Jews immigrated to the United States as early as 1654. By the eighteenth century, substantial Jewish communities existed in New England, New York, the middle states, and parts of the South, most notably in Charleston, South Carolina. It was not until the late nineteenth century, however, that Jewish immigration swelled. Between 1882 and 1903, 1,300,000 Eastern European Jews, subjected to persecution in their homes, mostly in czarist Russia and Poland, sought a new life in the United States.
Jewish immigrants came to the United States from many parts of the world, and the literary traditions and languages they brought with them were quite diverse. Jewish immigrants shared a common religious heritage, but they usually brought with them the ways of life that characterized the countries in which they had previously lived. Yiddish was a unifying language of these immigrants, although in many cases it was not their native tongue.
Most of the new arrivals settled in large cities, of which New York, being the city in which most immigrants landed, was the most convenient and had the largest Jewish population. Impoverished, often unable to speak English, large numbers of these Jews managed a life of bare subsistence on New York’s Lower East Side, clustering around Hester Street and other such Jewish enclaves, where Yiddish was the common language. By the early 1920’s, New York City, with some two million Jewish residents, was the largest Jewish...
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