Tuesday, February 14, 2006


On this website, learn more about My Future Is in America, an anthology of Jewish immigrant autobiographies from the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, published by New York University Press.

Rose Silverman

b. 1892, Berdichev, Ukraine
To US: 1913
New York, N.Y.

"My Future Is in America"

Rose Silverman relates a complex, gritty, life-and-death struggle to ensure her future by emigrating to the United States against the wishes of her religious father, whom she feared, resented, and deeply respected. The author details the deadening poverty in which she came of age. Books became both her refuge and her rescue after she taught herself to read and write using a prayer book and a letter-writing manual she found at home. Her palpable desire for knowledge brought her into the sphere of the local intelligentsia, who introduced her to the labor movement to which she became a dedicated, life-long adherent. In the United States, Silverman partook of the vibrant political culture and social life of the immigrant milieu in New York City. After marriage, she continued to work as a seamstress and was proud to have educated her only son in the spirit of her political and spiritual home, the Workmen’s Circle.

Rose Schoenfeld

b. 1884, Drohobycz, Galicia
To US: 1912
New York, N.Y.

"What Drove Me to America and My Experiences in Europe and America"

Rose Schoenfeld’s story illustrates, among other things, the power of the printed word for her generation. As a young woman, with her husband in America, Schoenfeld fell into a deep depression. Advised by a doctor to take up reading, Schoenfeld went one step further by composing stories herself. Eventually, her work appeared in a number of periodicals in Galicia and the United States. Her literary interests led her to the Zionist movement and local politics. She proudly tells of how she engineered her family’s move to America against the wishes of her husband and her parents. A visit to her hometown in 1932, and the outbreak of World War II both confirmed the wisdom of her decision. Perhaps as further validation of her move, Schoenfeld’s upbeat account of her voyage and arrival differs drastically from the usual immigrant saga of hardship.

Ben Reisman

b. 1876, Kalush, Galicia
To U.S.: 1896

"Why I Came to America"

In YIVO’s 1942 contest, Ben Reisman won first prize for this detailed, lively, and nuanced autobiography. An orphan, Reisman had a close, but troubled, relationship with his extended family, a theme that runs throughout his account and is closely bound up with his resentment at having been forced to cut short his traditional Jewish education to apprentice as a tinsmith. He vividly describes his work as a tinsmith and roofer in Galicia, where he worked for his brother-in-law until he emigrated. In the US, he became active in the Socialist movement and continued to work at his trade – often among non-Jews. He led a happy family life and expresses pride in his wife and children. Reisman eventually went into business for himself and prospered. Nevertheless, he exhibits of the ambivalence of a Socialist businessman, he remained critical of the materialism of some members of his extended family.

Minnie Kusnetz (Mrs. Baron fon Habenikhts)

b. 1912, Ruzhany, Belarus
To Canada: 1929 To US: 1930s
Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I Haven’t Lost Anything by Coming to America”

Minnie Kusnetz’s spirited, optimistic story conveys the vicissitudes in the life of the youngest writer represented in this anthology, including her experiences as a child during the Polish-Soviet war. Unable to enter the United States directly because of the restrictive immigration laws then in place, she went to Canada and subsequently immigrated to the United States illegally. A proficient seamstress and active union member, Kusnetz gives a lively portrayal of work in the garment industry and clashes between workers and bosses in both Montreal and New York. She describes her courtship with Chaim Kusnetz, whose autobiography also appears in this collection. Notable for their rejection of the ethos of domestic consumption, and for their adherence to the Jewish dietary laws, the couple offers a rare glimpse at gender relations in marriage from the perspectives of both husband and wife.

Chaim Kusnetz (Baron von Habenichts)

b. 1904, Duboy, Belarus
To US: 1923
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Why I Left the Old Country and What I Have Accomplished in America

A true worker-intellectual, Kusnetz was unusual for two reasons: First, he remained religiously observant his whole life, even after he fell under the influence of philosophies critical of traditional religion. Second, he was attracted to psychology and to philosophers of the simple life and self-abnegation, rather than to political radicalism. His inclination toward introspection, in turn, leads him to paint a rather dark picture of his inner life, darker, perhaps, than was warranted by his actual circumstances and relationships. He provides an interesting account of his intellectual development, including his reading in traditional Jewish texts, adventure stories, and psychological literature. In addition, he provides informative descriptions of traditional Jewish life in Belarus, of events in South Russia during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, of his first impressions of America, and of immigrant life in Brooklyn in the 1920s. His introspective account of his courtship and marriage stands in contrast to his wife’s more straight-forward description.

Shmuel Krone

b. 1868, Verkhovichi, Belarus
To US: 1903
Denver, Co.

“I Have Nothing to Complain About”

The most important theme of Shmuel Krone’s story is the writer’s triumphant struggle to remain a religious Jew despite many obstacles, including service in the Russian army in the 1890s. Upon his arrival in Chicago in 1903, he left the home of relatives when he discovered that they did not keep kosher. He relates a futile search for employment that would not require him to break the Sabbath, during which he feared that he and his family might starve. Krone experienced mixed success in various business endeavors before becoming a ritual slaughterer at a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients near Denver, Colorado. He describes a failed attempt at homesteading in Wyoming with frustrated if amused irony.

Minnie Goldstein

b. 1882, Warsaw
To U.S.: 1894
Providence, RI

"Success or Failure?"

Goldstein’s struggle for basic literacy was one of the starkest of all the autobiographers’. In her native Warsaw Goldstein spent most of her time on the street, and in New York she went to work as soon as she arrived at the age of twelve. She never received any kind of formal education. Only as an adult did she learn to read and write, first Yiddish and then English. Although she asks the scholars at YIVO to judge whether she has been a success or a failure, Goldstein clearly believes she has been a success. Starting with virtually nothing, she has acquired several houses; learned how to read and write two languages; become active in communal affairs; and “fooled the doctors” by virtually curing her son of the debilitating effects of polio. Note that at Weinreich’s urging, she added two supplements to her first manuscript, filling in various details about her life. Note also that Goldstein uses several forms of her first name: Minnie, Mashe, Mane, and Manele.

Bertha (Brukhe) Fox

b. 1892, Skvira, Ukraine
To US: 1922
New York, N.Y.

“The Movies Pale in Comparison”

Written in two parts, Fox’s dramatic and far-ranging autobiography is a rare account of an Eastern European Jewish woman’s life from the turn of the twentieth century through World War I and the Russian Civil War. She endured poverty and starvation as a child, and went immediately to work as a youth. Later, she and her brother traveled widely to support their family as photographers. Fox was the sole supporter of her family in the years leading up to and during the war, often going to great lengths to secure a livelihood. Fox’s story has elements of the Socialist autobiography, detailing her conversion to the Bund, her political activism, and the euphoria, chaos and instability of the Revolution of 1917. Perhaps the most striking aspects of her story are her descriptions of the well-known pogroms in Ukraine in 1905 and 1919-1920, along with other incidences of anti-Semitism. Fox’s life-story is an important document of survival written by an engaging, perceptive and shrewd protagonist. Fox’s autobiography was translated by Fruma Mohrer and Jocelyn Cohen

Aaron Domnitz (Aba Beitani)

b. 1884, Romanovo, Belarus
To US: 1906
Baltimore, Md.

"Why I Left My Old Home and What I Have Accomplished in America"

The autobiography of Aaron Domnitz is perhaps the purest example of the maskil-type autobiography in this collection. A deeply pious and zealous student of Gemara as a child and youth, he was drawn to the study of Hebrew literature and secular subjects as a Yeshiva student. Influenced by the revolutionary fervor surrounding him, Domnitz romanticized workers and industrial labor, but spent only a brief time in the “shop” before becoming a Hebrew teacher after immigrating. Domnitz describes his experiences as a member of the literary and intellectual circle known as “Di Yunge,” the Young Ones, while living in the Bronx in the first decades of the twentieth century. An ideal informant, the writer has a knack for keen observation, evoking his surroundings with a sharp eye and close detail, always placing the phenomena he describes so vividly in their historical contexts.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Teaching Autobiography

Contact me if you have ideas you would like to share.

The History of Immigration and Ethnicity in the United States
The summer of 2006 I had the opportunity to teach special graduate section at Brooklyn College to social studies teachers in the New York City school system. Here are some of the assignments:

1) 3) If I had had the time, I would have used Ben Reisman along with Andrew Lam's Perfume Dreams, a Vietnamese refugee's deeply conflicted, very rich memoir of cataclysm in two worlds. Sometimes the woundedVietnamese past collides with the American Dream of affluence and acceptance in Lam's adopted home in San Francisco--at great cost to his family. Sometimes the "parochialness" of place--Vietnam--and the long history in that place where, evocatively, Lam's umbilical cord is buried, stand against the new cosmopolitan transnational who transcends particularist, increasingly porous boundaries of our new globalized world. The Viet Kieu, members of the Vietnamese diaspora, return for a time but their visits never quench their thirst for home. Their Vietnam is broken. There is only the memory of place Lam seems desparate to integrate into his present, and no wonder: in the boundary-less world in which he moves, memory of place is perhaps his only home. Through the supreme act of conjuring that is the memoirist's task, he wants to make memory real, somehow to bring back the photos he burned at his mother's behest in his final act before escaping to Guam as a boy of eleven, and he assures us that he can bring them back. But even if he could, photos are only photos, imprints of what was. As immigrant narratives, the stories in My Future Is in America evoke that same tension between past and present, but the American Dream stands in for the possibilities of the present and future more than the transnational vision of Lam's account.

2) Selections from the autobiography of Chaim Kusnetz, pp. 251-3, in which he describes the famine in the Volga region in the early 1920s.

This served a number of purposes: primary source documentation of the relationship among hunger migration and Jewishness the students read about in Hasia Diner's book, Hungering for America; evidence of "remittances" in a discussion of transnationalism; prolonged family separation; the relationship between upheaval of the Russian Civil War and the spike in Jewish migration just before immigration restriction in 1924.

3) Selections from the autobiography of Chaim Kusnetz. Pp. 260-262: about his conflict with his father over his religious observance upon his arrival in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1923 (this section also works well with Diner as there's lots about food and its abundance); pp. 265-267: the conflict over religion between Kusnetz's father and mother; p. 275: the resolution of the conflict between the parents.

We looked at conflict within the family during the process of migration that involves separation of several years. We studied the Jewish situation in the 1920s next to a contemporary case, Peggy Levitt's Transnational Villagers, a study of the migration of townspeople from Miraflores in the Dominican Republic to Boston (and, often, back).

To my mind, Transnational Villagers is a devastating portrait of the dependency of Miraflores on its migrant community. There is a direct parallel with many shtetlekh of eastern Europe in the inter-war period, which were almost completely dependent on the philanthropy of their landslayt (people from the same hometown or region) in the United States.

Course Pack Permissions and Exam Copies

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To request a review copy, please contact Patty Garcia by email at patty.garcia@nyu.edu, by phone at212-992-9991, or by fax at 212-995-3833.

The Translators/Editors

JOCELYN COHEN teaches at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in New York City.

DANIEL SOYER is  Professor of History at Fordham University. His book, written with Annie Polland, City of Promises, won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award.  He is also the author of Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939, which was co-winner of the 1999 Saul Veiner Award of the American Jewish Historical Society and the winner of the Thomas J. Wilson Prize. He is also editor of A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalization, and Reform in New York City's Garment Industry.

YIVO's Autobiography Contest of 1942

The autobiographies in My Future Is in America were chosen for inclusion out of over 200 manuscripts in the American Autobiographies Collection (RG 104) at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. In 1942, under the direction of Max Weinreich, YIVO's director of research and its guiding intellectual light, the institute sponsored a contest for the best autobiography by a Jewish immigrant on the theme, "Why I Left the Old Country and What I Have Accomplished in America." Twenty-five contestants won prizes based on their percision, clarity, and attention to detail.

Written mostly in Yiddish (90%), and mostly by men (80%), the collection nonetheless includes voices from across the social spectrum of immigrant life. The writers came to the U.S. in every decade from the 1880s through the 1940s, from all parts of eastern Europe (and beyond) to settle throughout the United States. They are workers and housewives, professionals and business men, and, yes, even a few writers. One important reason for the presence of workers' and women's stories in the collection is the endorsement of the national Jewish labor organization, Arbeter Ring/Workmen's Circle, which enthusiastically encouraged its members to submit their autobiographies. Dr. Weinreich also corresponded extensively with prospective writers, to convince them of the historical importance of their stories.

In the late 1990s, YIVO received a grant from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture to create a finding aid for the American Autobiographies Collection and to create this anthology.

YIVO conducted three autobiography contests for Jewish youth in the 1920s and 30s, when it was based in Vilna, Lithuania. Some of these stories are included in Awakening Lives, edited by Jeffrey Shandler and published by Yale University Press, 2002.