When YIVO commissioned the immigration narratives that would become My Future is in America, it was itself an immigrant institution, only recently relocated from Poland to New York City. But the concept of an autobiography contest already held an important place in YIVO’s history. Max Weinreich, one of YIVO’s founders, developed a series of autobiography contests focused on Eastern European Jewish youth in the 1930s. Weinreich was dedicated to developing the burgeoning field of Yiddish social science and hoped the autobiographies would provide valuable sociological data that would help YIVO’s leaders understand the challenges young Jews faced.
YIVO was founded in 1925 as an academic research institution dedicated to modern Yiddish language and culture. Its founders believed that Yiddish was the vernacular of the majority of the world’s Jews and that YIVO’s leaders could serve as a proxy government—or at least department of culture—for the Yiddish-speaking Jewish nation. YIVO established departments of linguistics, sociology, folklore, economics, psychology, and history, and Weinreich soon became one of its leading lights.
Weinreich began his social scientific research in 1932 when he traveled to Yale University for the year to take part in an international seminar led by linguist Edward Sapir and sociologist John Dollard. Dollard used life histories from informants to learn about the nuanced relationships between race, class, and culture in the American South, and he encouraged the seminar students to use “auto-ethnography” to examine their own cultures and personalities. Weinreich became fascinated with the way that individuals developed personalities within minority cultures. He traveled through the South interviewing Black educators and adolescents and began to think deeply about the parallels between African American and Polish Jewish youth.
After returning to Poland, Weinreich published Der veg tsu undzer yugnt (The Way to Our Youth), a book laying out a plan for a new Yiddish social science. His plan called for the collection of life stories of young Polish Jews. Weinreich saw that the young Polish Jewish men and women coming of age in that moment were facing anti-Jewish economic boycotts and university quotas, political anti-Semitism, and a crumbling middle class. They were living through the political aftermath of World War I and the emergence of a newly independent Polish state, all while negotiating the new frameworks of Zionism, socialism, modern Orthodoxy, and the development of modern, secular Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Weinreich believed that autobiographies would not only serve Jewish youth well as a method of self-discovery but would help YIVO learn what issues young people struggled with the most in order to address these issues institutionally.
In 1932, Weinreich launched the first autobiography contest, focusing on Jewish youth from the Vilna region. The second contest, held in 1934, attracted hundreds of contestants from twelve countries. A third contest opened in 1938, with submissions due in May 1939. Winners were supposed to be announced in September 1939, but the Nazi occupation of Poland, beginning on September 1, put an abrupt end to YIVO’s scholarship. Weinreich happened to be attending a linguistics conference in Copenhagen at the time and managed to escape to New York City, where his family was eventually able to join him.
YIVO’s leaders decided that the institute would officially relocate to New York for the duration of the war; it would eventually re-establish itself permanently there. Weinreich became YIVO’s research director. He continued the work he had begun in Poland and launched a new autobiography contest in 1942, titled, “Why I Left Europe and What I Have Accomplished in America.” Over two hundred men and women responded. Unlike the interwar youth of Poland, these contestants were born before the turn of the twentieth century and had already survived immense political, cultural, and linguistic upheaval through the process of immigration and acculturation. They were at a unique point in their lives to reflect upon their experiences. As one woman wrote, “I have lived my whole life with these events in my heart, and many times I thought that if I had someone to tell my life story to, my heart would have been less burdened.”
The Discovery of the Self
The genre of autobiography emerged in Jewish life with the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century), which marked a transition from early modern religious literature to a new secular literature. Breaking with the tradition of using written documents to record communal tragedies, early life histories, composed in Hebrew and German, were often written by merchants who transformed account books into rudimentary autobiographies by recording their business success. One rare autobiography written by a woman, the memoirs of Glikl of Hameln, was written by a merchant’s wife and mother of fourteen children who worked alongside her husband to run the family jewelry business. Writing in Yiddish in the 1690s, Glueckel constructed her memoir as spiritual advice for her children and grandchildren. Her distinctive voice displays the writer’s awareness of herself as individual, distinct from her family and community. A hundred years later, Salomon Maimon wrote a paradigmatic Enlightenment autobiography in German, modeled on Rousseau’s Confessions. Maimon recounted his transformation as a religious Polish Jew who moved to Berlin and discovered European philosophy, narrating a journey from darkness to light, from superstition to rationalism.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, autobiography emerged as a distinct genre within Yiddish literature. Many of these life stories took the form of a political awakening to socialism or Communism, or simply an awakening to the wider world. As Rose Silverman wrote in her eponymous essay, “My Future is in America,” her brother, a yeshiva student who became a free thinker, began to bring her home books. She devoured books by Yiddish authors such as I. L. Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sforim, and Sholem Asch. “All these writers carried me away to other worlds,” she wrote. “I saw another life. Then my eyes were opened even more to the filth around the town of Medzhibozh.” Libraries and reading circles came to serve almost as religious institutions for many young people, helping them discover new worlds and new identities and serving as models for their own literary creations.
Secular Modes of Redemption
The genre of autobiography gave men and women the opportunity to step out of the traditional, religious, communal structure that governed so much of their lives, to think about themselves as individuals who had their own identities, their own histories, and their own futures. This narrative arc, which owed so much to the literature of the European Enlightenment, underscored an essentially secular and modern understanding of the world in which people had power to make choices, life was not predetermined by God, and individual lives mattered for their own sake. The very words “My Future is in America,” sum up the notion that a person could take their fate into their own hands, that the experience of immigration could change their fortune, that they could be the architects of their own lives. As Minnie Goldstein wrote in her memoir, her mother asked her father, “What does someone like you have to do with America? They only need heavy laborers there and you can’t do anything.” Her father responds, “Well, that’s exactly what I want. I want to go to a country where heavy labor is no disgrace. I want to go to a country where I can work hard and make a living for my wife and children and be equal to everyone.” In this context, the opportunity for equality in America becomes a chance of redemption. The dream of living in a democratic society, free of political and economic restrictions and the communal caste system, could propel many individuals’ quests across the Atlantic, leading to profound changes for themselves and their families.
The American Dream
For those who saw immigration as a path toward self-fulfillment, many became influenced by a new, somewhat uniquely American mythology, the story of “coming from nothing,” and achieving great wealth and success. American popular culture was full of cowboys, pioneers, and anti-heroes who took matters into their own hands or who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” with hard work and gumption. The “rags to riches” narrative was popularized in the late nineteenth century by Horatio Alger, a descendent of Puritans who wrote a series of novels where young men born into poverty eventually transcended their working-class origins and became comfortably middle-class. These tales appealed to immigrants, who wanted to believe that they too could start out as pushcart peddlers and become shop owners, but they also appealed to politicians and reformers who wanted immigrants, especially Jews, to leave their communal affiliations behind.
Becoming an American meant embodying the liberal ideals of individualism, discarding communal authority, mutual aid, or religious, linguistic, or cultural particularism. For Jewish immigrants, this meant a hierarchy of “greenness,” where those who had already acculturated to American norms helped to construct and reinforce the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Jews who resisted giving up “greenhorn” practices such as keeping kosher, dressing in traditional clothing, being publicly religious, and speaking Yiddish, were often scorned by their more “sophisticated” family members. At the same time, immigrants who held on to Jewish religious values, or European intellectual values, often complained miserably about the shallow, grasping nature of American culture. As Aaron Domnitz writes in his autobiography, his teacher Shteynbok would always say, “Greenhorns took to the American dollar and to the easy life here and made a religion out of them, a cult of practicality.” In the case of Shmuel Krone, his experience of being a greenhorn reaches its crisis point when, at his brother’s home, he realizes that the food they are cooking to serve him is treyf (not kosher). He immediately walks out, even though he has nowhere to go. As he walks the streets, he meets a familiar face from back home, who reassures him, saying, “You’ll be alright yet. Every green-horn has to undergo the birth pains of greenness.”
For both women and men, education was often key to the realization of an even partial American Dream. Many recent immigrants, forced to work long days in the factory, still made the effort to attend night school. Many studied “practical” subjects such as English, shorthand, or business classes, but others took advantage of their opportunity to finally study subjects that appealed to their intellectual curiosity, such as Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish literature. Education also became a form of secular redemption, since it could serve as a way of improving the self, a mode of engaging with the world, and a pathway to new self-understanding through both reading and writing.
- In this Yiddish Book Center Wexler Oral History Project interview excerpt, Henry Chaim Jelen, a Holocaust survivor, shares his first impressions as an immigrant in Chicago.
- Sheila Horvitz discusses her family’s immigration experiences in this Wexler Oral History Project interview excerpt. Visit the Yiddish Book Center's website for the full oral history interview with Sheila.
- In the Yiddish Book Center’s Unquiet Pages online exhibit, “Making Americans” highlights Yiddish immigrant culture represented in our collections.
- On October 1, 2020, Eddy Portnoy, academic advisor and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, presented a virtual public program with the Yiddish Book Center titled, “The Door Slams Shut: Reactions of the Yiddish Press to Immigration Issues in the Early 1920s.”
- Listen to Dr. Daniel Soyer read some of the autobiographies in this book at a public event put on by the Museum at Eldridge Street in New York. These recordings, along with those of other Jewish history scholars, are part of the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Lower East Side history podcasts.
- Chava Turniansky, professor emeritus of Yiddish literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explains how, “in all of Ashkenazi culture since the beginning, we don’t have any autobiographies until [Glikl of Hameln]." Turniansky explains why she thinks one should read Glikl: Memoirs, 1691-1719, arguably the first example of autobiography as a Jewish literary genre.
Questions for Discussion
- What were the main reasons that the men and women in this book decided to immigrate to America? Did you notice any common themes in how they represented the immigration experience?
- Why did autobiographies become so important as a genre of Jewish literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? How do the YIVO autobiographies reflect the history of the Jewish Enlightenment?
- Many of the autobiography writers write about their involvement in major Jewish political movements, such as Zionism and socialism. What role do you think politics play in these narratives? How different are the Eastern European and American political contexts?
- What role did religion play in these narratives? How did these men and women reconcile their traditional backgrounds with the pressure to secularize in America?
- YIVO had to adjust its mission significantly when it relocated from Vilna to New York during World War II. What do you think that Max Weinreich hoped to gain from collecting these autobiographies? How could an institute dedicated to Yiddish culture hope to adapt to the American Jewish world?
- The autobiographies were written at a major transitional moment in history, when Jews in the US had great concern regarding their families in Europe but did not yet know the full extent of the genocide of European Jewry. How do you think these narratives would have been written differently if they were written ten years earlier, or ten years later?
- What role does the “American Dream” play in these autobiographies?