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

Gur Alroey
  • Review
By – June 8, 2012

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.

Miri­am Rinn has been an edi­tor and writer for decades, recent­ly retir­ing from a posi­tion as com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ag­er for JCC Asso­ci­a­tion. Her writ­ing has appeared in many news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and she has won numer­ous awards, includ­ing a Rock­ow­er, for her work. She is a reg­u­lar review­er of books, film, and the­ater in print and on the Web, and is also the author of a children’s nov­el called The Sat­ur­day Secret, which has been cho­sen as a selec­tion by PJ Library.

Discussion Questions