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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 425-426
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The Jewish labor activism that grew out of New York's Lower East Side in the early twentieth century has been so well chronicled that in recent decades, study of it has noticeably declined. Perhaps implicit in this development is the notion that we know everything, and future study may bring more individual details to light, but reveal little of conceptual significance. Among the most established theses is that there was no activism to speak of among Jewish immigrants who arrived prior to 1905, the year of the first Russian Revolution. According to this thesis, these early immigrants had not experienced even the taste of freedom that came in the wake of the Revolution, let alone industrial capitalism. Therefore, their experience was about making it in the New World, not effecting change. The lack of stable union organization is usually cited as the strongest evidence supporting this theory.
The main thesis of Hadassa Kosak's Cultures of Opposition is that, contrary to long-accepted belief, the pre-1905 Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side did have the will to action, even if there was little union activity. Kosak argues that there were many less formal and less organized kinds of activism that took place within the Lower East Side Jewish community, including beyond the workplace. She also underscores the true complexity of immigrant Jewish activism by bringing out an often-unmentionable element of this history--class conflict between Jew and Jew.
According to Kosak, the seeds of rebellion within the Russian Jewish community were the result of factors more complex than simple czarist oppression. For example, she describes the community hierarchies of the social elite over the artisans; the latter who were often excluded from leadership and sometimes even from voting in the kahal, the internal governing organization that had significant power during this period. Revolt against this hierarchy took a variety of forms, ranging from informing to the Russian authorities to the creation of breakaway synagogues, guilds and communal organizations.
Once in the United States, egalitarian expectations on the part of the new immigrants shaped the conflicts between the Russian immigrants and their German Jewish benefactors, who acted on distinctly different expectations. Kosak lists the more familiar examples of conflicting agendas--the activities of the Baron de Hirsch Fund and other efforts to implement "normalization" through geographical dispersion, which most subsequent historians have romanticized into benignity. Kosak, [End Page 425] however, also describes the most egregious example of the darker side of German-Jewish "charity, " namely Wards Island, a German-Jewish run "shelter" where Russian Jewish immigrants were treated as slaves and often farmed out as cheap labor to the lowest bidder. The German- Jewish methods and motives of charity are then contrasted more effectively with the philosophy of self-help and mutual assistance that characterized the Russian Jewish aid societies.
Even before the Lower East Side community entered its "mature" stage, protest and activism were familiar aspects of the culture, and hardly confined to the workplace. The Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902, in which housewives protested price gouging among kosher meat suppliers, is only the most famous example. But more importantly, writes Kosak, there was a climate of working-class morality that encouraged worker solidarity and reviled strikebreaking.
This book's greatest strength is in the author's willingness to take on long-held assumptions and even stereotypes concerning the Lower East Side community and Jewish garment trades movement during this early period. Kosak also does an excellent job moving past the taboos against fully examining the conflict between the German and Russian Jewish communities and how these conflicts influenced labor relations within the garment trades.
The chapters on life in pre-Revolutionary Russia are especially well researched and written. In many ways it is the best section of the book, giving a fuller explanation of the development of the...