Early Jewish New York: Poets, Anarchists, And Unspeakable Crowding: An Interview with Historian Tyler AnbinderWednesday, November 23rd, 2016
The Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Chinese, the Puerto Ricans – wave after wave of immigrants over the centuries have come to New York City seeking opportunity in the land of the free. A new book, “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), documents some of their stories. The author, Tyler Anbinder, is a professor of history at George Washington University and the descendant of Jewish immigrants from southwest Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.
The Jewish Press: The front cover of City of Dreams features a picture of the Statue of Liberty. Interestingly, though, you write that the statue was not originally associated with immigration, or even the friendship between France and the United States. What did the French who gifted it have in mind, then?
Anbinder: The Statue of Liberty was originally conceived as a monument celebrating the emancipation of the slaves at the end of the Civil War. But by the time the Frenchmen got around to building it, Americans were no longer interested in commemorating the slaves’ emancipation since racial issues had begun to divide the country again. So people in the United States who were trying to raise money to build the pedestal for the statue began to portray it as a symbol of Franco-American friendship instead.
And it was within that effort to build this ten-story pedestal that Emma Lazarus, in 1883, wrote her poem in which she commemorated the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The idea was that she would write a poem which would be part of a scrap book of artistic works that would be auctioned off, and the proceeds from the auction would help pay for the pedestal.
It was only in 1903, though, 16 years after Lazarus died, that her poem, “The New Colossus,” was affixed to the base of the statue.
That’s correct. In fact, when Emma Lazarus died in 1887 at age 38, none of her obituaries even mentioned “The New Colossus.” And when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, none of the speeches by President Grover Cleveland or any of the other dignitaries in attendance mentioned immigrants or immigration. It was only later that the Statue of Liberty became a symbol of immigration.
Many Jews believe the names of their ancestors were changed at Ellis Island when they entered this country. You argue that this is a “myth.” Please explain.
There was no time for the immigration officials at Ellis Island to change anybody’s name. They only had one minute per family; it was a very fast process, and name changing was not one of the things done. There was no official document you left Ellis Island with that stated your new name. In fact, you didn’t leave Ellis Island with any official document whatsoever.
So where did this myth come from?
It’s not clear exactly. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the immigrants were confused when they went through Ellis Island. Sometimes the shipping companies put a piece of paper on the immigrants’ coats with their name on it as it was written on the ship manifest, and sometimes that ship manifest would spell their name incorrectly as it was often transliterated from Yiddish. So it’s possible the immigrants thought that was an official document telling them their new name when in fact it wasn’t. It’s also possible that they supposed the mispronunciation of their name by the workers at Ellis Island was something official when it wasn’t.
But I think the theory that is most likely is that immigrants changed their names themselves to try to assimilate – especially if they had a business where having a more American-sounding name would help them – and I think a lot of these immigrants were embarrassed later to tell their children or grandchildren that they had changed the family name, so they came up with this story that somebody else had done it for them.
You write that the Lower East Side – home to many Jewish immigrants – was the most congested area in the world before World War I. Was it really that crowded?
It’s unimaginable today. The closest you can get to it is maybe Mumbai, Dakha, or Nairobi. I think one good way to think about it is that the Lower East Side’s 1.4 square miles had more inhabitants than the 440,000 square miles of Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona combined.
Why was it so crowded?
Because Jewish immigrants wanted to live on the Lower East Side and the landlords didn’t want to build new buildings – in part, because if they did they would have to meet the requirements of housing codes that tried to make buildings safer but also made them more expensive to build. So the landlords kept the buildings the same while the number of immigrants living in them expanded exponentially.
Some Jews in the early 20th century were active in the rising socialist movement. Emma Goldman is perhaps the most famous among them. Can you talk a little bit about her?
I think Emma Goldman is a fascinating story. She was a Jewish immigrant who left Russia because her father had wanted her to get married and she didn’t want to get married so young. So in 1885, at age 16, she came to America with her half-sister and moved to Rochester where she was pushed by her relatives into a marriage she didn’t want. So after a couple of years, she left her husband and moved to New York to join the anarchist movement.
The anarchists were kind of the radical end of the socialist movement, known in particular for advocating violence to achieve socialist goals. So Emma Goldman came to New York and very quickly became one of the leading socialist public speakers at rallies and assemblies and soon became nationally famous for advocating for the anarchist cause. She plotted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the leading American industrialists at the time, and helped plot bombings across the United States later on as well. She spent a lot of time in jail and eventually was deported back to Russia during World War I.
Some twenty million people immigrated to the United Stated from 1881 to 1914, including two million Jews. Yet, shortly after World War I, Congress imposed severe immigration restrictions, which of course had dire consequences for Jews 20 years later trying to escape the Holocaust. Why were these restrictions imposed?
A couple of reasons. Part of it was a fear that with so much of Europe devastated because of the war, too many European refugees would come to the United States and the Roaring Twenties would grind to a halt. Another reason is that many native-born Americans associated Jewish immigrants and Italian immigrants, in particular, with radical movements like the anarchists.
Back then, when Americans thought of terrorists, they thought of Italians and Eastern European Jews – people like Emma Goldman and some of the Italian socialists who carried out bombings. The biggest terrorist attack in the United States before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was an anarchist bombing of Wall Street by Italian anarchists in 1920, in which dozens of people were killed. So a lot of Americans associated Eastern European Jews and Italians with violent anarchism. And the immigration restrictions especially targeted these two groups.
You argue at the end of the book that all immigrant groups to America are, in essence, the same. How so?
Immigrants come to America mostly for the same reason – to improve their lives and those of their children. When they first get here, immigrants struggle to fit in and they feel very lost. They take the lowest jobs because they usually can’t get any others. They eventually – with the help of friends and family members who are already here – start to learn the ropes and feel more at home. Yet at the same time they worry that their American-born children will become too American and lose too much of their heritage.
Was there anything you were surprised to learn when doing research for the book?
One thing I found surprising was how similar the debates about immigration 100 years ago are to the debates today. Pretty much all the things people say today about Muslim immigrants were said 100 years ago about Italians and Eastern European Jews – that they took Americans’ jobs, that they posed a national security threat, and that they would change the very nature of what it meant to be an American. And whereas today people might argue against Muslim immigrants on the grounds that they don’t fit into America’s Judeo-Christian tradition, 100 years ago they said Jews didn’t fit within America’s Christian tradition.
To be fair, though: Just because an argument may have been wrong in one context doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong in another.
Certainly not, but I think the argument was wrong both times. And I think the fact that each generation of immigrants is eventually seen as perfectly American and perfectly acceptable shows that, very likely, the anti-immigrant sentiment today against Muslim immigrants is going to fade and a generation from now people will look back and say how funny it was that we thought Muslims couldn’t be good Americans.Elliot Resnick