Russian Jewish Immigration to the United States in the late 19th Century

by Lauren, Eliza and Ali


There were three main wave of Russian Immigrants. Even though they came under different circumstances with had different beliefs, the main reason for their coming, the search for a better life stays the same. These immigrants have made many lasting contributions to Us culture and life.

The first wave was in the 18th century. During this time, Russian expansionists into northwest America began to expand areas for trapping furs. Members of the Russian American company established Fort Ross in northern California in 1812. There, a commercial hunting and trading company was set up. It was owned by Russia's tsar, and the company had been doing business for almost a hundred years when the fort was founded.

Many Russian Jews immigrated to America in the late 19th century and early 20th century. They came to the United States for a variety of reasons, most notably because of the persecution, discrimination, fear, and economic problems they faced in Russia. 2 1/2 million of the 8 million immigrants who immigrated to America between 1880-1914 from Russia and Austria-Hungary were Jews. The word Russian includes immigrants of Russian ethnicity, along with eastern Slavs from Belorussia, Ukraine, and members of the former Hapsburg Austrian province of Galicia.

Living conditions for Russian Jews in the late 1800's were comparable to Ireland's "throes of famine." Their homes were scarcely furnished shacks, crowded with children and elderly relatives, with meager amounts of food. Some areas were so poor that they were reduced to eating bread and water. In Galicia, many Jews starved to death annually. In 1870, the Russian government revoked freedom of worship, draft exemption, and legal autonomy from all of its citizens, stimulating Russian Jewish emigration.

A government sponsored policy, labeled "Cold Pogrom" or "Russification Program," was created to destroy Jewish life and designed to "stamp out the many different ethnic cultures within the Czar's realm."1 It's official hope was that 1/3 of Russia's Jews would die out, 1/3 would emigrate, and 2/3 would be converted to the Orthodox Church.

The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 and the pogrom that followed marked the beginning of a new influx of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States. In Russia, there were now even harsher restrictions on Jewish religion, education, and professional activities. Jews were forced to live within the Pale of Settlement, a crowded area in western Russia, and were not permitted to Russify their names. They were barred from agriculture and forced to make a living as artisans and peddlers. In certain sections of the Pale, ten Jewish peddlers competed for the business of one hundred peasants. General studies were also not allowed to be included in the curriculum of Jewish religious schools. Persecution and discrimination continued in 1892, when hundreds of innocent Jewish families were evicted from the Crimean town of Yalta. By this time, Jews in St. Petersburg had already been forced to indicate on their shops not only the family name of the owner, but his first name and his father's names. This was ordered so that the government and the public could easily determine whether the owner was a Jew.

During this period, Jews lived in constant fear of being beaten, robbed, and even murdered by their gentile neighbors. Russian peasants took out their frustration about the Russian economy on the Jews by killing thousands of helpless people. One group, called the Barefoot Brigades, were bands of marauding Russian peasants who brought devastation and slaughter to Jewish towns and cities. After these episodes, Jews from all over Eastern Europe talked wistfully of "going to America." They thought of it as the "goldene medinah" (the golden province) and "the land of milk and honey."

Venturing to America was an adventure and a trial for most of the poor Jewish immigrants. The steamships that the immigrants rode on were not very large, and hundreds of people were crowded inside them. Most immigrants were poor, so they traveled in the lowest, or steerage class. The living conditions on the ships were horrible and disease infested. On the boat ride to America, many Orthodox Jews ate only herring, black bread, and tea that they had brought along with them because they feared that the ship's food was not Kosher. Often, the husband went to America first, and got a job. When earned enough money for his family's passage, he sent for his wife and children.

Ellis Island in New York Harbor and Castle Garden in the Battery proved to be almost as traumatic as the long journey to America. An immigrant described Castle Garden as, "a large building, a Gehenna, through which all Jewish arrivals must pass to be cleansed before they are considered worthy of breathing freely the air of the land of the almighty dollar. . ."2 Once the immigrants had arrived at Ellis Island, they waited in a big room for hours upon hours finally to be questioned in a language they did not comprehend. Many of the immigration officers could not understand the foreign dialects. When the immigrants told them their names, the officers shortened them, to make them simpler. The immigrants were then tested for various diseases. Of particular concern was glaucoma and influenza. Finally, if they successfully passed all of these tests, the immigrants were released into the big city all alone.

Most immigrants went directly from Castle Garden or Ellis Island to the streets of New York City, specifically the Lower East Side. Others established themselves in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, where industries offered them jobs. Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Ohio became, and continue to be, the states with the most Russian immigrants.

Many immigrants had financial difficulties in the new world. The average amount of money a Russian immigrant had when they came to America was approximately twenty dollars, but many, especially Jews, had much less. Furthermore, it was hard for them to find work since they could not understand English very well. 60% of all immigrant Jews worked in the needle trades, according to a 1890 survey.

Once the immigrants made money, they moved from rag pickers to owners of garment shops and then to manufacturers of garments and clothing designers. Others opened kosher restaurants, delis, and bakeries. There were other immigrants who became involved in the Yiddish theater and then to Vaudeville and Burlesque. From there, some of them went on to act in motion pictures. Most Jewish children were sent to school because education was very important to these immigrants (the were not permitted to attend school in Russia).

The Russian Jewish immigrants established self-help societies and orphanages to take care of the less fortunate. They also opened their own synagogues and yeshivas, and proudly spent every Sabbath with their families. Some of these immigrant temples still stand today.

Russian Jewish immigrants during this time, escaped discrimination and pogroms when they came to America. Although the journey was rough and long, they made a substantial impact on American society. They began a whole Jewish subculture on the Lower East Side in New York City, and contributed to city life, with their restaurants, delis, bakeries, pushcarts, and other businesses. From there, they successfully entered all facets of American society. This acclimation to American society was not easy, but, in the end, they became assimilated in the great American melting pot.

The third wave of Russian immigrants has been coming since the 1980's and especially the 1990's due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many have come to reunite with family and to escape anti-Semitism. An added reason for emigrating was the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, which has produced health risks and problems. Russian immigrants made many contributions to American society. Along with their hopes and dreams, Russians brought over many food dishes such as borsch. During this wave, there have been many musicians, artists, and writers who have come in search of a better life. Some of these include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolph Nureyev, and Yevgenyi Kissin.

Today, immigration continues to be a very current issue. There are quotas set on how many people are allowed into the country. There are even those who believe that immigration should be stopped altogether, and others who say that immigration is how this country was founded and should continue to be a vital part of the country's development. Yet, no matter what laws are passes regarding immigration, there will remain the key component of what started it in, and that's the search for something better.




Greenleaf, Barbara Kaye. America Fever. New York: Four Winds Press, 1970. pp.130-132.

Martin, Gilbert. The Jews of Hope. Virgina: Viking, 1984. p.36.

Thernstorm, Stephen. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. pp.885- 894.