I Want to Live While I’m Yet Alive

It is my belief that the museum has the ability to present the stories of those marginalized within society. Through oral histories and material culture, the museum has an opportunity to give a voice to groups traditionally silenced. Among the most marginalized in American society, is the immigrant. Though Lady Liberty claimed she would cradle the world’s poor and tired huddled masses-America’s history is riddled with stories of dingy tenements, sweat shops, and moldy bread. It is important that these stories be remembered, for they offer insight into the social and economic fabric of American society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, these stories convey lessons of tradition, poverty, and the search for an identity in a new world-stories that are still relevant to the contemporary immigrant struggle.

Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers tells the tale of Sara Smolinsky. This rebellious character is a Polish Jewish immigrant living in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Sharing a tenement with a highly religious tyrannical father, a hardened but loving mother, and three older sisters, Sarah must learn to follow her own dreams of becoming a teacher, despite the many obstacles laid before her. The novel, a semi-autobiographical account of Yezierska, does a fine job at exploring the confines that class and gender place on this young Jewish immigrant.

However, if the reader wanted a more intimate idea of what Sarah’s world was like, then I suggest a visit to the Tenement Museum located on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside. This museum, a tenement building home to over 7,000 immigrant families was built in 1863. The museum’s mission is to “… [P]romote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gateway to America.” If interested in learning more about the Smolinskys’ life, I suggest the tour Piecing it all Together: Immigrants in the Garment Industry. This tour examines the life of two Jewish immigrant families living at 97 Orchard Street at the turn of the twentieth century.

As suggested earlier, a prominent theme throughout Bread Givers is the search for one’s identity. As Sarah begins to grow up in this new world, she begins to question traditions of the old world. She has a burning desire to go to college, believing that education can give her the wings to make her fly away from of her desolate life. Running away from home, she forsakes her parents and turns her back on her Jewish customs and religion. Her changing lifestyle highlights a phenomenon that occurred as Jewish immigrants made lives in America. Customs evolved, many Jews had inter-faith marriages, and level of religious practice varied. The identity of the Jew has evolved throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The Jewish Museum of New York City, explored the concept of the evolving Jewish identity in their 2005-2006 exhibition, The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography. The exhibit examined the changing face of the American Jew, through the work of thirteen photographers and video artists. Though the exhibition is no longer on display, the exhibition catalog by Susan Chevlowe is available for purchase.

Museums are rich resources to explore the stories of the immigrant experience in America. They give a voice to the stories history textbooks often omit. Museum are essential in learning about the human experience.


3 thoughts on “I Want to Live While I’m Yet Alive

  1. I think that the exhibitions at the Jewish Museum in New York are among the most interesting that I have seen. One reason is that Jewish identity is cross-cultural so exhibitions are always about the way that Jews experienced or interacted with another culture. For example various exhibitions looked at Sephardic Jews, African Jews, and Italian Jews among others. The exhibitions explore points of intersection and interaction with other cultures and they consider how Jews assimilated the mainstream culture and how they maintained Jewish cultural traditions.
    In the United States American Jews have come to enjoy great success and white privilege, yet the anti-Semitism that they have experienced historically (evidenced in the cartoons posted) has made them extremely wary.

  2. This post is a great complement to your presentation, Cara. The first paragraph sets the stage for Bread Givers (again, as the mental theatrical production I see it as) and I think it’s really important to point out the ways in which not only the novel, but museums like The Tenement Museum and The Jewish Museum, help people to better understand the immigrant experience in America. I definitely think this book would be good for school groups to read before visiting museums or exhibits that address this topic. I wonder if any of these places recommend Yezierska’s novel (or similar books) to teachers to give them background knowledge before visiting…

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