Reading, Writing, And History

PrintPrintEmailEmail

There is a world of contrast in the story of the two and a half million Italians who came here between 1890 and 1930, as it is set forth by Erik Amfitheatrof, a writer with Time-Life Books. There had been a trickle of substantial and distinguished Italians before that first date (such as Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for The Marriage of Figaro , or Luigi Di Palma di Cesnola, first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). And there was, after 1890, a small number of Italian newcomers who could buy farm land—and work it beautifully—in such old places as New England and such new ones as California. But most Italian immigrants were from southern Italy, escaping from appalling rural poverty and bringing with them folk memories of ten centuries of occupation and exploitation. The only work available to them, for the most part, was with pick and shovel, building the skyscrapers, subways, streetcar lines, sewers, waterworks, and roads of urbanizing America. Crowded by necessity into the poorest tenement districts, they were often unthinkingly condemned as undesirable, unhealthy, and uncivilized “dagos.” Clinging to their own foods, Catholic religious style, neighborhood associations, and other institutions that dulled the edge of loneliness and alienation, they remained visibly different, even as some of them moved out into the world of business as grocers, restaurateurs, movers, builders, and the like. It was easy to caricature people who did not “mix” as organ grinders or gangsters—particularly when there were in truth organ grinders and gangsters among them—and thereafter, the mere possession of an Italian name was apt to conjure up those images among native Americans. For that reason, even an on-the-make Italian-American might choose the comfort of staying in a neighborhood of fellow Italians.

Like the Italians, the Russian-Polish Jews as depicted in Poor Cousins , by Ande Manners, herself a granddaughter of eastern European immigrants, were spectacularly different—and ragged. They had been confined in Russia to the lowliest occupations and the least-promising regions, and the crowning blows came in the form of pogroms (usually condoned by the czarist government) which erupted periodically between 1882 and 1912. They came to America shabby and undernourished and with the marks of their orthodoxy upon them—beards, ear locks, fringed undershirts, wigs for pious married women. They asserted their differentness with their surroundings in a way that shocked not only the Gentiles, but also those German Jews who had arrived in America earlier and were comfortably assimilated. As one such German Jew noted, the newcomers bore “the ineffaceable marks of permanent pauperism” and could bring “only disgrace and a lowering of the opinion in which American Israelites were held.” Another German Jew spoke of the task of “educating and civilizing the Russian Jews.”

But the Russian Jews civilized themselves. They swarmed into New York’s Lower East Side, filling the sweatshops and tenements with the sounds of Yiddish, the smells of herring and borscht, and the crackle of their vitality—a million and a half strong. Before long, pious boys who had excelled at Talmudic studies were shining in the public schools and beginning to climb toward the uplands of accountancy and pharmacy and even the dizzying heights of medicine, teaching, and the law. (Not, to be sure, that some did not remain pants pressers or become hustlers and musclemen.) Other “poor cousins” rushed to join trade unions, to pick up American ways and skills in settlement-house classes, and to explore the nuances of American politics. Bit by bit the East Side ghetto—a community with its own journalistic, literary, and theatrical life—began to dissolve itself as the young shed the old languages, costumes, and habits. They did not melt out of sight like the English farmers of the Midwest; they did not, on the whole, remain as tightly bound in ethnic enclaves as the Italians (who were, in large numbers, “making it” in their own way); they created, rather, a special cultural pocket snugly lodged within the American success ethic—American middle-class Jewry.

Three groups, three stories that differ. There are also similarities to note. All these immigrants produced clutches of professors and statesmen and businessmen (as well as their unsung failures); it would be banal to call the honor roll of the Jews and Italians (Gershwin, Sinatra; SarnofF, Volpe, et cetera, et cetera ), and as for the English, we never think of their successful descendants as stories of “immigrant” achievement. Moreover, all three groups’ members knew the pain of separation from the familiar and the bite of conflict between generations as the young shed their oldcountry ways and scorned parents who were less easily made up-to-date than they themselves were. And all three groups (by and large) shared something else that may be harder to come by now—an absolute faith that in America things would get better from tomorrow to tomorrow; that the future was seductive no matter how demanding the present might be.