Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear: Letters from Jewish Migrants in the Early Twentieth Century

Wayne State University Press  2011

 

We are all familiar with the story of mass immigration of Jews to the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century: vicious pogroms and the threat of conscription into the czar’s army drove millions of Jews to risk everything to escape. It’s a good story, but not quite accurate. Actually, emigration from the areas in the Pale of Settlement where anti-Semitism was the most extreme was lower than from other areas: the poorest Jews didn’t have enough money to emigrate. Zionist authorities discouraged poor tradesmen from coming to Palestine; they wanted affluent immigrants who could set up businesses that would employ the Jews already there. All of these fascinating facts are revealed in this accessible and absorbing academic interpretation of a group of letters written by people in Eastern Europe to various emigration organizations. While some of the letters plead for any help to get out, the majority ask pointed questions about the situation in the places the emigrants are considering: Can a pharmacist make a living in Palestine? What’s the work situation in the tanning industry in the U.S? Are there enough wet places with willows growing nearby in Palestine for a basket maker to thrive? The letters may have never reached their destinations, Alroey notes, and there are unfortunately few responses from the organizations, but this is a good read for anyone with an interest in the story of how millions of Jews moved from one side of the world to another.



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