Customs and Habits of the Jewish Population on the East Side : 1895


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The man who was born in New York and has not seen the city for fifteen or eighteen-years would become bewildered if he were to take a walk through the great east side. The streets are much the same as they were in those days, except that several of them have since been paved with asphalt, which has vastly improved the sanitary condition of the district, and a number of high tenement houses have been built. But it is the population that has changed a class entirely different in manners and customs and political ideas and beliefs from the old timers, who have moved up town, east and west.

The district bounded by Catharine Street, the Bowery, Houston Street, and the East River, which was formerly divided up between the Irish in the lower and more eastern portion and the Germans in the upper part, and a fair sprinkling of Americans who were still able to support several churches there, has almost entirely changed hands. A certain proportion of the Irish element still holds the fort on the river front, where the rough work is done along shore, but the others have been steadily pushed upward and outward by the children of Israel in their new exodus, this time out of the Russian Egypt and house of bondage into the Canaan of the West.

A different language is now heard there. Neither German nor English nor yet Gaelic, but what is called the Yiddish, or Jewish, a jargon of old German, Hebrew, Polish, and Russian, with the addition of Hungarian, where the Jews come from Hungary. As an illustration of the mixture of this jargon may be taken the sentence. Goot shabes taty__good Sabbath to you, father. The first word is the German gut__good; the second is Hebrew, meaning Sabbath, and the third is Polish, or Slovak, tata, signifying father. These people have already adopted a number of English words.

In matters of dress, these new-comers have adapted themselves to the manners of the country as closely as the precepts of Orthodox Judaism will permit. The long caftan, girdled or not, with the tsetse's underneath, from which are suspended four cords made of twisted strings, signifying that Israel is to own the four ends of the earth, which is a distinguishing mark, of the Jews in Russia and Poland, is hardly ever seen in the ghetto in this city, except, perhaps, on some newly arrived boys. Even the bushy, untrimmed beard which was characteristic of the Anarchists before they were tamed by Superintendent Byrnes and Inspector Williams, is generally disappearing. When the Jewish journeyman becomes a contractor he will trim and comb his beard, or he will shave it off and sport a mustache; and a good many of the young bloods shave off beard, mustache, and all. Of course, this is contrary to the ordinances, but they are minor ones in this age, and can stand suspension.

The dress of the women is much like that of the sex of other nationalities, except that the law requires married women to conceal their hair. According to strict orthodox custom, a girl must have her head sheared or shaved on her wedding day, and thereafter must keep it concealed from men's view by a turban, which in Poland is called a knoop, or by some other appropriate headgear. The more fashionable ones began wearing wigs over their growing hair, and this fashion is now prevalent here among the old-fashioned women of the orthodox faith. A very few women on the east side may still be seen wearing the hair-concealing headgear. The young women, however, have rebelled against the laws that detract from their attractions and handicap them in their efforts to retain their husbands' affections or to capture new husbands when they become widows.

The separation of the sexes among the Jews on the east side in this city is now confined to the synagogue, where the women are relegated to the galleries, out of the sight of the men. But, as very many of these Jews are the descendants of Poles, Lithuanians, and Germans, who in times gone by were converted to Judaism, the feeling for the social as well as business intercourse of the sexes has perhaps proved too strong for the old Oriental prejudices. So they are seen together in the shops, stores, and at social gatherings. The Oriental seclusion of women, except in the synagogue has been discontinued by even the most orthodox Polish and Russian Jews.

A custom which these people have preserved during their sojourn of centuries in Southwestern Russia, and which to a certain extent prevails in this country, is the divorce, which a man can give his wife, and marry another woman. Polygamy was prohibited among them many years ago, it is said, by an ancient rabbi in Poland, who pronounce terrible ban upon all such as should marry more than one wife. The Russian Czars granted the Jews autonomy in their dealings among themselves, and the rabbis settled disputes and contracts among their coreligionists in their own courts. The Sultans of Turkey gave to the Jews, and also to the Christians, where they dwelt in small communities in Turkey, the same privileges.

The divorce of the woman was one of the ancient customs which has been maintained, and several orthodox rabbis in this city have believed that they were possessed with this authority in the United States. Appeals from these rabbinical divorces have on various occasions been made by wronged women, and the husbands, who were about to marry younger or richer wives, were made to understand that such practices were forbidden by law under severe penalties. The young women who have grown up in this city and who know their rights have generally set their faces against the custom, in spite of the influence of the orthodox rabbis from Europe, and there is no doubt that this custom will gradually die out.


Website: The History
Article Name: Customs and Habits of the Jewish Population on the East Side : 1895
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


New York Times Aug 27, 1895. p.13 (1 page)
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