The cultural baggage carried by an immigrant group helps determine how easily its members adapt to life in a new homeland, depending upon how well these characteristics mesh with those of the host country.
Seeking to learn what elements of strength sustained European Jewish women who arrived in the United States around the turn of the century and facilitated their adjustment, I interviewed fifteen women who immigrated to this country between 1901 and 1924 and who are now 72 to 96 years old. All worked outside the home at some time during their lives, at jobs ranging from running a family butter-and-eggs business to serving as an executive for the New York Society for the Deaf. Several were active in the labor movement, and all but one were literate. Three are now poor; the rest range from lower- to upper-middle-class. Only one remained single, another was widowed young and a third deserted. Three did not have children, one by choice.
These interviews were combined with an examination of the autobiographical literature by Eastern European Jewish immigrants available in English. Both sources, oral and written, reveal several traits crucial to the successful adaptation of Jewish women to American life in the early twentieth century. They include assertiveness and a sense of independence— stemming both from experience in the marketplace and from strong parental support—and a yearning for education.
From immigration statistics, we know that Jewish women, many of them single, came to this country in rates exceeding those of any other female immigrants (except the Irish women of 1850’s and 1860’s, who came because of poverty and the difficulty for women in the Irish countryside). Such immigrant statistics do not tell us, however, whether these single women came alone or as part of a family group.
What emerges from the interviews and memoirs is that large numbers of Jewish women immigrated to this country on their own at a young age, despite the protectiveness of Jewish parents toward their daughters. Seven of the women I interviewed came to America by themselves at ages ranging from 13 to 22. All of them considered it quite ordinary for young Jewish women to make the trip alone. Several were sent by their families to earn the money needed to bring over the others.
After her father lost his small butcher shop during the First World War, Anna S. and her sister, ages 14 and 17, travelled alone to the United States to work, scrimp and save and, ultimately, bring the family to America. Their father, who was not permitted to leave because he was of military age, told them, “this is the only hope. Otherwise, the whole family will go to ruin.”
Although the immigrant women came for different reasons, and some went to live with relatives upon arriving, all had parental approval when they left. This indicates the parents’ confidence in their daughters’ abilities to manage their own lives and probably helped them develop the capacity to function independently.
Many of these young women were asked to assume considerable responsibility for themselves and other family members at an early age. Pauline H., who came to the U.S. at 13, kept house for her father, uncle and brother, and was in charge of the household accounts. “Those things didn’t come hard to me,” she recalled, “because I was not just a child. They used to say, ‘A yung kind un an alteh kup,’ (A young child, but an old head).” Anna S. took pride in having been able to go out and work when she was 10 years old in her native Siedlice so that she could help her parents with her paycheck; she was eager to be “independent.” Frieda W. left her father’s rented farm for Vilna at the age of 17 to assist the family by working in a shop. “My parents depend on me,” recalled Fannie C. “Not only financially, but that, too. When my father had to go see the doctor, I would go with him and describe his symptoms in English. My brother really enjoyed his life—I had the responsibilities.” Etta Byer, who went to work when still a child and left home at 13, observed that, “We were grown-ups at a very early age. Our childhood was short.”
These kinds of experiences were shared by both young Jewish and non-Jewish women, immigrant or nativeborn, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Poor families in Western Europe often sent their daughters to the nearest city or town to earn wages to help out at home. Every chronicler of the immigrant experience has mentioned the role reversal that took place when children who learned English quickly began to assist their less fluent parents. What differentiates the Jewish women’s experience, however, is the attitude of the parents and the young women themselves to their work. Jewish immigrants may have viewed a paying job differently from members of other groups. To many young Jewish women, whether in the Old Country or the United States, working for wages meant more than being able to assist their parents, or being financially independent. It frequently meant thinking of themselves, and being treated by their parents, as autonomous adults.
This valuation may have facilitated their transition from childhood to adulthood and accorded with American attitudes of the time. One study, comparing working women of different ethnic groups demonstrated that young Italian women identified with their parents, and viewed themselves as passive. But Jewish women focused more upon their jobs, and saw themselves as active agents with control over their own lives.
Most of the women I interviewed expressed satisfaction with their ability to earn their own living and with the fact that working had given them options they might otherwise have lacked; one deferred having children and another decided to remain childless, and several intimated that their work provided them with greater freedom in choosing a mate. For some, a job provided an alternative to a family-centered existence. Rose Pesotta, a well-known labor organizer, emigrated to avoid becoming a housewife because, as she put it, in America “a middle-class girl can work without disgrace.” When Rose Schneiderman entered the union movement, she wrote, “All of a sudden I was not lonely any more.”
This sense of independence tended to alter relationships between the young working women and their parents. Young Jewish women generally lived at home and turned most of their salaries over to their mothers. What is significant is how the money was given and how it was received. All the women I interviewed decided on how much they required for their expenses and how much they could afford to contribute to the family’s support. They did not give all their 22 money to parents to give in turn to their daughters for expenses.
In Jewish families, the money was freely given by the daughters rather than automatically expected by the parents, as was the case in the families of other immigrant groups, in which work did not elevate daughters to the status of adults in their parents’ eyes. When 16-year-old Anna S. was offered a job at $35 rather than the $25 she had been earning, but at a less pleasant shop, her mother told her, “You have to decide.” Rose Schneiderman believed that her independence began when she started work as a capmaker and kept $1 of her $6 salary instead of giving it all to her mother and letting her decide how much to return for Rose’s expenses.
Increased assertiveness on the part of daughters after they began working often created conflicts with parents, particularly fathers. Fannie C. recalled that her father did not allow her to attend her high school senior prom. After graduation, she began working as a bookkeeper while living at home and giving most of her money to her parents. At work she met the man she would eventually marry, and within a year after the time she had to forego the prom, she told her father that she was going away with her fiancé for the weekend. He protested strongly, but she replied, “I’m going and that’s that.” Her work experience had given her the courage to stand up to her father, she said. Tanya N. also began to defy her father after getting her first job. After he told her mother that he would throw her out onto the Bowery if she bobbed her long hair, Tanya went to a barber and insisted that he clip her hair up to her ears. Her father ranted and raved, but Tanya remained at home and her father accepted what he could not change. Later, Tanya eloped. Similarly, Sonia O. departed for America at age 19, also acting against the strong wishes of her father. With both Tanya and Sonia, once the decision was seen as final the parent accepted it and even became supportive.
These examples illustrate that, while Jewish parents might have opposed their daughters’ behavior, they ultimately accepted them rather than stubbornly forcing the issue at the risk of severing family ties, thereby validating their daughters’ claims to independence.
Although there are obviously many sources of this assertiveness, its appearance among daughters after taking jobs suggests that their mothers might have been similarly affected a generation earlier.
In traditional Eastern Europe society, many Jewish women played an important economic role; it was considered particularly honorable to earn the family living so that one’s husband could pursue religious studies. All the strong-minded women I interviewed perceived their mothers as dynamic, outgoing people who held the family together in times of crisis. Janet A. remembered her mother as the “hub in the family,” respected equally by husband and children. She remembered her mother as being very clever, “maybe because she worked so hard when she was young.”
Literature on this subject, from Hutchins Hapgood to Philip Roth, stereotypical though it may be, leaves little doubt about the assertiveness of Jewish mothers. In their homes, such women frequently made many of the important decisions under the guise of freeing men from such day-to-day cares.
Most of the women I interviewed stated that their mothers played this kind of forceful but circumspect role in family decision making. “My father made the decisions,” recalled Fanny C. Then she went on to say, “But he would listen to her. She was a very strong-willed and determined woman, and I think that many decisions my father thought he made were really hers to start with. But as children we were under the impression that it was my father’s decision.” The men were, according to one anthropologist, the titular heads of the family, assuming credit for decisions the women convinced them they had made.
Although the experiences of immigrant mothers and their daughters differed in many ways, the mothers seem to have served as valuable role models for their daughters. They frequently encouraged their daughters, sometimes overtly, sometimes in ambivalent ways.
“When I sat reading until two or three or four o’clock in the morning,” one woman recalled, “my mother used to awake with a start and come into the dining room to say: “The light is still on. I thought you were asleep a long time already! What do you expect to he, a doctor or a lawyer? What’s the use of all this reading and writing? Don’t be foolish, a woman never needs to know anything!’
But under her breath I would hear her mutter: ‘A talented child has hands of gold” (unpublished autobiography No. 92 in YIVO archives).
A recent study by Corinne Azen Krause supports the contention that Jewish immigrant mothers had more positive attitudes towards their daughters than their own parents had displayed towards them a generation earlier. The study, comparing three generations of Jewish-American, Italian-American and Slavic-American women in Pittsburgh, reveals that first generation Jewish women were aware of, and resented, their mothers’ and fathers’ preferential treatment of their brothers, and they subsequently raised their own daughters more fairly. First- generation Italian women, on the other hand, had probably internalized their parents’ value system to the degree that they recalled little discrimination and therefore brought up their daughters in the same restrictive way in which they had been raised. The youngest generation of Jewish women expressed, to a far greater degree than their Italian-American counterparts, the belief that their mothers had treated them no differently than their brothers.
The type of mother who scorned her daughter’s vocation and considered her nothing unless she was married—a type Anzia Yezierska wrote about in her novels and short stories—did not surface in my interviews, to my surprise. Jewish mothers certainly encouraged their daughters to marry, but the women I spoke with also told of the pride their mothers took in their education or work. (I got no sense, for example, of the attitude of some Italian mothers that their girls were not “safe” unless they were married.) Even the one woman who refused to permit her daughter to attend college lest she become an “old maid” emphasized how well she had done in high school.
In the traditional world of the nineteenth-century Eastern European Jew, learning was prized above wealth, and religious scholarship was the most prestigious pursuit a man could undertake. But education for women was usually a luxury of the middle and upper classes. Outside the cities and among the poorer Jews it was considered unnecessary or a waste of time. At best, girls might be taught to read Yiddish by the rabbi’s wife or in a small Jewish school for girls. Even when a young woman expressed the desire to learn, economic need often required that she assist her mother in her market stall or do factory work at a young age.
Towards the end of the century, many urban Jews sought a secular education for their children, female as well as male. Young women increasingly attended Jewish schools to learn secular subjects and a privileged few attended state schools (which strictly limited the number of Jewish students). Despite these increased opportunities, over 40% of the Jewish women entering the United States between 1899 and 1910 declared themselves illiterate, a rate almost twice that of their male counterparts but far lower than for the women of most other immigrant groups.
Even educationally deprived women were strongly influenced by the Jewish respect for learning. In her autobiography Horsecars and Cobblestones (1948), Sophie Ruskay observed that, “books, avidly devoured, were more than food to us. They stimulated our dreams and enlarged our world. Drummed into our ears from childhood was the Talmudic quotation, ‘An ignorant person cannot be pious.'”
Some young women in Eastern Europe resented being denied access to the schools their brothers attended. For example, Mary Antin, in The Promised Land (New York: 1912), recalled with bitterness:
“After a boy entered cheder (religious elementary school), he was the hero of the family. He was served before the other children at table, and nothing was too good for him. .. .No wonder he said, in his morning prayer, “I thank Thee, Lord, for not having created me a female.” It was not much to be a girl. Girls could not be scholars and rabbis …. There was nothing in what the boys did in cheder that I could not have done if I had not been a girl.”
In Eastern Europe before the Russian Revolution, the desire for an education may have been strong, but possibilities for achieving it were limited. But in New York, the free public school system, from kindergarten to the revered City College, made what had been only a dream for many before become a reality. Moreover, in this country it was acceptable and even desirable for females, too, to get an education. The young Jewish female immigrants took to American public schools with a zest unmatched by other immigrant groups. In part, they were motivated by a desire to learn English and become Americanized. They were also clearly attempting to realize a cultural ideal limited or denied them in the Old Country.
Almost all the women I interviewed displayed a voracious appetite for education. Of the fifteen interviewed, one had received the equivalent of a high school education in Poland, three graduated from high school in New York, and only one managed to take some courses in college.
Rose L, who in her native Bialystok, at the age of 12 began to work full time, attended school for three months after emigrating at the age of 14. She recalls that when her sister-in-law insisted she leave to take a job “the desk was saturated with tears.”
Anna S. had ended her formal education at 10 to work as a milliner’s assistant, after being denied admission to a Russian school. When she arrived in New York four years later, and found work in the sweatshops, she immediately enrolled in night school and even hired a tutor with her meager wages to help her learn English quickly. Anna hoped to enter high school and then to go on to college, but illness due to overwork defeated her hopes.
All but one named insufficient education as the one thing they regretted in their lives here. But many took pride in educating themselves by reading and attending lectures on the Lower East Side despite a long working day. Fanny K. said, “Here we found a different life. Some liked dancing, but we went to school, to lectures. We wanted to know about all kinds of things. Life was very poor, but very interesting.” All the women I interviewed who had children expressed greater pride in their educational accomplishments than in their earning power.
The vast majority of young Jewish women immigrants expected to marry and then leave the paid working force (although I suspect that more of them than the census figures reveal later worked with their husbands without taking wages, or took jobs when times were hard). Bourgeois attitudes decreed that “modern” middle-class women should not, if they could possibly manage it, work outside the home, an attitude further strengthened among all classes after emigration to the United States. Many of those immigrants had worked as young women and seem to have developed a strong sense of self, possibly related to their earlier work experience. This is particularly significant because of the role played by Jewish immigrant women after marriage. None of the women I interviewed took passive roles in the home—indeed, most seemed dominant.
Many immigrant women could not realize their educational goals in America because of the economic hardships of immigrant life. Usually, they transferred their own desires for formal secular education to their children.
The children born to this generation of women went to school in greater numbers and remained there longer than the sons and daughters of any other contemporary immigrant group. And their daughters made use of their education to enter the white-collar world as saleswomen, secretaries and teachers at a much higher rate as well. Anna R. said the one thing she never forgave her parents for was taking her out of school after fifth grade. She determined that her own three daughters would have the education she lacked, and imbued them with the desire to go on to college and graduate school.
The “Jewish mothers” of modern literature, the subjects of dripping sentimentalism or vindictive caricature, have not fared well at the hands of their sons—ungrateful over-achievers that they are. Perhaps it was not until the women’s movement of the 1970’s that many women could view the assertive “Jewish mother” as a more positive role model for today’s women than the docile “lady” who attempted to fulfill the roles society demanded of her without making any demands in return.
Acculturation is a two-way street. It is quite possible that many of the traits displayed by immigrant Jewish women helped transform the ideal of the American woman as much as these women’s characteristics, in turn, were affected by America.
Sydney Stahl Weinberg has a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and teaches history at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She became fascinated by the immigrant saga when, as a fellow in the National Endowment for the Humanities, she attended a seminar on race and ethnicity at Columbia University in 1977.