Over four decades ago, author Daniel Wolff found himself cleaning out a Minnesota home and discovered the abandoned diary of a Jewish American woman. On the whole the family history was unremarkable, relating the experience of one Jewish immigrant family from the pre – Civil War era through the end of World War II. However, what Wolff did with this diary is extraordinary: He used it to weave together a multigenerational story of the immigrant experience, the American experience, and the Jewish experience. By keeping the diarist anonymous, Wolff allows the reader to focus on the broader themes that surface from such a personal account.
While Wolff doesn’t share even one full page of the original diary, he treats the struggles of its author, and every new American, with sensitivity. He takes the reader on a journey from Bohemia, where the grandfather of the diary’s author once lived, to Charleston, South Carolina, where her family would settle and prosper, despite the challenges that acculturation, prejudice, and the War Between the States would bring.
A master storyteller, Wolff helps us to appreciate the diarist’s lifelong struggle to feel at home in America. In the winter of 1880, her grandparents decide to resettle in Minneapolis, a city with fewer than five thousand Jews. When her parents follow three years later, Wolff shares that the grandparents, now sixty-five and fifty-three, with forty years together in America, commission oil portraits “as a sign of their achieved status.… But they don’t look like Americans. No matter how much they may have adjusted to the New World, these are portraits that might have been from the Old Country. There’s no sign in the dark clothes, the books, the faces themselves of this new race that was supposed to be the end product of the melting pot.” With her family’s move to Minnesota, the process of assimilation must begin again; the South is as distinct from the Twin Cities as Charleston is from their ancestral homeland of Eastern Europe. A feeling of isolation and disconnection permeates almost every page.
How to Become an American is a beautiful book. At its conclusion, we feel an intimate connection with the diary’s author and her family, and we may even see our own family’s history reflected in her experience — a very personal story that could belong to any Jewish American family.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.