BOOKLIST FOR IMMIGRANT VOICES (1860-1930)
Dear Emma. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. (150
(Grades 4 -9) In this sequel to Hurwitz's Faraway Summer, twelve-year-old Hadassah "Dossi" Rabinowitz has returned to her tenement home in New York's Lower East Side following a two-week Fresh Air Fund vacation in Vermont. The story begins in 1910 and spans a full year of Dossi's life. We glimpse intimate details about her family, Jewish culture in the tenements, the split between rich and poor, and her school experiences. This book is a "must read" for middle school students researching immigration. Hurwitz effectively grounds her fictional character alongside real individuals, such as Lillian Wald and real events, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. While there is little mention of unions or the labor movement, Dossi has a strong voice and Hurwitz's narrative resonates with pride in Jewish heritage.
Hurwitz, Johanna. Faraway Summer. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1998
(Grades 4-9) Hadassah "Dossi" Rabinowitz is sent on a Fresh Air Fund vacation to Vermont in July, 1910. Initially hesitant to leave her only remaining family member, her sixteen-year-old sister Ruthi, Dossi sets out by train with a small valise and one library book (Anne of Green Gables). Her stay on the Vermont farm with fourteen-year-old Emma and nine-year-old Nell is both an adventure and time of discovery, perhaps more for Emma and Nell who have "never seen a Jewish person before, there aren't any around here."
Hurwitz falls into somewhat wooden characterizations. As Dossi describes herself, "I'm just a plain girl from the Lower East Side of New York.' I didn't add that we were so poor that almost all my clothing was castoffs from other people, that my sister worked six days a week to support us, that we lived in a single room in someone else's apartment, that the food on the table before me now was more than Ruthi and I consumed in a week." (p.38) Perhaps Hurwitz is trying too hard in this novel to bring the different cultures together, and her characters forced adjustments to one another make them a bit unreal. While it's an interesting approach to writing about Jewish culture, and there are interesting historical asides (Dossi meets "Snowflake" Bentley and discovers that the marble used to build the New York Public Library is from Vermont) the narrative seems a bit heavy-handed at times. Hurwitz's sequel, Dear Emma, is by far the better choice for its quality and authenticity.
Moss, Marissa. Hannah's Journal. NY: Harcourt, 2000. (48 pages)
(Grades 4 and up) An amusing, sweet portrait of ten-year-old Hannah and her journey to America. Following the destruction of her home by Russian troops, Hannah is chosen to travel to America with her cousin, Esther. She is bright and eager for adventure, unlike her cousin who is shy and afraid. Along the way, Hannah gets help from a boy named Sam, who becomes her friend, and after some confusion at Ellis Island they all take a ferry to New York where they are united with Hannah's Uncle Zalman. Lovely illustrations by Hannah accompany her handwritten text. The journal style and modern design of this book, similar to Moss's Amelia books, make it a unique addition to juvenile fiction about immigration.
Lasky, Kathryn. Dreams in the Golden Country, the diary of Zipporah
Feldman. New York: Scholastic, 1998.(183 pages)
(Grades 3 and up) Written in the Dear America diary format, Dreams in the Golden Country, is a lively and authentic portrait of the Jewish immigrant experience. Life on the Lower East Side is revealed through the eyes of Zipporah "Zippy" Feldman, a precocious twelve-year-old. The story is set in 1903. Zippy lives with her parents and two sisters, fifteen year old Mirriam and seventeen year old Tovah in a three room apartment at 14 Orchard Street. This is a luxury rental, as it also includes a lavatory!
Lasky deftly paints a world in which old world Jewish traditions are cast into question by the young female protagonists. In the two year span of the narrative, Zippy takes to the Yiddish Theater stage, Tovah becomes a working girl/Jewish union organizer, and Mirriam is disowned by her mother (but later reunited) after she secretly marries her Irish boyfriend. The detail in the characterizations and authenticity of dialogue create a very convincing picture of Jewish culture compatible with modern interpretations. However, unlike many real life stories of Jewish families on the Lower East Side from this time period, Zippy's family is extraordinarily fortunate: Papa gets out of the sweatshops to pursue a career as a professional musician at the New York Conservatory of Music, Tovah becomes a successful union organizer, Mama welcomes Mirriam and her husband back into the family despite their "mixed" marriage, and Zippy rises to stardom in the Yiddish Theater world. Even if Lasky's novel has a "too" golden cast at times, there is enough realistic cultural detail in her inclusion of Yiddish language, culture and attention to tradition, that make this book a treasure to be included in any unit on immigration or Jewish culture.
Hesse, Karen. Letters from Rifka. New York: Henry Holt,
(Grades 6 and up) Letters from Rifka is Hesse's first novel, and was born from the author's conversations with her aunt Lucy. It's an intimate and moving story of Jewish immigration. The narrative unfolds as a series of nineteen letters, written on the blank pages in a book of Pushkin's poetry that Rifka carries with her on the journey. While the first half of the story (from Sept. 1919-Sept. 1920) describes blue-eyed, blonde haired Rifka's experiences leaving Russia, entering Poland, and then being detained in Belgium due to having ringworm,;the second half of the narrative (Oct. 1 1920-Oct. 22, 1920) describes her stay on Ellis Island and her eventual reunion with her family in New York. The letters are a poignant testimony to the challenges faced by immigrants. Rifka is separated from her family when she contracts ringworm, with support from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, she is eventually granted passage out of Europe; however, it is a solitary journey. Rifka's letters describe the loss of all her hair, her isolation from her family and their traditions while she is in a Catholic hospital, and a haunting loneliness. She has strength to persevere; however, and it is her intelligence, compassion for others, and determination that become hallmarks of her character.
Hesse is one of the most talented writers of fiction for children and young adults. Each of the nineteen letters is prefaced by a related excerpt of Pushkin's poetry that reflects the inner world of Rifka on each step of her journey. This novel would be my first choice for introducing a unit on immigration to middle school or high school students because it is so finely crafted and has a level of authenticity and sophistication that will inspire and provide ground for much discussion.
Angell, Judie. One Way to Ansonia. New York: Bradbury Press, 1985. (183 pages)
(YA, Grades 10 and up) A searing and painful portrait of oppression. Rose and her brothers and sisters arrive in New York in 1893 to join their father. It is the eve of his wedding to his third wife, but the new wife is not aware he has five children. (He was going to surprise her!) She immediately rejects all but the youngest, and they are sent to find work and live with other families. Following this initial rejection, Rose grows up to have a mind of her own and achieve some independence, ultimately culminating in her rejection of her parents' choice for her arranged marriage. She marries the man she loves, and even proposes to him herself. Nevertheless, there is discomfort in the marriage, and the book concludes with her taking their child and leaving her husband to make a better life outside New York City. Whether or not the family will be reunited is uncertain. The only certainty in Rose's life is her sense that the one way ticket to Ansonia, CT will lead to a brighter future.
Sachs, Marilyn. Call Me Ruth. New York: Doubleday, 1982. (134 pages)
(Grades 7-12) While I cannot entirely recommend this book, due to the negative and stereotypical characterizations of women, it does offer a glimpse into another side of Jewish life in the Lower East Side that was very real. It is often noted that the voices of Jewish girls and women are muted because most are encouraged to become mothers and make their family and marriage their life's work. For many traditional Jewish women, this was the dream; but the reality was often more akin to the picture presented in Call Me Ruth.
Set in 1907, Rifka and her mother, Faigel, are coming to America from Russia to join Rifka's father, Schmuel a.ka. Sam, who left the Old Country before Rifka's birth. Upon arrival, the women experience culture shock from which Faigel never really recovers. Rifka's father insists that Faigel call herself "Fanny" and Rifka call herself "Ruth." Within three months of their arrival, Rifka's father dies of tuberculosis, "Tailor's Disease" as a result of working too hard in the sweatshops. Ruth, now nine years old, and Fanny, twenty-four years old, move in with Sam's sisters and struggle to survive.
Fanny slaves in a sweatshop, and eventually joins a union. Historical fact is woven into Fanny's story, she meets Clara Lemlich and is later imprisoned in a woman's workhouse for her union involvement. Ruth grows increasingly resentful as her mother spends more time away from home, and the conflict between Ruth's need to have a mother who "fits in" to American culture and stays-at-home vs. the reality that her mother has to work and is happier when she is part of the Jewish Unions, is never effectively resolved. By the end of the book, we're left with two potentially strong female characters that are victimized by each other even more than the culture. It's an assimilation tale of the worst sort.
Bial, Raymond. Tenement, Immigrant Life on the Lower East Side.
Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
(Grades 4-12) Beautiful photographs and simple, descriptive text take the reader on a journey to the past. Bial's images are evocative and colorful: lace tablecloths, copper kettles, red and black printed scarves covering beds and night tables, silver candlesticks, silver salt and pepper shakers. This book makes tenement life seem almost appealing, the Old World flavor is charming.
Haberle, Susan. Jewish Immigrants, 1880-1924. Mankoto, Minn.: Blue
Earth Books, 2003.
(Grades 3-12) An accessible, easy to read reference with ample photos. Provides detail about both German and Russian Jewish immigration and the causes. Could be combined with books on Russian Immigrants and German Immigrants, also within the series, for comparison. A valuable addition to any collection, each book in the "Coming to America" series also includes Web links.
Sonder, Ben. The Tenement Writer: An Immigrant's Story. Austin, Tex: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1993.
(Grades 4 and up) The life of a young immigrant woman from Poland who struggles to become a writer.
Hest, Amy. When Jessie Came Across the Sea. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 1997.
(Grades 2 and up.)
Beautiful illustrations, lovely story, ends with a wedding rather than a young woman following any professional dreams, but delightful nevertheless. This picture book can be used with all grades.
Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1998.
(Grades 1- 4) The illustrations take us back in time to the turn of the century, and through Polacco's black-and-white drawings we glimpse her family's culture and history. A beautiful story about memory, love, and the power of story.
Rael, Elsa. What Zeesie saw on Delancey Street. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young readers, 1996.
(Grades 1-4) Seven year old Zeesie is celebrating a birthday at a "package party." Colorful illustrations bring to life the Lower East Side Community.