Read CHAPTER III. of The Children of the Poor , free online book, by Jacob A. Riis, on


If the sightseer finds less to engage his interest in Jewtown than in the Bend, outside of the clamoring crowds in the Chasir the Pig-market he will discover enough to enlist his sympathies, provided he did not leave them behind when he crossed the Bowery. The loss is his own then. There is that in the desolation of child-life in those teeming hives to make the shrivelled heart ache with compassion for its kind and throb with a new life of pain, enough to dispel some prejudices that are as old as our faith, and sometimes, I fear, a good deal stronger. The Russian exile adds to the offence of being an alien and a disturber of economic balances the worse one of being a Jew. Let those who cannot forgive this damaging fact possess their souls in patience. There is some evidence that the welcome he has received in those East Side tenements has done more than centuries of persecution could toward making him forget it himself.

The Italian who comes here gravitates naturally to the oldest and most dilapidated tenements in search of cheap rents, which he doesn’t find. The Jew has another plan, characteristic of the man. He seeks out the biggest ones and makes the rent come within his means by taking in boarders, “sweating” his flat to the point of police intervention. That that point is a long way beyond human decency, let alone comfort, an instance from Ludlow Street, that came to my notice while writing this, quite clearly demonstrates. The offender was a tailor, who lived with his wife, two children, and two boarders in two rooms on the top floor. [It is always the top floor; in fifteen years of active service as a police reporter I have had to climb to the top floor five times for every one my business was further down, irrespective of where the tenement was or what kind of people lived in it. Crime, suicide, and police business generally seem to bear the same relation to the stairs in a tenement that they bear to poverty itself. The more stairs the more trouble. The deepest poverty is at home in the attic.] But this tailor; with his immediate household, including the boarders, he occupied the larger of the two rooms. The other, a bedroom eight feet square, he sublet to a second tailor and his wife; which couple, following his example as their opportunities allowed, divided the bedroom in two by hanging a curtain in the middle, took one-half for themselves and let the other half to still another tailor with a wife and child. A midnight inspection by the sanitary police was followed by the arrest of the housekeeper and the original tailor, and they were fined or warned in the police-court, I forget which. It doesn’t much matter. That the real point was missed was shown by the appearance of the owner of the house, a woman, at Sanitary Headquarters, on the day following, with the charge against the policeman that he was robbing her of her tenants.

The story of inhuman packing of human swarms, of bitter poverty, of landlord greed, of sweater slavery, of darkness and squalor and misery, which these tenements have to tell, is equalled, I suppose, nowhere in a civilized land. Despite the prevalence of the boarder, who is usually a married man, come over alone the better to be able to prepare the way for the family, the census shows that fifty-four per cent. of the entire population of immigrant Jews were children, or under age. Every steamer has added to their number since, and judging from the sights one sees daily in the office of the United Hebrew Charities, and from the general appearance of Ludlow Street, the proportion of children has suffered no decrease. Let the reader who would know for himself what they are like, and what their chances are, take that street some evening from Hester Street down and observe what he sees going on there. Not that it is the only place where he can find them. The census I spoke of embraced forty-five streets in the Seventh, Tenth, and Thirteenth Wards. But at that end of Ludlow Street the tenements are taller and the crowds always denser than anywhere else. Let him watch the little pedlars hawking their shoe-strings, their matches, and their penny paper-pads, with the restless energy that seems so strangely out of proportion to the reward it reaps; the half-grown children staggering under heavy bundles of clothes from the sweater’s shop; the ragamuffins at their fretful play, play yet, discouraged though it be by the nasty surroundings thank goodness, every year brings its Passover with the scrubbing brigade to Ludlow Street, and the dirt is shifted from the houses to the streets once anyhow; if it does find its way back, something may be lost on the way the crowding, the pushing for elbow-room, the wails of bruised babies that keep falling down-stairs, or rolling off the stoop, and the raids of angry mothers swooping down upon their offspring and distributing thumps right and left to pay for the bruises, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Whose eye, whose tooth, is of less account in Jewtown than that the capital put out bears lawful interest in kind. What kind of interest may society some day expect to reap from Ghettos like these, where even the sunny temper of childhood is soured by want and woe, or smothered in filth? It is a long time since I have heard a good honest laugh, a child’s gleeful shout, in Ludlow Street. Angry cries, jeers, enough. They are as much part of the place as the dirty pavements; but joyous, honest laughs, like soap and water, are at a premium there.

But children laugh because they are happy. They are not happy in Ludlow Street. Nobody is except the landlord. Why should they be? Born to toil and trouble, they claim their heritage early and part with it late. There is even less time than there is room for play in Jewtown, good reason why the quality of the play is poor. There is work for the weakest hands, a step for the smallest feet in the vast tread-mill of these East Side homes. A thing is worth there what it will bring. All other considerations, ambitions, desires, yield to that. Education pays as an investment, and therefore the child is sent to school. The moment his immediate value as a worker overbalances the gain in prospect by keeping him at his books, he goes to the shop. The testimony of Jewish observers, who have had quite unusual opportunities for judging, is that the average age at which these children leave school for good is rather below twelve than beyond it, by which time their work at home, helping their parents, has qualified them to earn wages that will more than pay for their keep. They are certainly on the safe side in their reckoning, if the children are not. The legal age for shop employment is fourteen. On my visits among the homes, workshops, and evening schools of Jewtown, I was always struck by the number of diminutive wage-earners who were invariably “just fourteen.” It was clearly not the child which the tenement had dwarfed in their case, but the memory or the moral sense of the parents.

If, indeed, the shop were an exchange for the home; if the child quit the one upon entering the other, there might be little objection to make; but too often they are two names for the same thing; where they are not, the shop is probably preferable, bad as that may be. When, in the midnight hour, the noise of the sewing-machine was stilled at last, I have gone the rounds of Ludlow and Hester and Essex Streets among the poorest of the Russian Jews, with the sanitary police, and counted often four, five, and even six of the little ones in a single bed, sometimes a shake-down on the hard floor, often a pile of half-finished clothing brought home from the sweater, in the stuffy rooms of their tenements. In one I visited very lately, the only bed was occupied by the entire family lying lengthwise and crosswise, literally in layers, three children at the feet, all except a boy of ten or twelve, for whom there was no room. He slept with his clothes on to keep him warm, in a pile of rags just inside the door. It seemed to me impossible that families of children could be raised at all in such dens as I had my daily and nightly walks in. And yet the vital statistics and all close observation agree in allotting to these Jews even an unusual degree of good health. The records of the Sanitary Bureau show that while the Italians have the highest death-rate, the mortality in the lower part of the Tenth Ward, of which Ludlow Street is the heart and type, is the lowest in the city. Even the baby death-rate is very low. But for the fact that the ravages of diphtheria, croup, and measles run up the record in the houses occupied entirely by tailors in other words, in the sweater district, where contagion always runs riot the Tenth Ward would seem to be the healthiest spot in the city, as well as the dirtiest and the most crowded. The temperate habits of the Jew and his freedom from enfeebling vices generally must account for this, along with his marvellous vitality. I cannot now recall ever having known a Jewish drunkard. On the other hand, I have never come across a Prohibitionist among them. The absence of the one renders the other superfluous.

It was only last winter I had occasion to visit repeatedly a double tenement at the lower end of Ludlow Street, which the police census showed to contain 297 tenants, 45 of whom were under five years of age, not counting 3 pedlars who slept in the mouldy cellar, where the water was ankle deep on the mud floor. The feeblest ray of daylight never found its way down there, the hatches having been carefully covered with rags and matting; but freshets often did. Sometimes the water rose to the height of a foot, and never quite soaked away in the dryest season. It was an awful place, and by the light of my candle the three, with their unkempt beards and hair and sallow faces, looked more like hideous ghosts than living men. Yet they had slept there among and upon decaying fruit and wreckage of all sorts from the tenement for over three years, according to their own and the housekeeper’s statements. There had been four. One was then in the hospital, but not because of any ill effect the cellar had had upon him. He had been run over in the street and was making the most of his vacation, charging it up to the owner of the wagon, whom he was getting ready to sue for breaking his leg. Up-stairs, especially in the rear tenement, I found the scene from the cellar repeated with variations. In one room a family of seven, including the oldest daughter, a young woman of eighteen, and her brother, a year older than she, slept in a common bed made on the floor of the kitchen, and manifested scarcely any concern at our appearance. A complaint to the Board of Health resulted in an overhauling that showed the tenement to be unusually bad even for that bad spot; but when we came to look up its record, from the standpoint of the vital statistics, we discovered that not only had there not been a single death in the house during the whole year, but on the third floor lived a woman over a hundred years old, who had been there a long time. I was never more surprised in my life, and while we laughed at it, I confess it came nearer to upsetting my faith in the value of statistics than anything I had seen till then. And yet I had met with similar experiences, if not quite so striking, often enough to convince me that poverty and want beget their own power to resist the evil influences of their worst surroundings. I was at a loss how to put this plainly to the good people who often asked wonderingly why the children of the poor one saw in the street seemed generally such a thriving lot, until a slip of Mrs. Partington’s discriminating tongue did it for me: “Manured to the soil.” That is it. In so far as it does not merely seem so one does not see the sick and suffering that puts it right.

Whatever the effect upon the physical health of the children, it cannot be otherwise, of course, than that such conditions should corrupt their morals. I have the authority of a distinguished rabbi, whose field and daily walk are among the poorest of his people, to support me in the statement that the moral tone of the young girls is distinctly lower than it was. The entire absence of privacy in their homes and the foul contact of the sweaters’ shops, where men and women work side by side from morning till night, scarcely half clad in the hot summer weather, does for the girls what the street completes in the boy. But for the patriarchal family life of the Jew that is his strongest virtue, their ruin would long since have been complete. It is that which pilots him safely through shoals upon which the Gentile would have been inevitably wrecked. It is that which keeps the almshouse from casting its shadow over Ludlow Street to add to its gloom. It is the one quality which redeems, and on the Sabbath eve when he gathers his household about his board, scant though the fare be, dignifies the darkest slum of Jewtown.

How strong is this attachment to home and kindred that makes the Jew cling to the humblest hearth and gather his children and his children’s children about it, though grinding poverty leave them only a bare crust to share, I saw in the case of little Jette Brodsky, who strayed away from her own door, looking for her papa. They were strangers and ignorant and poor, so that weeks went by before they could make their loss known and get a hearing, and meanwhile Jette, who had been picked up and taken to Police Headquarters, had been hidden away in an asylum, given another name when nobody came to claim her, and had been quite forgotten. But in the two years that passed before she was found at last, her empty chair stood ever by her father’s, at the family board, and no Sabbath eve but heard his prayer for the restoration of their lost one. It happened once that I came in on a Friday evening at the breaking of bread, just as the four candles upon the table had been lit with the Sabbath blessing upon the home and all it sheltered. Their light fell on little else than empty plates and anxious faces; but in the patriarchal host who arose and bade the guest welcome with a dignity a king might have envied I recognized with difficulty the humble pedlar I had known only from the street and from the police office, where he hardly ventured beyond the door.

But the tenement that has power to turn purest gold to dross digs a pit for the Jew even through this virtue that has been his shield against its power for evil. In its atmosphere it turns too often to a curse by helping to crowd his lodgings, already overflowing, beyond the point of official forbearance. Then follow orders to “reduce” the number of tenants that mean increased rent, which the family cannot pay, or the breaking up of the home. An appeal to avert such a calamity came to the Board of Health recently from one of the refugee tenements. The tenant was a man with a houseful of children, too full for the official scale as applied to the flat, and his plea was backed by the influence of his only friend in need the family undertaker. There was something so cruelly suggestive in the idea that the laugh it raised died without an echo.

The census of the sweaters’ district gave a total of 23,405 children under six years, and 21,285 between six and fourteen, in a population of something over a hundred and eleven thousand Russian, Polish, and Roumanian Jews in the three wards mentioned; 15,567 are set down as “children over fourteen.” According to the record, scarce one-third of the heads of families had become naturalized citizens, though the average of their stay in the United States was between nine and ten years. The very language of our country was to them a strange tongue, understood and spoken by only 15,837 of the fifty thousand and odd adults enumerated. Seven thousand of the rest spoke only German, five thousand Russian, and over twenty-one thousand, could only make themselves understood to each other, never to the world around them, in the strange jargon that passes for Hebrew on the East Side, but is really a mixture of a dozen known dialects and tongues and of some that were never known or heard anywhere else. In the census it is down as just what it is jargon, and nothing else.

Here, then, are conditions as unfavorable to the satisfactory, even safe, development of child life in the chief American city as could well be imagined; more unfavorable even than with the Bohemians, who have at least their faith in common with us, if safety lies in the merging through the rising generation of the discordant elements into a common harmony. A community set apart, set sharply against the rest in every clashing interest, social and industrial; foreign in language, in faith, and in tradition; repaying dislike with distrust; expanding under the new relief from oppression in the unpopular qualities of greed and contentiousness fostered by ages of tyranny unresistingly borne. Clearly, if ever there was need of moulding any material for the citizenship that awaits it, it is with this; and if ever trouble might be expected to beset the effort, it might be looked for here. But it is not so. The record shows that of the sixty thousand children, including the fifteen thousand young men and women over fourteen who earn a large share of the money that pays for rent and food, and the twenty-three thousand toddlers under six years, fully one-third go to school. Deducting the two extremes, little more than a thousand children of between six and fourteen years, that is, of school age, were put down as receiving no instruction at the time the census was taken; but it is not at all likely that this condition was permanent in the case of the greater number of these. The poorest Hebrew knows the poorer he is, the better he knows it that knowledge is power, and power as the means of getting on in the world that has spurned him so long is what his soul yearns for. He lets no opportunity slip to obtain it. Day and night schools are crowded by his children, who are everywhere forging ahead of their Christian school-fellows, taking more than their share of prizes and promotions. Every synagogue, every second rear tenement or dark back yard, has its school and its school-master with his scourge to intercept those who might otherwise escape. In the census there are put down 251 Jewish teachers as living in these tenements, a large number of whom conduct such schools, so that, as the children form always more than one-half of the population in the Jewish quarter, the evidence is after all that even here, with the tremendous inpour of a destitute, ignorant people, and with the undoubted employment of child labor on a large scale, the cause of progress along the safe line is holding its own.

It is true that these tenement schools that absorb several thousand children are not what they might be from a sanitary point of view. It is also true that heretofore nothing but Hebrew and the Talmud have been taught there. But to the one evil the health authorities have recently been aroused; of the other, the wise and patriotic men who are managing the Baron de Hirsch charity are making a useful handle by gathering the teachers in and setting them to learn English. Their new knowledge will soon be reflected in their teaching, and the Hebrew schools become primary classes in the system of public education. The school in a Hester Street tenement that is shown in the picture is a fair specimen of its kind by no means one of the worst and so is the back yard behind it, that serves as the children’s play-ground, with its dirty mud-puddles, its slop-barrels and broken flags, and its foul tenement-house surroundings. Both fall in well with the home-lives and environment of the unhappy little wretches whose daily horizon they limit. They get there the first instruction they receive in the only tongues with which the teachers are familiar, Hebrew and the Jargon, in the only studies which they are competent to teach, the Talmud and the Prophets. Until they are six years old they are under the “Melammed’s” rod all day; after that only in the interval between public school and supper. It is practically the only religious instruction the poorest Jewish children receive, but it is claimed by some of their rabbis that they had better have none at all. The daily transition, they say, from the bright and, by comparison, aesthetically beautiful public school-room to these dark and inhospitable dens, with which the faith that has brought so many miseries upon their race comes to be inseparably associated in the child’s mind as he grows up, tends to reflections that breed indifference, if not infidelity, in the young. It would not be strange if this were so. If the schools, through this process, also help pave the way for the acceptance of the Messiah heretofore rejected, which I greatly doubt, it may be said to be the only instance in which the East Side tenement has done its tenants a good Christian turn.

There is no more remarkable class in any school than that of these Melammedim, that may be seen in session any week day forenoon, save on Saturday, of course, in the Hebrew Institute in East Broadway. Old bearded men struggling through the intricacies of the first reader, “a cow, a cat,” and all the rest of childish learning, with a rapt attention and a concentration of energy as if they were devoting themselves to the most heroic of tasks, which, indeed, they are, for the good that may come of it cannot easily be overestimated. As an educational measure it may be said to be getting down to first principles with a vengeance. When the reader has been mastered, brief courses in the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution follow. The test of proficiency in the pupil is his ability to translate the books of the Old Testament, with which he is familiar, of course, from Hebrew into English, and vice versa. The Melammed is rarely a dull scholar. No one knows better than he, to whom it has come only in the evening of his hard life, the value of the boon that is offered him. One of the odd group that was deep in the lesson of the day had five children at home, whom he had struggled to bring up on an income of ten dollars a week. The oldest, a bright boy who had graduated with honor, despite the patch on his trousers, from the public school, was ambitious to go to college, and the father had saved and pinched in a thousand ways to gratify his desire. One of the managers of the Institute who knew how the family were starving on half rations, had offered the father, a short time before, to get the boy employment in a store at three dollars a week. It was a tremendous temptation, for the money was badly needed at home. But the old man put it resolutely away from him. “No,” he said, “I must send him to college. He shall have the chance that was denied his father.” And he was as good as his word. And so was the lad, a worthy son of a worthy father. When I met him he had already proved himself a long way the best student in his class.

In other class-rooms in the great building, which is devoted entirely to the cause of Americanizing the young Russian immigrants, hundreds of children get daily their first lessons in English and in patriotism in simultaneous doses. The two are inseparable in the beneficent plan of their instructors. Their effort is to lay hold of the children of the new-comers at once; tender years are no barrier. For the toddlers there are kindergarten classes, with play the street has had no chance to soil. And while playing they learn to speak the strange new tongue and to love the pretty flag with the stars that is everywhere in sight. The night school gathers in as many as can be corralled of those who are big enough, if not old enough, to work. The ease and rapidity with which they learn is equalled only by their good behavior and close attention while in school. There is no whispering and no rioting at these desks, no trial of strength with the teacher, as in the Italian ragged schools, where the question who is boss has always to be settled before the business of the school can proceed. These children come to learn. Even from the Christian schools in the district that gather in their share comes the same testimony. All the disturbance they report was made by their elders, outside the school, in the street. In the Hebrew Institute the average of absence for all causes was, during the first year, less than eight per cent. of the registered attendance, and in nearly every case sickness furnished a valid excuse. In a year and a half the principal had only been called upon three times to reprove an obstreperous pupil, in a total of 1,500. While I was visiting one of the day classes a little girl who had come from Moscow only two months before presented herself with her green vaccination card from the steamer. She understood already perfectly the questions put to her and was able to answer most of them in English. Boys of eight and nine years who had come over as many months before, knowing only the jargon of their native village, read to me whole pages from the reader with almost perfect accent, and did sums on the blackboard that would have done credit to the average boy of twelve in our public schools. Figuring is always their strong point. They would not be Jews if it was not.

In the evening classes the girls of “fourteen” flourished, as everywhere in Jewtown. There were many who were much older, and some who were a long way yet from that safe goal. One sober-faced little girl, who wore a medal for faithful attendance and who could not have been much over ten, if as old as that, said that she “went out dressmaking” and so helped her mother. Another, who was even smaller and had been here just three weeks, yet understood what was said to her, explained in broken German that she was learning to work at “Blumen” in a Grand Street shop, and would soon be able to earn wages that would help support the family of four children, of whom she was the oldest. The girl who sat in the seat with her was from a Hester Street tenement. Her clothes showed that she was very poor. She read very fluently on demand a story about a big dog that tried to run away, or something, “when he had a chance.” When she came to translate what she had read into German, which many of the Russian children understand, she got along until she reached the word “chance.” There she stopped, bewildered. It was the one idea of which her brief life had no embodiment, the thing it had altogether missed.

The Declaration of Independence half the children knew by heart before they had gone over it twice. To help them along it is printed in the school-books with a Hebrew translation and another in Jargon, a “Jewish-German,” in parallel columns and the explanatory notes in Hebrew. The Constitution of the United States is treated in the same manner, but it is too hard, or too wearisome, for the children. They “hate” it, says the teacher, while the Declaration of Independence takes their fancy at sight. They understand it in their own practical way, and the spirit of the immortal document suffers no loss from the annotations of Ludlow Street, if its dignity is sometimes slightly rumpled.

“When,” said the teacher to one of the pupils, a little working-girl from an Essex Street sweater’s shop, “the Americans could no longer put up with the abuse of the English who governed the colonies, what occurred then?”

“A strike!” responded the girl, promptly. She had found it here on coming and evidently thought it a national institution upon which the whole scheme of our government was founded.

A declaration by the representatives
of the united states of America, in
Congress assembled.

English. Hebrew.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the]

It was curious to find the low voices of the children, particularly the girls, an impediment to instruction in this school. They could sometimes hardly be heard for the noise in the street, when the heat made it necessary to have the windows open. But shrillness is not characteristic even of the Pig-market when it is noisiest and most crowded. Some of the children had sweet singing voices. One especially, a boy with straight red hair and a freckled face, chanted in a plaintive minor key the One Hundred and Thirtieth Psalm, “Out of the depths” etc., and the harsh gutturals of the Hebrew became sweet harmony until the sad strain brought tears to our eyes.

The dirt of Ludlow Street is all-pervading and the children do not escape it. Rather, it seems to have a special affinity for them, or they for the dirt. The duty of imparting the fundamental lesson of cleanliness devolves upon a special school officer, a matron, who makes the round of the classes every morning with her alphabet: a cake of soap, a sponge, and a pitcher of water, and picks out those who need to be washed. One little fellow expressed his disapproval of this programme in the first English composition he wrote, as follows:


Indians do not want to wash because they like not water. I wish I was a

Despite this hint, the lesson is enforced upon the children, but there is no evidence that it bears fruit in their homes to any noticeable extent, as is the case with the Italians I spoke of. The homes are too hopeless, the grind too unceasing. The managers know it and have little hope of the older immigrants. It is toward getting hold of their children that they bend every effort, and with a success that shows how easily these children can be moulded for good or for bad. Nor do they let go their grasp of them until the job is finished. The United Hebrew Charities maintain trade-schools for those who show aptness for such work, and a very creditable showing they make. The public school receives all those who graduate from what might be called the American primary in East Broadway.

The smoky torches on many hucksters’ carts threw their uncertain yellow light over Hester Street as I watched the children troop homeward from school one night. Eight little pedlers hawking their wares had stopped under the lamp on the corner to bargain with each other for want of cash customers. They were engaged in a desperate but vain attempt to cheat one of their number who was deaf and dumb. I bought a quire of note-paper of the mute for a cent and instantly the whole crew beset me in a fierce rivalry, to which I put a hasty end by buying out the little mute’s poor stock ten cents covered it all and after he had counted out the quires, gave it back to him. At this act of unheard-of generosity the seven, who had remained to witness the transfer, stood speechless. As I went my way, with a sudden common impulse they kissed their hands at me, all rivalry forgotten in their admiration, and kept kissing, bowing, and salaaming until I was out of sight. “Not bad children,” I mused as I went along, “good stuff in them, whatever their faults.” I thought of the poor boy’s stock, of the cheapness of it, and then it occurred to me that he had charged me just twice as much for the paper I gave him back as for the penny quire I bought. But when I went back to give him a piece of my mind the boys were gone.