Academic journal article American Jewish History

"They Are Slitting the Throats of Jewish Children": The 1906 New York School Riots and Contending Images of Gentiles

Academic journal article American Jewish History

"They Are Slitting the Throats of Jewish Children": The 1906 New York School Riots and Contending Images of Gentiles

Article excerpt

In 1906 thousands of wailing Jewish parents stormed more than a dozen public schools across the city of New York, believing their children were being massacred. Though this event has largely been neglected by historians, the Jewish immigrant population's responses to it, especially through the influential Yiddish press, showed how enduring images of non-Jews, and suspicions toward them brought over from eastern Europe, could erupt into a hysterical charge on school buildings. (1) This episode, as well as a few other school-related affairs that occurred around the same time, point to a more nuanced picture than the received wisdom about the idyllic union between Jewish immigrants and the public schools of New York.

Reports from the period written by social reformers, such as Kate Holladay Claghorn of the New York City Tenement House Department or Lillian Wald, cofounder of the Henry Street Settlement, convey the sense that immigrant Jews viewed the public schools and the mostly gentile teachers with an undying reverence. Similarly, schoolteacher Myra Kelly argued in 1907 that Jewish immigrants venerated the Board of Education for its beneficence in providing much-needed services, such as free adult lectures, a Yiddish lecture program, night schools, free lunches, and recreational facilities. To the immigrants, Kelly believed, the board seemed to embody all that was heartening about America. (2) Many historians have echoed this notion, writing of the "the happy marriage," and even the "passionate love affair" between Jewish immigrants and the New York schools. (3) Those optimistic affirmations notwithstanding, Yiddish-speaking immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century may not have agreed with Ben Halpern, the American Jewish historian who later argued that "America is different." (4) Their perceptions of the new country were heavily influenced by lasting sensibilities concerning gentiles and contemporary events in Russia. (5)

On the morning of June 27, 1906, riots erupted on the Lower East Side. Tearing their hair, beating their breasts, and shaking their fists, a few thousand howling parents (mostly Jewish immigrants) stormed a dozen public schools in the neighborhood. The parents cried out that physicians were cutting the throats of their children. "Give us our children, murderers!" one parent was overheard shouting by an onlooking journalist. "My goodness, they slaughter Jewish children! I'll break the windows if they don't return my child! Vey'z mir, eighty-two children were slaughtered at the Cannon Street school!" (6) The Sun reported that during the panic it was dangerous to walk on the East Side wearing eyeglasses, because the parents might mistake you for a doctor and chase after you. After being refused admittance to the schools by administrators, the parents smashed windows, broke down doors, and threw anything they could pick up--stones, bricks and vegetables--at the school buildings. At one school several women managed to break into the classrooms and, as they were screaming at the teachers in Yiddish, snatched their children and fled. The next day saw similar disturbances in the Jewish sections of Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Brownsville, and also in Manhattan's Little Italy, where Italian immigrants rioted in much smaller numbers.

The catalyst for the turmoil was several pupils' swollen adenoids, a condition that concerned school officials because it was known to interfere with respiration. A week before the panic, the principal of Public School 110 at Broome and Cannon Streets, Miss A. E. Simpson, invited Board of Health physicians and nurses to perform the relatively minor operation of removing the adenoids from a few pupils, in order to save their parents the trouble and expense of taking the children to the hospital. Although the principal explained to a reporter that no child was touched without the consent of his or her parents, many parents could not read the English notes sent home from school (even Yiddish explanations would have barely clarified the technical terms), and in some cases the pupils themselves signed the "authorization. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.