Origins of Lynn’s Jewish Community
Chapter Two of Stephen G. Mostov’s monograph
“Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Jews in the Shoe Trades in Lynn, 1885–1945”
1. The Lynn Jewish Community in 1885
The Jewish community of Lynn in 1885 was remarkable only for its lack of development. There had been Jews in America for over two hundred years, and by 1880 the national Jewish population exceeded 230,000. Yet no more than twenty-five families had ever found their way to Lynn. Lynn’s “first” permanent Jewish resident — a Russian immigrant named Simon J. Weinberg — settled in 1855, and opened a dry goods store. Weinberg was later joined by a nephew and brother-in-law. A few other Jews filtered into Lynn during the 1870s and early 1880s, so that by 1885 the total Jewish population was about fifty.1
Few Jews settled in Lynn or other New England towns prior to 1885 for the same reasons that most other European immigrants also stayed away. Either Jews settled in Boston to be part of its large, insular Jewish community — where they felt comfortable socially and religiously, and could find work through friends and relatives — or they headed westward in search of greater economic opportunities. In the first systematic survey of the nation’s Jewish population, taken in 1876, it was estimated that there were 7,000 Jews living in Boston, but only 1,500 in the rest of Massachusetts. This contrasted with larger Jewish populations in states such as Ohio, Illinois, and even California, which were considerably farther away from the immigrants’ ports of entry.2
Jewish immigration to America in the mid-nineteenth century was primarily from the German speaking lands of Central Europe. The Jews who were coming were mostly young and ambitious, but had virtually no money. Most of the men had previously worked as petty merchants, traders, or artisans, and once they arrived sought to continue in the same types of trades. Many began as peddlers or tailors, or in other petty trades not requiring more than a few dollars investment. Most aspired to be settled merchants, and worked towards attaining that status. A large number of them remained and prospered in the large Eastern cities where they landed — especially New York — but many others moved to the rapidly growing cities of the West, such as Cincinnati and Chicago.3
As the growing nation expanded westward, there were many opportunities for ambitious merchants. An ever growing demand for manufactured goods among Western settlers created a need for middlemen capable of distributing goods from the cities where they were produced, to the towns and settlements where they were in demand. It was a role which the German Jews were eager and able to fill. Consequently many settled in the cities and towns of the West, largely bypassing the older, more settled towns of New England. Even Boston, with its Jewish population dwarfing any other Jewish community in the region, had fewer Jews in proportion to its size than the nation’s other largest cities.
The German Jews’ aversion to New England was shared by other European immigrants of the time, except for the Irish, who had arrived en masse directly to Boston. This was particularly true of Lynn, where less than 500 of the city’s 45,867 residents in 1885 had been born in continental Europe.4 It was in fitting with these general trends, therefore, that when Simon Weinberg and his relatives left Boston to become merchants in nearby Lynn, they found a barren Jewish landscape.
Slowly, the Jewish community in Lynn grew in size. By February, 1886 a minyan, the ten-man minimum required by Jewish tradition to hold religious services, could be consistently gathered, and a congregation formally incorporated. The Hebrew Benevolent Society, as the organization was named, became the city’s first Jewish institution. It was a combination congregation, and mutual-aid and burial society.5 In the years to follow, the previously intermittent flow of new Jewish arrivals became a steady stream, and continued to grow in size over the next three decades. The arrival of these immigrants was but the local manifestation of the mass exodus of Jews from Russia to the United States, which so altered American Jewish society.
2. The exodus from Russia
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were two and one-half million Jews in the world, eighty percent of whom lived in Europe. Of the European Jews, more than half were concentrated in Poland, which had been a sovereign state until 1772, when it was partitioned by the neighboring Great Powers of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. The Jewish presence in Poland had arisen many centuries earlier, following waves of expulsions from England, France, Spain, and many of the Italian and German states.6
Jews had been allowed to settle in Poland because the Polish kings found their presence economically useful. An agricultural land lacking in commerce, the Polish kings found it convenient to allow the Jews in to serve as the country’s merchants, moneylenders, and tax collectors. In return for the royal revenues the Jews collected, and the taxes they paid, they were granted protection and a large degree of communal autonomy.
The autonomy was so complete that the Jews of Poland in effect became a “state within a state.” Each city and town where Jews resided had its own semi-autonomous governing institution called the kehillah, or kahal, which administered the community’s charitable, educational, religious, fiscal, and judicial institutions. On a higher level, there were regional councils in each of the four provinces in Poland (Great Poland, Little Poland, Polish Russia, and Volhynia). At the national level was the Council of Four Lands (Va’ad Arba Aratzot), whose members officially governed the Jews of Poland and represented them in all dealings’ with the State. One of the Council’s most important functions was to see that all taxes were collected among the Jews and turned over to the Polish sovereign.7
The “golden age” of prosperity and benign treatment experienced by Polish Jews in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries came to an end in the era of the Chmielnicki uprising and the Swedish-Muscovite wars of 1648–1656. The Ukraine had come under Polish rule in 1569, and Jews had subsequently settled there as financial agents of the Polish nobility. When a nationalist movement developed in the Ukraine in opposition to Polish rule, Jews became a visible target of popular resentment. Tensions exploded in the spring of 1648 when Ukrainian Cossack gangs led by Boghan Chmielnicki began terrorizing and cruelly murdering large numbers of Jews. During the next eight years entire Polish Jewish communities were wiped out as Jews became victims of warring Cossacks, Russians, Swedes, and Poles. An estimated 700 Jewish communities were affected in whole or in part with well over 100,000 Jews murdered, and many more fleeing as refugees. From 1656 on, the general direction of European Jewish migration shifted toward the West — first into bordering areas of the German and Austrian states, later toward Western Europe, and eventually to the Americas. Nonetheless, in absolute terms the number of Jews in Eastern Europe continued to rise into the twentieth century.8
During the eighteenth century Poland continued to be a battle ground, eventuating in the country’s demise as a sovereign state. The bulk of Poland’s Jews resided in the territories annexed by Russia. This created an ironic situation in which the Russian Empire, which for centuries had prohibited all but token Jewish settlement, suddenly contained the world’s greatest concentration of Jews.
The Russian czars had no desire to absorb such a large number of Jews into the Russian empire. They therefore sought to minimize the effects of the unwanted Jewish presence in Russia by restricting Jewish residence to the border territories in which they were living at the time of annexation. This area on Russia’s western border included Congress Poland) Lithuania, Byelorussia, and part of the Ukraine, and came to be known as the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Although comprising only four percent of all Russian territory, and containing less than one-third of the Empire’s non-Jewish population, the Pale remained the home of over ninety percent of the Jews in Russia, well into the twentieth century.
In the century following annexation the Russian Czars treated their Jewish subjects as unwanted intruders, to be kept under strict control, and forcibly “reformed” in communal and occupational structure at the czars’ whims. Conditions were particularly harsh under czars Alexander I (1801–1825) and Nicholas I (1825–1855). In the guise of social reform, Jews were prohibited from practicing many of their traditional occupations, and were forced to move from villages to towns. They were further harassed by demands that they provide a disproportionately large number of army recruits, who were required to serve for periods of up to twenty-five years. Although ostensibly designed to encourage the Jews’ integration into the larger society, in reality these decrees only served to aggravate the Jews’ economic plight, and to increase their hostility towards the State.9
Conditions improved somewhat under Czar Alexander II (1855–1881), the “enlightened” monarch whose greatest reform was the emancipation of the Russian serfs. Many of the economic restrictions placed on Jews were lessened, freedom of movement within the Pale was extended, and Jewish access to universities was greatly increased. But the material condition of most Jews did not markedly improve, and the partial granting of civil rights only led to a greater sense of anger and frustration over restrictions that remained.
Whatever optimism existed among young Jews based on the liberalization under Alexander II dissipated after 1881, when Alexander II was assassinated by political revolutionaries) and succeeded by the reactionary regime of his son Alexander III (1881–1894). Reforms were repealed, and violence against Jews was officially fomented to distract from more general ills. The result was a wave of vicious pogroms in the southern portions of the Pale. The pogroms of 1881 convinced some of the Jews to leave Russia immediately. But it was the succession of pogroms in the years to come, together with the increasing pauperization of the physically and economically trapped Jews of the Pale that would prove decisive. Between 1890 and 1914 the migration to America became a veritable wave, of a size unprecedented in Jewish history. By the time the United States’ “open door” immigration policy was ended in 1924, some two million Russian Jews had voted with their feet for the Goldene Medinah.
3. Russian Jews’ arrival
Between 1885 and 1915 the number of foreign-born immigrants living in Lynn tripled, from 9,800 to 29,500, and their proportion of the city’s total population rose from one in five, to nearly one in three. This helped the city’s growth to more than double as Lynn became a large and ethnically diverse industrial city of 96,000 people.10
The large influx of foreign born had a pronounced effect on the city’s social and ethnic make-up. Earlier immigrants to the city had generally been English speaking, fair-skinned, and either Protestants, or Irish or Canadian Catholics. With the exception of the Irish Catholics, they had been small groups, easily assimilated socially, culturally, and religiously. But the new and larger wave of immigrants came from Eastern and Southern Europe-from countries such as Russia, Poland, Italy, and Greece, which had never sent, more than a token number of immigrants to Lynn before.11 To the city’s older residents they seemed especially “foreign” and unassimilable. Few of them spoke English, hardly one among them was Protestant, and their distinctive complexions, food, and clothing made them conspicuously different. The differences were reinforced by de facto segregation, as the new immigrants settled in their own neighborhoods, which became ethnic enclaves within the city. Only after a period of initial adjustment did they tentatively begin to mix socially with the “natives.”
Among the newly arrived immigrants, Polish and Russian born Jews were the largest single group, numbering more than 6,000.12 Many of them came from the small towns and villages of the Russian Pale of Settlement, where Jews had been in the majority and had led traditional lives under relatively primitive conditions. It was in every respect a world far removed from that of industrial, urban America. These were Yiddish-speaking Jews, raised in a traditionally orthodox environment. In most cases they arrived with no more than a few dollars in their pocket, and their few tattered belongings in hand.
Harry Weinstein of Lynn, who emigrated from England, recalled the appearance and condition of the Russian Jews on board the ship he came over on:
I came into a large enclosure where for the first time I saw a large group of Russian emigrants huddled around a coal stove. They were dressed in typical Russian style, the men with their peaked caps and trousers tucked into high boots and the women with shawls drawn over their heads to keep them warm, but their baggage and belongings were interesting to me. Bed clothes tied up in sheets, enamel sauce pans and coffee pots tied together with string, large canvas bundles, and some with very old leather traveling cases that had seen better days. . . . Men, women, and many children of all ages and little infants in arms, all like myself going to America. . . . I was traveling 3rd class, whereas the Russians were traveling steerage.13
The Russian Jewish immigration of consisted of families — more so than among other immigrants of the time. But even married men often initially immigrated alone. They would send for their wife and children only after they had established themselves — which in some cases turned out to be as long as a decade later.14
The Russian Jews arrived in America as "greenhorns" — foreigners, barely able to communicate in English, and ignorant of American ways. In their initial desperate need for shelter, food, and employment, they instinctively depended on their friends or family members who had arrived earlier, or on fellow landsleit (townsmen). Those who found their way to Lynn invariably headed straight for the Jewish neighborhood, where they were quickly absorbed into the rapidly evolving, close-knit Jewish immigrant community.
The immigrant Jews pouring into Lynn settled in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. It was a compact area of 25–30 square blocks, bounded roughly by Prospect and Commercial streets, and the Common and the Bay. Jews initially settled on Harbor and Alley streets, on the far side of the railroad tracks, in an Irish workers’ neighborhood known as “the brickyard.” As the number of Jews moving in increased, and the economic status of some of them improved, the Jewish area expanded into the blocks farther north. The Jews were joined by Italian, Polish, and other immigrants, making the neighborhood a mix of ethnic groups. The housing most desired by the Jewish immigrant was on the blocks nearest to the Common — a long park-like strip of land that formed the neighborhood’s northern edge.
The “downtown district,” as the area the Jewish immigrants settled in came to be referred to, was a short walk from the city’s factory and central business district. It was an area initially consisting of detached cottages, with a few larger single family houses. But as the population density increased they were gradually replaced by triple deckers, and six family apartment buildings.15 A typical apartment had three to five rooms, and if you were fortunate included running gas, hot water, and toilets. The lots were small and pressed together, and families lived near one another. “Extra” rooms were commonly rented out to boarders to help pay the rent, making for cramped living. Nevertheless, it was a generally clean, well-kept neighborhood, with considerably better living conditions than in the Jewish tenement districts of the nation’s largest cities.16
To the casual observer in Lynn in 1913 it appeared that the city’s newly arrived Jewish immigrants were quickly recreating the shtetl life of the Russian Pale within the downtown district. The area had become a beehive of Jewish communal activity, with four congregations and three synagogue buildings, and more than twenty separate organizations. The curiosity of the city’s natives at what the Jewish neighborhood was like was evident in a two page, sixteen column description of “The Jewish Community in this City,” published in the Lynn Daily Evening Item in 1913, the city’s leading newspaper. Included in the article was a description of “Communal Life in the Lynn Ghetto,” meant to reassure the city’s natives that the growth of the neighborhood was nothing to be concerned about:
Lynn has its Jewish Ghetto, but one not at all like that of the large cities. Almost entire streets are occupied by Jewish people, but their shop-keeping is within bounds. . . . It is surprising to note how many and how large districts have been rapidly acquired by Jewish families for their homes, and how even within the past five years they have settled down in their own neighborhoods, and interested themselves in their own daily concerns.
It is not proposed to take the Item readers on a ‘slumming’ expedition, or to investigate the Ghetto for mere curiosity’s sake. The aim is . . . to interest the old Lynn in the new Lynn.17
In all probability, no Jew in Lynn had even seen an actual ghetto, which existed only in a few German and Italian cities. But they had come from a society in which by law and custom being Jewish meant being part of a Jewish community, and living an explicitly Jewish life. Whether or not a Jew was sincerely devout, his life was lived with and among other Jews, in general accordance with Jewish law and tradition. His vernacular was Yiddish, and he prayed in Hebrew. His primary education had been in a Jewish-run school, and was much more religious than secular in nature. He went on to work in one of the few mercantile or artisan trades open to Jews. He lived according to the Jewish calendar — that is, his day of rest was Saturday, and the holidays he observed were religious ones. He abided by the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut. He had limited social contact with non-Jews, and little interest in the general secular culture.
Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did the traditional life style begin to change, and only among select segments of the population. Some of the younger Jews who were finally able to gain acceptance to the universities became conversant in Russian language, literature, culture, and politics. In the process some of them became vocal advocates of Jewish secularism, and socialistic and revolutionary politics. But they were a small intellectual elite, living mostly in the largest cities of the Pale, and were visibly absent among the early emigrants to America. In the small villages which were the source of most of the emigrants, the traditional way of life remained largely unchanged .
One of the young immigrants to Lynn’ of that time, Benjamin Bronstein, recalled that in the small Lithuanian town that he grew up in “there were no non-religious groups.” There were irreligious individuals, but their behavior was considered blasphemous by most. The most serious violations of orthodox Jewish law that he recalled were in fact no more than spiteful actions by rebellious youths:
Those that didn’t believe, we called “apikorsim” (heretics). There were some young fellows who would try to smoke on Shabbos (Sabbath) . Some would go out and eat “trefe” (forbidden food — would go to the “Goyische” (Gentile) stores . . . and buy “trefe” delicatessen and show the other people. But there was no organized groups — just individuals.18
That these sorts of actions were seen to be so brazenly provocative indicates the degree of official religiosity within the community. In contrast, Bronstein recalls what Sabbath was like for the community as a whole:
From Friday afternoon to Saturday night all was closed up. The beadle of the synagogue would tell the Jews when it was time to close up. Nobody stayed open on Shabbos.19
Visual impressions notwithstanding, the Jewish community formed by Lynn’s Russian immigrants from its inception differed from the ones these Jews had grown up in. The underlying reasons were the selective nature of the process of emigration itself, together with the radically different physical, social, and legal environment the immigrants found in America, created the differences.
The Jews settling in Lynn were of more diverse origins than the Jewish population of a typical Russian village would have been. Because immigrants were arriving from all parts of the Russian Pale, as well as from other areas of Eastern Europe, the Lynn Jewish community was neither as homogeneous nor internally united as it appeared to be. The two major subgroups among the immigrants were those from Lithuania in the northern part of the Pale, and those from the Ukraine and southern provinces of the Pale. In addition, a third group was the community’s founders, who already formed a separate social elite.
These differences found expression in the early history of the community’s congregations. Congregation Ahabat Sholom was formed in 1899 and chartered in November 1901. In April, 1905 its members moved into the first synagogue built in Lynn. The dedication of the $17,000 structure was cause for a major community celebration, attended by the city’s mayor and other officials. Ahabat Sholom originated as an outgrowth of the old Hebrew Benevolent Society, and in fact its first president was the community’s “patriarch,” Simon J. Weinberg. But as the immigrant population grew, the founding group was overwhelmed in number by the newcomers. Dismayed at the congregation’s increasingly immigrant character, the founders formally withdrew their memberships in 1911, after their efforts to institute aesthetic and religious reforms was rebuffed by the new majority. From that time on the congregation was commonly referred to as the “Litvische shul” — that is, the congregation of the Lithuanians, the community’s majority group. Congregation Anshai Sfard, formed in 1898 and chartered in June, 1899, was the major congregation of the smaller group of Jews from southern portions of the Russian Pale (from Kiev to Odessa) . Although also strictly orthodox, its services followed a slightly different minhag (prayer customs) . It came to be known as the “Russiche Shul” (“Russian” synagogue).20
The other major difference in composition between the Russian Jewish community in Lynn and the communities of the Russian Pale arose out of the selectivity of the emigration process itself. The vast size of the Russian Jewish emigration notwithstanding, the demographic, economic, and social characteristics of the Jews leaving for America were different from those of the Russian Jewish population as a whole. Emigrating from Russia to America was an ordeal requiring physical and emotional stamina, strong motivation to leave, and enough money to at least pay for passage, and meet entry requirements at American ports. Consequently, Jews who were very old, sick, or destitute and unskilled, were generally unable to set out on such a voyage. The selectivity by age is reflected in the fact that only six percent of Russian Jewish emigrants were forty-five or older at the time they left, compared with fifteen percent of the Russian Jewish population as a whole.21
Because America was known to be a remote, frontier society, there also were few reasons for Jews who were very wealthy, highly intellectual, or deeply religious to want to make the arduous journey. Wealthy Jews counted their blessings, and passed their businesses on to their sons and sons-in-law. The politicized Jewish intellectuals of the large Russian cities preferred to work for reform (and overthrow) of the Czarist system as the solution to the Jews’ problems. A smaller number became Zionists and set out for Palestine. After the failed Russian revolution of 1905 some of the politicos had to flee to America, but they remained numerically insignificant. At the other end of the spectrum, the leading rabbis, religious scholars, and the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews also remained put, aware as they were of the difficulties of maintaining their prestige and traditional lifestyle in “irreligious” America.
The selectivity inherent in the Russian Jewish emigration applied even more to a Jewish community such as Lynn, which was one step removed from the ports of arrival in New York and Boston. Immigrants for whom a rich communal or political life was all-important would not have left those large cities for smaller, out-of-the-way Lynn. This is borne out by the general composition of the Lynn Jewish community in 1913.
On a religious level, the Jewish community lacked many of the key religious authorities, institutions, and groups that had been the bulwark of traditionalism in Russia. The “ghetto” of Lynn, with its more than 6,000 Jews, did not have even one ordained rabbi, or renowned religious scholar in its midst. There was no Yeshiva (the traditional academy for advanced religious study, and the training of rabbis), nor even the bibliographic resources necessary for traditional religious scholarship. There also was no community of Hasidic Jews.
The selective nature of the immigrant community was reflected in other ways as well. Few of the Jews were wealthy when they arrived, but at the same time there were also few, if any, criminals, beggars or paupers. Pew of the local Jews had attended Russian universities. If a larger number were sympathetic to anti-Czarist schools of socialism, few of them actively engaged in political activities. What was characteristic of the Jewish immigrants of Lynn’s downtown district was that they were mostly young and ambitious, of provincial Russian background, and motivated by a strong desire for personal, familial, and economic security. Despite their traditional upbringings and personal piety, religious considerations were of secondary concern in their decision to emigrate, and to settle specifically in Lynn. This fact, in combination with the religious voluntarism of America, became an important determinant of the community’s subsequent religious, social, and economic development.
On an individual level, Jews settling in America had a constitutionally guaranteed right to associate or not to associate with other Jews, to be religious or not, and to practice Judaism in any manner, and to whatever degree they desired. In theory this meant that they were also free to preserve their traditional lifestyle, if that is what they chose to do. In practice, however, maintaining a traditional Jewish life style came almost immediately into conflict with the immigrant’s’ desire for social and economic mobility. Americanization entailed accommodating themselves to a secular, but essentially Protestant society. The surest avenue of social acceptance and economic success for their children was through the public schools. Virtually all Jewish children attended them, and many succeeded in going on to universities. In the process traditional religious training became of decidedly secondary importance. For the adult immigrants, working on the Jewish Sabbath often came to be seen as an economic necessity, and eating “American” goods (i.e., non-kosher) a social reality. In the case of most of the immigrants the lures and rewards of secularization and acculturation gradually won out over ties to the strict traditionalism they were raised with.
But acculturation notwithstanding, the immigrants remained integrally connected to the Jewish community, socially and economically as well as religiously. The absolute nature of their Jewish identity assured this, and as reinforced by negative encounters with the general society. Religious tolerance in America did not translate into automatic social acceptance by native-born Americans. Economic freedom did not translate into instant opportunities, or guaranteed success. In both of these spheres of life the Jewish immigrants remained strongly dependent upon one another.
With all of these tendencies and cross-currents the Russian Jews of Lynn’s downtown district became the core of an immigrant Jewish community similar to scores of other such communities throughout the country. What was unique about the Lynn Jewish community was its location in America’s leading “shoe city,” within the shadows of the world’s largest concentration of women’s shoe manufacturing firms. It was a community and an industry that would prove to be made for each other.
Chapter 3: Jews in the Shoe Factories
Copyright 1982 by the Jewish Historical Society of the North Shore. All Rights Reserved.
1. The two most detailed sources on early Lynn Jewry are Charles J. Goldman, “A Profile of the Jewish Pioneers in Lynn, Massachusetts; The First Twenty-Five Years, 1886–1911,” (JHSNS); and “Cosmopolitan Lynn — The Jewish Community in This City,” Item Jan. 18, 1913, pp. 6–7 (JHSNS). ↑
3. This is the subject of the author’s dissertation. See Stephen G. Mostov, “A ‘Jerusalem’ on the Ohio: The Social and Economic History of Cincinnati’s Jewish Community” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1981). ↑
A.S. American Shoemaking, a weekly journal for Manufacturers, Buyers, and Practical Men in the Industry (Boston)
Item Lynn Daily Evening Item (Lynn)
O.H.I Oral history interview of the North Shore Jewish History Project, deposited at the Jewish Historical Society of the North Shore, Marblehead
JHSNS Collection of the Jewish Historical Society of the North Shore, Marblehead