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Immigrant Cafe Society

The center of immigrant cultural life was the cafe, which developed and nurtured the Lower East Side's loose, informal network of writers, artists, politicians, and other intelligentsia. In the cafes, ideas and news were exchanged and work was solicited.

In this excerpt from his book about the Jewish ghetto on New York's Lower East Side, Hutchins Hapgood, a non-Jewish journalist, gives his impressions of the cafes that were located on Canal Street at the turn of the century.

 

 

 

 

 

In East Canal Street, in the heart of the East Side, are many of the little Russian Jewish cafes . . . where everything is clean and good, and where the conversation is often of the best. The talk is good, for there assemble, in the late afternoon and evening, the chosen crowd of intellectuals. The best that is Russian today is intensely serious. What is distinctively Jewish has always been serious. The man hunted from his country is apt to have a serious tone in thought and feeling.

It is this combination -- Russian, Jewish, and exile -- that is represented at these little Canal Street cafes. The somber and earnest qualities of the race, emphasized by the special conditions, receive here expression in the mouths of actors, socialists, musicians, journalists, and poets. Here they get together and talk by the hour, over their coffee and cake, about politics and society, poetry and ethics, literature and life. The cafekeepers themselves are thoughtful and often join in the discussion -- a discussion never light but sometimes lighted up by bitter wit and gloomy irony.

 

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