The Hebrews of Eastern Europe in America

By Edward Alsworth Ross
(Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin)

[The Century Magazine, December 1914]

In his defense of Flaccus, a Roman governor who had "squeezed" his Jewish subjects, Cicero lowered his voice when he came to speak of the Jews, for, as he explained to the judges, there are persons who might excite against him this numerous, clannish, and powerful element. With much greater reason might an American lower his voice to-day in discussing two million Hebrew immigrants united by a strong race consciousness, and already ably represented at every level of wealth, power, and influence in the United States.

At the time of the Revolution there were perhaps seven hundred Jewish families in the colonies. In 1826 the number of Hebrews in the United States was estimated at six thousand; in 1840, at fifteen thousand; in 1848, at fifty thousand. The immigration from Germany brought great numbers, and at the outbreak of the Civil War there were probably one hundred and fifty thousand Hebrews in this country.

In 1888, after the first wave from Russia, they were estimated at four hundred thousand. Since the beginning of 1899, a million and a third Hebrews have settled in this country. Easily one fifth of the Hebrews in the world are with us, and the freshet shows no signs of subsidence. America is coming to be hailed as the "promised land," and Zionist dreams are yielding to the conviction that it will be much easier for the keen-witted Russian Hebrews to prosper here as a free component in a nation of a hundred millions than to grub a living out of the baked hillsides of Palestine. With Mr. Zangwill they exult that:

America has ample room for all the six millions of the Pale; any one of her fifty states could absorb them. And next to being in a country of their own, there could be no better fate-for them than to be together in a land of civil and religious liberty, of whose Constitution Christianity forms no part, and where their collective votes would practically guarantee them against future persecution.

Hence the endeavor of the Hebrews to control the immigration policy of the United States. Although theirs is only a seventh of our net immigration, they led the fight on the Immigration Commission's bill. The power of the million Hebrews in the metropolis lines up the congressional delegation from New York in solid opposition to the literacy test. The systematic campaign in newspapers and magazines to break down all arguments for restriction and to calm nativist fears is waged by and for one race. Hebrew money is behind the National Liberal Immigration League and its numerous publications. From the paper before the commercial body or the scientific association to the heavy treatise produced with the aid of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the literature that proves the blessings of immigration to all classes in America emanates from subtle Hebrew brains. In order to admit their brethren from the Pale, the brightest of the Semites are keeping our doors open to the dullest of the Aryans.

Migrating as families the Hebrews from eastern Europe are pretty evenly divided between the sexes. Their illiteracy is twenty-six per cent., about the average. Artisans and professional men are rather numerous among them. They come from cities and settle in cities, half of them in New York. Centuries of inforced Ghetto life seem to have bred in them a herding instinct. No other physiques can so well withstand the toxins of urban congestion. Save the Italians, more Hebrews will crowd upon a given space than any other nationality. As they prosper, they do not proportionately enlarge their quarters. Of Boston tenement house Hebrews Dr. Bushee testifies:

Their inborn love of money-making leads them to crowd into the smallest quarters. Families having very respectable bank-accounts have been known to occupy cellar rooms where damp and cold streaked the walls.... There are actually streets in the West End where, while Jews are moving in, negro housewives are gathering up their skirts and seeking a more spotless environment.

The first stream of Russo-Jewish immigrants started flowing in 1882 in consequence of the reactionary policy of Alexander III. It contained many students and members of scholarly families, who stimulated intellectual activity among their fellows here, and were leaders in radical thought. These idealists established newspapers in the Jewish-German jargon and thus made Yiddish (Jüdisch) a literary language. The second stream reached us after 1890, and brought immigrants who were not steeped in modern ideas, but held to Talmudic traditions and the learning of the rabbis. The more recent flow taps lower social strata, and is prompted by economic motives. These later arrivals lack both the idealism of the first stream and the religious culture of the second.

Besides the Russian Hebrews, we are receiving large numbers from Galicia, Hungary, and Rumania. The last are said to be of a high type, whereas the Galician Hebrews are the lowest. It is these whom Joseph Pennell, the illustrator, found to be "people who, despite their poverty, never work with their hands; whose but a hideous nightmare of dirt, disease, and poverty," and its misery and ugliness "the outcome of their own habits and way of life, and not, as is usually supposed, forced upon them by Christian persecutors."


The Jewish immigrants rarely lay hand to basic production. In tilling the soil, in food growing, in extracting minerals, in building, construction, and transportation, they have little part. Sometimes they direct these operations, often they finance them, but even in direst poverty they contrive to avoid hard muscular labor. Under pressure the Hebrew takes to the pack as the Italian to the pick.

In the eighties numerous rural colonies of Hebrews were planted, but, despite much help from outside, all except the colonies near Vineland, New Jersey, utterly failed. In New York and New England there are more than a thousand Hebrew farmers, but most of them speculate in real estate, keep summer boarders, or depend on some side enterprise, peddling, cattle-trading, or junk-buying, for a material part of their income. The Hebrew farmers, said to number in all six thousand, maintain a federation and are provided with a farmers' journal. New colonies are launched at brief intervals, and Jewish city boys are being trained for country life. Still, not over one Hebrew family in a hundred is on the land, and the rural trend is only a trickle compared with the huge inflow.

Perhaps two fifths of the Hebrew immigrants gain their living from garment-making. Naturally the greater part of the clothing and dry-goods trade, the country over, is in their hands. They make eighty-five per cent. of the cigars and most of the domestic cigarettes. They purchase all but an insignificant part of the leaf tobacco from the farmers, and sell it to the manufacturers. They are prominent in the retailing of spirits, and the Jewish distiller is almost as typical as the German brewer.

None can beat the Hebrew at a bargain, for through all the intricacies of commerce he can scent his profit. The peddler, junk-dealer, or pawnbroker is on the first rung of the ladder. The more capable rise in a few years to be theatrical managers, bankers, or heads of department stores. Moreover, great numbers are clerks and salesmen, and thousands are municipal and building contractors. Many of the second generation enter the civil service and the professions. Already in several of the largest municipalities and in the Federal bureaus a large proportion of the positions is held by keen-witted Hebrews. Twenty years ago, under the spoils system, the Irish held most of the city jobs in New York. Now, under the test system, the Hebrews are driving them out. Among the school-teachers of the city Hebrew women outnumber the women of any other nationality. Jewish girls shun housework and crowd into the factories, while those who can get training become stenographers, bookkeepers, accountants, and private secretaries. One thirteenth of the students in our seventy-seven leading universities and colleges are of Hebrew parentage. The young Hebrews take eagerly to medicine, and it is said that from seven hundred to nine hundred of the physicians in New York are of their race. More noticeable is the influx into dentistry and especially into pharmacy. Their trend into the legal profession has been pronounced, and of late there is a movement of Jewish students into engineering, agriculture, and forestry.


The Jewish immigrants cherish a pure, close-knit family life, and the position of the woman in the home is one of dignity. More than any other immigrants they are ready to assume the support of distant needy relatives. They care for their own poor, and the spirit of cooperation among them is very noticeable. Their temper is sensitive and humane; very rarely is a Jew charged with any form of brutality. There is among them a fine élite which responds to the appeal of the ideal and is found in every kind of ameliorative work.

Nevertheless, fair-minded observers agree that certain bad qualities crop out all too often among these eastern Europeans. A school principal remarks that his Hebrew pupils are more importunate to get a mark, changed than his other pupils. A settlement warden who during the summer entertains hundreds of nursing slum mothers at a country "home" says: "The Jewish mothers are always asking for something extra over the regular kit we provide each guest for her stay." "The last thing the son of Jacob wants," observes an eminent sociologist, is a square deal." A veteran New York social worker cannot forgive the Ghetto its littering and defiling of the parks. "Look at Tompkins Square," he exclaimed hotly, "and compare it with what it was twenty-five years ago amid a German population!" As for the caretakers of the parks, their comment on this matter is unprintable. Genial settlement residents, who never tire of praising Italian or Greek, testify that no other immigrants are so noisy, pushing, and disdainful of the rights of others as the Jews. That the worst exploiters of these immigrants are sweaters, landlords, employers, and "white slavers" of their own race no one gainsays.

The authorities complain that the eastern European Hebrews feel no reverence for law as such, and are willing to break any ordinance they find in their way. The fact that pleasure-loving Jewish business men spare Jewesses, but pursue Gentile girls, excites bitter comment. The insurance companies scan a Jewish fire-risk more closely than any other. Credit men say the Jewish merchant is often "slippery," and will "fail" in order to get rid of his debts. For lying the immigrant has a very bad reputation. In the North End of Boston "the readiness of the Jews to commit perjury has passed into a proverb." Conscientious immigration officials become very sore over the incessant fire of false accusations to which they are subjected by the Jewish press and societies. United States senators complain that early in 1913, during the close of the struggle over the immigration bill, they were overwhelmed with a torrent of crooked statistics and misrepresentations by the Hebrews fighting the literacy test.

Graver yet is the charge that these eastern European immigrants lower standards wherever they enter. In the boot-and-shoe trade the Hebrew jobbers who, after sending in an order to the manufacturer, find the market taking an unexpected downward turn will reject a consignment on some pretext in order to evade a loss. Says Dr. Bushee, "The shame of a variety of underhanded methods in trade not easily punishable by law must be laid at the door of a certain type of Jew." It is charged that for personal gain the Hebrew dealer wilfully disregards the customs of the trade, and thereby throws trade ethics into confusion. Physicians and lawyers complain that their Hebrew colleagues tend to break down the ethics of their professions. It is certain that Hebrews have commercialized the social evil, commercialized the theater, and done much to commercialize the newspaper. The leaders of the race admit much truth in the impeachment. One accounts for the bad reputation of his race in the legal profession by pointing out that they entered the tricky branches of it, namely, commercial law and criminal law. Says a high-minded lawyer, "If the average American entered law as we have to, without money, connections, or adequate professional education, he would be a shyster, too." Another observes that the sharp practice of the Russo-Jewish lawyer belongs to the earlier part of his career, when he "must succeed or starve. As he prospers, his sense of responsibility grows. For example, some years ago the Bar Association of New York opposed the promotion of a certain Hebrew lawyer to the bench on the ground of his unprofessional practices. But this same lawyer made one of the best judges the city ever had, and when he retired he was banqueted by the association.

The truth seems to be that the lower class of Hebrews of eastern Europe reach here moral cripples, their souls warped and dwarfed by iron circumstance. The experience of Russian repression has made them haters of government and corrupters of the police. Life amid a bigoted, and hostile population has left them aloof and thick-skinned. A tribal spirit, intensified by social isolation, prompts them to rush to the rescue of the caught rascal of their own race. Pent within the Talmud and the Pale of Settlement, their interests have become few, and many of them have developed a monstrous and repulsive love of gain. When, now, they use their Old-World shove and wile and lie in a society like ours, as unprotected as a snail out of its shell, they rapidly push up into a position of prosperous parasitism, leaving scorn and curses in their wake.

Gradually, however, it dawns upon this twisted soul that here there is no need to be weasel or hedgehog. He finds himself in a new game, the rules of which are made by all the players. He himself is a part of the state that is weakened by his lawbreaking, a member of the profession that is degraded by his sharp practices. So smirk and cringe and trick presently fall away from him and he stands erect. This is why, in the same profession at the same time, those most active in breaking down standards are Hebrews, and those most active in raising standards are Hebrews of an earlier coming or a later generation. "On the average," says a Jewish leader, "only the third generation feels perfectly at home in American society." This explains the frequent statement that the Hebrews are "the limit," among the worst of the worst and among the best of the best.


The Hebrew immigrants usually commit their crimes for gain, and among gainful crimes they lean to gambling, larceny, and the receiving of stolen goods rather than to the more daring crimes of robbery and burglary. The fewness of the Hebrews in prison has been used to spread the impression that they are uncommonly law-abiding. The fact is that it is harder to catch and convict criminals of cunning than criminals of violence. The chief of police of any large city will bear emphatic testimony as to the trouble Jewish law-breakers cause him: Most alarming is the great increase of criminality among Jewish young men and the growth of prostitution among Jewish girls. Says a Jewish ex-assistant attorney-general of the United States in an address before the B'nai B'rith: "Suddenly we find appearing in the life of the large cities the scarlet woman of Jewish birth." "In the women's night court of New York City and on gilded Broadway the majority of street-walkers bear Jewish names." "This sudden break in Jewish morality was not natural. It was a product of cold, calculating, mercenary methods, devised and handled by men of Jewish birth." Says the president of the Conference of American Rabbis: "The Jewish world has been stirred from center to circumference by the recent disclosures of the part Jews have played in the pursuance of the white-slave traffic." On May 14, 1911, a Yiddish paper in New York said editorially:

It is almost impossible to comprehend the indifference with which the large New York Jewish population hears and reads, day after day, about the thefts and murders that are perpetrated every day by Jewish gangs—real bands of robbers—and no one raises a voice of protest, and no demand is made for the protection of the reputation of the Jews of America and for the life and property of the Jewish citizens.

A few years ago, when Commissioner Bingham came out with a statement about Jewish thieves, the Jews raised a cry of protest that reached the heavens. The main cry was that Bingham exaggerated and overestimated the number of Jewish criminals. But when we hear of the murders, hold-ups, and burglaries committed in the Jewish section by Jewish criminals, we must, with heartache, justify Mr. Bingham.

Two weeks later the same paper said:

How much more will Jewish hearts bleed when the English press comes out with descriptions of gambling-houses packed with Jewish gamblers, of the blind cigar stores where Jewish thieves and murderers are reared, of the gangs that work systematically and fasten like vampires upon the peaceable Jewish population, and of all the other nests of theft, robbery, murder, and lawlessness that have multiplied among us.

This startling growth reflects the moral crisis through which many immigrants are passing. Enveloped in the husks of medievalism, the religion of many a Hebrew perishes in the American environment. The immigrant who loses his religion is worse than the religionless American because his early standards are dropped along with his faith. With his clear brain sharpened in the American school, the egoistic, conscienceless young Hebrew constitutes a menace. As a Jewish labor leader said to me:

The non-morality of the young Jewish business men is fearful. Socialism inspires an ethics in the heart of the Jewish working-man, but there are many without either the old religion or the new. I am aghast at the consciencelessness of the Luft-proletariat without feeling for place, community, or nationality.


If the Hebrews are a race, certainly one of their traits is intellectuality. In Boston the milk-station nurse gets far more result from her explanations to Jewish mothers than from her talks to Irish or Italian mothers. The Jewish parent, however grasping, rarely exploits his children, for he appreciates how schooling will add to their earning capacity. The young Hebrews have the foresight to avoid "blind-alley" occupations. Between the years of fourteen and seventeen the Irish and Italian boys earn more than the Jewish lads; but after eighteen the Jewish boys will be earning more, for they have selected occupations in which you can work up. The Hebrew is the easiest man to sell life insurance to, for he catches the idea sooner than any other immigrant. As philanthropist he is the first to appreciate scientific charity. As voter he is the first to repudiate the political leader and rise to a broad outlook. As exploited worker he is the first to find his way to a theory of his hard lot, namely, capitalism. As employer he is quick to respond to the idea of "welfare work." The Jewish patrons of the libraries welcome guidance in their reading, and they want always the best; in fiction, Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola; in philosophy, Darwin, Spencer, Haeckel. No other headers are so ready to tackle the heavy-weights in economics and sociology.

From many school principals comes the observation that their Jewish pupils are either very bright or distinctly dull. Among the Russo-Jewish children many fall behind, but some distinguish themselves in their studies. The proportion of backward pupils is about the average for school children of non-English-speaking parentage; but the brilliant pupils indicate the presence in Hebrew immigration of a gifted element which scarcely shows itself in other streams of immigration. Teachers report that their Jewish pupils "seem to have hungry minds." They "grasp information as they do everything else, recognizing it as the requisite for success." Says a principal, "Their progress in studies is simply another manifestation of the acquisitiveness of the race." Another thinks their school successes are won more by intense application than by natural superiority, and judges his Irish pupils would do still better if only they would work as many hours.

The Jewish gift for mathematics and chess is well known. They have great imagination, but it is the "combinative" imagination rather than the free poetic fancy of the Celt. They analyze out the factors of a process, and mentally put them together in new ways. Their talent for anticipating the course of the market, making fresh combinations in business, diagnosing diseases, and suggesting scientific hypotheses is not questioned. On the other hand, an eminent savant thinks the best Jewish minds are not strong in generalization, and deems them clever, acute, and industrious rather than able in the highest sense. On the whole, the Russo-Jewish immigration is richer in gray matter than any other recent stream, and it may be richer than any inflow since, the colonial era.

Perhaps abstractness is another trait of the Jewish mind. To the Hebrew things present themselves not softened by an atmosphere of sentiment, but with the sharp outlines of that desert landscape in which his ancestors wandered. As farmer he is slovenly, and does not root in the soil like the German. As poet he shows little feeling for nature. Unlike the German artisan, who becomes fond of what he creates, the Hebrew does not love the concrete for its own sake. What he cares for is the value in it. Hence he is rarely a good artisan, and perhaps the reason why he makes his craft a mere stepping-stone to business is that he does not relish his work. The Hebrew shines in literature, music, and acting, the arts of expression, but not often is he an artist in the manipulation of materials. In theology, law, and diplomacy, which involve the abstract, the Jewish mind has distinguished itself more than in technology or the study of nature.

The Hebrew has little feeling for the particular. He cares little for pets. He loves man rather than men, and from Isaiah to Karl Marx he holds the record in projects of social amelioration. The Hebrew loves without romance, and fights without hatred. He is loyal to his purposes rather than to persons. He finds general principles for whatever he wishes to do. As circumstances change, he will make up with his worst enemy or part company with his closest ally. Hence his wonderful adaptability. Flexible and rational, the Jewish mind cannot be bound by conventions. The good will of a Southern gentleman takes set forms, such as courtesy and attentions, while the kindly Hebrew is ready with any form of help that may be needed. So the South looked askance at the Hebrews as "no gentlemen." Nor have the Irish, with their strong personal loyalty or hostility, liked the Jews. On the other hand, the Yankees have for the Jews a cousinly feeling. Puritanism was a kind of Hebraism, and throve most in the parts of England where, centuries before, the Hebrews had been thickest. With his rationalism, his shrewdness, his inquisitiveness, and his acquisitiveness, the Yankee can meet the Jew on his own ground.

Like all races that survive the sepsis of civilization, the Hebrews show great tenacity of purpose. Their constancy has worn out their persecutors, and won them the epithet of "stiff-necked." In their religious ideas our Jewish immigrants are so stubborn that the Protestant churches despair of making proselytes among them. The sky-rocket careers leading from the peddler's pack to the banker's desk or the professor's chair testify to rare singleness of purpose. Whatever his goal, money, scholarship, or recognition, the true Israélite never loses sight of it, cannot be distracted, presses steadily on, and in the end masters circumstance instead of being dominated by it. As strikers the Jewish wage-earners will starve rather than yield. The Jewish reader in the libraries sticks indomitably to the course of reading he has entered upon. No other policy-holder is so reliable as the Hebrew in keeping up his premiums. The Jewish canvasser, bill-collector, insurance-solicitor, or commercial traveler takes no rebuff, returns brazenly again and again, and will risk being kicked down-stairs rather than lose his man. During the Civil War, General Grant wrote to the War Department regarding the Jewish cotton traders who pressed into the South with the Northern armies, "I have instructed the commanding officer to refuse all permits to Jews to come South, and I have frequently had them expelled from the department, but they come in with their carpet-sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it." Charity agents say that although their Hebrew cases are few, they cost them more than other cases in the end because of the unblushing persistence of the applicant. Some chiefs of police will not tolerate the Jewish prostitute in their city because they find it impossible to subject her to any regulations.


In New York the line is drawn against the Hebrews in hotels, resorts, clubs, and private schools, and constantly this line hardens and extends. They cry "Bigotry!" but bigotry has little or nothing to do with it. What is disliked in the Hebrews is not their religion, but certain ways and manners. Moreover, the Gentile resents being obliged to engage in a humiliating and undignified scramble in order to keep his trade or his clients against the Jewish invader. The line is not yet rigid, for the genial, editor of "Vorwaerts," Mr. Abram Cahan, tells me that he and his literary brethren from the Pale have never encountered anti-Semitism in the Americans they meet. Not the Socialist Hebrews, but the vulgar upstart parvenus, are made to feel the discrimination.

This cruel prejudice—for all lump condemnations are cruel—is no importation, no hang-over from the past. It appears to spring out of contemporary experience, and is invading circle after circle of the broad-minded. People who give their lives to befriending immigrants shake their heads over the Galician Hebrews. It is astonishing how much of the sympathy that twenty years ago went out to the fugitives from Russian massacres has turned sour. Through fear of retaliation, little criticism gets into print; in the open the Philo-semites have it all their way. The situation is, honey above, gall beneath. If the czar, by keeping up the pressure which has already rid him of two million undesired subjects, should succeed in driving the bulk of his six million Hebrews to the United States, we shall see the rise of a Jewish question here, perhaps riots and anti-Jewish legislation. No doubt thirty or forty thousand Hebrews from eastern Europe might be absorbed by this country every year without any marked growth of race prejudice; but when they come in two or three or even four times as fast, the lump outgrows the leaven, and there will be trouble.

America is probably the strongest solvent Jewish separatism has ever encountered. It is not only that here the Hebrew finds himself a free man and a citizen. That has occurred before without causing the Hebrew to merge into the general population. It is that here more than anywhere else in the world the future is expected to be in all respects better than the past. No civilized people ever so belittled the past in the face of the future as we do. This is why tradition withers and dies in our air; and the dogma that the Hebrews are a "peculiar people" and must shun intermarriage with the Gentiles is only a tradition. The Jewish dietary laws are rapidly going. In New York only one fourth of the two hundred thousand Jewish workmen keep their Sabbath, and only one fifth of the Hebrews belong to the synagogue. The neglect of the synagogue is as marked as the falling away of non-Jews from the church. Mixed marriages, although by no means numerous in the centers, are on the increase, and in 1909 the Central Conference of Jewish Rabbis resolved that such marriages are contrary to the tradition of the Jewish religion and should therefore be discouraged by the American Rabbinate." Certainly every mixed marriage is, as one rabbi puts it, "a nail in the coffin of Judaism," and free mixing would in time end the Hebrews as a distinct ethnic strain.

The "hard-shell" leaders are urging the Hebrews in America to cherish their distinctive traditions and to refrain from mingling their blood with Gentiles. But the liberal and radical leaders insist that in this new, ultra-modern environment nothing is gained by holding the Hebrews within the wall of orthodox Judaism. As a prominent Hebrew labor-leader said to me:

By blending with the American, the Jew will gain in physique, and this, with its attendant participation in normal labor, sports, athletics, outdoor life, and the like, will lessen the hypersensibility and the sensuality of the Jew, and make him less vain, unscrupulous, and pleasure-loving.

It is too soon yet to foretell whether or not this vast and growing body of Hebrews from eastern Europe is to melt and disappear in the American population just as numbers of Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French Hebrews in our early days became blended with the rest of the people. In any case, the immigrant Hebrews are being assimilated outwardly. The long coat, side curls, beard, and fringes, the "Wandering Jew" figure, the furtive manner, the stoop, the hunted look, and the martyr air disappear as if by magic after a brief taste of American life. It would seem as if the experience of Russia and America in assimilating the Jews is happily illustrated by the old story of the rivalry of the wind and the sun in trying to strip the traveler of his cloak.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury