Living the Legacy

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Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews

Unit 1 , Lesson 3

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

http://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy

Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews

Document studies: 

Working and Striking

Introduction

As you read through the documents, keep these general questions in mind:

  • What makes a person independent?
  • What words or phrases do the authors/narrators use to describe their identities as workers?
  • How do the workers in these texts form their American Jewish identities? Point to specific examples.

"The Return from Toil"

The Return from Toil
Full image
John Sloan, "The Return from Toil," The Masses, July, 1913, Front Cover. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you see in this image that might tell you something about what work life offered young urban girls in the early 20th century?
  2. Does anything about this image surprise you?
  3. How do you understand the juxtaposition between the word “toil” in the title and what is depicted here?

Sarah Rozner recalls "testing" her mother

The three of us were striking, my brother Dave, my sister Fanny, and me. Fanny was 15 and she’d be on the corner selling papers for the strike. She had a good time; she was young and gay and singing. My brother’s first wife was my girlfriend, and we had one good skirt between us. If she went on the picket line, we raised the hem, because she was much shorter than I; when I went on the picket line, I’d let the hem down. That’s the way we lived.

Fanny got a couple of pennies from selling the socialist papers, enough for a couple of loaves of bread. But we were hungry. They didn’t feed us in the strike hall. Sedosky, a Jewish writer, had a restaurant where for 15 cents they used to get some strike tickets for a full meal. But that was only for single men. They finally did give us some tickets to a storehouse. It was on Maxwell or Jefferson Street and was a storehouse for strikers who had family responsibilities. They had food of various sorts: bread, herring, beans, rice. None of the family wanted to go there, so I went alone. I brought home the “bacon.”

I was already filled up with revolution, and had no intention of going back to work as a scab, but I wanted to test my mother. I said, “I think I’m going back to work. What the hell, we don’t want to starve. But before I do that, you come with me to the meeting.” We walked I don’t know how many miles to Hod Carriers Hall, which was at Addison and Central. My mother listened to the speeches. They were in Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian. In English, there was very little… There was a Jewish orator who spoke from his heart. He touched anyone who had feeling. After the meeting I said to my mother, “Now I’m going back to the shop.” She said, “Over my dead body.”

Details
Sarah Rozner, What is it we want, Brother Levin? Reminiscences of a nonconforming shop girl, 1892-1976. Edited by Sherna Gluck.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Sarah get out of being on strike?
  2. What strikes you about the story of Sarah and her friend wearing the same skirt to walk the picket line?
  3. Why do you think Sarah decides to “test” her mother? What happens to Sarah’s mother after hearing speeches by Union organizers?

Rose Schneiderman describes the strength of girls and women

Women have proved in the late strike that they can be faithful to an organization and to each other. The men give us the credit of winning the strike. Certainly our organization constantly grows stronger, and the Woman's Trade Union League makes progress. The girls and women by their meetings and discussions come to understand and sympathize with each other, and more and more easily they act together. It is the only way in which they can hope to hold what they now have or better present conditions. Certainly there is no hope from the mercy of the bosses. Each boss does the best he can for himself with no thought of the other bosses, and that compels each to gouge and squeeze his hands to the last penny in order to make a profit. So we must stand together to resist, for we will get what we can take, just that and no more.

Details
Rose Schneiderman, “A Cap Maker's Story: Rose Schneiderman” The Independent, LVIII (Apr. 27, 1905), 935-38. Found in Nancy F. Cott, et al, eds. Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women, second edition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 426-32.

Discussion Question

What changes does Schneiderman notice occurring among the shop girls after their strike? To what does she credit these changes?

Gaining Independence

Introduction

As you read through the documents, keep these general questions in mind:

  • What makes a person independent?
  • What words or phrases do the authors/narrators use to describe their identities as workers?
  • How do the workers in these texts form their American Jewish identities? Point to specific examples.

Rose Schneiderman explains keeping some of her earnings

I learned to use the machine in three or four weeks and after a trial period with Cornelia [the woman who got her the job], I was on my own. The first week on the job I earned six dollars, more than twice as much as I had earned at Ridley’s. However, Mother was far from happy. She thought working in a store much more genteel than working in a factory. But we needed that extra money. When I gave her five dollars out of my first pay, she wanted to know where the envelope was. I told her that I had it and that I had taken out a dollar for my own expenses. She didn’t like this, either. She thought that as a dutiful daughter I ought to hand over all I earned and let her give me what she thought I needed for the week. I didn’t agree, so we continued in my way. That was my first revolt toward independence.

Details
Rose Schneiderman and Lucy Goldwaite, All For One (New York: Paul Eriksson, Inc. 1967), 43-44.

Discussion Question

Why is it important to Schneiderman to keep a portion of her earnings? What changes in her relationship with her mother because of this?

Bread Givers Excerpt: "I am an American!"

I wanted back the mornings going to work. And the evenings from work. The crowds sweeping you on, like waves of a beating sea. The shop. The roar of the rushing machines. The drive and the thrill of doing things faster and faster. The pay envelope. The joyous feel of money where every little penny was earned with your own hands. …

“A young girl, alone, among strangers? Do you know what’s going on in the world? No girl can live without a father or a husband to look out for her. It says in the Torah. Only through a man has a woman an existence. Only through a man can a woman enter Heaven.”

“I’m smart enough to look out for myself. It’s a new life now. In America, women don’t need men to boss them…Thank God, I’m living in America!...I’m going to make my own life… I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I’m not from the old country. I’m an American!”

“You blasphemer!” His [the heroine’s father] hand flung out and struck my cheek. “Denier of God! I’ll teach you respect for the law!” I leaped back and dashed for the door. The Old World had struck its last on me.

Details
Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1925) pp. 129, 137.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does work offer the narrator in this story? How does her description of life in the garment shop differ from others you may have encountered?
  2. How does the narrator describe what being American means to her?
  3. How does she differentiate herself from her parents, particularly her father?

Letter from "J.B."

Dear Editor,

I am a Russian revolutionist and a free thinker. Here in America I became acquainted with a girl who is also a free thinker. We decided to marry, but the problem is, she has Orthodox parents, and for their sake we must have a religious ceremony. If we refuse the ceremony we will be cut off from them forever. Her parents also want me to go to the synagogue with them before the wedding, and I don’t know what to do. Therefore I ask you to advise me how to act.

Respectfully,

J.B.

Answer:

The advice is that there are times when it pays to give in to old parents and not grieve them. It depends on the circumstances. When one can get along with kindness it is better not to break off relations with the parents.

Details
From A Bintel Brief: Letters to the Jewish Daily Forward by Isaac Metzker, translated by Isaac Metzker, copyright 1971 by Isaac Metzker. Foreword and notes copyright 1971 by Doubleday, a division of Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Publishing Group, Inc. p. 53.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does J.B. relate to the conservative traditionalism of his parents’ generation? Why is he conflicted?
  2. Do you agree with the advice given in the “Answer”?

Camping and Workers

Introduction

As you read through the documents, keep these general questions in mind:

  • What makes a person independent?
  • What words or phrases do the authors/narrators use to describe their identities as workers?
  • How do the workers in these texts form their American Jewish identities? Point to specific examples.

Camp Kinderland, Bunk 25

Camp Kinderland, Bunk 25
Full image
Courtesy of Linda Rogers. Published with permission from Camp Kinderland. http://www.kinderland.org/sylvanlake/pictures/culture/shule/1940shulehour1.jpg

Discussion Questions

  1. This is a picture of “Bunk 25” at Camp Kinderland in the1940s, a secular Jewish camp. The sign over the campers’ heads is in Yiddish and says “Arbeter Kinder Kagan Milchama” or “Worker Children Against War.” What do you observe in the picture?
  2. Based on what you see in the picture, what do you think are some of the goals of Camp Kinderland?
  3. What kind of identity do you think the founders of the camp and the parents of the campers wanted for the children? Why do you think these values were important to the parents and camp founders?

Workers tending the vegetable garden at Camp Kinder Ring

Workers tending the vegetable garden at Camp Kinder Ring
Full image
Courtesy of Camp Kinder Ring.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why would working class, urban, Jewish parents want their children to have a summer camp experience in the country?
  2. What do you think was the intention of the Arbeter Ring camp in having the children perform agricultural tasks? How do you think this relates to secular Jewish identity?

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/labor/identity-independence-and-becoming-american-jews>.