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Eastern European Jews Encounter America

by Ruth Gay

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-393-03991-9
Publisher: Norton

Part memoir, part anecdotal history of the three million East European Jews who streamed to these shores—particularly to New York City—between 1880 and 1920. Gay, author of The Jews of Germany (1992), draws largely on memories of her immigrant parents and their friends, as well as her own peers' coming of age in the Bronx. Her emphasis is on social history, particularly the domestic arena; some of Gay's chapters are entitled ``Chairs,'' ``Awnings,'' and ``Corsets.'' While she glosses over the intellectual and political ferment that Irving Howe explored in depth in World of Our Fathers, Gay is far more informative on the texture of everyday life, on the import of such matters as clothes, furnishings, food (she includes the recipe for ``Tante Elke's Honey Cake''), schools, and small shops. She also writes insightfully about the patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish culture (she quotes the Yiddish proverb, ``When one has daughters, laughter vanishes'') and about the immigrant generation's industriousness, thrift, seriousness, and aversion to fun. Gay has an easy, engaging style, although her book's content constitutes a kind of history lite. While she quotes a significant number of English primary and secondary sources, Gay cites none from the immigrants' primary language, Yiddish. And her book is marred by some silly generalizations, as when she writes, ``I think the immigrant generation did not see happiness as a legitimate goal in life.'' Still, if Gay lacks the intellectual range of a Howe or the imaginative sparks of a Kate Simon or Grace Paley, she has written an enjoyable, easily digestible introduction to her parents' and her own generations' uneven and sometimes uneasy acculturation.