How to Become an Amer­i­can: A His­to­ry of Immi­gra­tion, Assim­i­la­tion, and Loneliness

  • Review
By – July 24, 2023

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.

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