Stories from the Archives
Jewish Immigration to America

Immigrant Life

Seamstresses and Tailors in a Sweatshop

Seamstresses and tailors in a sweatshop, 1920s.

Most of the new arrivals were immediately plunged into the struggle to earn a living. Many found jobs in the booming garment industry, often laboring in small "sweatshops." Some entered other trades, often at the lowest level. Living conditions in the largest of the immigrant enclaves, New York's Lower East Side, were often crowded and dirty.

But the immigrants also found the energy to create new, vibrant centers of Jewish life in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other cities. Yiddish theater and the Yiddish press blossomed in America, free from tsarist censorship. Jewish political refugees became a driving force in the development of the American trade union movement.

The immigrants' children attended public school and often learned English before their parents did. They embraced American culture and went on to help shape American culture and society in the 20th century.

"New York Ghetto: Hester-Street"

Pushcarts on Hester Street, in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood on the Lower East Side, New York City, ca. 1900.

They kept boarders. Six of us slept in one room. We paid three dollars a month with laundry, and one dollar thirty a week for supper. That's how people lived in those days.

—Ben Reisman, immigrant from Poland, about his early days in America

Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer. My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Union Cards

Union cards belonging to Max Cohen, a garment worker, New York City, 1930s-1950s.

In Russia, at that time, it would have been impossible to become an apprentice in a workshop. Here it was a common phenomenon that older people would begin learning a trade, so I became a plumber. I was even a little happy for the opportunity to learn that trade, and not tailoring like everyone else--as if we were all a nation of tailors.

—Aaron Domnitz, immigrant from Belarus, about his early days in America

Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer. My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants. New York: New York University Press, 2006.