East European Jewry
During the nineteenth century, the number of Jews relative to the non-Jewish population in Poland rose steadily, from 8.7 percent in 1816 to 13.5 percent in 1865 and 14 percent in 1897. This growth was in spite of extensive Jewish emigration and was due to a lower death rate among Jews compared with that among nonJews. In Warsaw, the Polish capital, one resident in three was Jewish. This was also true of the second largest city, Lodz, and in that city, by 1910, Jews accounted for nearly 41 percent of the population. This represented a marked trend toward urbanization for Polish Jews. In 1865, 91.5 percent of Polish Jews lived in cities. (This suggests that a village like Lentshin in ‘‘The Son from America’’ was representative of only a small proportion of Jews in Poland at the time. As the story mentions, most of the town’s young people move to bigger towns or emigrate.) Many of the urban Jews in Poland were wealthy through trade and the ownership of banks, although most were shopkeepers without much financial capital.
Throughout the nineteenth century, legal efforts aimed at reducing the separatism of the Jews and assimilating them into Polish life had little influence on the majority of Jews. Some Jewish intellectuals, however, did hope for assimilation. They were sympathetic to Poland’s aspirations to independence, believing that the establishment of a Polish state free of Russian domination would lead to a reduction in antiSemitism.
Anti-Semitism in Poland, however, was not as severe as it was in Russia. In ‘‘The Son from America,’’ Berl fled from Russia to Poland at some unspecified time in the past. Russia was particularly notorious for its anti-Semitism during the reign of Czar Alexander III, from 1891 to 1894. Alexander’s nationalistic policies favored Orthodox Christianity at the expense of other groups, and burdensome restrictions were placed on Jews, who were not permitted to be members of local governments and also suffered from educational and property restrictions. From 1881 to 1883, there were also pogroms in Russia, in which mobs attacked and killed Jews.
Jewish Immigration to the United States
There is a long tradition of Jewish immigration to the United States, especially from Eastern Europe. In ‘‘The Son from America,’’ Samuel immigrated at the age of fifteen, which might place his arrival in the United States at around 1860. This would have coincided with a large increase in the number of Jews in the country. In 1860, there were an estimated 150,000 Jews in the United States, 40,000 of whom lived in New York City. By 1880, the overall figure had jumped to 280,000. Most of the increase was due to immigration from Germany and the areas of Poland under Prussian control. Most Jews in the United States during this period were occupied in commerce and in skilled crafts rather than the professions such as medicine or law. They had full equality under the law and did not in general face discrimination or prejudice, certainly not as much as that faced by Roman Catholic Irish immigrants. It is not surprising, then, that in the story Samuel is able to prosper, reputedly becoming a millionaire. However, it was noticeable that in the 1870s and beyond, there was a tendency in the cities for Jews to be excluded from elite social circles. Many of the upper-class social clubs refused membership to Jews.
From 1880 to the mid-1920s, there was another wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. This is during the time period of ‘‘The Son from America,’’ when so many of the young people of the village are leaving, some bound for the United States. Between 1880 and 1925, when restrictions were placed on immigration, approximately 2,378,000 Jews, the vast majority from Eastern Europe, immigrated to the United States. The rise in Jewish immigration was partly due to anti-Semitism in Russia but also to the fourfold increase in the number of Jews in the Russian empire, Austrian-controlled Poland, Hungary, and Romania over the course of the nineteenth century. The level of economic development in these countries could not provide Jews with an acceptable standard of living, and they immigrated in large numbers in search of a better life. In some cities such as New York, the Jewish immigrants clustered together in areas that became almost entirely Jewish. One such area was New York City’s Lower East Side. In 1915, 350,000 Jews lived there in crowded conditions, in an area covering less than two square miles. Many thousands of these and other Jewish immigrants were employed in the clothing industry, where they would labor in unhygienic sweatshops for up to sixteen hours a day for low pay. Conditions such as these inspired the growth of the Jewish labor movement in the 1880s.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Published by Gale Group, 2010