World of Our Fathers:The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America and the World They Made by Irving Howe is a very valuable, highly interesting book. It is a social, cultural, and economic history of the migration of two million Eastern European Jews to America. All arrived at Ellis Island in New York. More than half the immigrants settled in New York City. In 1880 there was an estimated 60,000 Jews in the city, by 1914, there was about 1.1 Million. World War One and the Russian Revolution ended this wave of immigration.
The massive immigration began in 1880 when the liberal Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Shortly after this the government allowed
Anti-Jewish pograms all over Russia. This sparked a desire to move to what was seen as a near promised land, America. Most arrived with little more than a few rubles and the clothes on their backs. All spoke Yiddish and most also spoke Russian.
Howe begins his narrative with a description of life in an Eastern European Shetl. We see the terrible oppression, the lack of opportunity, the violence directed against Jews. Unlike some immigrant groups, the Jews came largely as families. We see how hard it was to pay for their passage. We are given a very vivid account of arrival in New York City, from the much feared medical screenings at Ellis Islands to the dishonest agents waiting to fleece them. We see families settling into crowded tenement apartments in poverty stricken areas. The men at once went to work,often in the garment industry working at least 12 hours a day for very low wages. Women and children often worked in factories. Howe goes into a lot of detail on the labor conditions. I was moved when he told how most factory workers brought books to read on their breaks.
Quickly it is realised one must know some English to get anywhere in America. Education for the young is a top priority.
There is really a lot covered in this book, everything from diet changes, child rearing, like everywhere the young learn English much faster. Howe tells us about the thriving Yiddish Press and writes very illuminatingly on Yiddish Literature in America. He covers novelists, poets and the very important Yiddish theatre. We learn how Yiddish heritage performers highly impacted American movies and the start of television. We see the children and grandchildren of garment workers become lawyers, doctors, famous intellectual theorists and move way out of the tenements. They were normally very liberal in their politics and Howe shows us the impact of Yiddish activism on Labor Laws.
This is a very rich information loaded book. Anyone interested not just in Jewish history in America but in American history will love this book.
Howe tells us Yiddish began to become a Language with fewer and fewer speakers. We learn how the immigrants reacted after WW II when they learned of the Holocaust and the devotion to Israel.
If a merit test had been put on the two million Yiddish speaking immigrants nearly none would have been admitted. American would be a much poorer place if this had happened.
“Howe was an emblematic New York Jewish intellectual, a man of modest origins who rose to pre-eminence in the serious study of ideas, literature and politics. He was known for many things, including a large, steady output of essays on culture and literature, the advocacy of democratic socialism and chronicling the Jewish experience in America. National Book Award Winner
Perhaps his most famous and widely read book was "World of Our Fathers," a history of Eastern European immigration to the United States that won the National Book Award in 1976.
Dissent, the magazine he founded and edited for nearly four decades, was for most of that time a leading journal of a certain kind of American politics. It was deeply critical of the abuses of capitalism and what its writers sometimes saw as the paranoia of this country, but it was even more repelled by leftist totalitarianism, in the Soviet Union, Cuba or elsewhere.” from the New York Times Obituary
1920 to 1993