Hester Street-A Jewish Watershed
Hester Street

By Jed C.

America, and in particular, New York City, have been safe havens for many oppressed and mistreated individuals throughout the world. Many of these groups form their own small communities within the City, eventually superimposing their own culture on that of the City, sometimes in a vibrant and influential way. So was the case with one of the most consistently oppressed peoples, the Jews.

Many historians divide American Jewish History into three distinct waves of immigration. The first wave, beginning in the mid-17th century, consisted almost entirely of Sephardic Jews, or Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent. Jews emigrated from Holland as well during this period. The second and third waves are characterized by the difference in place of emigration rather than a time gap. Beginning at the tail-end of the 19th century and lasting until around 1920, the second wave was comprised by a vast majority of German Jews. This large influx of German Jews was due mostly to poor harvests and land conditions, and an unsympathetic and stringent government. The third wave, took place during approximately the same time period, brought over many Jews of Russian decent. These Jews were fleeing the overt anti-Semitism evidenced by the pogroms and forced settlements. The vast majority of these eastern European Jews settled on the Lower East Side, in the rundown and wholly unsanitary tenements so well documented by Jacob Riis. Through the middle of the Jewish quarter (bordered by the Bowery on the West, Attorney Street on the East, East Broadway on the South, and Delancy Street on the North) ran Hester Street, the “chief market center on the Lower East Side.” The picture of a crowded Hester Street lined with pushcarts and storefront awnings epitomized not only the Jewish community but the Lower East Side in general, for better or for worse. Although the pictures convey a certain joy, they also illustrate the plight of the tenement dwellers of downtown New York. Although Jews had many more freedoms in New York, they experienced anti-Semitism all the same, and many were excluded from certain neighborhoods and jobs. Many Jews resorted to peddling, mostly because of the small amount of capitol needed for that vocation, hence the pushcart pavilion on the Hester Street of old. Desperate for money, many Jews (particularly women) also became sweatshop workers, even for the atrocious pay they received. Many Jews were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the most infamous sweatshop incident in the City’s history.

Hester Street is recognized as a Jewish cultural landmark simply because of it significance to many early Jewish immigrants in New York. It became the symbol of the perseverance and prosperity of the Jewish community, which would continue flourish in the coming years. Hester Street is more than just a street, it’s a way of life.

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