YIVO Comes to America

Buried autobiographical treasures surface now.

The nine moving and sophisticated autobiographies in My Future is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants (NYU Press, $25), translated and edited by Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer, provide new insights both into the experiences of the 2.5 million Eastern European Jews who migrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and into how these immigrants understood and talked about their journey in the 1940s, years later.

The history behind these narratives is nearly as dramatic as the stories themselves. In 1942, the yivo Institute for Jewish Research, an organization charged with documenting and cultivating the language and culture of Ashkenazic Jews, sponsored an autobiography contest for Jews who had immigrated to America. The contest represented an important shift in the work of yivo, which, until 1940, had been based in Vilna and had focused its energies on the culture of Jews within Eastern Europe. When WWII forced yivo to move to New York, the organization struggled to develop ways to complete its mission in spite of the destruction that was befalling the people it served. With this autobiography contest, yivo made the decision to focus its attentions on the Jews of America.

For years, the 200 autobiographical entries languished in the yivo archives. Handwritten primarily in Yiddish, this treasure-trove was all but inaccessible until the publication of this volume. Editors Jocelyn Cohen, a research associate at yivo’s Max Weinreich Center, and her husband, Daniel Soyer, a Professor of History at Fordham University, took on the daunting task of searching through these life histories and publishing the ones they deemed most representative of the experiences of the immigrant generation.

The volume’s nine autobiographies include five by women. These narratives offer a window into the distinct challenges faced by female immigrants as they traveled to an unfamiliar land and, later, as they struggled to recount their stories. One particular obstacle the women faced was illiteracy, a problem rarely faced by Jewish men. Minnie Goldstein, 60 years old by the time she wrote her autobiography, learned to read and write as an adult. For Goldstein, the very fact that she succeeded in writing down her life story, and was recognized for her achievement by the yivo judges, represented one of her greatest accomplishments. “I could not believe my ears, because I was sure that I could not write English well enough to earn an honorable mention,” exclaimed Goldstein in a coda to her autobiography. “My happiness was indescribable.”

The editors also include a pair of autobiographies written by Chaim and Minnie Kusnetz, a married couple who each wrote independently of their intertwined lives. Chaim, an intellectual who never wanted to get married, eventually agreed to wed his girlfriend Minnie when she was at risk of being deported. Chaim’s tale focuses on his struggle to reconcile his role as a husband and provider with his idealized notion of himself as an intellectual and scholar. He mocked his wife’s materialistic desires, which included the modern furniture and jewelry that he bought for her, noting unkindly that as he made the purchases, he “felt like an adult who buys a toy for a child.”

When we read Minnie’s narrative, however, it becomes clear that these luxuries represented far more than juvenile baubles to her. For Minnie, herself a poet and an intellectual, they symbolized the end of a life of privation, her eventual sense of comfort in a new land, and a tangible token of esteem from her husband, a man who had only agreed to marry her under legal duress. Though Minnie complained that “I am so busy now with the house and child that I not only don’t have time to write poems, I don’t even have time to look at the newspaper,” the enjoyment she received from her family and the beautiful things that she owned offered her a measure of solace for the intellectual interests she could no longer pursue. Hearing this story from the perspective of both husband and wife offers us a glimpse into how this couple synthesized their accomplishments in America, and the gendered ways in which they compensated for their disappointments.

Rachel Kranson is a Ph.D. candidate in History and Jewish Studies at NYU and a contributing editor at Lilith.