For the Eastern European Jewish immigrant fresh off the boat, the Lower East Side in 1899 is a strange mix of the bewildering and the familiar. Yiddish is spoken more often than English on the streets, and there are so many Jewish-owned and operated establishments that one may go the entire day without being misunderstood. But the noise and traffic are a far change from life in the Russian shtetl. Nearly 600,000 Jews live in New York City, the vast majority of them in the Lower East Side. With more than 700 people per square acre, the Lower East Side’s Tenth Ward is the most crowded neighborhood on earth.
By and large, the Eastern European Jews of the Lower East Side have come to America to escape persecution. In the Russian Empire, anti-Semitic laws and waves of mob violence (called pogroms) have made life dangerous and near-intolerable. The Lower East Side may be crowded, unsanitary, and poverty-stricken, but here people may do as they like, and earn an honest living. To adjust to their new lives, recent immigrants find others from the same city or village and form mutual-aid societies called landsmanschaften. These societies provide their members with advice, news from home, insurance, and even cemetery plots.
The garment industry is the engine that drives the Lower East Side. Thousands of men, women, and children work dawn to dusk in the tenement sweatshops, earning pennies for every piece of clothing they make. The sweatshops are tiny, dim, and stifling. Other workers turn to pushcart peddling instead. More than 25,000 pushcarts fill the streets of the Lower East Side, their proprietors hawking anything and everything, from cabbages to suspenders to door-hinges.
The times may be hard, but life here is not without its joys. Jewish culture thrives in the Lower East Side. The much-beloved Yiddish theater—banned in the Russian Empire—is booming, with more than a thousand productions per year. Newsstands are lined with Yiddish newspapers such as the Forverts (Forward). At night, young men and women flock to the many local dance-halls for socializing and romance. Hundreds of synagogues dot the neighborhood, often as many as six per block. Some are soaring, beautiful structures, such as the Eldridge Street Synagogue; others are tiny storefront congregations, with barely enough room to unwrap a Torah scroll.