From the American Scene: Culture on Rutgers Square
Here Mr. Blumenson turns his attention to some exotic and luxuriant manifestations of the American Jewish “Kultur” of a bygone era.
What St. Stephen’s Plate was to Vienna, Rutgers Square was to New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. A one-block triangle situated at the junction of East Broadway, Canal, and Division Streets, it formed a kind of dividing line among the Jewish newcomers, after they had crowded out the earlier Irish and German immigrants. South of East Broadway, towards the East River, from Catherine Street on the west to Jackson Street on the east, in hundred-year-old dilapidated tenements, lived the immigrants from western Russia, the Pale—mostly Lithuanian Jews, “Litvaks.” North of East Broadway, as far as Houston Street, from the Bowery on the west to Mangin Street on the east, in rectangular, narrow, cobblestoned streets, in even more dilapidated tenements, there settled the immigrants from Poland, Galicia—the “Galitzianer”—Bessarabia, Bukovina, and a scattering of Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Greece.
During the day Rutgers Square was a quiet business district, but with the coming of darkness it erupted “Kultur” like an active volcano: religion and atheism, free love and vegetarianism, politics and ideologies. But in peace. The presence of our neighbor, Thomas Mulvany, and the “billy” in his belt, gave kapuler untzuherenes (tactful hints) that culture would not be disturbed.
The Square could not match Vienna’s Café de la Europa, but there was a café where coffee and Vienna rolls and butter were sold for three cents. Vienna’s famous Hoher Market, a stone’s throw from St. Stephen’s Plate, was duplicated by the peddlers and hucksters on Essex and Hester Streets, which was generally called “Chazer Mark”-“Pig Market”—though no pig ever added to its filth; the language in “Chazer Mark” was as abusive, picturesque, and expressive as that of the Hoher Market. Instead of the café Zum Columbus, situated near the site where Marcus Aurelius lived and wrote, there was a café called Zum Essex on Essex Street, and instead of the shrine to the Virgin, with its ornate trimmings and little cherubim, there stood the Schiff Fountain right opposite Essex Street. Grand Street, two blocks north, with the city’s two largest department stores, Ridley’s and Lord and Taylor’s, was to Rutgers Square what the Graben was to St. Stephen’s Plate. The East River took the place of the Danube Canal. The slums and four- and five-story rickety tenements in the streets radiating from Rutgers Square could well compare with the Judengassen opening on Hoher Plate and with other parts of the Innerstadt.
The same poverty that existed among the denizens of the Judengassen was duplicated on the East Side. And the same social strata among the poor. For, when a people has lived in poverty for centuries, degrees in poverty develop, even as yichus among the wealthy, the rich, the well-to-do, and the comfortable. Among the poor on the East Side there were four degrees: the oriman—the poor man; the kabtzen—the poverty—stricken (these first two categories made up the respectable poor); the dolfin—the pauper; and the evyon—the destitute. These divisions are very ancient with the Jews. Does not the Psalmist say: Mekimi me-ofor dot, me-ashpos yorim evyon (“He raiseth the pauper from the ground, the destitute from the dunghill”)?
On the south side of the Square were located the cultural and financial institutions and the press. At the east end, near Jefferson Street, were the offices and presses of the Yiddishes Tageblatt, representing the conservative sentiments of the community. It stood for Orthodoxy in religion, Americanism as is, and for teheres ha-mishpocha, sanctity of the family. This stand on teheres ha-mishpocha was an answer to the Brief-hasten, the letters-to-the-editor column of the younger Socialist Forverts, which printed some very spicy and intimate stories of family life. These letters boomed the circulation of the Forverts, the taste for spicy stories not being limited to radikalen only.
A little farther up the Square stood the green, iron-grilled “skyscraper” which housed the Jarmulowsky Bank, a name known in every town, village, and hamlet all over Central Europe. It was Jarmulowsky who provided the shiffskarten, the steamship tickets, to probably half the immigrants during the last two decades of the 19th century. There was Fischer’s bookstore, where books of all kinds, including technical tomes and penny Westerns, could be bought or rented. There were the offices of budding young attorneys, “counselors,” eight to ten to a room, all starving to death, and one or two stores which housed business brokers, real estate salesmen, and notaries public—the three somehow always together. (The real estate business consisted mainly of selling lots on the installment plan, most of them located under water on the north shore of Long Island.)
Around the corner from the Square, on Rutgers Street, opposite the Catholic church, were the offices of the Abendblatt, the Socialist daily of the De Leon faction, under the editorship of Louis Miller. Near by were the offices of the struggling young Forverts, the Socialist daily of the Debs faction, under the editorship of Abraham Cahan. Between the two was the Anarchist weekly, the Freie Arbeter Stimme, under the editorship of S. Yanofsky, newly arrived from London, England. Mr. Cahan feuded mortally with Mr. Miller, and Mr. Miller with Mr. Cahan, although until the cleavage in the Socialist Labor party they had been bosom friends. Mr. Yanofsky had no use for either of them, and the three, altogether, had no use for Mr. Kasriel H. Sarasohn, owner and publisher of the Tageblatt, and for his teheres ha-mishpocha.
The best business on the Square was done by Billy the Oysterman, who sold oysters on the half shell from a pushcart, right in front of the Vienna roll establishment. He was a member of the John F. Ahearn Tammany club, whose clubhouse was on East Broadway, near the R. H. Hoe and Company printing press factory. Of course, Billy offered no competition to the coffee and Vienna rolls, for no Jew in those days would even look at an oyster. Only one or two of the more courageous Anarchist youth, to spite God and the Rav Hakelol (Chief Rabbi), would indulge, and then be nauseated for days after. But what sacrifices doesn’t one have to make for a holy cause?
Thomas Mulvany, in the uniform of New York’s finest, symbolized different things to the different exponents of different causes. To Mr. Dunlop, a crippled religious fanatic—who considered himself a second apostle to the Jews, and who came down nightly in an ambulance-like vehicle and exhorted the Jews from a wheel chair to abjure their mistaken ways and accept the true faith—Thomas Mulvany stood for security. Although Dunlop was not heckled or attacked as was the professional apostate Warsheviak and his few professional converts, he was argued with and often had to leave the Square with his sermon unfinished.
Warsheviak, who was financed by some well-meaning old ladies, had a mission in a store near the Square. No one ever came to listen to him unless he paid for the attendance. Twice a week he erected a bima on the Square, near the Schiff Fountain; in his attempts to preach, he was pelted with overripe tomatoes and pineapples, of which there was no scarcity, Hester Street being near by. To him Mulvany provided a safe escort back to his store, where the windows were always boarded up, since no glass could last more than an hour.
From the corner of Jefferson Street came the blaring sound of trumpets, and the thumping and tinkle of tambourines, and the sweet voices of women, young and old, dressed in the blue bonnets with the red band of the Salvation Army. From the opposite corner came the competing voices of the Volunteers. And then there were the nightly orators of the two feuding factions of the Socialist party, venting their spleen, respectively, against Louis Miller and Abraham Cahan, and ending with recriminations against the orating genossen. Sometimes this led to fist fights, but Mulvany easily broke them up and sent the disputants on their way.
And above all this turbulence came the strident voice of Emma Goldman, preaching in a crescendo against everything and everybody and excoriating the innocent Mulvany as the representative of capitalist oppression. What most people didn’t know was that despite his usual grin at everything Emma said, Mulvany had a fair knowledge of Yiddish, and understood most of Emma’s references to the American “gendarmes” and “cossacks.” It was one of the reasons for his being assigned to the Square. To Mulvany, Emma’s violent rhetoric was nothing new. He had heard similar ranting against the English police by Irish orators in Ireland. As Mulvany put it: “While I am no aginster, I am not agin’ any one who is an aginster, so long as they don’t break the peace.”
And totally oblivious to all this din and noise and contention, there stood, and still stands, on the southeast corner of East Broadway and Jefferson Street, overlooking the Square, the four-story building of the Educational Alliance with its iron picket fence and its large assembly hall. It also housed the People’s Synagogue, library, meeting rooms, roof garden, and many other activities. Established for our good by our German Jewish brethren, it was the entrance hall to America for all the newly arrived, and the door through which thousands found their way to the culture and opportunities of the new land.
If the night remained clear, the peaceful meetings would last until midnight, and then small groups would continue to argue for hours longer. If the skies clouded up and a sudden downpour caught the disputants and listeners, most would adjourn to the café Zum Essex (pronounced “Essig”) in a basement store on Essex Street near Canal, opposite what is today Seward Park, and continue the disputes, but in peace. Sigmund Manilescu, a dignified Rumanian Jew, the owner, the cook, the Herr Direktor and Herr Oberst (over two kellner),tolerated no noisy arguments. He had nothing but contempt for these Litvaks who were always bickering and could never agree. Sigmund was himself an ardent follower of the Goldfaden school of stage craft, and never missed a performance of Shulamith and the Tzvei Kunye Lemels. He was a patriot (fan) of Bessie Tomashevsky and of Sigmund Mogelewski, the great Yiddish comedian. But politics—who was he, Charlie Adler or Alma Gluck’s husband? Barney the Alderman? He had enough tzores without politics.
The Zum Essex was famous for its lavish cuisine. Sigmund served a five-course dinner (supper) consisting of soup, meat, potato, stewed prunes, and all the pumpernickel one could eat, for the price of twelve cents. (To Litvaks he made a concession: he served herring and onion instead of soup.) In addition, any steady customer could come in any time for a free glass of seltzer. On Friday night, the Sabbath meal, he added generous portions of gefilte fish, with strong horseradish flavored with beet juice. Sigmund was as proud of his horse-radish as a French chef is of his special salad dressing. Sigmund did not allow the waiters to pass toothpicks at the end of a meal, the accepted East Side manner of soliciting a tip. His toothpicks stood on the table for any customer to help himself. The waiters were well taken care of—two dollars a week and meals, and a recommendation to weddings and banquets where they could pass not only toothpicks but also a saucer as a collection plate.
East Broadway was the boulevard of the East Side, and the gathering place for the serious-minded young men and young women in the. evenings. There the young couples went walking of evenings, male and female, as God created them, and not male and male, and female and female, as decorum demanded in the old country. In sibilant Lithuanian Yiddish, intermingled with the deep diphthongs of Polish Yiddish, and sometimes the sing-song inflections of the Hungarian, they discussed deep cultural realities and the evils confronting the world. And as if in deference to the “Anarchistlech” on the opposite side of the street, they frequently assassinated the King’s English, the Czar’s Russian, and the Kaiser’s Hochdeutsch.
After parading up and down the boulevard for hours, some would adjourn to Caufold’s Ice Cream Parlor on Clinton Street, where over a plate of chocolate and vanilla, served with two spoons, the discussions would assume a less profound but more intimate tone. Others would turn south on Rutgers Street and saunter down to little Rutgers Park, teeming with people, and seek futilely for a quiet nook in the darkness. Still others turned down Jackson Street and strolled down to the park at Corlears Hook, at the bend in the river, and sat and watched the red and amber ships’ lights float by in the gloom.
It is of this spirit of freedom and Kultur and romance that my cousin “Kolege” Beril, the “Yiddisher Heinrich Heine,” sang:
Geien mir shpatzieren in dem freien land
Mutig und freilech, hand in hand—
East Broadway, East Broadway, vu di liebe
Vu yeder Sadie iz a lady un yeder Sam a
Which, freely translated, means:
“We go strolling in this free land,
With courage and joy, hand in hand—
East Broadway, East Broadway, where love
Where every Sadie is a lady and every Sam
And so on, for thirty-nine more stanzas.
On the south side of East Broadway, a few doors away from the Educational Alliance, in a canopied building housing a ballroom for weddings and large meetings, and smaller meeting rooms on the upper floors, the Brotherly Beneficial and Kultur Society had its permanent club rooms. Its purpose was to help needy brothers in distress and to spread Kultur through lectures (pronounced “lektzyes”), discussions, and forlezungen (readings). During the business part of the meetings the members addressed each other with the title of bruder (brother); during political discussions as genosse (comrade); during cultural debate as kolege (colleague), with the hard “g.” It was considered an insult to be called bruder or genosse when engaged in cultural pursuits.
Among the members of the Kultur committee was my cousin, Kolege Beril, who was known in Kultur circles as the Yiddisher Heinrich Heine; he gained his fame by his masterpiece (already quoted), “East Broadway, East Broadway,” which ran to forty stanzas and a refrain (a forty-first was added after the death of the Rav Hakelol). It extolled the great virtues of this street of Kultur, although of course it could not compare with Henry Street in refinement. After all, Henry Street housed the established professionals, lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers, and two famous rabbunim (l’havdil).
My cousin, Kolege Beril, worked for a wholesale jobber of paper products on the East Side. All day long he tied up bundles of paper bags and made deliveries with a pushcart, mainly to peddlers on Hester and Essex Streets, and in his spare time composed his poems. He had no trouble in having the poems published, although he did not appear in the established press. The rumor was that the well-known Jewish poet, Morris Rosenfeld, who was also called the Yiddisher Heine, kept him out. But this was not true at all. The fact is that Rosenfeld always repudiated the title Yiddisher Heine. He contended that Heinrich Heine was the German Morris Rosenfeld.
Almost weekly some of the unemployed journalists on the East Side, and they were legion, got together and published a four-page weekly which never ran for more than one issue. They welcomed Kolege Beril’s poems, which usually ran to a full page, and in payment gave him the title of the Yiddisher Heine, probably to kibitz Rosenfeld. In addition to my cousin’s poems, these weeklies printed translations of spicy stories by Maupassant, some of Gorki’s shorter stories, an article on astronomy garbled from the encyclopedia, an attack on the editors of the established press, and the beginnings of two or three romantic novels, which were never concluded. (Did Prince Alexander of Jerusalem marry the daughter of the King of Nablus; or did the miracle-working Rabbi of Kotzk drive out the gilgul from the body of the yeshiva bocher?)
In the evening my cousin Kolege Beril dressed the part of the poet. His hair was long and unkempt. He wore a black slouch hat, a black three-quarter-length cape, a red wing tie, and eyeglasses, although there was nothing wrong with his eyesight. At times he attempted to raise a beard in the manner of Walt Whitman, but Selma, his boss’s daughter, who was his constant companion, didn’t like beards. Because of a discussion in the Kultur Committee, mostly provoked by our lantsman, Kolege Barnet Finkel the filozof, Beril later left the ranks of the Brotherly Beneficial and Kultur Society and joined their hated rivals the Pioneers of Liberty, the Anarchistlech on the north side of the block. Kolege Barnet Finkel, who was called the filozof, was the leading light in the Kultur Committee. He was a heavy thinker, having attended a German university for one year. When it came to lectures or readings, Kolege Barnet leaned towards the bottomless deeps of German profundity—Schopenhauer, Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare. (Having read some of Shakespeare in German, Kolege Barnet included him among German dramatists.)
Once a week, on Friday nights, there were popular lectures by members of the unemployed pool of lecturers. The persecutions in Russia had driven many writers, intellectuals, and students into exile, and some by way of Germany and Paris and London came to the East Side seeking employment. Among these were names like Feigenbaum, Zametkin, Winchefsky, Girzdansky, Kats, Selikovits, Philip Krants, Jacob Magidoff, Hermalin, Kobrin, Zevin, and later Chaim Zhitlovsky and many others who were to become well-known journalists and authors. Although most were radicals, they were compelled to accept work with the hated Tageblatt. They changed jobs quite often, so that they might be writing one week for the Forverts attacking Sarasohn, and the next week for the Tageblatt attacking Abraham Cahan.
Lectures on popular subjects within the ken of the membership and their friends did not satisfy Kolege Barnet, and he prevailed upon some of the young instructors at the Thomas Davidson School to lecture on more elevated matters. One of the instructors, studying for a doctorate in literature, spoke on the subjunctive in Shakespeare. The following week another read a paper on the gerund in the Aeneid. Then came a lecture on the umlaut in Goethe.
It was after the third lecture that my cousin, Kolege Beril, on being asked by the proud Kolege Barnet how he liked the lectures, became exasperated, and blurted out: “Tell me, Kolege Finkel, vos haken zei a cheinik; vos dreien zei a spodik?” (“What are they blathering about?”) Kolege Barnet was outraged and shocked at such a way of talking about three prospective Doktor Philosophen. So he said: “Bruder Beril, you were always an am haaretz [illiterate] and will remain an am haaretz until your dying day.” To be addressed “Bruder” instead of “Kolege” at a cultural affair was equivalent to a slap in the face. The next day, with the assent of Selma, Beril joined the Anarchistlech on the opposite side of the street.
Kolege Barnet Finkel was also referred to as the Yiddisher Spinoza, although he himself preferred the title of Yiddisher Ingersoll, the iconoclast. He was the enemy of Orthodoxy, and although his knowledge of Hebrew was limited to the five books of Moses, he labored hard to uncover errors in the Talmud. And he was famous with the “atheists” for uncovering such an error in the tractate Baba Kama, in the section Nezikin, which deals with the primary causes of damage and negligence.
The opening lines are: Arba (four) avos (primary causes) nezikin (of damage), hashor (the ox), ve-habor (the pit), ve-hamave (feeding, trespass), ve-hahever (fire). The word avos in Hebrew also means “fathers.” When the iconoclast Kolege Barnet began to spell out arba—four, avos—fathers, he went no further, for here was a glaring mistake in the Talmud. Everyone knows that there were only three fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And when you consider that the Talmud was about fifteen hundred years old, and no one had discovered the error, was it a wonder that Kolege Barnet was classed with Spinoza? His discovery was headlined in the Yiddish Emes (“Truth”), which appeared for one issue.
Kolege Barnet was now classed with Zalmen Hourevitch as a charif, a critical student. Zalmen, in his second term in English literature at the Davidson School, discovered that the Sufistic quatrains of Omar Khayyám were not composed by a Persian tippler but by a certain Persian Jew “by the name of Chayim (Persian: Khayyám). And Zalmen went on to explain that there is reason to believe that this Reb Chayim was a Karaite. The word sufi in Arabic means the same as sefer in Hebrew—book—implying that he lived by the written law and repudiated the oral law.
Of course, Zalmen, who was a fine Hebrew scholar, with a fair knowledge of Arabic, repudiated Kolege Barnet’s Talmudic discovery; in fact, he laughed at him. This am haaretz, this illiterate in a class with Zalmen Hourevitch of the Minsk Hourevitches! With Zalmen, the descendant of the great Talmudist Aaron ben Jacob Halevy Hourevitch and of the great Minsker Rov Joseph ben Loeb Hourevitch! Ai, America!
The third member of the Kultur committee was my second cousin, Kolege Lebel, the actor and artist. Lebel was an exponent of the Little Theater movement and directed a little-theater group made up of some of the members of the Society and their girl friends. He favored such plays as Der Yiddisher Kenig hear, Der Yiddisher Hamlet, Der Yiddisher Rober fun Schiller, Di Yiddishe Medea, Di Yiddishe Veber fun Hauptmann, Di Yiddishe Verzunkene Glocke, Got, Mensh un Teufel by Jacob Gordon, and most of all, The Bells by Emile Erckmann. Nice, light plays, as you can see. Lebel’s whole spare time was devoted to the theater. In fact, it was because of the theater that he was compelled to flee Russia.
Kolege Lebel, who came from the town of Schmilovits, really had an artistic background. His father and grandfather had been stone cutters, graving out Hebrew lettering on tombstones, and Lebel was also related to the famous artist Chaim Soutine who was born in Schmilovits about the time Lebel had to leave. It was in Schmilovits that he blossomed out as a director and actor. While on a visit to Minsk he had witnessed a performance of Akedos Yitzchak (“The Sacrifice of Isaac”) by the Minsk Yiddish Art Theater. On his return from Minsk he brought a copy of the play with him, and began to assemble a cast.
Immediately there was an outcry of “apikurses” (heresy), but after reading the play to the rabbi, Lebel received permission to proceed on condition that the part of Sarah, the only female part, be played by a male. After some rehearsals, the play was given in the synagogue, the bima serving as a stage. But as in all first performances, accidents will happen. Overhead in the ceiling was a trap door through which the bat kol (the Voice of the Lord) was to cry out “Abraham, Abraham,” to which call Abraham answered “hineni” (“here I am”). The trap door, rotted with age, gave way as the Voice of the Lord lay across it, and the bat kol came tumbling down on top of the bima, the players, and the ram which was to take the place of Isaac. The frightened ram broke away, jumped over the bima into the audience, made for the door, and disappeared.
But this was the least of Lebel’s troubles. Lebel, who played the part of King Abimelech, was dressed in the uniform of the local constable and carried his sword. The government representative, a St. Petersburg bureaucrat who had come to witness the performance and to see if it was subversive, was outraged. It was not permitted for a Jew to wear a uniform, except in the Czar’s army, and there was a stiff penalty for carrying a sword. So the government representative ordered the constable to recover his uniform and sword, and to take Lebel into custody. This would have blown over after the usual bribe, but Lebel at the time was dodging induction into the army. So with the help of twenty-five rubles paid to the constable, Lebel “broke” jail, hid out in an adjoining town, obtained a false passport, and left for Paris. From there he came to the East Side, where he immediately obtained work with a photographer on Division Street near East Broadway.
Lebel was also in great demand by many East Side radical organizations for staging “lebedige pikches,” dramatic clusters of living statues, at their annual balls, which were usually held in Valhalla Hall or Turn Hall on Broome Street. At all these joyous occasions half the space was occupied with the posturings of Kolege Lebel’s groups. In one corner five or six miners were dying of silicosis, and their wives and small children, faces full of talcum powder, were starving to death. Another group featured consumptive garment workers coughing away over their sewing machines, while a boss with an artificially bloated stomach stood over them with a whip. Lebel’s artistic groupings were greatly enjoyed by everyone and were praised in the radical press.
Lebel did well for himself. With the advent of the movies he became a camera man, was advanced to director and producer. He has long since retired to an estate in California, but among his orange and lemon and almond trees, and the patter and laughter of his grandchildren, Lebel, his mustache and tousled hair now white with age, still sports tan plaid trousers, a black velveteen coat, and a black beret with a red button on top. He is a noted collector of his cousin Chaim Soutine’s paintings. And every Purim his “stock company” of players, composed of his grandchildren and their friends, stages the play Akedos Yitzchak on his lawn. But he takes no chances: the Voice of the Lord comes from a small microphone.
While the Koleges on the south side of the street pursued their austere cultural and philosophical studies, their hated rivals, the Anarchistlech, the youthful members of the Pioneers of Freedom on the north side of the street, sought the truth loudly and uninhibitedly. Most of them were in their ‘teens, newly arrived from the small towns and villages of Russia and Galicia and Poland, where they had been compelled to follow small-town derech eretz (conventions) and the strict rules of Orthodoxy. Now they were behaving like young colts let out to pasture for the first time.
Their hate was directed not so much against the capitalistic order or established society as against the Chief Rabbi, Jacob Joseph, may he rest in peace. The Chief Rabbi had been born in the village of Krozhe, in the province of Kovno, and had attended the yeshivas of Volozhin and Eishishok, where he had been an outstanding student. After receiving his rabbinical diploma, he in time became rabbi of Kovno, and from there he went to Vilna. From this sphere of peace and quiet, where he was held in great respect, he was brought to the turbulent East Side to be chief rabbi of thousands of quarreling Orthodox Jews.
(Orthodoxy on the East Side was divided into two contending factions, each demanding the right to issue testimonials of kashrut to butchers, slaughterhouses, milk stores, delicatessen stores, and to grant plumbes, lead seals on the feet of slaughtered fowl. Of course, these were not issued gratis, and great sums of money were involved. The faction which had brought the Chief Rabbi over from Vilna declared the opposition testimonials to be fraudulent, and asserted all products not having the signature of the Chief Rabbi to be unclean. The opposition answered with a like decree, signed by three well-known East Side rabbis who did not recognize the Chief Rabbi, warning all Orthodox Jews against buying products without their signatures. This controversy ran on for years after the death of the Chief Rabbi, and was resolved only fifteen years ago in the New York Supreme Court.)
In addition to the Chief Rabbi, the Anarchistlech hated also Rabbi Adolph M. Radin, the father of Professors Max and Paul Radin, who was rabbi of the People’s Synagogue in the Educational Alliance, where he conducted services in the Reform ritual and gave weekly sermons Friday night, all in Hochdeutsch which the overflow audience did not understand; and the great orator Zvi Hirsh Masliansky, whose biting sarcasm and devastating ridicule in fine understandable Yiddish drove the Anarchistlech into a frenzy.
The Anarchistlech loved to sing and dance, and above all to have banquets. An institution had grown up among the radikalen on the East Side called vetcherinka. Vetcherinka is the diminutive for the Russian vetsera or vetchera, meaning evening meal. It became a custom in radikatle circles to welcome every arriving exile—and they came in boat loads—with a vetcherinka. The more prosperous held their vetcherinkas in the café Zum Essex, where it usually consisted of herring and pumpernickel, mamaliga, and tea. These celebrations were held after 8:30 PM, and Herr Direktor and Herr Oberst Sigmund Manilescu served it himself and charged nine cents a meal. Over glasses of fizzing seltzer they toasted the honored guest, drank toasts to world revolution, and sang revolutionary songs.
The Anarchistlech, however, to spite God and the Chief Rabbi, held their vetcherinkas in their clubrooms on the ground floor of a brownstone residence, a few doors from the Jefferson Club, the Republican stronghold. There they served ham sandwiches, smearing loads of sharp mustard to kill the taste, and tea with milk. This shocked and outraged the whole East Side, and the vetcherinkas became known as chazer parties.
But the Lord was with the Chief Rabbi. It came to pass that a very important exile, a theoretical anarchist from London, arrived on the East Side. The Tageblatt denounced him as a dangerous anarchist. Thereupon the Anarchistlech decided to honor the new arrival with a gala vetcherinka, and to stage a demonstration against the Tageblatt the night following. Man proposes and God disposes. The entertainment committee decided on a daring novelty. They dispensed with the usual sandwiches and decided to substitute something that would smite the Orthodox. Early on the morning of the vetcherinka they bought out Billy the Oysterman’s stock. But not having had any previous experience with mollusks, they left them without ice all day. After the festivities the honored guest and the courageous few who had really indulged were in Gouverneur Hospital having their stomachs pumped, and the rest of the membership were too busy the following day and evening to bother with Mr. Sarasohn and his Tageblatt. Our neighbor Mr. Mulvany, with the help of God, had a peaceful night.
Among the outstanding members of the Anarchistlech, besides my cousin Beril, there was also Sasha (Alexander) Berkman. The two were the leaders of the Johannes Most faction, believers in the “direct action” which Comrade Herr Most preached in his fiery German-language paper, the Freiheit, on which Berkman was employed as a typesetter. Johannes Most was the mortal enemy of a group of peaceful anarchists headed by another Austrian, Joseph Peukert, who had been a well-known socialist in Austria and whom Most accused of being a police agent, traitor, and spy.
Except to lecture on subjects like “Anarchistic strategy and tactics as preached by Malatesta and Ferrer, as related to the teachings of Mella and Lorengo and the various Spanish manifestos, considering the Anarcho-Communist teachings of Kropotkin as against the Christian-Anarcho teachings of Tolstoy” (in German it sounds better though a little longer), it was beneath the dignity of Comrade Herr Most, ex-deputy of the Austro-Hungarian parliament, to associate on equal terms with rabble like the comrades on East Broadway. The meeting place of the real intellectual comrades was on Norfolk Street, in Sachs’ Café. There the “cream” of the radíkalen gathered nightly, and over Mrs. Sachs’s fine coffee and famous cheese cake discussed the problems and philosophies of the day. Unlike the genossen in Herrick’s Café, there was no gesticulation or noisy argument. These were mannerly, gemuetliche intellectuals, exiles and martyrs of world revolution, graduates of many famous universities.
At one table would be Comrade Solataroff, well-known lecturer and exponent of world revolution. Beside him Comrade Kats, editor of Die Freie Gezelshaft, the Yiddish Anarchist weekly opposed to the policies of editor Yanofsky of the Freie Arbeter Stimme. At his side sat Comrade Peukert, Michael Cohen, and Dr. Hoffman, the latter two well-known fellow travelers.
At Comrade Yanofsky’s table sat the “Poet of Revolt,” Edelstadt, the “Yiddisher Francois Villon,” reciting his latest epic to a fascinated audience. There was “Grandpa” Netter, a bearded patriarch, a great Talmudist, who in his old age repudiated Orthodoxy and joined the Comrades. With him was his daughter, Chaverte (fem.: chaver—comrade) Netter, young and good-looking and devoted to the holy cause. At other tables were slummers, members of the English-language press looking for local color, and occasionally members of the Bomb Squad, in very evident disguise.
Now and then the great leader himself, the exiled ex-deputy, would swagger in, head erect, contemptuous of everyone and everything, with a worshiping young comradess on his arm. From there he would adjourn to Justus Schwab’s beer garden, where the host, Comrade Schwab, huge of body and booming of voice, served seidels of beer and platters of pretzels. There the Austrian and German comrades sang folk songs, college songs, and songs of revolution, while they guzzled the beer and munched the pretzels.
The world of these dreamers and frustrated revolutionaries would have remained calm and serene had it not been that a libidinous bundle of energy was suddenly catapulted into this peaceful puddle of muddled minds. The bundle of energy came from Rochester.
Comrade Chavelle (Eve-Emma) Goldman, being a new convert, emancipated herself from all binding conventions and assumed all the irresponsibilities of anarchism. She considered herself in great company, and her leader, Comrade Herr Most, she worshiped as a great hero. She was lavish with her attentions, so much so that the aging Herr Most became jealous of the youthful Chaver Berkman, called him an arrogant Jew and Gruenschnabel, and fired him from his job as typesetter. In retaliation, Berkman denounced Most as a braggart and a coward, who preached “action by deed,” but who was actually afraid to do anything. The result was Berkman’s attentat on the life of Frick, the details of which can be read in any textbook in American history.
It is quite possible that if a certain gentleman in Rochester, to whom Chaverte Chavelle had been married for a short while, had possessed a little more charm, there would have been no attempt on the life of Henry Clay Frick, Alexander Berkman would not have spent most of his life in prison, and the press would have been deprived of daily sensations provided by Chaverte Chavelle.
Wednesday, July 30, 1902, was a day of sorrow and mourning for the Jewish community of the East Side and of New York City, and a day of great anxiety to the Jews of the entire country. It was also an important day in the life of my cousin Beril.
The Chief Rabbi, Jacob Joseph, died in the early hours of Wednesday morning. When the news of the rabbi’s death reached the Jewish community of the East Side, most of the business houses, stores, and factories closed until after the funeral, and the synagogues began to fill up with mourners who recited psalms for the repose of the dead. In conformance with Orthodox custom, hurried funeral arrangements were made to inter the deceased before sundown of the day of his passing.
The city officials took cognizance of the passing of a Jewish dignitary, and flags were ordered lowered to half-mast over the City Hall and other public buildings. Mayor Seth Low delegated his secretary, Mr. James B. Reynolds, head worker of the University Settlement on Eldridge Street, to represent the city administration at the funeral. Orders were hurriedly given to the Chief of Police to make proper arrangements to handle the thousands expected to assemble on the route of the funeral.
When the funeral procession began to wend its slow and dignified way, making the rounds of the East Side synagogues, more than fifty thousand mourning people, according to police estimates, lined the narrow streets. The funeral passed in silence—only occasional sobs, and the jingling of the tz’doka (charity) boxes, and the cry of tz’doka tatzil mi moves (“charity saves from death”) could be heard.
The bier was. borne on the shoulders of the mourners in the old Orthodox manner, with halts every few steps to change pall bearers. The first synagogue in the line of march was the Beth Ha-midrash Ha-godol on Norfolk Street. Here the bier was carried inside the shul, where special prayers were recited and eulogies delivered. From the Beth Ha-midrash the cortege proceeded slowly to the Allen Street shul, from there to the Forsythe Street shul, to the Henry Street shul, near Catherine Street, and from there to the Kalavarier shul on Pike Street near East Broadway, where Cantor Cooper sang El Molei Rachamim and recited psalms from the steps of the shul. Here the bier was placed inside a hearse and proceeded slowly down Henry Street to Rutgers Street. It passed the Catholic church, where the priest stood in front of the open doors to do honor to a neighbor and a saintly man.
The hearse was followed by a minyan of orphans from the Henry Street Orphan Asylum, all reciting psalms, and behind them came numerous horse-drawn carriages carrying rabbis and other dignitaries. These, in turn, were followed by a long procession of men, women, and children of all ages. When it reached Rutgers Square the cortege turned east on East Broadway. This street was black with people, the police vainly trying to keep them on the sidewalk. The procession stopped momentarily in front of the Educational Alliance, and then proceeded eastward towards the Grand Street Ferry which would carry the rabbi across the river to Green-point and his final resting place.
Slowly the procession reached the small triangular “square” where Grand Street merges with East Broadway, and there, from inside the R. H. Hoe and Company printing-press factory, trouble started. Stones and rubbish, followed by steel nuts and bolts, began to rain down from inside the factory on the hearse and the assembled crowds.
After a moment of shocked amazement, and before the police had time to do anything, a rush was made for the factory, and soon young men, followed by bearded men and many women, old and young, were inside the Hoe offices. Desks were overturned in the rush to reach the inside of the plant, where workers were beaten and valuable machinery damaged. Finally the police, using their clubs indiscriminately, pushed the invaders out of the building, in an effort to restore order. The procession, after this interruption, resumed its slow march to the ferry.
For the night of the 30th of July, the Anarchisdech had arranged a chazer party to show the Orthodox what they thought of the Chief Rabbi. My cousin, Chaver Beril, when notified in the early morning, agreed to attend the party. However, his place of employment being closed, he decided to watch the funeral procession, and took a place of vantage near the black-draped John F. Ahearn Club, close to the R. H. Hoe building. When the hoodlumism broke loose, Chaver Beril suddenly forgot his feud with the Chief Rabbi, and was among the first to rush the factory, where he fought like a lion. When it was over, he was out on the street, with a big knob on the back of his head from a policeman’s neutral club. The rest of the afternoon he walked around in a daze. He couldn’t believe that a “pogrom” had happened on his beloved boulevard, the East Broadway of his rhapsody.
That evening and night, East Broadway was crowded with dazed and frightened people, taking little solace in the fact that the press of the entire country condemned the outrage. “Here too?” they asked of each other. The Brotherly Beneficial and Kultur Society was in darkness. Only the Anarchistlech were at their usual frolic, eating ham sandwiches, drinking milk, and singing obscene parodies of Hasidic melodies.
Suddenly a brick came flying through one of the two front windows, followed by a dozen more. The first brick was heaved by a renegade, ex-Chaver Beril, whose name has since become anathema in anarchist legend, and the second by Kid Bernstein, a well-known boxer of that day. There followed a rush into the clubrooms. The more fortunate world revolutionists jumped out of the back windows and saved themselves by climbing over fences out to deserted Division Street, where they merged with the darkness and became lost forever to the holy cause. Those in front jumped into the arms of outraged people and received bad beatings before they were rescued by the police. The clubrooms were a shambles, and the landlord refused to rent the premises again to radikalen. Thus ends the story of the Anarchistlech on East Broadway.
My cousin, Mr. Beril Kaminsky, was arrested in the melee, remained in Ludlow Street Jail all night, and in the morning Magistrate Breen, in Essex Market Court, complimented him and dismissed the case. Selma and her father were waiting for him in the courtroom.
That night my cousin Beril came over to our house where he kept his few belongings, and dug out his discarded arba-kanfus, his tefilim and talis, which my mother had been saving for his possible reconversion. He became a regular attendant at the Minsker shul, where his employer, Selma’s father, was an official, and before the year was out he was married to Selma and became a junior partner in the paper business.
It was on his honeymoon in the Catskill Mountains that he wrote the forty-first and final stanza of his great masterpiece, and I quote from the volume of his collected poems which he had printed, at his own expense:
Auf di berge, mein geliebte, krich mit mir,
Dorten vu di tzigen meken nur jar dir,
Vu di hertz iz freilech, un di liebe brent,
Vu yeder Sadie iz a lady un yeder Sam a gent.
(“Upon the hills, O my love, clinch with me,
There where the goats bleat only for thee,
Where the heart is carefree and love is
Where every Sadie is a lady and every Sam