Monday, August 20, 2012

Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America by Ruth Gay 1996

Winner of the 1997 National Jewish Book Award

Ruth Gay uses the details of everyday living, such as food, furniture, and fashion to narrate the experiences of Eastern European Jewish immigrants adjusting to life in America. Drawing on her own life growing up with immigrant parents in the Bronx, and citing sources whose authors explore similar themes, she paints a picture of a community constantly evolving.

Gay starts with a chapter called “There” in which she discusses the conditions in Eastern Europe that precipitated the great wave of immigration during the decades at the end of the 19th century and those at the beginning of the 20th.  She discusses such topics as anti-Semitism and progroms, poverty, enforced military service, and the restrictions imposed by Orthodox Judaism. The main section of the memoir analyzes many aspects of the immigrant Jewish community in the Bronx during the period until World War II.  The last section of the book called “Here” serves as a conclusion, highlighting some of the major points in the main section.

The core of the book deals with two generations: the first generation – the immigrant parents, and the second generation – their children. Gay astutely uses domestic issues to illuminate the difficulties and accommodations that took place. Generally speaking, the immigrant generation started by holding on to their Old World customs. For example, when it came to food, they bought what they knew and prepared and served it according to custom. But little by little many abandoned the strictures of kashruth and varied their eating habits. Other religious traditions also were largely put aside. Mothers stopped shaving their heads and wearing wigs; fathers cut off their beards and forelocks. The custom of arranged marriages also became marginalized, mainly because many young immigrants had arrived without parents and had the freedom to make their own choices. 

Immigrant parents, no longer hermetically sealed in the shtetl, not comfortable with English, and  having adapted as much as they cared to, frequently did not want their children to move further away from family customs and traditions But their children’s assimilation proceeded whether they liked it or not. To illustrate these points Gay has an interesting discussion about how she and her friends looked to American movies and novels as well as magazine and newspaper articles for clues in how to look and behave like an American. 

This memoir provides a thoughtful investigation into the day-to-day lives of Eastern European immigrants in New York. The author quotes many interesting sources from early Yiddish and English memoirs, movies, theater, essays and fiction as well as contemporary magazine ads and Yiddish song lyrics that reveal what was on the minds of members of the community. She also frequently quotes and translates Yiddish words, phrases and sayings. A perfect example: when she skinned a knee as a child, her mother would say, “Es vet nisht shatn tsum khasene.” Her translation: “It won’t interfere with your getting married.”

This book includes a useful “A Note on Sources” where the author records the works she consulted.

To read the New York Times obituary of Ruth Gay who died in 2006 click here.

Click here for a link to a website dedicated to a historical accounting of synagogues in the Bronx.

The following list of family members and their relationships is brief and incomplete because the author seems to have deliberately left out family names out of respect for privacy. I have augmented the names she mentions in the body of the book as well as in her Acknowledgements with names mentioned in the NYTimes obituary cited above.

? – married ? Slotkin – author’s parents
    Ruth Slotkin – married Nathan Glazer (divorced) married Peter Gay
        Sarah Glazer Khedouri – daughter of Ruth and Nathan
        Sophie Glazer – daughter of Ruth and Nathan
        Elizabeth Glazer – daughter of Ruth and Nathan;  married to William Montgomery
    Shirley Slotkin Gorenstein – sister of Ruth
    Caroll Boltin – sister of Ruth
Asher (Harry)  – brother of author’s mother; married Feigele (Fanny)
Elke  – sister of author’s mother; married Moyshe -
Chana  - sister of author’s mother
Philip and Anna – uncle and aunt of Ruth – specific relationship not clear
Shloyme and Necha-Leah – uncle and aunt of Ruth – relationship not clear
Jake  and Lena – uncle and aunt of Ruth – relationship not clear
 Shayndel – aunt of Ruth – relationship not clear

Rutki, Poland
New York City, NY
The Bronx, NY

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