by Lily Hoffman Simon
Jewish immigrant communities coming to North America around the turn of the 20th century faced many problems, including poverty, anti-Semitism, and poor living conditions. Most immigrants congregated in densely populated urban neighbourhoods. Today, many immigrant areas are undergoing processes of gentrification, with contemporary shopping centres and cafes barely reflecting the impoverished history.
From the 1870s-1930s, Jewish immigrants to the US and Canada filtered through several hubs particularly prone to immigration, such as Montreal and New York, at least partly because of the large immigrant populations that already existed in these cities. As the number of Jewish immigrants grew, originating mainly from Eastern Europe, strong Jewish communities began to establish themselves in the New World. As with most immigrants arriving in North America with little or no material wealth, the new Jewish presence was concentrated at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. They were enticed by the American dream, which promised those who started with nothing the opportunity to grow a business and succeed through hard work. As Jews began fulfilling that dream, they entrenched themselves culturally, establishing numerous synagogues, producing literature and developing artisan and trade skills as well as a cuisine. By extension, these immigrant communities began to flourish, posing contradicting images of extravagant synagogues alongside deteriorating tenements.
As individual citizens became successful, they quickly moved out of impoverished immigrant neighbourhoods such as the Lower East Side of Manhattan or Mile End-Plateau in Montreal. Jews began to move to more suburban, more upper-class areas, reflecting the upward mobility of the new American Jewish communities. Rich Jewish heritage and infrastructure were left behind in these upward migrations. The Jews were quick to shed themselves of the impoverished history, and conform to the image of a successful North American; in many ways, this meant shedding Jewish associations with these immigrant neighbourhoods. As Jews moved out, other poor people tended to move in.
If you were to walk down the crowded streets of the Lower East Side today, you would see the remnants of storefront synagogues among the Chinese restaurants and nail shops now dominating the area. In Montreal’s Plateau district, old mikvehs remain in the neighbourhood now dominated by Portuguese residents. Throughout the 20th century, as increasingly successful Jews left these neighbourhoods, new immigrants filtered through, filling the Jewish position as the bottom rung of socio-economic hierarchies.
These two neighbourhoods represent a greater trend in former Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods. Today, they are not only distinguished by a new lower-class immigrant group, struggling against racism and xenophobia, but are also becoming increasingly stylish and chic. Stores, hip restaurants, and nightclubs are springing up throughout the streets, attracting tourists and young people.
Despite these recent developments, it is impossible to ignore the historic importance of these neighbourhoods to Jewish life in North America. Museums and street signs are scattered throughout, expressing the timeless experiences of the early Jewish communities. Yet these areas today lack an apparent Jewish identity, as they are populated by new immigrant, lower-income communities. It is important to remember the Jewish history of these neighbourhoods, which pressured upward social mobility, alienating lower-income and unskilled citizens. Forgetting this aspect of the history is easier when we forget the Jewish roots in these neighbourhoods. The Jews’ history in these neighbourhoods, and in the impoverished, underprivileged conditions facing new immigrant communities poses a unique challenge for North American Jews: that of taking responsibility for these neighbourhoods and immigrants both socially and physically. We must prioritize preventing the repetition of history above thinking solely about contemporary Jewish privilege.