Immigrating to America: The Jewish Experience

From the Wexler Oral History Project

While there have been Jews in America since colonial times, the great majority arrived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, driven by persecution and violence, drawn by the promise of opportunity and freedom. Despite the harrowing circumstances that brought them here, and the difficulties that they, like all immigrant groups, encountered as they adjusted to life in a new land, Jewish immigrants quickly became an influential force in American society, making profound contributions in diverse fields ranging from science to the performing arts.
The Wexler Oral History Project has collected many stories about the Jewish immigrant experience, both to the United States and to other parts of the world. Some are told by the immigrants themselves, some by children and grandchildren who grew up straddling old country and new. Together, they tell a larger story about both the significant challenges faced by Jews, and the strength and resilience that helped them become such a vital part of the American culture. 
Here are a few of those stories. You can find many more interviews at the Wexler Oral History Project.

Isabel Belarsky and her family arrived at Ellis Island from Russia with just one item from home: a samovar, which her father—the Yiddish singer Sidor Belarsky—carried in a bulky crate, and which sits in her apartment to this day.

Sheila Horvitz's mother was just seven years old when she came to America with her own mother in 1923. Horvitz shares photos and documents from her mother and grandmother's passage and tells how the family's name—and her mother's birthdate—were changed at Ellis Island.

Mark Gerstein, z"l, who taught high school history and was a volunteer with the Wexler Oral History Project, recounts how his grandfather decided to come to the United States shortly before restrictive immigration laws were enacted.

Leo Weitzman, z"l, who survived the Holocaust as a child and came to the United States in 1951, remembers the cultural differences between Jews who emigrated after the war and those who had been here for many years.

Professor Eugene Orenstein's mother lived with her impoverished widowed mother and siblings in a tiny room in Warsaw before coming to join an older sister in New York in 1921, the last year before restrictive new immigration quotas were put in place.


Helen Kurzban, a Brooklyn-born native Yiddish speaker, tells the story of her father and two of his siblings, who came to the United States before World War II—and of his extended family, who stayed behind and died in the Holocaust.

Aron Gonshor, a surgeon and an actor with the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in Monreal, was an infant when his family immigrated to Canada from a Displaced Persons camp in 1948. While Canadian regulations restricted Jewish immigration at the time, Gonshor's father gained entrance under a quota that offered exemptions for tailors and other tradespeople.

In the 1920s, when the United States was placing restrictions on immigration, Mexico opened its doors to European immigrants in an effort to stimulate its economy and culture. Boris Rubinstein's family was among the many Jews who came to Mexico at that time.