Ruth Gay’s Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America (Norton, 1997) explores through research and personal memory the day-to-clay experience of “those ‘unfinished people’ who were easily overwhelmed and intimidated in a world that they never quite grasped.” Drawing on her own memories of growing up in the Bronx, the child of immigrants, Gay creates a sensitive history of the interface of these women and men with American life.
In the following excerpt, taken from a chapter called “Girls,” she traces the legacy of anxiety and self-denial that was packed in the immigrant woman’s bag, carried to this country, and passed on to her first-generation daughter.
A lot changed in America, but ingrained attitudes did not fade easily. Romantic gestures of embracing, kissing, and hand-holding were not often seen among the immigrant population. . . . Even on the Yiddish stage, passion was expressed more through speech than gesture. Couples may have esteemed and even loved one another, but they had not yet mastered the Western vocabulary of love. The old physical barriers between the sexes exerted their inimical force. Engaged couples did not hold hands or gaze into one another’s eyes in public. . . .
When I pressed one woman friend to describe her childhood in the Bronx, she could only answer starkly, “There was no fun.” In a situation where parents worried steadily and visibly about endangered relatives in Europe, about holding on to their jobs, about how to make ends meet, there was neither the will nor the talent for the sporting good times on a shoestring that seemed to be featured in our books about the happy poor. There were no cheerful excursions to a nearby creek with makeshift fishing poles, no happy neighborly picnics. Each household, it must be said, was miserable in its own way. . . .
Perhaps if there had been more kissing there would have been less fighting. But kissing and endearments were mostly reserved for very young children—and then all the delicious diminutives of which Yiddish is capable would come out. Babies created a free zone where tenderness could be legitimately expressed in language and touch. “Little bird, little crown, my own treasure, little sweetness, little mother, little father,” and on and on. Every name with the addition of a few suffixes could be turned into a poem. But they had not yet learned the language of love in English. . . .
I think that the immigrant generation did not see happiness as a legitimate goal in life. It was what happened when all one’s obligations had been fulfilled. . . . If at the end of their lives they could fold their hands and enjoy the benefits of peace and prosperity, the affection of their children, did they have the right to ask for more? . . .
“Dayenu” was a stern creed, and not altogether appropriate to the richness of American life. It was perhaps a creed that worked where poverty was so widespread that a roof over one’s head and enough to eat were all that one could hope for. But in the New World, immigrant women saw stretching before them infinite possibilities, and their restlessness with their constricted past and their wish to capture something of the variety of the present led to those mixed signals that their daughters received….
I think that that generation, [the daughters of immigrants], never ceased to marvel at how far they had come. Although they had not known the fear of the persecution and pogroms, they had tasted at first hand discrimination fueled by anti-Semitism and the dread of joblessness that the Depression left behind. This did not leave them unmarked. In their later years, they nourished a hidden fear that their fine positions and beautiful houses could, might, all vanish overnight. So they worked out their secret, fallback positions, the place, perhaps, where they “ought” to have landed if American opportunity had not propelled them so far.
So much of all this has been kept secret. Just as the immigrant generation kept silent about their primitive lives in the villages from which they came, about customs that they feared would elicit laughter or contempt from their American children, these very American children have kept their own secrets. Among ourselves, we said: “Dayenu.” We knew how far we had come. We were pleased with our work. We had encompassed a whole new civilization and had devised a way to live in it. But we knew how much more our brothers and husbands had accomplished, how we had lagged behind them, and a little of that shame prevented us from facing our own daughters. It was their fathers and uncles who were the doctors and scientists, the university professors, the world renowned musicians and Nobel Prize winners.