I Am an American
Sailing across the sea, we saw the lights of a city in the distant horizon. I started crying both from happiness and worry. Would I ever see my family again? I had promised them that I would get work, save money and bring them all to America. America had promised us an escape from die violence and pogroms where Jews were robbed, beaten, raped and killed.
My baggage consisted of a suitcase and a sack with my featherbed, from which I never parted. (Many years later my featherbed was converted several times. The feathers were emptied out from ticking, put into a tub of soapy water, dried in the sun, and made into pillows.)
Steerage waited a long time until the first- and second-class passengers got off the boat.. People were waving and calling out names, but I didn’t recognize anyone. Several of my aunts (whom I had not seen for 10 years) finally found me and almost immediately impressed upon me the most important order of business: how not to be greenhorn.” I paid strict attention. Then I was told I could not stay with any of them. But my uncle had just become a widower with six children. This would be just the place for me. I could become adjusted to American life and help my uncle with the children. Then they took me to the public baths and introduced me to new fruits and vegetables.
I went to my uncle’s apartment very reluctantly. My uncle’s apartment building was dark, dirty and hot, with only one toilet per floor that was shared by everyone. In the kitchen, there was a washtub that was used as a bathtub and for washing clothes. My uncle was very polite to me. but my heart sank when I realized that I was to be the housekeeper, cook and laundress, and the one who prepared the wild children and sent them off to school. My only comfort was when I went to bed and wrapped myself in my featherbed and cried myself to sleep. I realized I would not be able to send any money back to Europe to bring my family to the goldene medineh. I wrote to my Aunt Henya in Newark and begged her to take me. As I was leaving my uncle’s house, I had to go though an argument with the uncle because he did not want me want me to take my featherbed.
In Newark, I got a job in a cigar factory and met young women. We worked long and hard, but there was laughter and we became friends. Aunt Kenya’s daughter, though, was getting married, and they needed the room that I took up in the apartment. I moved back to New York’s East Side to share a room with another girl.
“How long does it take to become an American citizen?” I kept asking and asking, to anyone who would listen. “How long does it take?” I read street signs and store signs, determined to learn with fluency the language of my adopted land. I attended night school and became interested in political and intellectual subjects, all while working a ten-and-a-half-hour day.
There was an influenza epidemic and I was laid up for three weeks. While in bed. I thought of the sweet air of the forest where I played as a child. By the time I recovered, though, it was spring in New York, with bright sunny skies and children playing in the streets.
My group of friends at that time all came from the same town I did—Nemirov, in the Ukraine—and we were united in the thought that we must help each other. We formed an organization that provided its members with insurance benefits, services of a doctor, and burial plots. Our first official meeting, we decided, would be a masquerade ball. The lady with the most original costume would win a prize. I tried very hard to think of a costume that would bring the audience to its feet. I worked on it for weeks.
The ballroom was overflowing, the band was very loud, blowing on their horns and scratching their violins. The crowd danced the mazurka energetically on the wooden floor. Then the music stopped, and only the drums beat slowly as the young women in costumes started across the stage.
The audience applauded for every one of us, but when I marched across the stage in my American flag dress—holding a flag above my head, too—they rose up from their seats and roared and applauded, and they started to sing “America the Beautiful.”‘
“I am an American,” I shouted from the stage. “Long live America!”