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date: 29 November 2023

The Jewish Working Class in Americalocked

The Jewish Working Class in Americalocked

  • Daniel WalkowitzDaniel WalkowitzNew York University


Between 1881 and 1924, when federal immigration restrictions were introduced, two and half million Jews from East Europe entered the United States. Approximately half of them settled in New York City where they soon comprised the largest Jewish settlement in the world. The Lower East Side, where families crowded into tenements, became the densest place on the globe. Possessing few skills, Jewish immigrants took jobs with which they had some prior familiarity as peddlers and as workers in the burgeoning garment and textile industries. With the rise of clothing as a mass consumer good, the garment industry emerged as the leading industrial sector in the city. Jewish workers predominated in it. But conditions of sweated labor in shops and factories propelled worker protest. A Jewish labor movement sprung up, energized by the arrival of socialist radicals in the labor Bund. Women workers played a major role in organizing the Jewish working class, spearheading a series of major strikes between 1909 and 1911. These women also staged “meat riots” over inflated beef prices in 1902 and “rent wars” in the early 1930s. To be sure, garment work and the labor movement also shaped the experience of Jewish immigrants in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Jews notably worked in other apparel industries, but the alternative for many (especially in small cities without a garment industry) was peddling and shopkeeping. Self-employed, but situated within and integrated in the working-class community, both sectors reflected the nontraditional nature of the Jewish working class. Jewish peddlers and petty shopkeepers increasingly morphed in a second generation into a middle class in higher status white-collar work. But despite this mobility, Yiddishkeit, a vibrant Jewish working-class culture of Jewish proletarian theater, folk choruses, journalism, education, housing, and recreation, which was particularly nourished by Bundists, flourished and carried a rich legacy forward in the postwar era.


  • Cultural History
  • Religious History

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