Page 40 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 38

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First published in 1890, it went through a number o f ed i­
tions and has since become a classic on imm igrant life. Chapters
10 and 11, “Jewtown” and the “ Sweaters o f Jewtown,” are am ong
the most o ft-quoted descriptions o f the life o f the Russian Jewish
immigrant on the low er East Side at the end o f the nineteenth
century. T h e readers learn o f Jews living in tenements: “ In Essex
Street two small rooms in a six-story tenement were made to hold
a “ fam ily” o f father and mother, twelve children, and six boar­
ders.” 36
Poverty and disease “ are not due to intemperance o r imm o ra l­
ity, but to ignorance, want o f suitable food and the fou l air in
which they live and work .” 37 Riis noted that, “ as scholars, the
children o f the most ignorant Polish Jew keep fairly abreast o f
their more favored playmates, until it comes to mental arithmetic,
when they leave them behind with a bound.” H e writes o f the
notorious “ P ig-m arket,” where horse-radish is churned , o ld
clothes are hawked, the crowds are “ pushing, struggling, bab­
bling . . . shouting in fore ign tongues . . .”
T h e reader “ visits” the notorious sweat shop:
In [the tenement] the child works . . . from the day he is old
enough to pull a thread. T h e r e is no such a thing as a d inner
hour; men and women eat while they work, and the “ day” is
lengthened at both ends far into the night . . .38
In Riis’s
The Children o f the Poor,
we meet the children “ In the
great East Side T readm ill,” 39 again a story o f poverty, filth, dis­
ease, child labor, but also including lust fo r learning.
T h e poorest H eb rew knows — the p oo re r he is, the better he
knows it — that know ledge is pow er . . . he lets no opp o r tu ­
nity slip to obtain it. Day and night schools are crowded with
his children . . . taking more than their share o f prizes and
One o f the managers o f the Institute who knew how the
fam ily were starving on ha lf rations, had o f fe re d the fa ther
. . . to get the boy emp loym ent in a store at three dollars a
36 Jacob A. Riis,
How the Other H a l f Lives,
N .Y ., 1957, p. 77.
Op. cit
. , p. 79-80, quoted by Riis from “Report o f Eastern Dispensary for 1889 ”
p. 84.
39 Jacob A . Riis,
The Children o f the Poo r ,
N .Y ., 1892.
Ib id .,
p. 47.