Experiencing Immigration

.. ed to practice Jewish religion, many cities erected synagogues and other houses of worship. On New York’s East Side alone, 500 Jewish houses of worship were built between 1880 and 1915. (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) The Educational Alliance was formed to aid in the transition by offering citizenship classes to adults, cooking and sewing classes, and facilities for young Jewish children. Its aim was to “Americanize and modernize the newcomers and aid in their adjustment. (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) Other groups similar to the Alliance included the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (H.I.A.S), The Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society, and the Hebrew Free Loan Society.

(American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) One of the most helpful factors in adjusting to American way of life was the development of the Jewish Daily Forward. This newspaper began publication in 1897 and quickly became the largest Yiddish newspaper in New York and offered “Yiddish culture and also educated immigrants about American culture and practices.” (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) Together with the above-mentioned groups, East European Jews were provided with a little bit of comfort and security in arriving to the United States. Many Jewish immigrants chose to continue living according to Jewish doctrine, with women wearing traditional wigs and staying in the home, as opposed to joining the workforce. However, for a number of different reasons, many Jewish families discovered that the traditional ways of living were difficult to execute in America. Often times in order to economically survive, women were forced to work so that they could supplement the household’s income.

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Although the concept of a working Jewish woman was frowned upon by more traditional Jews, women joining the work force became commonplace among Jewish immigrants. Children, on the other hand, were not expected to contribute economically; rather, they were strongly encouraged to excel in education and assimilation into American culture. It was the prime objective of Jewish parents to provide ways for the betterment of their children’s lives and education was seen as the key to success. Despite the small numbers of strict Jewish practices, most Jewish immigrants sought to shed their cultures and quickly become adapted to American way of life. “Greenhorns”, as new Jewish immigrants were referred to, struggled to break down the barriers between themselves and “native” Americans so that soon, the Jewish immigrant and “native” American would become difficult to separate. “Oisgrinen zikh- to cease being greenhorns-was a common motivation” of the arriving immigrant.

(American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) In his article “The Russian and Polish Jew in New York”, Edward Steiner made the following statement in regard to Jewish immigrants: “The more English they can display the smarter they are, and usually in two years the “greener” has mastered this difficult language.” (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) The Jewish immigrants who successfully created equilibrium between the past and the present displayed what was known as “Yiddishkeit”, a mixture of East European Jewishness and American way of life. Despite the pressures to assimilate, a tight family network was maintained that supported both change and the preservation of native beliefs. Italians comprised another large immigrant group journeying to America during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although they inhabited many large U.S. cities, a majority settled in the Mulberry Street district of lower Manhattan.

Here, Italian communities developed similar to many Jewish neighborhoods in which Italian businesses and residences lined the streets of this district. “Each village cluster attempted to reproduce the pace and patterns of its homeland setting.” (Pozetta, 1981) In accordance with many immigrant groups, Italians were concentrated in tenements housing large families in small spaces. These inner street ghettos provided on-lookers with many reasons to discriminate against Italians. Although economic conditions and little housing availability facilitated the unsanitary living conditions, many Italians and other immigrant groups were stereotyped as lazy and unsanitary. Employment opportunities were much the same for Italian immigrants was as they were for most immigrant groups.

Most took jobs in textile factories or other assembly factories, working in hazardous conditions for low wages. Italian women joined the workforce much more readily than Jewish women, often times taking on “home work” in order to work extra hours outside of the ten hour workday. In contrast to Jewish families pushing for the education of the children, Italian families preferred that their children contribute to the income of the household. It was common for Italian children in their native lands to attend school through the elementary level and upon its completion, join the workforce. In fact, in most cases this was expected.

In America, however, laws were created to insure that children attended school at least until the age of fourteen and were strongly urged to continue education after that age. It was a major adjustment for Italian adolescents who were accustomed to essentially becoming adults after elementary school to all of a sudden become part of a distinct group of people that were no longer children, but had not Italian families had a difficult time adjusting to the ways of American life, especially in terms of their children. Many disagreed with policies ensuring that children stayed in school as it took away opportunities for added income. In addition, many immigrant families were wary of the education their children were receiving, fearing that it facilitated the breakdown of the family unit and promoted immoral attitudes in their children. These families also believed that American education was not in accordance with traditional Italian culture and that it provoked disrespect and disobedience towards parents. In addition to jobs held in factories, Italian men were critical in the physical expansion of New York at this time, as they provided strenuous manual labor in the beautification of New York’s streets.

Italian immigrant men “worked in subway construction, street-grading, and rock and cement work as well as street cleaning, and they were crucial in building the modern infrastructure of the city, including Grand Central Station, the Bronx Aqueduct, and Jerome Park Reservoir.” (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) As with Jewish immigrants, various agencies were created in order to aid Italian immigrants in the transition to America. Among these were the Italian Chamber of Commerce, the Columbus Hospital, and the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants, the Italian Benevolent Institute, and a great number of Italian banks. (Margano, 1904) In addition to these agencies, the Italian immigrants enjoyed Italian-language newspapers such as Il Progresso. This paper helped to maintain ties to home as well as serving as “an agency helping immigrants adjust to American society and culture, publishing information about jobs and also providing advice on social and cultural incorporation. The most prominent display of Italian immigrants’ attempts to create new identities that included both Italian and American ways of living was the celebration of Columbus Day. This largely American holiday became an expression of Italian-American culture.

On October 12, 1938 millions of people congregated at Columbus Circle at West 59th Street in Manhattan honoring Italian Christopher Columbus. This celebration marked a fusion of Italian and American identities in which the immigrants established equilibrium between Italy and America. (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) As with all immigrant groups, both Jewish and Italian immigrants were faced with mixed reactions from Americans regarding their place in American society. In accordance with historical reactions to immigrants, many Americans stereotyped immigrant groups as lazy, dirty, loud, uncouth, strange in ways of religion, mentally incompetent, and unable to assimilate into American society. A lot of strong viewpoints were expressed against immigration and immigrants in general which caused problems for generations that descended from immigrants, but they were American born.

With regard to immigration restriction and the preservation of the Nordic race, Prescott Hall laments that the United States’ power to regulate the number of immigrants was an excellent opportunity “to exercise artificial selection on an enormous scale.” (Hall, 1906) Americans who were afraid that the large influx of immigrants would somehow “taint” the American race accepted this argument. Despite the great number of tribulations immigrant groups endured, the end result was a nation of eclectic cultures and diverse ethnicities. Immigration has changed the definition of what it means to be an American by contributing such a vast background of origins and ways of living. Who today can say that he or she is American without taking into account numbers of ancestors that had immigrated to America? The only true native of America is the Native American Indian. Almost all the rest of Americans come from groups of people emigrating their own lands in search of better living in the New World.

The experience of the immigrant is truly a valuable lesson to be learned in that it is a tool to understanding the history of the United States as well as the cyclical nature of reactions to groups different from the norm. Every strange group is strange for only a period of time, that is, until another strange group emerges to take its place. History Essays.