, eds. Getting Comfortable in New York. Pp. 19-73. New York: The Jewish Museum.

Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara.

1990. “Kitchen Judaism”. In Susan L. Braunstein and Jenna Weissman Joselit, eds. Getting Comfortable in New York. Pp. 19-73. New York: The Jewish Museum.

Sanders, Ronald.

1988. Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Emigration. New York: Schocken Books.

Shepherd, Naomi.

1993. A Price Below Rubies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.

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