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Every American has heard stories of Eastern European and Southern European immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, I’m sure that many StoryWeb readers are descended from those immigrants.
The stories are legion, the images unforgettable. Without a doubt, every American needs to visit Ellis Island at least once. (If you’re going for the first time, plan to spend the entire day. There is so much to see, touch, feel, explore – and so many, many stories to hear as you listen to the headphones on your self-guided tour.)
Likewise, everyone should make it a point to visit the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This outstanding, award-winning museum was created when construction workers uncovered a boarded-up, untouched tenement building. The tenement was home to nearly 7,000 immigrants. Visitors to the museum tour the four apartments, each telling the story of a different family who actually lived in the building. Neighborhood walking tours and “Tenement Talks” are also available.
Another source for learning the powerful history of immigration, tenements, and sweatshops is Ric Burns’s series New York: A Documentary Film. You’ll find episodes 3 and 4 especially relevant.
All of these resources are great ways to learn about immigration, but this week I want to pay homage to one particular immigrant: writer Anzia Yezierska, who hailed from Russian Poland. Born in the 1880s, Yezierska immigrated with her Jewish family to the United States in the early 1890s. Her 1923 essay, “America and I,” tells the story of her struggle to move beyond working as a domestic servant and as a shirtwaist maker in sweatshops to working with her “head.”
When she goes to a vocational counselor, she is told that she should become the best shirtwaist maker she can be and slowly rise from job to job. But she counters with, “I want to do something with my head, my feelings. All day long, only with my hands I work.” Yezierska feels she is “different,” that she has more to offer.
Ultimately, Yezierska was able to work with her head, her feelings. She mastered the English language and began to write novels, short stories, and autobiographical essays. As works like “America and I” demonstrate, she wrote in a dialect of Yiddish-flavored English. We hear the Russian immigrant: she comes through on the page.
Like many others, I have often bemoaned the plight of the immigrants who flooded through Ellis Island, crowded into the tenements of the Lower East Side, and toiled in sweatshops like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (the site of one of the deadliest industrial accidents in American history). How wretched their lives must have been, I have thought more than once.
But a dear friend who is descended from Italian immigrants to New York tells me that he thinks the immigrants were quite successful. In just two generations, his family moved out of the Lower East Side to Little Italy in the Bronx and then to White Plains, New York. Their great-grandson is now a professor at a liberal arts college in New York City. Such rapid success is, to my friend, mind-boggling!
If you want to hear firsthand what the journey was like for one immigrant, be sure to read Anzia Yezierska’s essay “America and I.” You can read the short essay online – or buy the collection How I Found America, which includes the essay. If you’re ready to read more of Yezierska’s writing, you’ll definitely want to check out her 1925 novel, The Bread Givers, widely considered to be her masterpiece.
You might also want to explore a bit of Yezierska’s biography. She ended up earning a scholarship to Columbia University and was later involved in a romantic relationship with Columbia professor John Dewey. You can read about their relationship in Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. Yezierska’s only child, Louise Levitas Henriksen, wrote a biography of her mother, Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, biographer Bettina Berch looks at Yezierska’s written works as well as her work as a screenwriter for Hollywood. An excellent student paper, “Anzia Yezierska: Being Jewish, Female, and New in America,” Is a great (and short!) introduction to Yezierska and her work. Other useful overviews of Yezierska and her work can be found at Jewish Women’s Archive and My Jewish Learning.
Image Credit: Anzia Yezierska, http://www.tenement.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/Yezierska.jpg.
Anzia Yezierska was one of more than two million Eastern European Jews who arrived in the United States during a major wave of Jewish immigration from 1880 to 1924, seeking economic opportunity and relief from pogroms and anti-Semitism. Her stories about immigrant life paint a vivid picture of the day-to-day struggles of individuals and families as they faced an environment that was simultaneously brutal and full of possibility. The dialogue in her stories between parents and children, husbands and wives, neighbor and neighbor, Gentiles and Jews, depicts the interpersonal turmoil that was common during this period of American Jewish life.
Anzia Yezierska was born in the 1880s near Warsaw in Poland. Around 1890, her family immigrated to the United States, where they lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York City. Although her parents encouraged her brothers to attend high school and college, she left school after only two years of elementary education and worked in sweatshops to help support her family.
In pursuit of education and independence, Yezierska left home as a teenager and moved into the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls, a residential trade school for young immigrant Eastern European Jews. She found the residence just as stifling as her family's home. Nevertheless, the wealthy German Jewish patrons of the residence recognized her promise and awarded her a four-year scholarship to Columbia's Teachers College where she was required to study the domestic arts. Determined to attain a life of freedom and self-expression, she eventually decided to become a writer.
In a short time, during the 1920s, she became famous for her writing. She was labeled "the sweatshop Cinderella" for having pulled herself from the dreary life of a laborer to become an acclaimed writer. Her fame was short lived. By the 1930s her books fell out of popularity. However, after her death in 1970, her books became well-known once more, as feminists reclaimed lost female writers.
Yezierska's stories explore classic immigrant themes. The older generation feels desperate and helpless to preserve Jewish traditions and ways of life, as they watch their treasured children turn away from them. Meanwhile, the younger generation is eager and impatient to embrace the riches that America has to offer.
Yezierska tells her stories from a woman's point of view, and many are semi-autobiographical. She underscores the injustice that Jewish women experienced working at menial jobs, while Jewish men stayed home and studied classical Jewish texts. She describes the lack of respect and insults that women endured as mothers and wives. Part of what drove Yezierska away from her own family was her quest for equality and respect, which she saw as unattainable given the roles of men and women in traditional Jewish culture at that time.
In our featured story, Children of Loneliness, Yezierska depicts one family that is torn apart when the daughter, Rachel, returns from college having absorbed American culture and values. The mother and father are devastated by their daughter's rejection of them and their immigrant ways. "Oh mother, can't you use a fork?" Rachel complains. When her mother offers her the special latkes that she fried with love on a "stove full of coal like a millionaire," Rachel replies, "I can't stand your fried, greasy stuff." The father screams out at her with dismay and anger. The mother tries to calm the father down, but she herself is distraught. They become caught in a circle of anger and accusations, jabs and counter jabs.
Eventually, Rachel leaves her family, heartbroken, conflicted, and alone. She yearns to live in a world that is refined and beautiful. At the same time, she longs for the comfort and warmth of her parents' home. Peeking through the window one night, but unwilling to knock on the door, she stops to listen to her father as he prays. "Thousands of years of exile, thousands of years of hunger, loneliness and want swept over her as she listened to her father's voice."
Yezierska's Children of Loneliness raises many questions for discussion. How has immigration affected the different generations of our families? In what periods did members of our families first come to America? Has the loneliness and sadness that Yezierska describes been handed down to younger generations? How has assimilation affected the connections we have with our parents and children? How are present day immigrants' experiences similar to or different from those of the characters in Yezierska's stories? What lessons can we learn from Yezierska's Children of Loneliness today?