'Ten Thousand Jews Coming': Jewish Immigration to America, 1881-1922
The story of immigration to the United States is essential to understanding the country’s history. One excellent source for researching this history is Readex’s Ethnic American Newspapers from the Balch Collection, 1799-1971. Some immigrant groups had established themselves in the early years of the European migration to America, among them Jews. In 1790 there were fewer than 2,000 Jews living in the United States.
By 1880 this number had expanded to a quarter million. These immigrants were not, for the most part, fleeing persecution. They were Sephardic Jews from the Netherlands, British subjects, and Ashkenazi Jews from German states who were among a larger population from those states who immigrated in large numbers. Other Jews came later, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The later waves of Jewish immigrants were fleeing their oppression in the Russian Empire and Romania.
On November 19, 1881, the Truth newspaper of New York City produced the headline “Ten Thousand Jews Coming. Russia to be Drained of Its Hebrew Population.” The writer appears to be enthusiastic about this immigration and reports on the Russian Immigrant Aid Association which had concluded “a contract with the National Line Steamship Company for the transport of 5,000 Russian Israelites to this country during the Winter.” The article states:
Altogether the Czar’s empire contains about 3,000,000 Jews, three-fifths of whom are Poles, while the rest are either Wolhynians, Germans or Russians, properly speaking. Gigantic as the task of transporting such a number over the sea would be, the fact that the Imperial Government favors the emigration greatly simplifies matters, and in the course of five years it is expected that nearly all will be in this country.”
Less than a month later, New York’s Jewish Messenger published a letter to the editor that proposed “What Can Be Done for Russian Jews.” The letter begins:
It was with pleasure that I read an editorial in the New Orleans Democrat of the 23d ult., calling the attention of the Christian community to the sufferings and necessities of the Russian Jews.
The amount necessary to establish the exiles comfortably as colonists, the Democrat computes to be so great, that it would bankrupt the Hebrew charitable associations of both Europe and America.
The letter calculates that the benefit accruing to the country at large from this immigration
will be so vast that the figures necessary to express it would dwarf, by comparison, the $20,000,000 needful for expenses, to an infinitesimal sum. $1,500,000,000 represents too much wealth for even the imagination to compass;—yet this enormous amount is what we are told one year of their residence among us would add to our productive resources.
However, the letter writer adds that no Jew would ever be the first to request such relief “because we are too proud….Ever ready to give, but not caring to receive,—and in this surely something of a selfish spirit is exhibited.”
For once let our Jewish pride and independence be lessened sufficiently to admit of our joining hands in this effort….Charity will bring its reward; for under the hands of these thousands of emigrants, the waste places of our land will be made to blossom like a rose.
Perhaps as a response to increasing antisemitism, the Jewish Messenger began to publish articles about the history of Jews in America. In April of 1889, on the occasion of the centennial of George Washington becoming the first president of the new republic, the Messenger published an article under the headline: “Washington And The Jews. A Leaf for the Centennial.”
When Washington assumed the office of President a century ago, the proportion of Hebrews in America was naturally limited…
The data that have been preserved, however, prove one fact incontestably, that the Jews appreciated the toleration they enjoyed and the advantages of civil religious liberty in America….The early annals of Newport, Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, prove that the Jews occupied an honorable and influential rank among the creeds, and did their share in the struggle that secured American independence.
When, in 1790, Washington visited America’s oldest synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, he wrote to the congregation. The article quotes Washington’s letter which includes this prayer:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make them afraid.
On July 3, 1891, the Jewish Messenger ran an article by R.C. McDonald, which previously appeared in Unitarian Review, titled “The Jews of North Boston.” The writer describes the growing community of Jewish immigrants in Boston’s North End, praising their industry, explaining that so many of these newcomers had come from dire circumstances. He further explains why so many Jews were businessmen, attributing this fact to their exclusion from other occupations. But he sees an expanded future.
When the time comes, as come it must, in which the Jew is treated and judged as other men are, in which he is drawn out of himself by the power of our institutions, and is given the same interests that other men have, he will…occupy the place on the higher plane of life to which his emotional and sympathetic temperament seems to invite him.
The waves of Jewish immigrants fleeing oppression and poverty in Eastern Europe continued into the 1920s. Perhaps, because so many of these people were impoverished and poorly educated and stood in stark contrast to the Jews who had been in America since pre-revolutionary times, the Jewish Messenger continued to publish articles emphasizing the contributions Jews had made throughout the country. On October 26, 1894, the newspaper reviewed The Jews of Philadelphia by Henry Samuel Morais:
Philadelphia, unique among American cities in many respects, presents similar claims to prominence in the character and achievements of its Jewish community….Full justice is done the pioneers in Philadelphian Israel in colonial days, when the Jewish community was comparatively large, while the latter-day workers who have built up institutions and places of worship receive ample treatment.
The larger point in the numerous newspaper articles tracing the history of Jews in America seemed to have been to define Jews as among the most productive and patriotic people in the country from its earliest days.
On September 1, 1899, the Jewish Messenger reprinted a Harper’s opinion piece by Mark Twain, which praised Jewish immigrants.
The Jew is not a disturber of the peace in any country. Even his enemies will concede that. He is not a loafer, he is not a sot, he is not noisy, he is not a brawler nor a rioter, he is not quarrelsome….The Jew is not a burden on the charities of the state nor of the city….His race is entitled to be called the most benevolent of all the races of men.
Twain also offers his thoughts about "why Germans persecute the Jews."
Assimilation has often been the goal of immigrant populations. One issue that emerged over time was the Jewish Sabbath and its impact on their businesses and social lives. On June 7, 1901, the Jewish Messenger headlined an article “Sunday Laws and the Jews.”
It is to be expected that, with the diversity of beliefs and practices in the United States, there should be an occasional problem to be solved or difficulty to be surmounted. It is, indeed, a signal triumph of American principles that so far these difficulties have been comparatively slight and been limited chiefly to prohibition, religion in public schools, and the Sunday laws.
The writer acknowledges that with “the enormous increase of recent decades…an amendment of existing laws which would enable Jewish shopkeepers to keep open all Sunday is a more serious matter than at first sight it would seem.” While he sees a day in the future “when a more rational Sunday will pervade our land…Until that time it ill becomes the Israelite even unconsciously to aid in its secularization. He should not forget that the church-bell brings tidings of love and hope to millions of American citizens whose lives are sweetened by the inspirations of their religion, which has so much in common with his own.”
Intermarriage also emerged as an issue. On January 9, 1914, the Daily People of New York City reported on a recent “Zionism and Nationalism” talk by Jacob H. Shiff in an article subheaded “Says Jews Will be Submerged if They Desert Their Faith.” Shiff
urged the Jews…to cling to their faith. He pointed out that it is the religion of the Jews that has enabled them to survive persecution in many lands….“Unless the Jew maintains his religion it can only a measurable time until the Jew will disappear.”
By the early 1920s, Jewish immigration was diminishing. But the vibrancy and reach of the hundreds of thousands who had arrived over the previous four decades was remarkable. The National Labor Tribune of Philadelphia made note of this on March 23, 1922, in an article titled “Jews of New York.”
There are 1,600,000 Jews in Greater New York—nearly 30 per cent of the entire population, observes Foreign Language Information Service. This number equals the total population of Philadelphia, or Detroit and Cleveland put together, or Buffalo, San Francisco and Pittsburgh combined or twice the population of Boston.
The article details the New York area’s distribution of these 16 million people and provides data that demonstrates their economic strength:
This population supports 12 Jewish theaters, 5,000 grocery and delicatessen stores, 300 stationery, cigar and candy stores, 2,400 meat shops, 800 drug stores, 700 shoe stores, 275 hardware stores, 250 paint shops, 240 furniture stores, and 150 electrical dealers.
In short, Ethnic American Newspapers from the Balch Collection documents the sacrifices, economic challenges, and rejection or acceptance of “new Americans” in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And, significantly, the histories of these immigrants are traced and elucidated by the thousands of stories these ethnic newspapers provide.