Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Goldene Medina

The Immigrant Life
September 1, 1903, 
New York, Ellis Island
I am sitting here on the wood wicker suitcase, the one with the metal straps. Mama says I am too heavy to rest on the wicker one. It seems as if we have been in this baggage room forever, although it has only been two hours since we got off the boat. My oldest sister, Tovah, says to get used to it. It takes a long time to get "processed." I am not sure what this word means. I know when you enter life you are born, but when you enter America you are processed here, at Ellis Island. 
Dreams  in the Golden Country: 
The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, p. 3.

Arriving at Ellis Island in New YorkPhysicians examine a group of Jewish immigrants who are gathered in a small room, two with their shirts off. Note the eye chart with Hebrew letters that hangs on the wall.  
Photo Credit: Underwood & Underwood; 1907
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

For many Jews who made the perilous trip by ship across the Atlantic Ocean in the last century, the United States—America—was Die Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, where all dreams could and would come into fruition. A Promised Land like no other. And America has kept that promise; it has been a beacon of not only hopes and dreams, but of opportunity. The list of American Jews who have "made it in America" is long. I have written about many of them, including Irving Berlin, Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Arthur Rubinstein.

More than any other nation over the last hundred years, and most notably between 1880 and 1924, America was the place where most Jews wanted to settle and start their life anew. For such persons, a two-week trip by steam ship in third class, and then a long wait to be "processed" at Ellis Island in New York City, was worth the travails, for it would lead to a better life than the one they left behind. It was at Ellis Island that most immigrants got their first taste of America:
The great steamship companies like White Star, Red Star, Cunard and Hamburg-America played a significant role in the history of Ellis Island and immigration in general. First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. The Federal government felt that these more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals or become a burden to the state. However, first and second class passengers were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection if they were sick or had legal problems.

This scenario was far different for "steerage" or third class passengers. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection.
As the Ellis Island site notes: "The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these 'six second physicals.' " If all the papers were in order and the immigrant was in good health, the complete inspection process would last no more than five hours—a small inconvenience for freedom. Many came, precisely for that reason. During this period, for example, more than two million Russian Jews made their way to the United States, the great majority settling in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One can criticize America—and many feel free to do so, often without valid reason—and yet it is a nation unlike any other.

To put it mildly, America has been exceptionally good for the Jews. (The question on whether America has been good for Judaism is another one that we'll put aside for now.) So, yes, America is not perfect and has made a number of mistakes, some major. But so have all large and powerful nations; all small and weak nations, as well. But what of America's long list of accomplishments in all areas of humanity: arts, science, medicine, culture, economics, politics, sports? These cannot be denied.

Its success is undoubtedly due to its Constitution, to its work ethic, to its freedoms and to its immigrants who have brought with their meagre possessions a hunger to succeed in their adopted land. There is also its history as a place of refuge and hope. The U.S. has had a long history where it has viewed itself as a place favoured by God; some call this American exceptionalism, as an article by Jodi Kantor in The New York Times on Mitt Romney noted.
Or take Mr. Romney’s frequent tributes to American exceptionalism. “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag,” he said in announcing his bid for the presidency last June. Every presidential candidate highlights patriotism, but Mr. Romney’s is backed by the Mormon belief that the United States was chosen by God to play a special role in history, its Constitution divinely inspired.

“He is an unabashed, unapologetic believer that America is the Promised Land,” said Douglas D. Anderson, dean of the business school at Utah State University and a friend, and that leading it is “an obligation and responsibility to God.”
For many immigrants, America was and has been an exceptional place like no other. It has been good to them and their families. Should they be taught otherwise? Many secular members of the press are uncomfortable with such religious ideas informing a candidate's politics, yet that is very much part of the American tradition and cannot be ignored. It might be that the media, for the most part, is out of touch with America and its prevailing values than the other way around.

So, today is the Fourth of July, the American Day of Independence. Faith in the nation and its founding principles play an important role in the lives of many of its citizens, including the many immigrants who are proud to become American citizens. To my American friends, I wish you a day of celebration and fun and while you are firing up the barbecues and viewing the fireworks, remember to acknowledge that the United States is still a nation of immigrants and a nation where individual liberty can always be found. That is a good thing.

Happy Holidays to all.

N.B.: Today marks my last post for July; I am taking a much-needed summer break and will return on August 1. Happy holidays.


  1. The wait at Ellis Island might have been a drag, but then one was safe. When Hitler came to power, there was no relaxation of immigration restrictions, and one was not safe.


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