My great-grandfather, Simon Berger, moved to Philadelphia from Vienna, Austria in the late 1880s. He came from an “enlightened” family and owned a sweater factory that was open Monday through Saturday. One Saturday while he was on a business trip, Simon’s factory burned to the ground. He took this as a sign from G-d and became Sabbath-observant. Seeking a religious wife, Simon traveled to Europe, met and married Esther Blum from Satmar, Hungary and returned to Philadelphia to set up house, establishing a family of seven children, including my grandmother.
Now that his sweater factory was gone, Simon turned from being an employer to an employee – at least Sunday through Friday he was. Then Shabbos would come, he wouldn’t appear at work and Monday he’d be fired. This state of affairs went on until Simon and his brother opened Berger Brothers Haberdashery, crafting and selling fur coats. Simon and Esther’s Shabbat predicament was not unique.
The hundreds of thousands of Jewish emigrants from Eastern and Middle Europe arrived in the United States to find a “melting pot” that shunned those who stuck to traditional ways as old-fashioned and backward. The Blue Laws that forbade businesses from operating on Sunday put Jewish workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Their desperate efforts to make a living imperiled thousands of years of Sabbath-observance.
In his book, American Judaism (257-258), noted historian Jonathan Sarna, details the odd bed-fellows of labor-unions with Orthodox Jewry in campaigning for a five-day work-week. The “Jewish Sabbath Alliance” under Rabbi Bernard Drachman vigorously supported the move to “save Sabbath for the Jew,” add health and strength to the American people,” and “promote the home and home life.” The first factory to establish a five-day workweek was a New England spinning mill, in 1908, in response to the needs of their Jewish workers. Other businesses that accepted the five-day workweek has a similarly high concentration of Jewish employees: the needle trade, construction, and printing & publishing.
The turning point in the campaign for a five-day workweek came in the 1930s as the United States government sought ways to increase employment and industrial activity. President Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act and Fair Labor Act set various labor codes into law, among them, the eight-hour day and forty-hour week. It’s hard to believe now, but it wasn’t until 1939 that the “weekend” was something most people could enjoy. The five-day week granted Judaism an enhanced measure of equality within American life. Instead of having to choose between the American pattern of work and the Jewish day of rest, now Jews could proudly embrace both. My great-grandfather would be happy to know.
For more, see Waiting for the Weekend, in The Atlantic.