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Copyright 2001 by Mary Antin
CHAPTER I Within the Pale
When I was a little girl, the world was divided into two parts; namely, Polotzk, the place where I lived, and a strange land called Russia. All the little girls I knew lived in Polotzk, with their fathers and mothers and friends. Russia was the place where one’s father went on business. It was so far off, and so many bad things happened there, that one’s mother and grandmother and grown-up aunts cried at the railroad station, and one was expected to be sad and quiet for the rest of the day, when the father departed for Russia.
After a while there came to my knowledge the existence of another division, a region intermediate between Polotzk and Russia. It seemed there was a place called Vitebsk, and one called Vilna, and Riga, and some others. From those places came photographs of uncles and cousins one had never seen, and letters, and sometimes the uncles themselves. These uncles were just like people in Polotzk; the people in Russia, one understood, were very different. In answer to one’s questions, the visiting uncles said all sorts of silly things, to make everybody laugh; and so one never found out why Vitebsk and Vilna, since they were not Polotzk, were not as sad as Russia. Mother hardly cried at all when the uncles went away.
One time, when I was about eight years old, one of my grown-up cousins went to Vitebsk. Everybody went to see her off, but I didn’t. I went with her. I was put on the train, with my best dress tied up in a bandana, and I stayed on the train for hours and hours, and came to Vitebsk. I could not tell, as we rushed along, where the end of Polotzk was. There were a great many places onthe way, with strange names, but it was very plain when we got to Vitebsk.
The railroad station was a big place, much bigger than the one in Polotzk. Several trains came in at once, instead of only one. There was an immense buffet, with fruits and confections, and a place where books were sold. My cousin never let go my hand, on account of the crowd. Then we rode in a cab for ever so long, and I saw the most beautiful streets and shops and houses, much bigger and finer than any in Polotzk.
We remained in Vitebsk several days, and I saw many wonderful things, but what gave me my one great surprise was something that wasn’t new at all. It was the river—the river Dvina. Now the Dvina is in Polotzk. All my life I had seen the Dvina. How, then, could the Dvina be in Vitebsk? My cousin and I had come on the train, but everybody knew that a train could go everywhere, even to Russia. It became clear to me that the Dvina went on and on, like a railroad track, whereas I had always supposed that it stopped where Polotzk stopped. I had never seen the end of Polotzk; I meant to, when I was bigger. But how could there be an end to Polotzk now? Polotzk was everything on both sides of the Dvina, as all my life I had known; and the Dvina, it now turned out, never broke off at all. It was very curious that the Dvina should remain the same, while Polotzk changed into Vitebsk!
|I||Within the Pale||7|
|II||Children of the Law||30|
|III||Both Their Houses||41|
|VI||The Tree of Knowledge||98|
|VII||The Boundaries Stretch||119|
|IX||The Promised Land||154|
|XIII||A Child's Paradise||212|
|XVIII||The Burning Bush||269|
|XIX||A Kingdom in the Slums||282|
|Appendix||How I Wrote The Promised Land||317|
|Reading Group Guide||327|
1. The narrative of The Promised Land is split nearly evenly between an account of Antin's life "within the Pale" (where Jews were geographically confined), in Polotzk, and an account of her life in the United States. What are the significant differences between the community life of Polotzk and that of the poor sections of Boston and Chelsea where Antin lived? What are the differences in perceptions and expectations about community in these two places?
2. When Antin describes Sabbath evenings in Polotzk, she says of the excellence of the cheesecakes that were eaten with supper, "It takes history to make such a cake." What does she mean by this? And what is suggested here about the sense and weight of history to all those who live in Polotzk? What role does history play in the collective identity?
3. Antin's own relationship to the history of her people is of course a complicated one. How do her attitude and feelings about the historical circumstances into which she was born and about her Jewishness change over the course of the book? When Antin arrives in the United States, she was-as she herself says-"made over" through "all the processes of uprooting, transportation, replanting, acclimatization, and development [that] took place in [her] own soul." She is faced with her identity's duality: her Jewishness on the one hand, her newfound American citizenship on the other. What are some examples of her grappling with this duality? What do they say, more broadly, about the plight of the immigrant? How does Antin incorporate the American ideals of citizenship, equal opportunity, and freedom into her life?
4. Howare the changing attitudes of Antin's parents toward their religion different from or similar to Antin's own? How do An-tin's and her parents' attitudes toward both the ritualistic and philosophical aspects of Judaism change over the course of her
narrative and through the process of immigration and assimilation?
5. What role does Antin's gender play in the molding of her identity? How does she feel about her place as a woman in Polotzk and, then, in early-twentieth-century America? Can she be considered a protofeminist of some sort, or is she more focused on other aspects of her identity?
6. Throughout her narrative, Antin mentions that her story speaks for many thousands of immigrants who have not, for different reasons, written stories of their own. Antin at one point writes, "The tongue am I of those who lived before me, as those that are to come will be the voice of my unspoken thoughts." What insights do you think Antin's story sheds on questions about immigration and assimilation in modern American society?