Piety and Poverty: Working-Class Religion in Berlin, London, and New York, 1870-1914

By Hugh McLeod | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 6
Heart of a
Heartless World?

IT WAS A SWELTERING night on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and in one Chrystie Street tenement, the young Michael Gold, a child of Romanian Jewish immigrants, was lying in his bed, battling with the bedbugs:

They crawl slowly and pompously, bloated with blood, and the touch and
smell of these parasites wakens every nerve to disgust….

It wasn't a lack of cleanliness in our home. My mother was as clean as any
German housewife; she slaved, she worked herself to the bone, keeping us
fresh and neat. The bedbugs were a torment to her. She doused the beds
with kerosene, changed the sheets, sprayed the mattresses in an endless
frantic war with the bedbugs….

I cried softly. My mother woke and lit the gas. She renewed her futile battle
with the bedbugs. The kerosene smell choked me….

'Momma,' I asked, 'why did God make bedbugs?'

Gold gave other examples of what life meant in the slums of New York, which would have been equally true of London or Berlin. For instance, there were the filthy streets, the crumbling buildings, the familiarity of crime and prostitution, and the accidents—his sister was killed in a street accident, and a fall at work crippled his father. Like Gold's mother, many poor people were engaged in a constant struggle to maintain standards of cleanliness and order—to stay 'decent' and 'respectable'—in the face of the dirt and decay, the smells, the noise. And like Gold himself they sometimes asked questions about what it all meant. Gold's pious mother 'laughed at her little boy's quaint question'. For her it was enough to

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