Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923) went to New York in 1886 and became a pioneer of Yiddish poetry in America. "Poet Laureate of Labor," he sang of sweatshop and tenement, exploitation and poverty, a threnody of dashed hopes and thwarted expectations. His poems became folk songs, and his own life mirrored the poverty and sadness of his songs.
Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925), an artist, illustrator, and printmaker, was the first artist to become an active Zionist. Lieder des Ghetto was one of his earliest important commissions, but the fullness of his talent is already evident. His drawings, done mainly in India ink, were a perfect medium for the somber themes of Rosenfeld's poetry.
Our two unfortunates had to leave, but as Rosenfeld saw it and Lilien depicted it, the plight of those permitted to remain was not much better: endless, unrewarding toil in the sweatshop. Illustrating "An der Namaschine" (At the Sewing Machine), a pious clothing operator, bearded and in skullcap, his tsitsith (holy fringes) dangling, sits at his machine. Man and machine have become one. Behind him, his bejeweled employer literally sucks his lifeblood. Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank catch the essence and tone of this poem in their volume of translations, Songs of Labor by Morris Rosenfeld, Boston, 1914:
More subtle and powerful is Lilien's drawing for "Die Thrane auf dem Eisen" (A Tear on the Pressing Iron), where a presser is bending over his work table, heavy pressing iron in hand. He is completely enclosed in a spider web, in which flies have been caught, and lurking in the top corner of it is a malevolent black spider. Wiener's prose translation reads:
Long hours and drudgery were not limited to the sweatshop. The lot of the street peddlers was no better, and in foul weather, worse. Two original drawings by the illustrator William Allen Rogers, "The Fruit Vendor" and the "Candle Merchant," accompanying a brief sketch, "Friday Night in the Jewish Quarter," in Harper's Weekly, April 19, 1890, capture this perfectly. It is spring, but the vendor is dressed in winter hat, coat, and boots. Standing by his three-wheel pushcart, holding out two pieces of fruit in his right hand, he holds his left hand open in supplication, which matches the look on his wizened face.
To call the old woman selling candles a "merchant" is an act of compassion. The sad mute plea on a face wearied by the tribulations of life mark her a beggar as much as a vendor. Her clawlike fingers clutch her means of livelihood, a tray of Sabbath candles still unsold. One is reminded of one of Rosenfeld's most popular and lugubrious poems, "The Candle Seller" (translation by Stokes and Frank):
Rogers also illustrated Sylvester Baxter's "Boston at the Century's End," in Harper's Magazine, November 1899, and among those illustrations is "The Jewish Quarter of Boston," of which the Library has the original. Mary Antin describes the "Quarter" in her The Promised Land.
On the other side of the coin is the tale of a Jewish immigrant girl, Yetta, the appealing sprite in Frederic Dorr Steele's original drawing to illustrate Myra Kelly's, "A Passport to Paradise," in McClure's, November 1904. Yetta is the heroine in one of Miss Kelly's touching tales about Jewish children of the Lower East Side. Born in Ireland, Myra Kelly lived most of her brief life-she died at thirty-five--in that section of New York, where she taught public school. Her stories appeared in leading magazines and were subsequently published in three collections. Theodore Roosevelt expressed the appreciation of many:
"A Passport to Paradise" is a bittersweet story of a little immigrant girl with a penchant for cleanliness, hard to achieve when water had to be brought up to the tenement apartment from the yard below; an ambition to serve in the exalted position of monitor; and a longing for her country peddler father whom she sets out to find, arousing fears that she has become lost. Most of all it is a loving account of Jewish boys and girls and their relationship with their Irish teacher. Steele's drawing catches the pathos and wonder of the immigrant community in the Jewish neighborhoods of tum-of-the century American cities, where there was a natural community bound together by memory, empathy, and shared aspirations.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).