124. The Ghetto, New York - 1910

The word “ghetto” means “foundry” in the dialect of Venice, where Jews escaping the 1492 expulsion from Spain fled in droves. They were allowed to settle there, but were forced to live in a segment of the city surrounded by both a wall and a canal that used to be the place where canons were forged.

The ghetto in New York was quite a different thing. To start with, no law required the Jews to live there. They did so by economic necessity—and by choice. The Jews who settled in the Lower East Side of New York came mostly from Eastern Europe. Like most immigrant groups, they preferred to live in an area where other people spoke their language (in this case, Yiddish), and sold the goods they preferred to use. They also needed to be near sources of kosher food, synagogues, and ritual baths known as mitkva for the women.

The Lower East Side became a vibrant Jewish community. Many men, women, and children worked selling wares (fruit, leather goods, ice) from pushcarts, such as the ones lining the block in this postcard. There were newspapers published in Yiddish, a thriving Yiddish theater scene, and a wide variety of religious and social organizations established to help new immigrants.

More recently, the old Jewish ghetto has been absorbed by Chinatown, although a few kosher restaurants and some stores selling Jewish religious items can still be found. The old synagogues have mostly been converted to other purposes, although the Eldridge Street Synagogue is now an excellent museum.

The Jewish Ghetto
Rivington Street and Bowery
New York, NY