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In the 1700s, a small number of Jews came to America, struggling to hold fast to their faith and heritage while becoming part of the emerging nation. Though they fought in the American Revolution, they were at best tolerated, at worst shunned — becoming ready scapegoats in times of crisis. Even after the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, states had the power to prevent Jews from voting, and their status remained uneasy.
During the 19th century, German-speaking Jews arrived from central Europe, becoming peddlers, selling provisions to farmers and those heading west. The Civil War found Jewish Americans fighting on both sides of the struggle, while coping with anti-Semitism in both the north and south. By the 1870s, 250,000 Jewish Americans had settled across the country. Some were attempting to adapt Judaism to America with a movement called Reform Judaism. But the mood of the country shifted and, as immigrants began flooding into the country, anti-Semitism erupted again.
In the early 20th century, drawn by the promise of America, more than two million eastern European Jews fled poverty and oppression — gravitating to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Poor and faced with innumerable confusing choices, they struggled to adapt their Jewish traditions to their new lives. Wealthy German Jews who lived uptown reached out through charitable organizations, even though these new, unsophisticated Jews made them uneasy. Life on the Lower East Side was hard, and a few Jews turned to crime. But the vast majority of the immigrants went to work, most of them in the garment industry, where they not only dominated the work force but owned many of the factories. Working conditions were dismal and Jewish American workers spearheaded the drive to form unions.
On the Lower East Side, Jewishness permeated the very texture of everyday life — in magazines, music, poetry, books and theater. Jewish Americans developed their own unique cultural institutions and the Yiddish theater became enormously popular.