German-Jewish Immigration to the Lower East Side in the 19th Century

- Last Updated 12/11/2013

Alex Babcock

Introduction

In order to avoid unfavorable conditions in Central Europe and to take advantage of the economic and social opportunities in the United States, many immigrants flooded New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. Faced with low wages and little outside help, many German immigrants ended up in New York’s Lower East Side, which developed into a nucleus of immigrant life and work.

At first, the Lower East Side was dominated by the German and German-Jewish immigrants who came throughout the 19th century. But as time progressed, many more immigrants made their way through the Lower East Side, leaving their mark and interacting with the population already established. These interactions between immigrant groups illustrate how each group wanted to portray themselves, and offer glimpses into the issues of identity at the time.

This research guide can provide sources on the conditions in Europe that prompted these waves of immigration, the conditions in New York and in America that were attractive to, among others, German-Jewish immigrants, the situation that developed as many groups arrived, the interactions that the German-Jewish population had with other groups coming in or living there concurrently, and the legacy that this population left on the Lower East Side.

The Lower East Side today

Printed Sources

New York Jews and the Quest for Community

Arthur A. Goren, New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment, 1908-1922 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), 1-346.

Arthur A. Goren’s examination of the Kehillah in New York City is set beyond the participation of the German Jews in the Lower East Side, but it provides a background of the Jewish history in the area and a useful perspective on the Lower East Side. Observing the Lower East Side after the flood of Eastern European Jews had entered and the more American-ized German Jews had fled allows for the detection of the influence the German Jews had on the city, and the contrast between the Eastern European Jewish immigrants and the German immigrants. The Kehillah was integral to the new wave of immigrants, but not to the German Jews before them, and the new reliance on communal structure and regulation provides perspective into how the German Jewish community had functioned and how they had identified themselves.

Focus: Influence of German Jews, Contrast between Immigrant groups and periods, history of Lower East Side

 

Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939

Daniel Soyer, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), vii-277.

Soyer focused on the introduction of various Jewish immigrant groups to New York City, and effect this had on American Jews’ image and on their perceptions of themselves. The explosion of synagogues and Jewish communities in New York City is covered, as well as some issues that arose as Eastern European Jews began to flood the Lower East Side. The examination of the associations that formed amongst Jewish immigrants is Soyer’s primary goal, and it remains relevant for this subject t. He also includes descriptions of the situation that lead to the waves of immigrants, a map of the Lower East Side, and extensive notes containing relevant material for further research.

Focus: Labor Issues, Interactions between immigrant groups, Identity Issues

 

People In Transit: German Migration in Comparative Perspective 1820-1930

Dirk Hoerder and Jorg Nagler, edit., People in Transit: German Migration in Comparative Perspective 1820-1930 (Washington,D.C.:Cambridge University Press, 1995), ix-423.

Hoerder and Nagler offer a collection of essays on German immigration and the movements of various populations between 1820 and 1930. While not primarily focused on the movement of Jewish immigrants, several essays do cover relevant topics, and almost all of them provide context for the immigration of German Jews to New York. Some articles of note are Sibylle Quack’s essay on the emigration of German Jewish women, and Monika Blaschke’s essay on the immigration of German women and their press.

Focus: German immigration, Women, Social Issues, Jewish Press

 

Jews from Germany in the United States

Eric E. Hirshler, edit., Jews from Germany in the United States (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955), ix-168.

Eric Hirshler has compiled and edited several essays concerning German Jewish immigration to the United States. While not focused specifically on New York City, the Lower East Side factors significantly into several essays. Of note are Bernard D. Weinryb’s essay, “The German Jewish Immigrants to America (A Critical Evaluation)” and Adolf Kober’s essay “Aspects of the Influence of Jews from Germany on American Jewish Spiritual Life of the Nineteenth Century,” both of which examine the groups entering the United States. Kober looks at the way the existing Jewish community in America reacted to the new German Jewish immigrants, and what kind of effect they had on religious practice. Hirshler also has his own essay, which includes chapters on the various stages of Jewish migration to America. This information and analysis is all from the perspective of post-war historians, as the book was published in 1955.

Focus: Identity of German Jews, Immigrants effect on existing community, American Jewry

 

Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections

Hasia R. Diner, Jeffrey Shandler, and Beth S. Wenger, edit., Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 1-285.

Part of the “Modern Jewish Experience” series, edited by Paul Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, Remembering the Lower East Side contains many relevant essays to the 19th century wave of German-Jewish immigration. Images and photographs of the Lower East Side are included alongside essays on synagogues, labor conditions, and current day tours of the area. This is an important resource for how the Lower East Side remains in cultural memory, and the legacy of the German-Jewish immigrant populations that populated it.

Focus: Synagogues, Memory, Social Issues

An 1885 illustration of tenement housing
An 1885 illustration of tenement apartments

Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000

Hasia R. Diner, Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 84-130.

Hasia R. Diner’s book examines the history of Jews in the United States. Chapter 3 specifically deals with the “Century of Migration,” which Diner pins between 1820 and 1924. Diner’s book follows various stories of Jewish migration across this century, and gives healthy attention to the story of the German Jews immigration in the mid-ninteenth century. The next chapter deals with a century of Jewish life in America, and the sort of identity and traditions created. Diner also examines how the focus on the dynamic between Central European and Eastern European Jews has led to the overlooking of other Jewish immigrant groups.

Focus: Relations between immigrant groups, Immigrant Identity Issues, Americanization

 

Jewish Immigrants of the Nazi Period in the USA

Herbert A. Strauss, edit., Jewish Immigrants of the Nazi Period in the USA: Essays on the History, Persecution, and Emigration of German Jews, Vol. 6 (New York: K.G. Saur Verlag, 1987), 11-94, 247-265.

Although Strauss’ work is primarily concerned with later Jewish immigration and experiences, his volume begins with a history of the Jews in Prussia and the patterns of emancipation and immigration that formed. The situation in Prussia very strongly influenced immigrant relations in New York City, with many German-Jewish immigrants to the United States visibly grouping themselves with whom they most identified.

Focus: German-Jewish identity, Context for immigration

 

Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865

Howard B. Rock, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865 (New York: New York University Press, 2012), xi-369.

Howard B. Rock’s book is the first volume of three in the City of Promises collection, which covers the history of Jews in New York. Also important to the study of German Jews in New York is Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer’s second volume, Emerging Metropolis, which focuses on the Age of Immigration, from 1840 to 1920. Rock’s volume examines the inception and growth of the Jewish community in the New World and in New York City. The interplay between American and Jewish identity as the community grew and began to react to such events as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the influx of thousands of Ashkenazi immigrants.

Focus: Early Jewish community, German Jews and Gentiles, Ashkenazi and Sephardi relations

 

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Scribner, 1890), xv-299.

Jacob Riis’ profoundly influential book, How the Other Half Lives, documented the tenement housing and Lower East Side of New York City, using photojournalism to spread awareness of the poor conditions that many immigrants lived in. Riis explored the living conditions in and the sweatshops operating out of the tenements of the Lower East Side, exposing the plight of the poor immigrant working class. It is extremely relevant to this subject as the Lower East Side was the home of the vast majority of German Jews who came to New York.

Focus: Social Issues, Living conditions, Labor issues

Photo of a deadly fire at 105 Allen St.

When Harlem Was Jewish: 1870-1930

Jeffrey S. Gurock, When Harlem Was Jewish: 1870-1930 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 1-168.

Jeffrey S. Gurock attempts to illuminate the history of Jews in uptown New York City, an area which, he argues, has received unfairly little attention from historians. Harlem was a Jewish community that existed concurrently with the Jewish community in the Lower East Side. It had its own early German-Jewish settlers, and then later became a destination for Jewish groups looking to escape the Lower East Side. It therefore can tell us something about the conditions in the Lower East Side, the priorities and opportunities of the German Jews moving there, and the effect that the eventual influx of Eastern European Jews had on the community uptown. Gurock also considers the rapid decline of the Jewish community in Harlem, an event whose implications are relevant to the Lower East Side’s loss of its Jewish community.

Focus: Uptown Jews, German Jews leaving the Lower East Side, interaction between Jewish communities

The Jews: A History

John Efron, Steven Weitzman, Matthias Lehmann, Joshua Holo, The Jews: A History (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009), 231-333.

The Jews’ broad history provides context and background of the circumstances which led to the immigration of many Germans and German-Jews to the New World, and to New York City. Efron and others examine the issues of identity and language in the lives of these Jewish immigrants. And while this work does not always concentrate too much on the story of the German-Jewish immigrants, the authors also provide ample suggestions for further reading and a helpful timeline and glossary.

Focus: Background, Timeline, Context for immigration

 

The American Jewish Experience

Jonathan D. Sarna, edit., The American Jewish Experience (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986), xiii-300.

Sarna’s work is a collection of essays and scholarly writing on the subject of Jews in America. An entire section of The American Jewish Experience is dedicated to the “German Period” in American Jewish history. Michael A. Meyer’s essay focuses on the issue of German-Jewish identity, while Barry E. Supple examines the German-Jewish financiers in New York City who were highly influential in further immigration. This section transitions into the era of Eastern European immigration with Deborah Dwork’s essay specifically focused on immigrant Jews in the Lower East Side. Sarna also provides a detailed list of his sources, an introduction, and suggestions for further reading, making this a valuable source on the subject.

Focus: German-Jewish Identity, Jews in the Lower East Side, Wealthier American Jews

Hester Street at the turn of the century

The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side

Jo Reneé Fine and Gerard R. Wolfe, The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side (New York: Washington Mews Books, 1978), vii-172.

The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side provides a large collection of black and white photographs of Jewish life in the Lower East Side. The photographs of Fine are supplemented with an introduction by Harry Golden and textual descriptions throughout by Wolfe. This work includes a brief history of major events in Jewish history that led to the establishment of the Jewish community in the Lower East Side. Many of these synagogues and histories are relevant to the relationships between German-Jewish immigrants and their fellow immigrants, as well as to the country and society that they established themselves in.

Focus: Images, Primary Sources, synagogues, architecture and living patterns

 

Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures on New York’s Lower East Side

Mario Maffi, Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures on New York’s Lower East Side (New York: New York University, 1995), 7-314.

Mario Maffi offers an account of the Lower East Side and the various immigrant waves and influences that have made their presence felt since the 19th century. Maffi covers the Jewish populations that have left their mark on the Lower East Side, and each population’s origin story. Alongside information on German Jews and other groups, he includes images and contemporary cartoons.

Focus: Rediscovery, interactions between migrant groups, history of the Jewish Quarter

Meseritz Synagogue

A Short History of the Jews

Michael Brenner, A Short History of the Jews, trans. Jeremiah Riemer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 151-254.

Michael Brenner’s work attempts to cover the entire history of the Jewish people in about 400 pages, which restricts his attempts to delve too deeply into every facet of Jewish history. But he does manage to allot a chapter or two to Jewish immigration to America and the Lower East Side. A Short History of the Jews is helpful for its background information on the conditions in Prussia and Poland, and for a general summary of Jewish experiences in the Lower East Side, but focuses more on the later wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

Focus: Context for Migration, Summary of American Jewish Experiences

 

The Promised City: New York’s Jews 1870-1914

Moses Rischin, The Promised City: New York’s Jews 1870-1914 (New York: Corinth Books, 1962), 3-331.

Moses Rischin’s book follows the Jewish immigrant populations in New York City as they underwent serious transformations as other immigration populations moved in. German and Polish Jews met Austrian Jews, and they both came into contact with Russian Jews. Rischin explores the issue of competition and labor, all the while keeping the idea of inter-group tension and interaction. Also significant, he includes a note at the end covering his sources and their relevance and importance.

Focus: Interaction between immigrant groups, Labor Issues, Secularization

A depiction of German emigrants boarding a ship to New York

From Berlin to Berkeley: German-Jewish Identities

Reinhard Bendix, From Berlin to Berkeley: German-Jewish Identities (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1986), ix-300.

Reinhard Bendix’ book does not focus on German-Jewish immigrants to New York. Instead, this introspective look at the story of Bendix’s father and his family’s follows the story of the Jewish community that remained in Prussia and Germany. Context is given for all the immigrants who did leave, and the effects that this had on the community left behind. The story begins before 1881, and continues to return to the question of why his family continued to elect to stay in Germany.

Focus: Families, Opposition towards immigration, context for immigration

 

Studies in Judaica Americana

Rudolf Glanz, Studies in Judaica Americana (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970), vii-407.

Rudolf Glanz’s book, Studies in Judaica Americana, provides chapters and essays written by Glanz on the subject of German Jews, Jewish immigration, German/Jewish influence felt today, and the interactions between Jews and various populations. Glanz also includes a sizeable amount of source material on the history of Jewish immigration in the 19th century up until 1880. He explores the paths many populations took, and where Jews in American settled and how they made their living. This is a significant source of primary and secondary texts and writing, and the first half of the work focuses primarily on German-Jews.

Focus: German-Jewish Immigrations, interactions between migrant groups, Social conditions and action

 

Online Sources

Memory as Identity: The Invention of the Lower East Side

Beth S. Wenger, “Memory as Identity: The Invention of the Lower East Side,” American Jewish History 85.1 (1997): 3-27, accessed November 12, 2013, URL

Beth Wenger looks at the way the Lower East Side has been remembered by the American Jewish community. Her article examines the way that the Lower East Side has been appropriated for the creation and invention of a sort of collective Jewish immigrant history. Wenger looks at the way the area has been documented and examined in the past, and she offers a perspective on the romanticizing of the period of time when the New York was the new home of many German and German-Jewish immigrants.

Focus: Memory, Identity, critical perspective of the history of the Lower East Side

A Photo of Norfolk and Hester Street from the late 19th century

“Different Blood Flows in Our Veins”: Race and Jewish Self-Definition in Late Nineteenth Century America

Eric L. Goldstein, “’Different Blood Flows in Our Veins’: Race and Jewish Self-Definition in Late Nineteenth Century America,” American Jewish History 85.1 (1997): 29-55, accessed November 12, 2013, URL

Eric Goldstein examines the integration of Jews into American society, without the social and professional exclusions many had experienced in Europe. This article looks at the difference between the pre-1870’s Jewish population in America and the post 1870’s population, pointing out the breakdown of the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish socioeconomic circles. Goldstein looks at the ways in which the immigrant populations chose to define themselves after the boundaries that had been created with the first wave of German-Jewish immigrants began to blur. This article also addresses the issue of gender and rabbinic authority in America in its examination of the role of race in immigrant society.

Focus: Identity issues, interactions between immigrant groups, Americanization

 

Book Reviews

Laurence D. Loeb, review of Between Two Worlds: Ethnographic Essays on American Jewry, edited by Jack Kugelmass, and Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism, by Riv-Ellen Prell, American Jewish History Vol. 8 No. 2, (1990): 305-310.

Laurence D. Loeb’s short review of Between Two Worlds and Prayer and Community highlights their significance as important examinations of Jewish American identity. Prell’s contribution is not as relevant the subject of German Jewish immigrants as Kugelmass’ collection of essays on immigrant and American identity. Loeb focuses on the anthropological significance of these American Jewish communities, and the pioneering efforts of the authors involved in the work.

Focus: American Jewry, American and Jewish Identity compatibility

 

Destructive Creators: Sender Jarmulowsky and Financial Failure in the Annals of American Jewish History

Rebecca Kobrin, “Destructive Creators: Sender Jarmulowsky and Financial Failure in the Annals of American Jewish History,” American Jewish History 97.2 (2013): 105-137, accessed November 13, 2013, doi: 10.1353/ajh.2013.0010.

Rebecca Kobrin looks at the mechanisms of immigrant banks and how many histories of Jews in America fail to mention the financial failure caused by these systems. Her article highlights the tensions that were created between the German Jewish immigrants, some of whom had been able to make money in New York and move out of the Lower East Side, and the incoming Eastern European Jews, many of whom were being brought in by the wealthy American Jews looking for cheap labor. These new immigrants were finding a different scene in New York than the German-Jewish immigrants had arrived to decades earlier, and Kobrin uses this dichotomy to explain much of the interactions between immigrant groups.

Focus: Interactions between immigrants groups, Identity Issues, Finance and success

The Jarmulowsky Bank Building

The Big Flat: History of a New York tenement House

Robert H. Bremner, “The Big Flat: History of a New York Tenement House,” The American Historical Review 64.1 (1958): 54-62, accessed November 14, 2013, URL

Robert Bremner traces the history of a New York tenement flat built in 1855. The tenement system was characteristic of the Lower East Side, and defined many Jewish immigrants’ lives. Bremner explains the philanthropic elements present at the start of the tenement venture, and how it was affected by the neighborhood around it and the times in which it existed. His argument focuses on where tenants went when their buildings were condemned or torn down for having poor conditions, and whether their conditions actually improved from such action.

Focus: Living conditions, Social issues

 

An Education for Life in Two Communities. Reflections on Arthur Goren’s New York Jews and the Quest for Community

Stephan F. Brumberg, “An Education for Life in Two Communities. Reflections on Arthur Goren’s New York Jews and the Quest for Community,” review of New York Jews and the Quest for Community, by Arthur Goren, Jewish History Vol. 80 No. 2 (1990): 164-174.

Stephan Brumberg offers a reflection on Arthur Goren’s book, New York Jews and the Quest for Community. He considers the contest and synthesis of American identity and Jewish identity among New York Jews, a central theme in the story of the German Jewish immigrants in New York City. Issues Goren examined with the Kehillah are touched upon again by Brumberg, who considers Goren’s impact on his own interpretation of German Jews in New York City. Education and interpretation are prominent themes in Brumberg’s review.

Focus: Education, American, German, and Jewish Identity

 

Other

 

The Tenement Museum

http://www.tenement.org/

The Tenement Museum occupies the tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street, built in 1863 on the Lower East Side. The Museum examines the life of German and German Jewish immigrants, and how these various populations affected and were affected by the Lower East Side. The tours and information the Museum offers look at synagogues in the area, and the development of American Jewry in New York as more and more Jewish immigrant groups entered the city.

The Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street

The Museum at Eldridge Street

http://www.eldridgestreet.org/

The Eldridge Street Synagogue focuses more on the history of the Eastern European Immigrants who arrived in the Lower East Side primarily after 1881. Some of these immigrants were brought over by German Jews already in America, such as Sender Jarmulowsky. Many of them had to adapt to life in America, life around other immigrants, and life amongst other Jewish groups and nationalities. The museum offers a continuation of the history of the Lower East Side after hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews had hundreds of synagogues built.

The Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum

 

 

- last updated 12/11/2013