Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews: Introductory Essay
Lori Shaller and Judith Rosenbaum
Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Labor, Lesson 3
Life in America was drastically different from life in the shtetls, the villages in Russia, Poland and the other Eastern European countries from which came most of the Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. One challenge facing immigrant families was the shift in power between children, who often learned the English language and American customs quickly, and their parents, who assimilated into American culture more slowly. While many children who came to America went straight to work without attending school, other young immigrants were educated through public schooling and community-provided after-school programs. Parents might have been able to learn English, American customs, and even new trades in a settlement house, but many were not able to take advantage of such resources because of family and work demands. Therefore, children were often much more quickly acculturated than were their parents.
Young immigrants learned more than English, American fashion, and the latest popular dances. By participating in workplace culture, they also sometimes learned values that conflicted with those of their parents. For example, while marriages arranged by parents for children based on family connections were still customary for many in the old country, in America, more young people began choosing for themselves whom they would marry. Indeed, in America young women and men could more easily spend time alone with each other and away from parental eyes. Young people in America dated, going together to the dances held by the unions, for example, or to movies or concerts—social patterns that were different from traditional life in Europe.
Young workers also encountered many opportunities to learn about politics and labor activism, and this could introduce another conflict between parents and children. Even those immigrants who had already discovered radical politics in Eastern Europe found a different situation and greater opportunity for involvement in America; though they might be beaten on the picket line or even arrested, they were freer to express their political ideals without fear of extreme violence or death.
Young immigrants’ greater knowledge about life in America and the growing division between parents and children around values led to conflict in some families. Some parents tried to maintain control over their children but found it difficult, given the freedom the children experienced going to and from school or work in a large city. Some young workers exercised their independence by insisting on keeping part of their wages for their own spending. Others directly challenged their parents’ authority, choosing jobs or romantic partners against their parents’ wishes. While many families depended on daughters’ incomes to survive (because girls were most likely to find work in the garment factories), parents also missed the obedience that was easier to demand from their children in the old country.
In fashioning their identities as new Americans, workers, and Jews, young immigrants received support from the many organizations and institutions of immigrant life. Unions helped shape their identities as workers, providing a context in which they could connect with fellow laborers, learn about the labor movement and other topics, and socialize. Political groups helped new immigrants explore how to apply their political ideologies to the new country they were living in and how to exercise their newfound political freedom. Mutual aid societies, which offered financial and social support to immigrants, were often organized around immigrants’ communities of origin, but functioned to ease the transition to American life.
The Arbeter Ring (founded in 1892 and known as the Workmen’s Circle in English) was a mutual aid organization devoted to shaping a new American Jewish identity, one that wasn’t dependent on “old-world’” religion and values, yet was distinctively Jewish, and secular at the same time. This new culture was “robust and multifaceted…at once ‘purely secular’ and thoroughly Jewish.” The Arbeter Ring was the kind of fraternal club that came out of the labor movement and that provided mutual aid and other member benefits to working class Jews in the early 1900s and beyond (it still exists today). Workmen’s Circle offered social and educational programs, such as political and sociological lectures in Yiddish, designed to interest the new American Jewish workers. Their summer camps (such as Camp Kinderland, which later split from Workmen’s Circle to affiliate with the more radical International Workers Order and has existed as an independent entity since 1954) offered working-class children both an escape from sweltering summers in the tenements and an opportunity to build a leftist, secular Jewish identity, through classes in Socialist ideology, Yiddish language, and involvement in other social and political causes. These institutions helped cultivate new ways of being Jewish in America, based on leftist politics, commitment to social justice, Yiddish culture, and working-class identity.
 Michels, Tony, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005) 179.