The recent news that a part of Sing Sing, the New York State penitentiary that was home for a spell to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, as well to as Murder, Inc., the Brooklyn-based gang of ruthless racketeers, is going to be transformed into a museum brings to mind an aspect of our past that many, undoubtedly, would prefer to forget. I’m referring, of course, to the sizable number of ne’er-do-wells (and worse) — those pickpockets, prostitutes, racketeers, thugs, gamblers and, yes, on occasion, even murderers — who, once upon a time, gave the chosen people a run for their money.
Well into the late 19th century, it was widely believed almost as a matter of course that few black sheep could be found within the American Jewish community. “No other element is so orderly in character and so observant of the law,” Philadelphia’s Evening Telegram confirmed in 1872. “A Jew is seldom or never seen in our courts on a criminal charge.”
But that would soon change. By the 1890s, America’s Jews, many of them recently arrived immigrants, increasingly ran afoul of the law. So much so, in fact, that municipal officials were often quick to associate the Jews with malfeasance. The Lower East Side, it was said by those in the know, was a veritable “nursery in crime,” where narrow, dirt-encrusted streets produced an “army of pickpockets and altogether too many burglars.” Even writer Hutchins Hapgood, whose reassuring tales of immigrant life did much to assuage America’s anxieties about its newest citizens, couldn’t help but associate Jews with wrongdoing. “In certain aspects of Yiddish New York,” he wrote in 1903 in what must surely rank among the most stunning examples of the backhanded compliment, “the enormous vitality of the Jews carries them far in the direction of vice.” Worse still, Jewish women figured among those tarred by the charge of criminality, especially when it came to prostitution. “If a women called out to you as you walked down Allen Street,” Judge Jonah J. Goldstein declared, referring to one of the Lower East Side’s major thoroughfares, “you knew she wasn’t calling you to a minyan.”
At first, American Jewry’s leaders were hard pressed to accept this new and sordid reality. Running against the grain of Jewish history, these “unpleasant revelations,” as the Jewish Messenger delicately put it, were initially dismissed out of hand as nothing more than the product of overheated, antisemitic imaginations. But little by little, as Jewish names took up more and more space in the criminal docket, giving rise to what one observer poignantly called the “brutality of statistics,” the community had little choice but to reckon with the altered circumstances of life in the New World.
Much as we might prefer to “live in the memory of the past when the ties of home and religion were stronger and our young less beset by temptation,” the Israelite Alliance Review acknowledged. American Jews had now had to confront the issue head-on.
Which is precisely what they did. With great vision, energy and vigor, community leaders made a concerted, collective effort to eliminate criminality once and for all by creating an elaborate network of institutions that ranged from the Society for the Aid of Jewish Prisoners and Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters to the Bureau of Social Morals, a self-styled “Jewish police station” that monitored the whereabouts and activities of Lower East Side malefactors. Compiling thousands of dossiers whose contents it shared with the New York City Police Department, the Bureau of Social Morals represented community involvement at its best.
Perhaps the most far reaching of American Jewry’s crime-fighting efforts was its creation of Hawthorne School, the nation’s first all-Jewish reformatory. Located on a magnificent tract of land overlooking the Hudson River, this facility, which worked in tandem with the courts, was designed to remove from the street those most susceptible to wrongdoing — adolescent boys — and to place them in more salubrious surroundings where they could be refashioned into “good and useful citizens.”
From its distinctly non-penal-sounding name (“Euphemism has its purposes,” declared the school’s superintendent, John Klein) to its emphasis on nutritious meals, military drills, vocational training and Jewish education, Hawthorne sought to “fit its boys for something better”: middle-class Jewish life. At its core, the school reflected American Jewry’s unwavering belief in the environmental rather than in the biological roots of criminality. That large numbers of Jews were mixed up in crime was an aberrant phenomenon, a consequence of immigration, insisted the community’s leaders — not an innate predilection.
They were right to think so. Although it would take at least a generation or so before criminality ceased to be a major social problem for America’s Jews, it did go away. We are all “rubbing our eyes at a tremendous social metamorphosis,” one civic leader of the 1930s remarked, reviewing the latest crime statistics in which the Jews figured less and less.
There’s no question that the marked decline in the number of Jewish criminals had to do with upward mobility and the increasing middle-class complexion of American Jewish life. But it also had a great deal to do with the “earnest and efficient campaign” waged from within to eliminate those conditions that bred criminal behavior. In fact, if there’s a silver lining to this story, it can be found in the American Jewish community’s willingness to swallow hard, marshal its resources and tackle the most unseemly of problems. Perhaps when seen from that perspective, this story is one worth telling — and telling again.