Eastern European Jewish Americans

Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM) is a national commemoration of the contributions that Americans Jews have made to the fabric of our nation's history, culture, and society. This national month of recognition of the more than 360-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture, celebrated in May American publishing houses were off-limits to Jews in the early 20th century, paving the way for Jewish pioneers in a medium considered second-rate: comic books. Stan Lee (1922 – 2018), though not an illustrator himself, gave the world legendary Marvel superheroes, including Spiderman, Incredible Hulk, and the X Men, often featuring outsider themes. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Rube Goldberg (1883 – 1970) – one of the most prolific cartoon illustrators of the twentieth century – is most popularly known for his invention drawings about "man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.".

By the 1900s southern and eastern Europeans comprised over 50% of the immigrant flow. Just as ethnic Russians and Poles were finding their way to American shores, one of the most dramatic chapters in world history was underway — the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the United States. In a few short decades, from 1880 to 1920, a vast number of the Jews living in the lands ruled by Russia—including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, as well as neighboring regions—moved en masse to the U.S. In so doing, they left a centuries-old legacy behind, and changed the culture of the United States profoundly.

After the year 1881 the United States was the most important country of refuge for the Jews. Between that time and the first World War more than two million Jews landed in North American ports; one and a half million of these came in the years between 1899 and 1914. In no other country in the world has Jewish population increased as much by immigration as in the United States; from 3,000 in 1812 it grew to 230,000 in 1880 and to about three million in 1914, a thousandfold increase in a century. Next to the Italians, the Jews were the second largest group of immigrants in the period between 1899 and 1914. It did not, as did those of other groups, diminish in times of depressions in America, but retained a fairly constant character.

Modern Jewish migration began in the 1820's and came to an end in 1924, when the United States Immigration Act of that year placed drastic restrictions on the number of those who were permitted to enter the country. During this period approximately three million Jews emigrated: over half a million to Western Europe, over two million to the United States, and about a quarter of a million to Africa, Asia and Australia. From 1820 to 1870 the Jewish immigrants came chiefly from Germany, Bohemia and Austria; from 1870 the overwhelming majority of them came from Eastern Europe.

The political reaction and economic crisis after the Napoleonic Wars caused the Jews of Germany, Bohemia and Austria to emigrate to France, England, the United States, Australia and South Africa. This migration, however, was small in number compared to the migration from Galicia, Russia and Roumania from 1881 to 1924. The Jewish mass emigration from these countries was a consequence of the political oppression under which Jews lived in the latter two countries, as well as the general poor economic condition of the Jewish masses in all three countries. About 80 to 85% of this emigration went to the United States.

The Jewish immigration, although in part the result of the same forces as affected the general immigration and the separate groups* composing it, differs, nevertheless, in certain marked respects, from the typical immigration. Some of these differences indeed are fundamental and far-reaching in their effects and practically stamp the Jewish immigration as a movement sui generis. Generally speaking, in the forces which were behind the emigration of the Jews from the countries of the Old World, in the character of their immigration — its movement and its distinguishing qualities — the Jewish immigration strikes a distinctly individual note. Three European countries—Russia, Austria-Hungary and Roumania — furnish the vast majority of the Jewish immigrants to the United States. It is to these countries, therefore, that one must turn for light upon the causes of this movement.

The mass immigration of Jewish skilled workers was primarily due to the increase in competition along these lines and the increasingly poorer condition of the Jewish workers in Eastern Europe. As in England, their immigration to the United States stimulated the clothing industry to a remarkable degree, and made possible the sale of ready-made clothing in large quantities and at greatly reduced prices. Thanks to Jewish immigration, production of clothing in the United States increased in value from $241,000,000 in 1880 to $1,100,000,000 in 1914.

Accurate figures are only possible from 1899, when the American immigration reports began to differentiate as to countries of origin. During sixteen years about 1,300,000 Jews emigrated from Russia to the United States, amounting to about 40% of the entire Russian migration thither, and about ten times the proportion of the Russian Jewish population. During the pogrom years of 1903 to 1906 this' migration was especially large: 77,544 in 1903-4; 92,388 in 1904-5; 125,234 in 1905-6; 114,932 in 1906-7. From 1899 to 1914 about 300,000 Jews migrated from Austria-Hungary to the United States, the larger part from Galicia, a much smaller one from the other Austrian lands.

The well-established Jewish Americans of German origin — the Guggenheims and Loebs, the Warburgs and Wertheims, and other families - felt unease upon the arrival, beginning in the 1880s and continuing in large waves through the early 1920s, of the poor Jews of Eastern Europe. The reigning feeling of the American Jews of German origin was that their often coarse, all-too-peasant-like co-religionists would further retard their own efforts at complete assimilation into American life.

The word kike, it is widely believed, originally gained currency not among anti-Semites but among the American Jews from Germany to describe those from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the latter, to mock the rigid pretensions of the former, used to call them yekke, the Yiddish word for "jacket," which implied the German Jews were so stuffy they never took off their jackets. Although the German-born Jewish Americans are now something on the order of a dying breed, the bad feeling has not yet altogether dissipated.

Al Jolson, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) were among the actors who came out of the Yiddish Theater, a cultural enterprise that drew vast crowds and whose pretensions were less than modest. Not allowed to participate in many American institutions, Jews created parallel ones: their own fraternities and sororities, community centers, hospitals, shopping districts. Hollywood studio heads, most of them Jewish, produced movies that were their personal fantasies of the gentile world, such as the sixteen Andy Hardy films. So nervous were Louis B. Mayer and other of the Hollywood moguls about the place of Jews in America that they changed the names of their Jewish stars: Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske, Kirk Douglas, Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

But “Restricted,” a euphemism for No Jews Allowed, was still a word much in use in real estate in the 1940s and 1950s, when neighborhoods and entire suburbs were off-limits to Jews. At Big Ten and other universities, segregation in fraternities and sororities was by religion; race wasn't even up for consideration.

Jews in America traditionally felt they had a special affinity with African Americans, both peoples having a history of slavery and persecution. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, nearly half the country's civil rights lawyers were Jewish and more than half the white civil rights workers were Jewish. Two of the three people killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer were Jewish: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; the third, James Chaney, was African American.

Yet when the Black Power faction—Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, & Co.—took over the Civil Rights Movement, Jewish civil rights workers were told to get lost. In 1968, in the New York City teachers strike, begun in the decentralized Ocean Hill-Brownsville District, a black school board unceremoniously fired all its white teachers, a preponderant number of whom were Jewish. African-American-Jewish tensions were sadly exacerbated during this strike, and the two groups viewed each other as something close to enemies.

Anti-Semitism appears less currently than at any time in the history of Jewish Americans. Much in the Jewish religion is itself undergoing radical change, at least in its Reform and Reconstructionist branches, where women are now among the majority of those studying for the rabbinate. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of Orthodox Judaism among younger Jews in the United States.

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