Factory work by day, Yiddish drama by night: the Lower East Side life of Elizabeth Hasanovitz

photo - Atlantic - 1-2018

It’s only been two weeks, but I already hate 1918 rich people. They’re imperious, self-absorbed, and shallow. When a New Jersey judge makes an incognito coal delivery during a cold snap, the lady of the house threatens to have him fired if he doesn’t take it up to the second floor. (He does, and dumps it in the parlor.) Vanity Fair praises the unsurpassed valor of soldiers from “great schools like Exeter, St. Paul’s, and Groton.” Rich characters in short stories yammer endlessly about their personal dramas, and I say, “You know what you need? A job.” So it was refreshing to come across decidedly-not-rich Elizabeth Hasanovitz, whose serialized autobiography “One of Them” begins in the January 1918 Atlantic.

Born into a large and loving family in Russia, Elizabeth began teaching in her father’s Hebrew school at fourteen—illegally, since she lacked a teaching certificate. All she wanted in life was to go on teaching with her father, but it wasn’t to be. When she took the teachers’ exam, fifty-five of the sixty Yiddish candidates failed, including Elizabeth; all nine Russian candidates passed. Meanwhile, the family fell on hard times because of the police chief’s frequent demands for bribes. And there was the constant danger of anti-Jewish violence from drunken peasants.

One night, as the family sat down for the Sabbath meal, Elizabeth said, “I have been thinking and I have decided that—that—I—shall go—to America.” Her mother and sisters burst into tears, and her father rejected the idea out of hand. Elizabeth pleaded with her parents for days. She could send for the rest of the family, she said. “Think of the children going to free schools, growing up free citizens!” But her father wouldn’t budge. Finally, she resorted to a hunger strike. After three days, her father got her a passport.

photo - Lower East Side, the Onion - 1-2018

Lower East Side, ca. 1910 (New York Times photo archive, public domain photo)

Elizabeth ended up in Canada, where she got a factory job. The pay was decent, but she left because of the country’s “provincial mental atmosphere.” Chicago was no more to her liking, so she set out for New York. There, things went well at first. She was making ten dollars a week at a knitting mill and saving five for her brother’s ticket. She joined the Dramatic Club, which aimed to provide higher fare than the “trash” that most Yiddish theaters fed the public. All was well, except for the “common and vulgar” atmosphere in the factory. The other girls’ “frankness in manner and speech would make me blush, and I became an object of their teasing.”

But the good times didn’t last. Business slowed, and Elizabeth was laid off. Luckily, a fellow member of the Dramatic Club had a home textile enterprise, and he took Elizabeth on as a trainee. The atmosphere was congenial—the family members sang merry Russian songs as they worked—but Elizabeth was a hopeless seamstress, constantly sewing a front where a sleeve was supposed to be. Eventually she improved, but she was slow, and she earned only five or six dollars a week, barely enough to live on. Exhausted at night, she abandoned her dream of studying. When she was down to her last two dollars, she fell into despair.

photo - shirtwaist factory workers 1910 - 1-2018

Shirtwaist factory workers, 1910 (Library of Congress, public domain photo)

Elizabeth went to a flower shop and bought a funeral bouquet for $1.50. Back at her rooming house, she turned on the gas. To speed her death along, she soaked matches and drank the liquid. She woke up in the hospital, her friend Clara from the Dramatic Club at her side. Clara invited Elizabeth to live with her, and out of options, she agreed.

To be continued!

Elizabeth has her flaws. She’s a terrible snob, with her haughty dismissal of Canada and her airs and graces on the factory floor. She claims to have almost starved to death on the ocean journey because the other passengers grabbed all the food, but her real problem seems to have been with their disgusting table manners. And she’s quite the drama queen. The hunger strike! The funeral bouquet!

Still, she’s a compelling heroine, and she paints a vivid picture of immigrant life in the Lower East Side. I look forward to reading her further adventures. If you want to know more, you can find her entire autobiography online. Just don’t tell me what happens!

2 thoughts on “Factory work by day, Yiddish drama by night: the Lower East Side life of Elizabeth Hasanovitz

  1. Barbara Dinerman

    Stories of the immigrant factory workers will never get old. Some years ago, I bought a copy of the hardcover tome, HOW WE LIVED by Irving Howe & Kenneth Libo, a Documentary History of Immigrant Jews in America, 1880-1930. Lots of photos, sketches. Fascinating and painful! There’s even a glossary of Yiddish terms, such as “Bintel Brief” — a letter-and-answer column in the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper. That could be another topic for your blog! The forerunner of Ann Landers’ widely syndicated column and that of her sister, Abigail van Buren (both pseudonyms, of course, for the competing sisters).

    According to my mother’s oral history, my immigrant grandfather read items from the Forward to the family every night after dinner, especially the serialized Yiddish stories of love and heartbreak. My mother and her sisters couldn’t read Yiddish, and my grandparents couldn’t read English. I forgot to ask how the stories brought them all together!

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  2. My Year in 1918 Post author

    What wonderful family stories!. I love advice columns and have been wanting to write about them, but I haven’t come across any yet. I hadn’t thought about the Jewish press–will definitely take a look.

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