The period between 1880 and 1924 is perhaps the most well-known in American Jewish history. This is the period of mass Jewish immigration that brought the families of so many contemporary American Jews to this country. Pushed by increasing anti-Semitism and pulled by the economic and social promise of America, these immigrants, chiefly of Russian and East European origin, came in numbers so vast that they remade much of the American Jewish community. The following article describes the ideological and practical characteristics of this immigrant community. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People (Schocken Books).
In 1880, in a Jewish population of approximately 250,000, only one out of six American Jews was of’ East European extraction; 40 years later, in a community which had reached four million, five out of six American Jews came from Eastern Europe. Indeed, at that time over a third of East European Jewry had left their countries of origin, and 90 percent of them emigrated to the United States. Such an enormous wave of immigration had a tremendous effect on the American Jewish community.
Ellis Island, 1902
The newcomers tended to cluster in the poorer districts of the metropolises. Most of them settled in the great commercial, industrial, and cultural centers of the northeast (New York in the first place, then Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore) and of the Midwest (particularly Chicago). Certain neighborhoods in these cities became almost exclusively Jewish, congested and bustling with a rich, typically Jewish way of life.
Through hard work and under extremely difficult conditions, these Jews established themselves in the garment industry, petty trade, cigar manufacture, construction, and food production. About 30 years after the beginning of the mass immigration, and not without bitter struggles, the Jewish trade union movement emerged as a formidable force, supported by over a quarter of a million workers. A flourishing Yiddish culture–poetry, prose, and drama–revolved mostly around the themes of the hardships of the Jewish worker’s life, expressing the reality of daily existence within a community of immigrants.