Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939

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How did the vast number of Jewish immigrants from different regions of Eastern Europe form their American ethnic identity?

In his answer to this question, Daniel Soyer examines how Jewish immigrant hometown associations (landsmanshaftn) transformed old-world communal ties into vehicles for integration into American society. Focusing on New York?where some 3,000 associations enrolled nearly half a million members?this study is one of the first to explore the organizations' full ...

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Overview

How did the vast number of Jewish immigrants from different regions of Eastern Europe form their American ethnic identity?

In his answer to this question, Daniel Soyer examines how Jewish immigrant hometown associations (landsmanshaftn) transformed old-world communal ties into vehicles for integration into American society. Focusing on New York—where some 3,000 associations enrolled nearly half a million members—this study is one of the first to explore the organizations' full range of activities, and to show how the newcomers exercised a high degree of agency in their growing identification with American society.

The wide variety of landsmanshaftn—from politically radical and secular to Orthodox and from fraternal order to congregation—illustrates the diversity of influences on immigrant culture. But nearly all of these societies adopted the democratic benefits and practices that were seen as the most positive aspects of American civic culture. In contrast to the old-country hierarchical dispensers of charity, the newcomers' associations relied on mutual aid for medical care, income support, burial, and other traditional forms of self-help. During World War I, the landsmanshaftn sent aid to their war-ravaged hometowns; by the 1930s, the common identity centered increasingly upon collective reminiscing and hometown nostalgia.

The example of the Jewish landsmanshaftn suggests that many immigrants cultivated their own identification with American society to a far greater extent than is usually recognized. It also suggests that they selectively identified with those aspects of American culture that allowed them to retain emotional attachments to old-country landscapes and a sense of kinship with those who shared their heritage.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
In a carefully researched and highly readable account, Soyer presents a detailed discussion of Jewish landsmanshaftn (hometown associations) from their origins in East European Jewish communities to their development and transformation in New York City during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Soyer's examination of New York's landsmanshaftn demonstrates convincingly that the maintenance of these distinct ethnic associations not only coexisted with but actually facilitated immigrant acculturation.
— Beth S. Wenger
Journal of Jewish Studies
Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York challenges accepted interpretations of historical dynamics of acculturation. By recasting immigrant small town associations as major players on the Lower East Side certainly equal to the radical intellectuals and union organizers who dominate Howe's account--and by giving their members speaking parts in the drama of becoming American, the book convinces us of the extent to which Jewish immigrants authored their own lives. Writing from the bottom up, Soyer provokes us to rethink the dimensions of the immigrant experience and its construction. His deep familiarity with both American and Jewish culture, his sensitivity to the nuances of organizational expression and his vision of the complex processes of social change that create ethnic identity make the book compelling reading...[T]his is social history at its best.
— Deborah Dash Moore
Religious Studies Review
Soyer brings to his task not only fluency in Yiddish but also finely honed skills as a historian. It may well be the best work on the American Jewish immigrant experience since M. Rischin's pioneering treatment of Jewish New York, The Promised City...This book richly deserves the prizes it has won and should be of great interest to all scholars of modern Jewry, religious transitions in modernity, and the problem of immigration.
— Michael Berkowitz
Booknews
Examines how Jewish immigrant hometown associations ("landsmanshaftn") transformed old-world communal ties into vehicles for integration into American society. Focusing on New York<-->where some 3,000 associations enrolled nearly half a million members<-->the study is one of the first to explore the organizations' full range of activities, and to show how the newcomers exercised a high degree of agency in their growing identification with American society. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674444171
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.49 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Soyer is a former archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Fellow with the "Sweatshop Project" of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
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Table of Contents

Note on Orthography and Transliteration
Introduction 1
1 The Old World 10
2 The New World 29
3 Landsmanshaft Culture and Immigrant Identities 49
4 Brothers in Need 81
5 The Building Blocks of Community 113
6 Institutional Dilemmas 143
7 The Heroic Period 161
8 Looking Backward 190
Notes 207
Acknowledgments 275
Index 277
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