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An American Tale

Golden City: Stories about Jewish immigration to America a century ago are popular and well known—but are they true?

Rokhl Kafrissen
February 26, 2020

There are certain myths that loom so large in the Jewish-American imagination, it feels as if they have existed forever. For example, we know from the Passover Haggadah that the Hebrews fled Egypt so suddenly, and all at once, that they had no time to let their bread dough rise. So, too, do we know from the 1986 Don Bluth hit movie An American Tail, that one winter night in the Ukrainian shtetl of Shostka, the Mousekewitz family had their house destroyed in a sudden nighttime attack by Cossack cats, and that the entire family, all at once, fled for America.

Immigration is the ur-myth of American Jews, and it makes sense that one of our most popular, most pop-cultural, iterations would resonate with one of our most ancient texts. I don’t mean to imply that immigration is “mythical” in the sense that it didn’t happen, but simply that it was an event of such magnitude that it transformed America, American Jewry, and global Jewry, to boot.

The Jewish immigration story is a master narrative, susceptible to endless reinterpretations and refashionings. Our various retellings of that story don’t necessarily, or even often, demonstrate much relation to historical truth. When it comes to the Exodus—well, personally, I think its absolute historical accuracy is relatively unimportant, considering how distant we are from the events at hand. But when it comes to the great waves of Jewish migration out of the Russian Empire, I start to feel very strongly about the importance of the details.

At the end of the 19th century, almost half the world’s Jews lived within the Russian Empire, and a fair chunk more in Galicia and other adjoining territories. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, 2 million people—one-third of the Jewish population—left. In his book Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920, historian Eli Lederhandler says that only the migrations of the Irish and Norwegians can compare in scale.

Why did so many people leave their homes in such a short amount of time? If you ask your average sixth grader, they can probably recite the American Tail (lehavdil) catechism: Cossacks. Pogroms. Sudden, unprovoked, and catastrophic violence. Duh.

Indeed, if you ask your average Jewish documentary talking head, you might get the same exact answer. In the recent documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (which, by the way, I enjoyed), writer Fran Lebowitz says: “Take the Irish who came here, they didn’t really want to come here, they came here because they were starving. … many immigrant groups … came here not because they hated their country but they came here mostly for economic reasons. The Jews did not come here mostly for economic reasons. They came here because they were being killed.”

That’s the story we all know. But is it true?

Throughout the 19th century, the Jewish population of the Russian Empire grew far faster than the overall population. Though Jews were the subject of periodic mass violence, their lives were influenced more by demographic crowding and subsequent unemployment than by occasional bursts of violence. In her essay “Were Jews Political Refugees or Economic Migrants? Assessing the Persecution Theory of Jewish Emigration, 1881-1914,” Princeton economist Leah Platt Boustan concludes that while pogroms and periodic mass violence had an effect on migration outflows, the timing of migration was definitively tied to economic conditions. The United States was the most dynamic and wide-open economy in the world. The Russian Empire was a comparative backwater with diminishing opportunities for the surging Jewish population. She shows that, in fact, patterns of regional migration did not correspond to regions suffering from the most violence, as you might expect if the “they came here because they were being killed” hypothesis was true. Lederhandler agrees with Boustan, as does historian Hasia Diner, to name a few eminent scholars.

In An American Tail, Fievel and his family leave Shostka together after their home is destroyed. But migration was expensive, and involved not just tickets on a ship to America, but train and boat travel across Europe to get to a trans-Atlantic port. We see the family leaving from Hamburg, so points for that. But even if the Mousekewitz family made the decision to leave Shostka on the night of the pogrom, they would have had to save up their cheese for a year or more to afford such a trip. Boustan notes that where pogrom violence had an effect on rates of migration, it showed up with a year delay, and would almost always fall back to previous levels within two years.

In reality, families rarely left as a single unit and they certainly didn’t leave on a whim. Typically a husband would leave first, perhaps spending a year in England, acquiring English and some new economic skills, and then on to America. This was chain migration, a basic feature of all mass migrations. In a time when chain migration has now been demonized as something nefarious and unusual, it’s important to recall its utter normality throughout American history.

One of my favorite teen-appropriate immigrant memoirs is Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman, by Matilda Rabinowitz. As an adult, Rabinowitz became the rare female, and Jewish, IWW organizer, as well as a life-long radical. But as a child, her story, as detailed in her memoir, was utterly typical. She was born in a Ukrainian shtetl at the end of the 19th century. Her father went to England first, then spent four years in the United States, while he built up enough money to bring the rest of the family over. The family may have been immiserated in their shtetl, but it was due to poverty, and the fairly recent and oppressive May Laws rather than violence. And as unhappy as the family was, they were understandably reluctant to leave, as were many migrants. The ocean journey described by Rabinowitz in her memoir is absolutely horrifying, including at one point, almost capsizing during a storm. (While Fievel does get tossed overboard during a storm—legit terrifying, points for accuracy there—at least he gets a song and dance before he goes.)

You’ll probably recall that Fievel’s sister Tanya Mousekewitz has her name changed to Tilly at Castle Garden. Up there with the persecution-migration hypothesis, the Ellis Island name change is a fascinating story we tell ourselves. However, names were recorded on a ship’s manifest when the ship left port. Once passengers arrived, names would be checked against the manifest. There was no opportunity for renaming, nor were officials interested in doing so. As Kirsten Fermaglich details in her fascinating book, A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America, name changes were done voluntarily, by the people themselves once established in America, and had little to do with a desire to escape their Jewishness.

Once again, I wonder at the twists and turns taken by our mythologies. I understand that the persecution hypothesis (or, There Are No Cats in America) is a lot simpler, and more dramatic, than graphs of 19th-century wage growth and population tables. But there’s also a devastating irony at play. The overwhelming driver of mass migration from the Russian Empire was the search for economic opportunity. At that time, the United States had virtually no limits on immigration (until it did, in 1924) and Jews arrived as white Europeans, per Hasia Diner, which meant that their entrepreneurial opportunities were virtually unlimited. The Jews who came to America in that period were pretty damn lucky.

But a few decades later, they really were trying to kill us. And the United States very firmly closed its door. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says it better than I can: “In late 1938, 125,000 [German Jewish] applicants lined up outside U.S. consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000. Most visa applicants were unsuccessful. At the Evian Conference in July 1938, only the Dominican Republic stated that it was prepared to admit significant numbers of refugees, although Bolivia would admit around 30,000 Jewish immigrants between 1938 and 1941.”

Even as the Final Solution picked up speed, the American government was strenuously arguing that refugees posed a national security threat.

So what to make of these myths? Our modern Exodus with pogromchiks at our heels? Perhaps the painful truths are still too painful, while our self-crafted narratives impose a story of persistence, and American opportunity, we need to believe.

UPDATES: Polina Shepherd is composing songs for Troim Katz Handler’s poems, at least a few of which Shepherd says will be debuted at this year’s YIDSTOCK … Regarding my column about the pogroms of 1917-1922, you can now read Maurice Wolfthal’s translation of The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust, written by Nokhem Shtif, an eminent Yiddish linguist and social activist who joined the relief efforts on behalf of the pogrom survivors in Kiev. Shtif’s testimony, published in 1923, was born from his encounters there and from the weighty archive of documentation amassed by the relief workers. This was one of the earliest efforts to systematically record human rights atrocities on a mass scale.

ALSO: Once again the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center will host its annual Purim party and the entertainment lineup is stellar. Mikhl Yashinsky, who recently starred in both Yiddish Fiddler and The Sorceress, will sing, and then the duo of Lorin Sklamberg (voice) and Rob Schwimmer (theremin) will perform. Sunday, March 8 at 1:30 p.m., 3301 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx … Also on March 8, YIVO celebrates International Women’s Day with a panel discussion in honor of Nancy Sinkoff’s new book: From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History. 2 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History … March 20 is the deadline for the Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellowship, a unique opportunity for immersion in Eastern European life and culture, from L.A.’s Yiddishkayt … One of my very first jobs in New York City was in the office of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre (as it was then known). The play that season starred Yiddish theater icon Mina Bern, and getting to interact with Mina was a thrill I’ll never forget. I can’t believe it’s already been 10 years since we lost her. Join her friends and colleagues as we observe her 10th yortsayt. March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History … Zisl Slepovitch (Litvakus) is the musician-in-residence at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. The product of his work with the archive is a unique CD, and now concert, called Where Is Our Homeland? Songs From Testimonies in The Fortunoff Video Archive. Also featuring Golden City favorites Sasha Lurje, Craig Judelman, and Joshua Camp. Monday, April 27 at 7 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History. Tickets here … If studying Yiddish song with world class artists in the heart of London sounds like a dreamy end-of-summer experience, take note that registration is now open for the Golden Peacock Yiddish Song School … The world is made up of two kinds of people: those who willingly eat matzo and those who merely tolerate it. My mom, of blessed memory, was a year-round matzo person. I, on the other hand, am not. However, even a non-matzo person such as myself has to recognize that the Yiddish Farm shmura matzo is a treat to be enjoyed, not merely tolerated. The Yiddish Farm store is open now for pre-orders and, be warned, they will sell out … And, oh, hey, the world premiere of my new play is April 2 at the theater at the 14th Street Y. Tickets here.


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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.