“So, what are you?”, “I’m Irish.”

In truth, I’m American. My passport says that I am American. My parents and grandparents were American citizens. Yet, when asked that question; What are you? Americans typically answer with their heritage.[1] Why is that? In this country at the turn of the century, Americanization was the goal of most young immigrants. So, from where does this resurgence of pride in one’s heritage come? For Americans who are third or fourth generation the realities of immigration to the United States have faded. The immigration of the early twentieth century has been romanticized. Emma Lazurus’ words “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” [2] have been immortalized and remembered. However the statue that welcomed the ships into New York City’s harbor often bore more welcome than what they actually received when they arrived on the shores. There is a disconnect between the generations that immigrated and the American born decedents. In different ways both Anzia Yezierska and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum attempt to create a bridge between the generations in order to facilitate an understanding of the past and present immigration.

Anzia Yezierska, through her novel Bread Givers, takes the romanticized notion of hard working nameless immigrants, and turns them into people. Though the depiction of her family is highly dramatized, the basic story surrounding her main character Sara is strikingly close to the life Anzia lived. She takes “the Jewish Immigrant story” and creates a novel that draws one in, allowing the reader to connect to the story on a personal level. Bread Givers is one of those rare novels that becomes a sensory experience.  Using space and spatial relations she paints the portrait of a young Jewish immigrant growing up in America. “A place for everything, and everything in its place,’ was no good for us, because there weren’t enough places”.[2] Cluttered and dark, Anzia paints the picture of young Sara’s life not only through her actions but also the spaces she moves through on her journey to Americanization; from dark and dirty to clean and open. The idea of experiencing your first moment of truly being alone at the age of 17 seems in contemporary standards unimaginable. [4] However the shock of  statements like that along with the numerous hardships depicted as she grows,  gives way to a better understanding of Sara’s experience and by extension the experience of many Jewish immigrants.

Just as Anzia uses her novel to create a bridge between the new generation and her own, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum uses the same techniques to engage its visitors. The types of tenements described by Anzia are recreated in multiple tenement houses on Orchard Street, in New York City. When you arrive at the main offices of the museum, the visitors are presented with different tours based upon different immigrant experiences. Every tour is guided and tells the story of a particular person, family or trade. Again it is a sensory experience. You are encouraged to touch the banister as you ascend the staircase all the while being reminded that this house was at one time a real tenement. All interactions with the tour guide are constructed to make the visitor’s experience that much more powerful. The Tenement museum has the advantage over Anzia in that they are able to engage their audience as they go ending with a Kitchen Conversation which draws the corollaries between immigration in the past and the present.[5]

As Bread Givers ends, Sara admits that she cannot escape her past completely. By taking her father in she accepts her heritage with an understanding that though she respects where she came from she will not bend to the constraints of her past. This is the stance of most immigration descendants. There is an understanding and even pride in where we come from however there is a separateness felt between those decedents and ourselves. Anzia’s novel and the Tenement Museum act as the bridge between these generations encouraging a personal understanding of the immigration experience in the past in order to help people understand the immigration experience of the present.

[1] Ruth J. Abram, “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side

Tenement Museum.” The Public Historian 29, No. 1 (Winter 2007) 59-76.

[2] Emma Lazurus, Statue of Liberty National Monument, 1883

[3] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers, (New York: Persea Books Inc., 1925), 8

[4] Ibid 156

[5] Ruth J. Abram, “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side

Tenement Museum.” The Public Historian 29, No. 1 (Winter 2007) 59-76.

5 thoughts on ““So, what are you?”, “I’m Irish.”

  1. It’s interesting to think about what, in our society, constitutes a proper balance between “celebrating our cultural heritage” and “being American.” A few years ago, when immigration was the hot political topic, a lot of the rhetoric I heard echoed the comments from the Tenement Museum reading: “Today, those people are just coming for the welfare. They don’t want to work. They don’t care about learning English or being American.” [1]

    Really, though, what is “being American” and who gets to decide if someone’s traditions/lifestyle are “American” enough? For those of us whose families have been in the country for centuries, exploring and celebrating one’s heritage is 100% culturally acceptable (see the popularity of sites like Ancestry.com and television programs such as African-American Lives and Faces of America). However, in the case of more recent immigrants, some (any?) retention of their culture is considered threatening to mainstream America.

    [1] “Kitchen Conversations,” The Public Historian: 63.

  2. The realistic interpretation made by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is probably very beneficial in drawing comparisons to more contemporary immigration issues. I don’t know if there are many glamorous portrayals of illegal immigrants crossing over our southern border in the last few generations. These are real people, enduring unimaginable struggles and prejudices in search of an American Dream that may never be fulfilled.

    I also wanted to express my gratitude that our country is one of immigrants. That means AT LEAST two different countries to cheer for the during the Olympics. U-S-A! U-S-A!

  3. “Bread Givers” and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum both suggested that none of us can escape our past completely. While we consider ourselves Americans, many of our families continue traditions that celebrate a different heritage. But how much is too much to be considered “American”?

    As I read the comments from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum article, I wondered what image each participant imagined when asked about “immigration.” Did they think of their own family? An image from current events? I found myself thinking of my own encounters with immigrant populations and how that formed my opinion on the issue.

  4. It’s interesting to think about how Sara’s physical space evolved throughout Bread Givers. She starts out living in a dark, cluttered home, sharing space with her sisters, while trapped in a simple existence with her family and the multitude of restrictions imposed by her father. As Sara asserts herself and her need for education, her space expands – both through the openness of the university campus and her rooms. This expansion almost mirrors Sara’s Americanization, which then again contracts when she invites her father to live with her.

    I’m unsure how or if this concept applies to the Tenement museum, besides a broad, generalized statement of how personal space increases as our socioeconomic status rises and we can afford more of it.

  5. Dan’s comment about the Olympics made me think about the Wold Cup. Now maybe it’s because the United States is not a historically great team, but most people I know who follow soccer cheer for both the U.S. and the country of their ancestry. It’s interesting that many people today view their ancestral cultures as a key part of their identity, when their ancestors (or the first generation Americans) were probably going to great lengths to appear American.

    It doesn’t surprise me that many people view their families immigration story through a romanticized lens. We all have a tendency to romanticize history and it makes sense that we would do the same with family histories. If people shape their identity with their cultural heritage, of course their ancestors are going to be hard working, freedom loving people (as opposed to…gasp…illegal immigrants).

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