OUR PARENTS' LIVES: The Americanization of Eastern European Jews by Neil M. & Ruth Schwartz Cowan Cowan

OUR PARENTS' LIVES: The Americanization of Eastern European Jews

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The recollections of 100 Jews of Eastern European origin about life as turn-of-the-century immigrants to America or as children of immigrant parents. The Cowans (he: a public-affairs consultant; she: History/SUNY at Stonybrook; More Work for Mother, 1984) supply historical focus via citations from newspapers, magazines, books, and official reports of the day. Those interviewed--many of whom were at least moderately well off--left their homelands in mortal fear of their lives and livelihoods because of bloody pogroms and new restrictive laws in Russia and other Eastern European nations. One woman recalls witnessing as a child the murder of her grandparents by rampaging soldiers; all have memories of the terror of those times. In America, the new arrivals usually moved into tenements in New York's Lower East Side, where--wonder of wonders--they sometimes had a private bathroom or at least a toilet in the public hallway. They frequently doubled up with other relatives, while some rented out a room to another family. Reformers were appalled at the crowded conditions; but the families had lived much the same way in the Old World, and several women waxed sentimental about the ""coziness"" of sleeping three in a bed. These conditions, however, fostered the spread of diseases such as T.B., pneumonia, diptheria, etc. Meanwhile, Jewish children generally did well in school and quickly adopted American ways. All of the women broke with tradition by having babies in hospitals and eschewing breast-feeding. Many abandoned traditional Orthodox practices, working on the Saturday sabbath and ignoring kosher methods of food preparation--though, interestingly, some have children and grandchildren who have returned to Orthodoxy with a passion. Frequently engrossing oral history that reveals how a people with alien customs and language transformed themselves into mainstream Americans in a single generation.

Pub Date: March 14th, 1989
Publisher: Basic Books