It is seldom easy being an immigrant. The reality of a move to a new society is often traumatic. Even idealistic immigrants who have spent years thinking of the new land invariably find it difficult to adjust to the reality of the place. Feelings of alienation, combined with material disappointments and the sheer worry of having to create a new life out of nothing, can make many enthusiasts disappointed and bitter. The younger generation, on the other hand, is often more enthusiastic: they tend to see the new land as a challenge, and dream of conquering it. Their innate sense of adventurousness and curiosity is likely to make them more positive, viewing temporary setbacks as barriers on the way to progress and acceptance.
Many immigrants, then, feel ambivalence toward the new land, veering between identity and enthusiasm on the one hand, and bitterness and disillusionment on the other.
Let us examine, for example, a number of poetic statements on this subject made by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who came to America in the great period of immigration at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. All three of the poems that we offer here were written in Yiddish, the language of many immigrants even in their new environment.
1. To The Wild West I Sing, by H. Roisenblatt
Roisenblatt was born in 1878 in Russia, and emigrated to America with his parents in 1891.
We did not ride to you across the Sierras
On ash-gray covered-wagon caravans
When we prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
We did not bend our heads over loaded rifles…
It was not our feet that trod the first pathways,
Over your highlands
Not our hands that began
To raise the first towns in your plains…
How can broken backs
That carry dust-gray peddlers’ sacks
Move to that swing?
How can hands that for generations bore
The wanderer’s staff along the roads of exile everywhere,
Ever expect to resist
Bronze arm and steel fist?…
We waited and waited and waited
Till our ears heard the song of the railroad,
The rush of the iron horse.
We were intoxicated
By his wind-swift speed
The poison of the metal has poisoned our blood.
We heard that your gold-dust had been
Washed and cleansed and now was clean,
We heard your every prairie lies stretched out now
Like a fat well-pastured cow,
We heard that your forests and gardens and fields
Are blessed with eternal summer,
That each hill yields
Riches from a flowing mother-breast.
We heard that the tomahawk, the bow and arrow and the
Scalping knife have come
To be exhibits in the museum,
That the buffalo is now kept on view
With gay-plumaged peacocks in the local zoo,
And your rolling fields and plains
Are now full of roads, arteries and veins…
Over your ash-gray mountains in the sunrise…
Dead generations will rise…
Our new generation too, [will rise here]
Young, swift, with fresh eager tread.
2. New York, by Berish Weinstein
Weinstein was born in Galicia in 1905 and arrived in America in 1925.
If I shall ever bless you, New York,
It will not be for what you are,
But for the memory of a house in Delancy Street,
That haunts me from a distance.
How can I ever forget the house
Where my mother sat all day,
Weeping because she had left her home,
To travel this long road?
She wept to herself, quietly,
To hide her sorrow from the neighbours,
How deep was her longing for her old home,
How deep her distress in New York.
It was not the candles that dripped tears on Friday night,
Rather it was my mother’s eyes that cried.
My father in his American clothes
Looked strange, as in disguise,
A different man, a different Jew.
His beard hung sadly even on the Sabbath day,
Not what a Jewish beard should be.
And my mother wept to the God of Abraham.
There were no stars in her New York skies,
Only clouds. Even on the Sabbath day
They rained tears from her eyes.
If I shall ever, New York, long for you,
It will not be for yourself, your streets or your sea,
But for the sake of my parents’ memory,
For my father and mother who lie in Long Island,
Buried so far away in the cemetery,
That even I find it hard to visit their graves.
But I shall always sigh for those few feet of earth.
In that same field I myself shall lie.
No child of mine will remember me
As I remember my parents, unforgettably.
3. In Our Land, by Ben Sholem.
Sholem was born in Vilna in 1894 and moved as a young man to America.
Land, my land!
True, my cradle was not rocked between your stone walls,
And my mother did not sing here lullabies about
Almonds and raisins;
Often enough your streets were my bed,
And I slunk like a hungry dog through your avenues.
Yet I always desired to find my hope in the land my father
The marvelous land of which my father used to tell
Marvelous tales like in the Arabian Nights.
Land, my land!
I did not come to you with buckets of gold,
But with hammer and mallet and saw.
The song of the builder brought me
To my father’s dreamed-of land.
Land, my land!
In your stone streets,
In your roads and avenues and tall skyscrapers
My toil is graven deep like the toil of my grandfathers,
Swinging hammer, using mallet and saw,
Laying railway lines and tram lines,
And watching the trains and the trams run along them,
And on the seas, sailing ships and steamships joined land to land,
And your lumber camps and mining camps grew to be towns and cities…
We worked in the prairies and the corn stands high in the fields,
The barns are full of wheat and of grain
Gathered by our reaping-song.
My land, my marvelous land of tales like in the Arabian Nights,
What shall I say of my father’s dreamed-of land?
What shall I tell of your splendor?
How can my pain-soaked song that has absorbed from you
So much sorrow,
We see in these three poems the different feelings that Jewish immigrants have felt in the modern age as they have moved once again to a different country. Let us use this now to focus on the immigration stories of the students’ families.