Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews

Unit 1, Lesson 3

Examine inter-generational relationships among Jewish immigrants, and the role of work and workers’ youth culture in the Americanization process. Use art and writing to explore your own identity formation.

"The Return from Toil," drawing by John Sloan, published in The Masses, July 1913.
Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.


Enduring Understandings

  • Working in the garment industry, Jewish immigrants encountered American culture and began to forge American Jewish identities.
  • Even though work in the garment industry was often low-paying and difficult, it provided social and economic opportunity for young workers.
  • By working outside the home with other young people, immigrants in the garment industry cultivated peer group identities that connected them to the broader American culture and helped them differentiate from their families.

Essential Questions

  • In what ways do you identify as “American”? How does that identity intersect with the other aspects of your identity, for example, being a Jew, a member of a particular socio-economic class, a person who lives in a urban/suburban/rural area, being an athlete/band member/dancer, etc?
  • How can work be liberating? How can being a part of group be meaningful?
  • How do you and your friends define your place in American society?

Materials Required

  • Sheets of brown wrapping paper and white butcher paper, approximately 5 feet by 2 feet in size, one for each student (8 ½ by 14” paper can also be used, and the effect will be quite different)
  • thick drawing pencils and markers or paints
  • glue sticks, fabric glue, and/or craft paste
  • collage-making materials ranging from fabrics, buttons, beads, sequins, and other apparel items to natural items, such as sand, shells, stones, etc. to anything else that is available, with the exception of newspapers and magazines, the usual stuff of kids’ collage making (Staying away from two-dimensional sources, particularly those familiar to the students, will inspire greater creativity with three-dimensional sources. Once they have the assignment, they may choose from a category of objects—quilt squares or ceramic tile pieces, for example—or they may have disparate items in their possession that they think will work well in a collage format to say what they want their work to say.)
  • Students can also be invited to bring in materials for collages
  • Pieces of cardboard from cut-up boxes measuring 18”x24” for the collages; other options include poster board or foam core.

Notes to Teacher

Parts 1 and 3 of the lesson can be done as art projects or as creative writing projects. The directions for doing them as art projects precede the directions for doing them as writing projects. It’s important to note that teachers need not be trained art teachers to direct students in these art projects. When you are ready to have students make their collages, you can invite in the art teacher, a community member, or a particularly artistically skilled and articulate student to talk about the basics of composition in five minutes, if that would give you and your students more confidence in taking on the art projects. You may want to display the students' art work in your classroom afterwards. If you choose to do the large body outlines and don't have sufficient room to display them, you can photograph them and post the photos instead of the originals.

Part 2 of the lesson can be done as a homework assignment in between classes or as a 30 to 45 minute discussion during class time.

It’s also important for teachers to consider that including art both as a way for students to figure out what they think and as a way for students to demonstrate their learning can increase some learners’ enthusiasm for and understanding of the work. Moreover, a lesson on workers’ identification as “Americans” and how that developed through their work and peer group experiences, lends itself to a multi-media assessment as a way of getting at layers of nuanced feelings and attitudes. The lesson will serve this purpose just as well if Parts 1 and 3 are done through expository and creative writing.

Of equal importance when conducting this lesson is sensitivity to and appreciation for students’ diverse backgrounds that may or may not be apparent from looking at the students. Such diversity may include being adoptees, children with same sex parents or more than one set of parents, of mixed or non-white race, and ethnicities and/or religions other than Ashkenazic or Sephardic Judaism, etc. These qualities, which may seldom be revealed in the classroom, will likely become quite pronounced in this lesson.

The following biographies can be used in connection to this lesson:

Introductory essay(s)

Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews: Introductory Essay

by 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.”[1] 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.


[1] Michels, Tony, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005) 179.

Lesson plan

Identity Check

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This part of the lesson is designed for students to think about all the ways in which they self-identify and to consider what influences identity. They will create life-sized drawings of themselves as well as written reflections to explain the variety of ways in which they self-identify.

Directions to do as an art project:

  1. Have each student choose a large piece of paper (or take a sheet of the smaller paper, if that is what you are using). If using the big paper, students should find a partner and then take turns laying down on the paper (or if wall space permits, hanging the paper on the wall and standing up against it) while their partners trace an outline of their body shape onto the paper. (If using the small paper, have each student draw a simple outline of the shape of their bodies.) Give each student a pencil and make markers available as you move into the next set of directions.
  2. Read the students the following prompts aloud, giving time for students to respond to them in their drawings (the students are silent during this part of the activity). At the same time write the prompts on a sheet of poster paper or project them so the students can refer back to them as they work. You may want to adapt the suggested prompts to suit your students. The prompts below give specific illustrations of Jewish and American identities, for example, but these may not be appropriate for your group. In the first part of the project, be sure the students are making images, rather than writing words, no matter how unsophisticated their art abilities may be. Encourage them to keep drawing. Walk about the room looking at the students’ work, and make positive and affirming comments about what the students draw. You want them to just keep drawing!


    1. What makes you who you are? Where did these things come from? Did you inherit your attitudes, beliefs, and values the same way you inherited the color of your hair and eyes? If not, where did they come from? What influenced the formation of your opinions and values? Begin to think of images that capture this, and draw them wherever they seem to fit inside or outside the outline of your body. Don’t worry if your pictures aren’t realistic or perfect; sometimes just some shapes and shading can get across the feeling or idea. Don’t judge, just draw.
    2. Inside the outline of your body on the paper, continue to draw pictures that represent who you are and the influences that make you who you are. What communities and groups do you belong to that help shape who you are? For example, a kippah on top of your head might symbolize your Judaism, but so might a noodle kugel in your stomach, a picture on your hands of your class doing a service project, or the hills of Jerusalem around your legs. Be creative and don’t censor yourself. Just draw! An American flag or a bald eagle might symbolize your being an American but so might the scales of justice or the Statue of Liberty. What pictures symbolize the other things you identify with, like your friendship groups, your family, your school or town?
    3. What images symbolize your beliefs and values that make you who you are? Maybe you care passionately about human rights or music or vegetarianism. How did you get those passions? Who in your life helped you to come to believe that all people deserve to be treated equally or that music heals the soul or that it’s wrong to eat animals? How can you draw that in your body? Where in your body would you draw your activism, the importance of sports or your passion to become a doctor so you can heal people’s pain, for example? What would it look like?
  3. While some student’s drawings may be completely filled up at this point, others may be quite empty. Now invite students to add words to their pictures. For some students, the bodies may fill up with words and writing, while for others, there may be more drawing to do. Both are fine responses here. Continue to encourage getting images and words onto the paper and keeping judgment out of it.
  4. Invite students to share their work with each other, helping them to find language to explain what influences have shaped who they are as people and how they have come to identify as they do. You may want to have them share their body outlines with the person sitting next to them rather than with the whole group, as they may feel vulnerable about their work. After sharing in pairs, each pair can then share with the whole group one or two things they learned about their partner. You can draw out their responses, without leading, with such phrases as “Did you come up with that idea on your own or did you hear it somewhere else?”, “Did you always think that or did something happen to change your thinking?” etc.
  5. Explain that while we may not always be able to identify how our beliefs and passions are formed, we can explore the people, traditions, and events that have influenced our values in order to reach a deeper understanding of who we are. For example, being raised in a Jewish family might have taught you that eating together as a family at Jewish holidays was an important value. Similarly, newly arrived immigrants to America learned very quickly what was “American” and what they could do to avoid being labeled as a “greenhorn,” (a pejorative term for new immigrants). At this point, you may wish to have students read the [lightbox:14851]background essay[/lightbox] for the lesson.

Directions to do as a writing activity:

Ask students to take out writing paper and pens. Tell them that they are not handing in this writing, but rather, that it is to get them to think about questions of identity, where our self-identifications come from, and what influences are self-identifying.

  1. Use the drawing prompts above in 2, a through c, as writing prompts. Give regular amounts of time for each prompt, and give students permission to stay on a prompt that is particularly engaging to them instead of necessarily moving onto the next prompt.
  2. Follow up with 4 and 5 above and then move to Part II below.

Document Study

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  1. Explain that the students will now look at and analyze a set of primary sources from working-class, Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century.
  2. Give each student a set of documents. Have students examine the documents and answer the questions on the documents on their own or in pairs.
  3. Direct a class discussion around the following questions after students have had time to examine the documents:
    • What makes a person independent?
    • What kinds of language do the workers use to describe how they identified as workers?
    • How do the workers in these texts form their American Jewish identities? Point to specific examples.
  4. Explain that young immigrants were often challenged by wanting to live their lives differently from their parents while still being respectful of and connected with their parents, and that the students are going to show that challenge in a piece of artwork or creative writing.

Talking Across Time: Identity Formation Collages

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Directions to do as an art project:

  1. Tell the students that they are going to create “dialogues” across time in the form of collages. One “speaker” will be a young person about their own age in the early part of the 20th century. This “speaker” explains to an older person how they are becoming different due to the work and social experiences they are having in America. They may also tell the older person what values they received from the old country and the older generation they intend to hold onto. The other “speaker” in the dialogue is the older person. This person will explain to the younger person what s/he believes is important to hold onto and what s/he thinks about the changes the younger person is describing.
  2. Have students begin by identifying one to three things each “speaker” will “say” in the collage. These can be quotations from the primary sources that speak to a particular idea, such as peer group identification or clothing, for example. Students may also choose to focus on more general ideas such as the way in which work gave young people time away from the protective eyes of parents in order to experiment with new language and new types of recreation. Students can also include text, such as direct quotations from the primary sources, to develop or make more clear their ideas about identification and generational differences.
  3. Give each student a piece of cardboard on which to make their collages. (See materials required for suggestions of materials for the collages.) Explain that their work should be “mixed media,” including both 3-D objects glued on and writing or images made with the markers or paints. Have students choose objects to create a collage of their dialogue. Whatever items they choose should somehow fit symbolically with their ideas, e.g. different fabrics representing each generation and each idea. Make glue, markers and paints, and all the materials for the collages available to students to either make their collages in class or to take home to make for homework.
  4. When students have completed the collages, hang their pieces around the room for everyone to view and invite discussion about what students see the collages saying about the experience of early 20th century immigrant workers and assimilation into American society. You may choose to organize this as a museum tour, in which some students are tour guides and some are visitors, and then they switch roles.

Directions to do as a writing activity:

  1. Give the directions in Step 1. Invite students to create a series of letters or two parallel journals of entries for each “speaker” to explain themselves to each other.
  2. Instruct students to use direct quotations or paraphrases from the primary source documents in their writing. Tell them to add texture and depth to their writing by using the quotations to guide some creative writing about the “speakers’” feelings and attitudes.
  3. When the students have written, revised and finalized their writing, invite them to share excerpts from their writing with the class, and encourage discussion about what students see the pieces saying about the experience of early 20th century immigrant workers and assimilation into American society. This stage could also be done online, as a blog.
Document studies

Working and Striking

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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," July 1913

"The Return from Toil," drawing by John Sloan, published in The Masses, July 1913.
Courtesy of the U.S. 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.”

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.

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

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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.

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.

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?

Camping and Workers

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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

The campers of Bunk 25 at Camp Kinderland.

Courtesy of Linda Rogers.

Published with permission from Camp Kinderland.

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 at Camp Kinder Ring, Sylvan Lake, New York

Workers tend the vegetable garden at Camp Kinder Ring in Sylvan Lake, New York.
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?
Teacher resources

Oral Histories About Jewish Summer Camp

The Yiddish Book Center has oral histories about the values and politics learned at progressive Jewish summer camps:
  • How Political Cheers at Camp Kinderland Helped a Public School Test
  • Civil War and Peace Olympics at Kinderland

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    Jewish Women's Archive. "Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews." (Viewed on May 22, 2024) <>.