|NATALIE AND MENDEL RACOLIN MEMORIAL LECTURE • MAX WEINREICH CENTER
Rebecca Kobrin, Knapp Assistant Professor of American Jewish History, Columbia University
In August 1914, a riot broke out on the Lower East Side in front of one of the most revered businesses in the neighborhood, Sender Jarmulowsky's bank. Demanding that this bank along with five other 'immigrant banks' return their deposits, the enraged crowd of thousands paraded to City Hall where they attacked clerks. The riot frightened city officials who feared others would question the financial stability of banks in New York, the financial capital of the country. Thus, they assigned the city’s revered judge, Learned Hand, to settle the claims. Hand soon uncovered that the bank’s assets had all been lost in real estate speculation, provoking the creation of new banking legislation to protect New York from becoming infected with “speculitis,” a disease all agreed was transforming not only New York but America itself.
Today, few recall the Jarmulowsky bank or the other Jewish immigrant banks involved in this riot or the banking reforms their failures set in motion. But as my lecture explores, these institutions were central to the daily economic lives of thousands of Yiddish speaking Jews on the Lower East Side and in Brownsville. These 'banks' not only helped East European Jews book passage to the United States, but they helped them engage and negotiate American capitalism, by providing them with loans, savings accounts and means to transfer money abroad.