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Women in the great Jewish migration

Lloyd P. Gartner

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 40, 2005 Women in the great Jewish migration* LLOYD P. GARTNER I am a hesitant newcomer to the now flourishing field of women's history, and for this debut am asking what the history of Jewish migration can contribute to Jewish women's history. It clearly contradicts historical real ity to segregate Jewish women's migration history from Jewish migration history as a whole. Women and men had practically identical reasons for emigrating, and they travelled on the same vessels, often as a family, and had to cope with the same laws and obstacles. But there are important differences in their respective conditions and roles when they migrated. This paper therefore assumes the unity of women's and men's migration, but seeks to illuminate the particular place of Jewish women during the often tortuous processes of the great migration. It also considers a major aspect of Jewish women in immigrants' lives: food. In late 2002 the press described how a baby, less than one year old, lost in the Titanic disaster of 1912 and buried in Halifax with 150 other victims, had finally been identified by its DNA. The baby was shown to be the child of a woman from Eastern Europe who was emigrating to America with her three other children, to join the husband who had gone before them. All but the baby were drowned and lost. The family was not Jewish, and the husband had become a Pennsylvania miner, work which few Jews under took. The 'unsinkable' Titanic carried steerage passengers deep in its hold, and the doomed family doubtless travelled in that class, remote from the wealthy voyagers in the luxuries of first class on the great ship's maiden voyage.1 This story exemplifies the experiences of tens of thousands or more of Jewish emigrants, but without its tragic ending. They generally came in the crowded steerage of an emigrant ship, displacing around 5000 tons, that made the Atlantic crossing in about ten days. Among the passengers were many men travelling alone, the husbands of couples with or without children * An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Society on 18 March 2004 and to its Israel branch on 1 June 2004. 1 Jews were among the drowned. A record exists of the famous cantor Josef Rosenblatt intoning El maleh rahamim in their memory. I have not read Debbie Beavis (ed.) Who Sailed on Titanic? The Definitive Passenger List (Hevertown, PA 2002). 129</page><page sequence="2">Lloyd Gartner who lacked the money to sail together to America. The man went alone and worked, living on the minimum to save money to purchase a ticket, or sent money so that the family could purchase it for themselves in Europe.2 Tickets for other family members might be obtained also from institutions interested in fostering family reunion. While an emigrant's wife and chil dren waited for months or years for the money or tickets, they generally moved into the parental home, until the family might be reunited in America. While a couple was apart, the woman obviously had a separate role in migration. But so had a woman travelling with her husband and children. Women voyaging singly or even with a friend or relative faced the risks and hardships of a journey with little support, especially if they had to care for young children. One reads of the emigration of single young women from Kovno in Lithuania, a centre of emigration from the 1880s, becoming 'remarkably large. Above all, bad times operate, and having no other way they [young women] go where their eyes guide them', to America. 'Cooks, seamstresses, and shop assistants had no work nor any place to live, and had no choice but to seek out a close or distant friend and go to her.'3 At Ellis Island such girls had to undergo a strict inspection by inspectors assigned to ferreting out prostitutes seeking to enter the United States. Single girls might be kept out on a report of improper conduct on the ship that brought them. Relatives had to call for them, and they too were closely checked.4 These and other problems of Jewish women who took part in the great age of Jewish migration between 1881 and 1914, which resumed in force after the First World War, merit attention from historians. The great migration was composed of poor people, or at best persons of very limited means. Russian passports required fees and bribes. For those, including women, who preferred to avoid the expense and long wait of the passport procedure there were border smugglers, who also had to be paid and bribed. Every source had to be called on to raise the approximately $35 needed to obtain a ticket from a European port, most often Hamburg, to an American one, usually New York. There was the previous expense for rail travel to the port, costing up to $10, as well as for lodging while waiting there for the ship. In Hamburg and Bremen there was a compound where Jewish emigrants were required to stay, apparently without charge, while they waited. When the ship was ready for boarding, a brass band escorted the emigrants from their quarters to the gang-plank (it is not clear what music the band played). 2 E. A. Steiner, 'The Russian and Polish Jew in New York' The Outlook, i November 1902, pp. 52-9 3 Yudisher Emigrant (hereafter YE) 1 July 1910, pp. 13—14. 4 YE ï February I9t2, pp. 7-9. This was headed 'A Warning to Female Emigrants'. 130</page><page sequence="3">Women in the great Jewish migration The subsequent travel of siblings or parents was generally paid out of funds sent from the country of destination, which in about 80 per cent of cases was the United States. Tickets might be bought there and sent to Europe. One reads of newly-weds intent on emigrating who used their dowry and wedding gifts for that purpose.5 Parents and other relatives and friends might have contributed. Jewish community organizations remained uninvolved, at least officially. Not only were their resources limited, but American law prohibited 'assisted immigration', except from family sources, and violators would not be allowed to enter. In 1908 there were reports of wives sending tickets for husbands to return.6 This was probably connected to the widespread unemployment and consequent large-scale return of immigrants during the brief, sharp depression that began late in 1907. This trend lasted until 1909 when times improved. Tickets sent for return are not mentioned thereafter. Emigration in stages, usually via Great Britain, was another method used by many poor families to reach their final destination. A man might emigrate to Great Britain alone, to work and save so that his family could join him. Perhaps 10 to 15 per cent settled in England, but the proportion who stayed permanently is one of the great unknowns in migration history. Many reunited families separated again when the man went on to America, leaving his wife and children in Great Britain, usually in London. At best they had friends there, but without immediate family half way to America the woman might have been better off had she remained in Russia. The husband's emigration placed a special burden on the wife, who had to support herself and children from his remittances, which were often not dependable, or find work, usually in a tailoring sweatshop. If there was any thought of obtaining aid from the well-financed Jewish community chari ties, the family was quickly disabused. The Jewish Board of Guardians, the central Jewish charity in London, the Russo-Jewish Committee for Russian Refugees from Persecution and their provincial counterparts sometimes assisted families to emigrate, but repeatedly announced that they would not aid 'deserted wives' who had connived at 'desertion' with their husbands. Undoubtedly aware that emigration in stages was at issue, they sought to discourage the practice and would not provide even modest support to the waiting wife. Numerous small immigrant charities did help, however.7 In grown families the oldest child, a boy or a girl aged perhaps eighteen, went first and brought (the widely used Yiddish term shlept is expressive) his younger siblings after him. In the end the elderly parents might come. But emigration in stages did not always go as planned. Some husbands 5 YE i February 1908, p. 23. 6 YE 15 February 1908, p. 14. L. P. Gartner, The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914 (3rd ed., London 2000) 170-1. i3i</page><page sequence="4">Lloyd Gartner forgot their wives, and there were cases where the wife refused to emigrate and join her husband. In one instance the husband returned to Russia to attempt to bring his wife to America or to accept a divorce.8 When all else failed, the man in America might turn to rabbis to promulgate a get to send to his wife, or even seek a rare authorization from several rabbis to take a second wife.9 A wife who came to America unbidden ran serious risks. In one case a woman with three children, required to prove that someone would support her, told the inspectors at Ellis Island that she was a widow; a brother-in law would see to her needs. That brother-in-law, unfamiliar with her story, responded to an inquiry that the woman had a husband in Boston. When the latter was reached, he told the immigration authorities that he would not support her or live with her. The woman and her children were denied entrance and sent back.10 This may have been a case of a woman abandoned by her emigrant husband whose aggressive efforts to rejoin him backfired. Many husbands, captivated by the free American atmosphere and the avail ability of unattached women, shrugged off the responsibilities of marriage, especially, as seems likely, if it had been arranged for him in Russia, and gave free rein to amorous desires. The sexual adventures of a man in America, separated from his family in Russia, were a popular comic theme of Yiddish entertainment, but were hardly comic to the woman separated from her husband. There is no reported instance of a wife who became involved with another man while waiting in Russia. Despite adventures and infidelities, most husbands worked and saved, looking forward to the day of reunion, usually living as boarders with some immigrant family. They were young and for the time being unattached, allowing them mobility to search for better jobs and earnings and more agreeable surroundings. But they also included wanderers and the forget ful, in some cases both, moving about America and forgetting their wives and marital ties. Jacob Lestschinsky (1876-1966), the pioneer of Jewish demography and sociology, under the pseudonym of Ben-Eliyahu, discussed the plight of forgotten or deserted wives as 'A Serious Question'. He could offer no other solution than the caution of parents and daughters when a match was considered.11 Gravest of all was the position of the aban doned wife, the agunah, who did not know whether her husband was dead or alive, or whose husband refused to grant the get piturin necessary for her remarriage. One woman in Dvinsk, who heard that her husband in Argentina was about to marry another woman and feared she would be left 8 S. Israelson, Divrei Shalom (Responsa), no. 26. 9 S. Yedidyah Shohat, Tiferet Yedidyah (Responsa), nos 20, 21. 10 YE 1 July 1910, p. 17. 11 YE 16 March 1909, pp. 1-3. I32</page><page sequence="5">Women in the great Jewish migration an agunah, set out with her four children to find him. She had no money and expected to beg aid en route.12 Some rabbis acquired reputations for finding halakhic means to release agunot from their marital bonds. Extensive regional statistics about the emigration of men and women, collected by the Jewish Colonization Association, tends to show emigrating men in the majority and women at about 44 per cent. But clear patterns do not emerge. For example, in the southeastern province of Podolia, the percentage of all women leaving to join their husbands during the maxi mum emigration years was only 12.8, but in White Russian Minsk it reached 30.8 per cent, or 'about one quarter' according to another report. To be sure, emigrants were not going only to join husbands.13 A hospital in Gomel, whose patients came mostly for eye treatment in anticipation of the examination at Ellis Island for infectious eye diseases, reported 1312 emigrating patients, of whom only 182 were going to join a husband and 302 a father. The prevalence of'chain migration' is shown by 416 going to join a brother and 116 a sister.14 Only after the First World War did women predominate, owing to the long hiatus in family reunions caused by wartime disruption. Of the estimated 75,000 Jewish immigrants to the United States in 1920, 92 per cent came to join immediate family or other close relatives. Women and children made up 76 per cent, leaving under a quarter of men, who had previously constituted the majority of Jewish (as well as non-Jewish) immigrants.15 Women in tsarist Russia who sought to join husbands abroad had to show a marriage certificate (evidently a ketubah), a letter of invitation from the husband abroad to join him, a police confirmation that the man had emigrated, a police certificate of good behaviour and a passport fee. The police confirmation meant that the husband must have emigrated legally, which many men had not. As mentioned before, women who faced long delays and the invariable bribery of police resorted to border smugglers, who for a price would take them and their children across the border into Germany, after greasing the palms of Russian border policemen. If the human contraband was caught, they would be sent home under humiliating conditions. Once the woman, with any children, was aboard a vessel she had to undergo approximately ten days of ocean travel in steerage. Most travelled during the spring and summer, but even then a North Atlantic storm could blow, a 'mighty monster'. Women passengers complained mainly of abusive or provocative conduct by crewmen, which a decisive captain 12 YE 15 February 1908, p. 14. 13 YE 15 April 1911, pp. 1-5; i May 1912, pp. 14-15; iôjuly 1909, pp. 1-6. 14 YE 4 July 1908, pp. 4-8. 15 Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Annual Report, 1920, p. 6. 133</page><page sequence="6">Lloyd Gartner usually, but not always, halted. Finally the passengers arrived at Ellis Island, which functioned from 1893, or at immigrant depots in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore or Charleston. Arrival and inspection could be a bewildering, frightening experience for women immigrants. Masche Ornowitz, for example, arrived at Castle Garden (which preceded Ellis Island) in 1890 with children aged 8, 4 and 3. A brother-in law came from New Haven to meet her, with two other brothers. She some how thought one of these was her husband, but the actual husband, who had faithfully sent her money for three years, did not appear. Another man appeared who claimed to be the absent husband, but the woman and her family members refused to recognize him and he was ejected. Apparently the husband had sent this impostor because he did not want to lose a day's work. Of the missing husband the brother-in-law said, 'He ain't smart enough. He ain't a common sense man' (perhaps a translation of the common Yiddish, Er hot nisht kayn sekhel). 'At this juncture a stranger entered through a side door and approached the woman who kissed and embraced him in a hysterical manner.' This was Simon Ornowitz, tailor, of 3 Hester Street on the Lower East Side. He declared, 'Thank God, I can support her'. The Commission admitted Masche, rebuked the impostor, and the scene ended happily.16 A different ending befell Chane (Hannah) Lifschitz, also in 1890. Widowed, destitute and in the eighth month of pregnancy, she arrived to her four brothers in America. But these men declared that they would support her only after she gave birth. Their motive is obscure. Perhaps they expected to determine from inspecting the newborn whether it was truly the child of the deceased husband or of some other man. Left destitute until she gave birth, Chane was debarred as an immigrant likely to become a public charge. The Commission chided two of her brothers, 'you two ought to be ashamed of yourselves'.17 A more important asset for an immigrant than a pocketful of money was education, or at least literacy. Before the literacy test became law in 1917 the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, annually reported the literacy of Jewish immigrants registered by their agents as they arrived. The capacity to read without comprehension from the prayer book was not deemed liter acy. The rates of male and female literacy, interpreted as reading and understanding a simple Yiddish text, differed sharply. Men's illiteracy ran at about 15 per cent and that of women at about 25 per cent, decreasing over the years. Opponents of unrestricted immigration maintained that a literacy test at ports of immigration would reduce the number of immigrants and improve their quality, and an act of Congress prescribed such a test. The 16 House of Representatives, Washington, DC, Report on Immigration (Owen Committee), 51st Congress, 2nd session, Report 3791, 1891, Serial vol. 2886, pp. 105-12. 17 Ibid, pp. 112-14. 134</page><page sequence="7">Women in the great Jewish migration precedent of eye treatment in advance of emigration suggests that classes would have sprung up in Eastern Europe to remedy illiteracy, but what was more important in the long run was that Jewish girls' education in Eastern Europe was rapidly advancing, sharply reducing their illiteracy. After three presidential vetoes of a literacy requirement for arriving immigrants aged fourteen and over, Congress finally overrode the vetoes and it became law in 1917. An immigrant thereafter had to read an ordinary text of thirty to forty words in a language that could include Yiddish. One does not hear of Jewish immigrants, including women, failing the test. Knowledge of English, however, was almost unknown among new immigrants, except the many who had spent months or years in Britain before moving to America. New immigrants could not find employment where English was a prerequi site. Women could not teach, sell in shops outside Jewish immigrant neigh bourhoods or do office work - the regular employments of young women. Those who came to the United States and other modern countries aged about twelve or more were compelled to work in the garment industry or pursue petty trade in immigrant neighbourhoods. In this as in other respects, the Jewish immigrant women's experience differed little between Britain and America. The two countries indeed differed deeply, but in both of them Jewish women's life was governed more by their common East European background than by their new societies, where they felt ill at ease: their English was fragmentary and their diets were distinctive. Little is known of the steps by which young Jewish women and men were brought to marriage. The next generation exemplified the differences between the countries: for instance, London and Manchester displayed social and reli gious conservatism, while New York and Chicago encouraged religious laxity. Upward economic mobility flourished among Jewish immigrants in both countries, in America rather more than Britain, as Andrew Godley has shown.18 The differential in literacy between the sexes points to the inadequacy, in the earlier years, of girls' education in Eastern Europe. Some of this was remedied in the United States. Teaching English to adult men and women immigrants was a major function of immigrant-aid institutions and of evening classes in public schools. Many immigrants, however, lacked the physical and mental stamina to attend after a full day of hard work. They had to pick up the language from the street and workplace, and from their children. Children acquired English rapidly in the street and in public schools, and were their parents' guides and interpreters when strange American places such as schools and hospital clinics had to be visited. 18 A. Godley, Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurs/up in New York and London: Enterprise and Culture (Basingstoke 2001). i35</page><page sequence="8">Lloyd Gartner Differences in educational background and gender roles in their new coun tries meant that men and women acculturated in distinctive ways. For some young Jewish women, this was connected with political movements. Traditional Jewish life allowed them little if any role except that of house wife and mother. Partly as a consequence, many ambitious Jewish women were drawn to new radical and labour movements that flourished in the immigrant sphere. These opened a door for women's active participation, together with men, in promoting ideologies of social liberation that, not incidentally, promised women personal liberation. Yet most Jewish immigrant women lived a hard life unconnected to radi cal movements. They had to manage a humble home in shabby surround ings, were often pinched for money and brought up children whose social and cultural world was strange to them. Many married women's most distinctive work, like that of other immigrant women, took place in the markets and streets where they shopped almost daily for food and in the kitchen where they prepared meals for their family and boarders, if any. Not much information has come down about the family menu, apart from what may be gleaned from oral and written memories. Reports on food consump tion, such as that given below, do not reveal the extent to which traditional Jewish dishes were served to a family. The extent of kashrut observance is also uncertain, but it appears to have been widely if not strictly observed. Contemporary scientific findings about diet and vitamins which began to be diffused around the turn of the century quite soon reached Jewish immi grant households. The Yiddish press, particularly the Forverts, and house keeping classes in settlement houses, were likely sources of dietary information for women, as was the knowledge that children brought home from school. At this period new foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, appeared on the market. Jewish holiday shopping, for example, around the turn of the century included purchasing expensive new fruits such as peaches, plums and pears. A young Black teacher in a public school on New York's Lower East Side reported in 1905 that 'most of the children receive daily several pennies, and always one each day. These they spend most often on fruit. It is amazing to see the large quantities consumed by the children.. . . good fruit is very cheap on the [Lower] East Side, and the children are trained to regard it as a necessary portion of their diet.'19 There is quantitative data of Jewish diet thanks to the detailed study of working-class conditions in America, including the foods eaten and money spent on them. This information was gathered by a Board of Trade delegation sent by the British government in 1908, which reported on the 19 The New York Age 5 January 1905, a Black newspaper, generously supplied by Professor Robert Rockaway. 136</page><page sequence="9">Women in the great Jewish migration conditions of the working class which they surveyed in twenty-eight American cities between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic coast.20 The report covers wage workers only, not tradesmen like pedlars and shopkeep ers. There appears to be no way of knowing how the inclusion of the large proportion of Jewish immigrants in trade would have influenced the find ings, though it would probably have been little. The report divides American workers and their diet according to average weekly earnings in each of the cities, which allows a comparison between food consumed by a prospering worker's family, with a weekly income of $40 or more, and what those ill-paid, with a weekly income of $15 or less, had to eat. (Almost the entire Jewish working class in that period was composed of recent immigrants. As with other groups, the Jewish diet was divided by five levels of family income, ranging from $5 to $10 weekly - an impoverished level, with negligible representation - to $40-45 weekly, with a representation of 63.) It was mainly the earnings of older children who had begun working that produced higher weekly family income; each step up a family's income ladder went together with an increase in its average size. The average number of persons at the family table ranged from 4.5 in the lowest income group to 7.11 in the highest, which obviously means more if not necessarily different foods being eaten. The investigators also compared British with American workers' food consumption, but their report did not divide the British workers by income. Altogether, they found that American workers ate substantially better than their British counterparts. In the United States the Board of Trade investigators drew seven ethnic and racial samples from their data. One group was Jews, consisting of 758 households, 4152 persons altogether, taken from sixteen of the twenty eight cities in proportion to their respective sizes. Merely 87 of the 4152 were not family members and were described as 'other persons sharing the family meal', presumably boarders.21 Jewish families with the lowest income spent 47.5 percent of it on food, a proportion that declined to 34.8 percent for the highest income; the segment on which I shall concentrate spent 45.4 percent of its weekly income of $17.25, or $7.84, on food. Stated briefly, the consumption of certain foods increased sharply among the 758 households as weekly income varied, of other foods it increased very little and the consumption of some foods declined. Since the high-income group included grown children who were working and obviously ate more 20 Report ofan Enquiry ofthe Board of Trade into Working Class Rents.. . in the Principal Industrial Towns ofthe United States of America .. . and a Comparison of Conditions in the United States and the United Kingdom (Cd. 5609, 1911; hereafter Cd. 5609). See A. R. Heinze, Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (New York 1990) 23-4, 264; L. P. Gartner, History of the Jews in Modern Times (Oxford 2000) 265. 21 Cd. 5609, p. lxxxviii. 137</page><page sequence="10">Lloyd Gartner than they had as young children, that too has to be taken into account. I shall now look closer at the largest segment of the 758 households, which was those 242 households whose average weekly income was $17.25. They constituted a family of 4.9 persons, including 2.7 children who lived at home.22 They ate 6.7 pounds of wheat bread and 8.3 pounds of rye bread a week. In the highest-income class, the wheat bread eaten increased to 13.9 pounds, while rye bread declined to 8.1 pounds. 'Rolls, Buns, Biscuits' were 4.3 pounds and 'Cakes, Crackers, Doughnuts' were 1.7 pounds for the 242 average-income households; these figures leapt to 9.8 pounds and 4.1 pounds respectively for the highest-income group. 'Potatoes (Irish)' at 13.4 pounds for the average-income families went up to 22.5 pounds before settling back at 18.7 pounds for the highest incomes. Perhaps the most significant jump within the income categories came with meat, poultry, fish and eggs. 'Beef (fresh and corned)' came to 9.2 pounds weekly for average income and reached 15.7 in the highest income. This works out at about 1.8 pounds weekly for an average-income family and 2.2 pounds in the highest-income group, not a great difference considering the age of children at the respective tables. Poultry rose in those income categores from 2.4 pounds weekly to 5.3 weekly. 'Fish of all kinds', amounting to 3 pounds weekly in the average income group, rose less than might be expected, to 4.6 pounds in the highest group, while the 24.2 eggs consumed by the 242 average-income families ascended to 44.8 eggs in the highest-income group. Jews of average income drank 6.9 quarts of milk weekly and 12.9 quarts in the top-income category, far more than the other groups on record. A comparison with the correspon ding tables for the 'Slavonic and Allied Peoples' and the 'South European Group', Italians mainly, shows that Jewish households consumed more of every food mentioned here than other working-class households, except for 'Potatoes (Irish)'. By contrast, no Jews at all are recorded as buyers of'Pork (fresh and salt)' and 'Bacon, Ham, Brawn &amp;c.', nor of oleomargarine, which was made with meat fats at that time. Nothing is mentioned about alcoholic beverages or about tobacco smoked. Nor did the investigators inquire into the consumption of fruits and vegetables. In their measured words, 'the most noticeable peculiarities of the Jewish dietary ... are the total abstinence from pig's meat, the large quantity of poultry, fresh milk, eggs, and rye bread consumed and the comparatively small consumption of flour, potatoes, sausage, lard, suet and dripping and condensed milk.'23 The realm of food, which combined bodily need with religious law and traditional habits, lay within the province of the immigrant Jewish house wife. As these statistics show, when she selected family foods, the woman 22 All the data on Jews is in Cd. 5609, p. 419; weekly food expenditure is on p. 418. 23 Cd. 5609, p. lxxxviii.419. 138</page><page sequence="11">Women in the great Jewish migration displayed precocious awareness of protein foods while minimizing animal fat. Even within the limits of income she fed her family a healthy diet, as today's knowledge of nutrition confirms, although it tended to be fatty and sugary. Immigrant Jewish families' diet in their new country was much richer and better than it had been in Eastern Europe.24 Few Jews there, for example, ate meat except on the Sabbath and festivals, and then in meagre amounts. The evidence of meat purchased in America shows far different habits. Immigrant women's daughters were able to improve their own lot and their daughters' daughters even more. Women's achievements in the immi grant environment, originating with educational equality, are impressive. In recent years a powerful movement, supported by laws and courts, has equalized men's and women's pay and legal rights and has opened to women once exclusive prerogatives of men. Many have not accepted, or have accepted with reluctance, the attribution of gender differences to biol ogy alone. Even in Orthodox Judaism the status of women is now debated. It was perhaps not realized at the time that women's equal participation in the great Jewish migration was the first sign of that momentous process of women's equality. 24 See H. R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge, Mass. 2002) 185-9, I93~204 139</page></plain_text>