The following article 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.
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.
Although the majority of the immigrants were Orthodox and attached to the congregational traditions of their forefathers, life in America transformed them. The number of those volunteering to organize corporative bodies of the congregation dwindled rapidly, and former Eastern European institutions were replaced by a host of other organizations, ideological societies, confraternities, trade unions, lay charitable institutions, cultural centers, clubs, and leisure enterprises.