Through an Immigrant’s Eyes: Considering the Second Great Wave of American Immigration from the Perspective of a Young Jewish Girl

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Through an Immigrant’s Eyes: Considering the Second Great Wave of American Immigration from the Perspective of a Young Jewish Girl
Reading Memorial High School

Reading, MA 01867

Autumn 2009

Unit on Social and Class Structures on the Eve of the Great War

Honors History 11

Grade 11

Jeffrey R. Ryan, Ph.D., Instructor
Enduring Understanding:
Students should use the information they acquire in this lesson to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American and of how the immigration experience helped to enhance and enrich that meaning.
Essential Questions:

  1. To what degree was Sara Smolinsky’s story typical of the experience of Ashkenazi coming to American near the turn of the twentieth century?

  2. How does Sara’s struggle with her father exemplify the conflict between immigrant assimilation into American culture and preservation of the traditions of one’s immigrant homeland?

Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will become familiar with the era of the Second Great Wave of Immigration to the United States, 1870 – 1924

  2. Such concepts as assimilation and cultural preservation will become familiar to the students. They will also examine the phenomenon of Nativism and consider how it connects with other forms of prejudice in our history, especially as it parallels hatred for African Americans.

  3. Upper economic mobility was, of course, the main reason that immigrants came to the United States. Students will learn to what degree the dream of a better future was realized by the immigrants of the Second Wave.

  4. Students will discuss the question of whether current immigrants should be encouraged to come to America and whether any kinds of accommodations or assistance should be made available to them.

Connections to Massachusetts History Frameworks, Historical Thinking Benchmarks, and the New York City Study Tour Content:

  1. U.S.II.3: Framework on Immigration in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.

  2. Historical Thinking Benchmarks:

    1. Analysis of primary and secondary sources

    2. Understanding of historical debate and controversy

    3. Understanding of bias and points of view

  1. This lesson is focused on a primary source document about life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the twentieth century and fits in well with the scope of the recent TAH New York City tour.

Explanation of Activities:
Students will be assigned Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, an autobiographical novel by a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe whose family moved into a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1890. The book is 294 pages long and quick and lively read; students will be given one week to read it before attending class. (Bread Givers should be easily accessible in local libraries, book stores, and on They will also read Chapter X or “Jewtown,” in Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives in order to obtain another perspective on life in the tenements of Manhattan (Available at: Some study questions are offered below. They will be discussed on the second day of the unit.

  • How did Sara’s world view differ from that of her father, the Orthodox rabbi?

  • Why did the Smolinskys come to America and what hardships did they face as they made their way in society?

  • What was the nature of the tension between the more established, middle class New York Jews whose parents had come from Germany earlier in the nineteenth century and the newly arrived Jews from Poland and Russia?

  • What is the difference between expectations for women in the Smolinsky family and the expectations for men, especially for Reb Smolinsky?

  • Following up on the previous question, on page 137 Sara proclaims that “In America, women don’t need men to boss them.” Is this as accurate reflection of gender roles in Gilded Age America?

  • How do Sara’s career ambitions clash with her desires for marriage and romantic attachments?

  • What is Sara’s reaction to her mother’s death and what does her behavior say about her journey toward Americanization?

  • How does Sara resolve her rebellion against her father and how does that resolution exemplify or symbolize the struggle between assimilation and the cling to one’s ethnic and religious heritage?

  • Bread Givers is a novel in which the author fictionalizes her own family’s saga. How do you think Yezierska’s book works as a way to tell her story? Does it make the immigrant experience more approachable? Do you think it is reliable as an historical primary source or is it just a colorful tale?

  • How does Yezierska’s account of life on the Lower East Side differ from Jacob Riis’s interpretation of the same neighborhood?

Day One of the Lesson:
Students will see a PowerPoint presentation on class hierarchy in America at the turn of the twentieth century. It will alternate images from Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, with its famous photographs of the slums of the Lower East Side, with pictures of “summer cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island, where the elite of the New York City would vacation in the warmer months. Questions accompanying the slide show will include:

  • There are numerous images of children in How the Other Half Lives. How many of those children do you think will rise to wealth through clean living and hard work as emphasized by the popular stories of Horatio Alger?

  • What do these slides say about the state of poverty and riches in Gilded Age America?

  • What segment of society is conspicuously missing from this collection of pictures? (The Middle Class, which I omit since most kids know what bourgeois neighborhoods look like.)

  • Is it fair and right and just that some people live in such slums as those depicted by Riis and some have “summer cottages” such as the ones shown in Newport?

  • Should something be done to alleviate the poverty shown in How the Other Half Lives? If so, what?

Day Two of the Lesson:
Study questions listed above will be considered.
Follow-up Assignment:
Students will be divided into five groups and will prepare a thirty minute classroom presentation on the experience of one ethnic group that enter New York through Ellis Island between its opening in 1892 and the passage of the Immigration Origins Act of 1924. Possible topics include:
Russians Poles Serbs Croats Greeks

Italians Irish Lithuanians Czechs Jews

Their presentations should be based on at least ten scholarly sources of research and should focus on the following aspects of the immigrant experience:

  • Reasons for leaving their homeland

  • Conditions during the Atlantic passage

  • Where they settled upon arrival

  • Preservation of culture v. assimilation into mainstream America

  • Economic opportunities: successes or failures

  • Experiences with Nativism and other forms of prejudice

Projects will be evaluated on the basic of creativity, thoroughness of research and the historicity of the information presented.

Barton, Josef J., Peasants and Strangers: Italians, Rumanians, and Slovaks in and American City, 1890 – 1950. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Bukowczyk, John J., And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of Polish Americans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Davies, Norman, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Volume II, Since 1795. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Fox, Paul, The Poles in America. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1922.
Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
Howe, Irving, The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found There. New York: Book of the Month Club, 1996.
Kraut, Alan, The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880 – 1921. Arlington Heights, Ill., 2001.
Malamud, Bernard, The Fixer, New York: Farr, Straus, and Giroux, 1966.
Potok, Chaim, The Chosen. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 2005. (Originally published in 1966.)
Prpic, George J., South Slavic Immigration in America. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
Riis, Jacob A., How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996. (Originally published in 1890)
Yezierska, Anzia, Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books, 1925.

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