We Came to North America: The Jews by Casey Horton

The Jewish people who settled in North America between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries came in search of a land of hope and freedom.  Some came seeking better business opportunities.  Some came to find a place where they could freely practice their traditions and religion.  Many were fleeing great hardship and cruelty.  All were hoping to build a new life for themselves and their families.

The first Jewish immigrants came to North America in 1654.  They were Spanish Jews, searching for a new home where they would be treated equally and would be free to practice their religion.  Over the next three centuries, four waves of Jewish immigrants followed.   The first was the arrival of more Spanish Jews, known as Sephardim.  Many settled in South Carolina, where Charleston had the largest Jewish population.  In 1776, at the time of the American Revolution, there were 2000 Jews living in America.  They were accepted as equals.  Later, until the mid-1800s, most Jews coming to Canada and the United States were from Germany.

The largest wave of Jewish immigration was between 1880 and the early 1900s.  Russian and Polish Jews came in huge numbers, fleeing from persecution.  Most landed in New York City, but Jewish communities sprang up in other U.S. centers.  They immigrants arrived with no money, and many could not read or write.  A few quickly became wealthy and successful, but most Jews lived and worked in dreadful conditions.  They believed education was the key to their success.  Their children studied hard and became successful doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists, and business people.

After World War II, a smaller group of Jewish immigrants came to find a new home in North America.  They were escaping from war-torn Europe.  They were the survivors of the Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews by German Nazis.  These millions of Jewish immigrants built new lives for themselves and their families in their adopted countries.  At times, even in North America, they suffered from unequal and unfair treatment.  Today, they are respected citizens, whose contributions to the arts, business, and science are widely recognized.


The Journey

Until the 1880s, Jewish emigrants traveling to North America crossed the Atlantic in sailing ships.  The journey took up to three months and cost a family all its life's savings.  Often the father came first and sent for his family after he had found work and saved enough money.

Jews had to travel long distances from Russia to the ports from which their ships sailed.  They began their journey by making their way from their home to a railroad station in a city such as Kiev or Warsaw.  A train took them to a large city in central Europe, such as Vienna, Berlin, and Breslau.  From there, many traveled by train to the ports of Hamburg or Bremen, where they boarded their ship for North America.  Others traveled first to England, landing at Harwich, Grimsby, or London.  They then made their way to the port of Liverpool to sail to New York.  Most crossings were made between March and October, to avoid winter.  Even the sea was very rough; many passengers suffered from weeks of seasickness.

On board ship, Jewish immigrants were packed together, along with other immigrants, in the "steerage" of the ship--the cheapest area.  Here, under the deck, they had to do everything: eat and sleep, and meet all their other needs, including washing and toileting.  They spend most of the voyage lying in narrow bunks. Overcrowding led to outbreaks of disease: typhus, smallpox, and cholera.  The conditions were so dreadful that, in the United States, the Senate investigated the situation in 1854.  One government official reported that even the cattle crossing the ocean traveled under better conditions than the Jewish immigrants.  However, little was done at that times to improve matters, and many people died during the crossing.  By 1881, most of the sailing ships had been replaced by much faster steamships.

Landing in New York

The early immigrants landing in New York disembarked at Castle Garden, and later, between 1892 and 1942, at Ellis Island.  When the exhausted immigrants arrived, they still had to go through a physical and mental examination to see if they were fit to enter the country.  They were herded into a huge hall, examined by doctors for signs of sickness and disease, and questioned by immigration officers.  Some, who could not pass all the exams, were sent back to Europe.  For many immigrants, Ellis Island was known as Heartbreak Island.

Eyewitness to History

1.  Arnold Weiss came from Russia and arrived at Ellis Island with his family in 1921, at the age of thirteen.

"They also questioned people on literacy.  My uncle called me aside, when he came to take us off.  He said, 'Your mother doesn't know how to read.'  I said, 'That's alright.'  For the reading you faced what they called the commissioners, like judges on a bench.  I was surrounded by my aunt and uncle and another uncle who's a pharmacist--my mother was in the center.  They said she would have to take a test of reading.  Some man said, 'She can't speak English.'  Another man said, 'We know that. We will give her a siddur.'  You know what a siddur is?  It's a Jewish book.  The night they said this, I knew that she couldn't do that and we would be in trouble.

Well, they opened up a siddur.  There was a certain passage they had you read.  I looked at it and saw right away what is was.  I quickly studied it--I knew the whole paragraph.  They I got underneath the two of them there--I was very small--and I told her the words in Yiddish very softly.  I had memorized the lines and I said them quietly and she said them louder so the commissioner could hear it.  She looked at it and it sounded as if she was reading it, but I was doing the talking underneath."


2.  Immigrant children often started work at about eight or nine years old to help suppor their families.  By 1900, 26 U.S. states had laws controlling child labor, including setting an age at which children could start working.  However, these laws usually only applied to children under fourteen, and they were not strictly enforced.  Many working children were under age.  In the following account, Pauline Newman, who immigrated with her family to New York in 1907, describes how she went to work in a factory producing shirtwaists, which were women's blouses and dresses with details copied from men's shirts.

"It was child's work, since we were children.  We had a corner in the factory which was like a kindergarten.  The work wasn't difficult.  The shirtwaist finished by the operator would come to us so we could cut off the thread left by the needle of the machine.  You had little scissors because you were children.  Somehow the boss knew when the inspector was coming.  Materials came in high wooden cases and when the inspector came we were put in them and covered with shirtwaists.  By the time he arrived there were no children.

In the busy season we worked seven days a week.  That's why the sign went up on the freight elevator: 'If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday.'"

A New Home 

Almost 65 percent of all the Russian and Polish immigrants to North America landed and stayed in New York City.  The city was growing quickly, and there was a need for cheap labor.  Like other immigrants at the time, Jews moved to the neighborhoods where people of the same nationality lived.  In New York, they settled in the Hebrew section, in overcrowded tenements.

Jews were limited in the jobs they were allowed to do, and many worked as tailors and seamstresses.  Many Jewish immigrants had been traders in their towns and villages in Russia, buying and selling old clothes and secondhand items.  When they arrived in America, they often continued this work, going from door to door collected and selling scrap and old rags.

Help for the Needy

As more and more immigrants arrived in North America, Jewish charities were formed to help those in need.  The first organization was the Hebrew Benevolent Society, formed in 1824.  In 1843, Henry Jones founded the order of B'nai B'rith (Hebrew for "Sons of the Covenant"), now the oldest and larges Jewish aid organization in the world.  The American Jewish Congress, set up in 1918, and the Canadian Jewish Congress, founded in 1919, worked to promote Jewish rights.

Klezmer Music

Klezmer is a special kind of Jewish music.  It began in Eastern Europe and Russia in the fifteenth century.  Traveling musicians, called "klezmorim," played it at festivals and weddings.  Klezmer music is often lively, encouraging people to dance.  There are no singers, and klezmorim use instruments such as accordions, clarinets, violins, and drums.  The musicians brought their instruments to North America, where klezmer music has influenced jazz and swing.  Klezmer music is still popular today.

Jewish Food

Special Jewish dishes are made for festivals.  Passover food included an unleavened bread called matzoh.  Challah is a braided egg bread usually eaten on the Sabbath and other holidays.  Both bagels and knish, stuffed, fried squares of dough, are available from fast-food vendors.  Sweet potato kugel is a baked pudding.  Jews who follow the religious teachings have strict rules about how to prepare and cook their food.  Food prepared according to these laws is known as kosher.

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Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society