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Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America
     

Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America

by Ruth Gay
 

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Winner of the National Jewish Book Award, a seminal work of history on immigrant Jewish life in early twentieth-century New York.
Nearly three million Jews came to America from Eastern Europe between 1880 and the outbreak of World War I, filled with the hope of life in a new land. Within two generations, these newcomers settled and prospered in the densely

Overview

Winner of the National Jewish Book Award, a seminal work of history on immigrant Jewish life in early twentieth-century New York.
Nearly three million Jews came to America from Eastern Europe between 1880 and the outbreak of World War I, filled with the hope of life in a new land. Within two generations, these newcomers settled and prospered in the densely populated Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods of New York City. Against this backdrop, Ruth Gay narrates their rarely told story—a unique and vibrant portrait of a people in their daily trials and rituals—bringing alive the vitality of the streets, markets, schools, synagogues, and tenement halls where a new version of America was invented in the 1920s and 1930s. An intimate, unforgettable account, Unfinished People is a singular act of expressing in words the richly textured lives of a resilient people. "A touching and funny evocation...marvelous in its detail.... This is history as day-to-day living—irrevocable and unforgotten."—Alfred Kazin

Editorial Reviews

Alfred Kazin
A touching and funny evocation...marvelous in its detail.... This is history as day-to-day living—irrevocable and unforgotten.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this vivid and informed account, Gay (The Jews of Germany) explores the lives of Jews who fled Eastern Europe and settled in New York City between 1881 and 1911. She describes the poverty and persecution these Jews lived with in Europe and documents the ways in which the relative freedom of the New World impacted upon their language, culture and religious practices. Gay's major focus is on the reminiscences of her parents, both turn-of-the-century childhood immigrants, and her own memories of growing up in a Yiddish-speaking Bronx home. Using evocative descriptions of the furniture, cooking and dress of the period, Gay conveys how immigrants of her parents generation were forced to negotiate between the language and customs of their own parents and the English-speaking world they found at school and at work, and how newfound freedoms coexisted with the unforeseen difficulties of assimilation. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Nine out of ten Jews who left Eastern Europe during the 40 years that bracketed the turn of the century chose the United States. Most came through Ellis Island to New York, where three out of four remained. Most were also young, single, uneducated, and unskilled; many were children. These immigrants were "unfinished." They had not mastered the stylized, static, and traditional world they left before they encountered the baffling life of a mushrooming foreign metropolis. Gay (The Jews of Germany, LJ 8/92) here weaves an absorbing account of that life by combining history and her personal reminiscences as a child of immigrant parents. In chapters prosaically titled "Floors," "Laughter," "Chairs," "Hats," "Food," "Corsets," and "Beds," Gay provides a glimpse into Jewish immigrant life absent from most historians' accounts. In the new world, while clinging to parts of the old, the "unfinished" immigrant arrival tried not to appear as a griner-a greenhorn. This highly readable volume should have wide appeal.-Nicholas C. Burckel, Marquette Univ., Milwaukee
Kirkus Reviews
Part memoir, part anecdotal history of the three million East European Jews who streamed to these shores—particularly to New York City—between 1880 and 1920.

Gay, author of The Jews of Germany (1992), draws largely on memories of her immigrant parents and their friends, as well as her own peers' coming of age in the Bronx. Her emphasis is on social history, particularly the domestic arena; some of Gay's chapters are entitled "Chairs," "Awnings," and "Corsets." While she glosses over the intellectual and political ferment that Irving Howe explored in depth in World of Our Fathers, Gay is far more informative on the texture of everyday life, on the import of such matters as clothes, furnishings, food (she includes the recipe for "Tante Elke's Honey Cake"), schools, and small shops. She also writes insightfully about the patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish culture (she quotes the Yiddish proverb, "When one has daughters, laughter vanishes") and about the immigrant generation's industriousness, thrift, seriousness, and aversion to fun. Gay has an easy, engaging style, although her book's content constitutes a kind of history lite. While she quotes a significant number of English primary and secondary sources, Gay cites none from the immigrants' primary language, Yiddish. And her book is marred by some silly generalizations, as when she writes, "I think the immigrant generation did not see happiness as a legitimate goal in life."

Still, if Gay lacks the intellectual range of a Howe or the imaginative sparks of a Kate Simon or Grace Paley, she has written an enjoyable, easily digestible introduction to her parents' and her own generations' uneven and sometimes uneasy acculturation.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393322408
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
10/17/2001
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

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