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The Journey Home

The Paradox of Immigration

Autobiographies of Alienation and Assimilation: Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska

"I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over." So did Mary Antin begin the chronicle of her experiences as an immigrant in the New World. So extraordinary were the changes that Antin underwent after she emigrated as a young girl from Russian Poland to America that she felt she had experienced the creation of a "second self" completely divorced from her earlier life.

Antin's autobiography, The Promised Land, published in 1912, became an immediate best-seller, catapulting its author to national fame and establishing her as the creator of one of the first great works of American Jewish literature. By the time of Antin's death in 1949, The Promised Land had gone through thirty-four editions, becoming one of the most popular immigrant autobiographies of all time. A classic tale of assimilation, hope, and transformation, it spoke to the imagination of diverse immigrant groups, as well as to native-born Americans who saw it as proof of the inclusiveness of the American dream.

Antin's book was one of more than a dozen accounts of immigrant life in the new land written in English by Jewish women. The large number of these works published by American presses is striking, considering that almost all of their authors were unknown, and that for most of them, English was a second language. What made them appealing was the universality of their theme--the encounter with America. Each author wrote about her personal struggle to respond to the hardships and opportunities of American life by creating a new, distinctly American self. Autobiography became a means for them to assess their experience as immigrants confronting a new culture and, by writing about their struggles, to impose order on events that were disruptive and confusing.

It is significant that the first and most influential account of Eastern European immigrant experience was written by Antin, a woman. For Jewish women even more than for Jewish men, America offered a revolutionary opportunity to transcend the limits of the Old World. This hope is reflected in Antin's pioneering book and in the works of another autobiographer and fiction writer, Anzia Yezierska: in both women's stories, the cultural myth of American freedom merges with the triumph of a woman's autonomy.

For Jewish women, however, the act of writing was at once liberating and dangerous. Traditional Jewish culture assigned the tasks of textual study and literary creation solely to men; women who assumed such roles challenged traditional gender divisions and religious identities. Thus, in winning the right to independent "American" womanhood, immigrant writers like Antin and Yezierska had to engage in a fierce battle with their heritage, one quite different from that experienced by immigrant men. For some female immigrants, becoming a writer would require figuratively killing their Jewish fathers or husbands and the Jewish religion itself, forces that they saw as linked in their patriarchal domination of women's lives.

Both Antin and Yezierska describe contradictory feelings of triumph and loss engendered by their complex identities as Jews, new Americans, and women. Their stories help us understand immigration as an inward journey that took new immigrants as far from the biblical ideal of the woman of valor as from the shtetls and towns of the Russian plains. Through their imaginations, immigrant Jewish daughters recreated themselves as American Jewish women, breaking with tradition and offering the public its first glimpse of the immigrant Jewish woman as modern feminist.

New World Princess Mary Antin was born in Polotzk, Russia, in June 1881, three months after the assassination of Czar Alexander II triggered a series of violent pogroms that spread to hundreds of communities throughout the Pale of Settlement. The following year, the passage of the May Laws prohibiting Jewish settlement in villages drove a half-million Jews from rural areas and signalled the end of the shtetl in the Pale. The May Laws also drastically reduced Jewish quotas at gymnasia and universities, and restricted many Jews from holding jobs. As conditions worsened, more and more Jews fled to America. While the Jewish population of the United States numbered only about 250,000 in 1880, by 1924, when Congress passed legislation restricting immigration from Eastern Europe, approximately one-third of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe had emigrated to America. The Jewish population of the United States, merely 3 percent of world Jewry in 1880, by then numbered four million--almost one-quarter of the world's Jews.7

The journey to America required extraordinary courage and resilience. At every step of the way, the migrants were beset by harrowing, bewildering, and dangerous challenges. Antin described her family's passage to America in 1894 in a series of letters to an uncle who had remained in Eastern Europe; the letters, published in book form five years later, recount frightening encounters with border patrols, travels in crowded trains through the vast expanse of Europe, and rough conditions in steerage crossing the Atlantic.

Little more than a decade later, when Antin was barely thirty, she wrote her autobiography, not because she had "accomplished anything" but because she believed her life was representative of other New World immigrants. Writing also brought Antin "personal salvation," taking her on a "double voyage of discovery" that explored her inner transformations as well as "the new outer universe" of America. "All the processes of uprooting, transportation, replanting, acclimatization, and development took place in my own soul" she acknowledged, as well as in the physical world; her book would describe the literal and spiritual journey by which she had explored these dual realms.

Antin opened her memoirs with a stark portrait of Russia as the "Egypt" from which Jews had made their exodus to the promised land of America. Their journey to the United States--and Antin's own transformation into a liberated, assimilated, secular woman--ironically became an act of spiritual deliverance tied to Jewish history. Suffering from the sharp divisions that separated the Pale from the rest of Russia, Jews from Gentiles, men from women, Antin spent her childhood manacled by the dual shackles of sexism and anti-Semitism. Though she rejected Judaism's "medieval" superstitions, she took pride in its "living seed"--the inward belief that "God was, had been, and ever would be."


I was fed on dreams, instructed by means of prophecies, trained to hear and see mystical things that callous senses could not perceive. I was taught to call myself a princess, in memory of my forefathers who had ruled a nation. . . . Sat upon by brutal enemies, unjustly hated, annihilated a hundred times, I yet arose and held my head high, sure that I should find my kingdom in the end. . . . God needed me and I needed Him, for we two together had a work to do, according to an ancient covenant between him and my forefathers.

Long after she had renounced the practice of Judaism, she retained the spiritual attachments of her childhood.

Antin associated this childhood religion with memories of her mother's magical lullabies and stories of Biblical heroines: "I heard the names of Rebecca, Rachel and Leah as early as the names of father, mother, and nurse." Yet matriarchal heroines proved insufficient guides to a religious faith that privileged patriarchy; Antin's observant mother, "bred to submission" even though she was her husband's equal business partner, took her religion on her husband's authority. Antin angrily acknowledged that the problem lay in a religious culture that celebrated maleness: the birth of sons was celebrated with ritual ceremonies and feasts; boys were sent to learn Torah in cheder (elementary religious school); even at table, boys were served first because "nothing was too good for them." In Antin's short story "Malinke's Atonement," the shtetl mother asks, "What are daughters worth? They're only good to sit in the house, a burden on their parents' neck, until they're married off. A son, at least, prays for the souls of his parents when they're dead; it's a deed of piety to raise sons."

In this story, nine-year-old Malinke is a renegade who outrages her mother by challenging traditional customs and the notion that "girls don't need to know things out of books."1The reward for the purity of her own faith, the promise of an education, came to Antin herself only after her own exodus from the Old World. In Russia, despite the liberal attitudes of her own family, it had been impossible for her to receive the gift of sustained learning equivalent to that received by Jewish boys. For women,
education really had no place. A girl was "finished" when she could read her prayers in Hebrew, following the meaning by the aid of the Yiddish translation especially prepared for women. If she could sign her name in Russian, do a little figuring, and write a letter in Yiddish to the parents of her betrothed, she was called wohl gelehrent--well educated. Antin knew, however, that without education, women were destined to a life without aspiration, as "empty and endless and dull" as a "treadmill horse."

In America, Antin was at last able to obtain the education she had dreamed about. The Promised Land describes in glowing terms the opportunities available to ambitious immigrants when given access to free schools, free libraries, and citizenship unrestricted by race, religion, and ethnicity. Even in the midst of poverty, such advantages offered a route out of the ghetto and into American prosperity.

In fact, like many younger children, Antin was permitted to attend school only because her older sister, Fetchke (called Frieda in America), had gone to work in a sweatshop to help support the family. All that the future held for Frieda was an arranged marriage and domestic drudgery, yet she and her mother gave unstintingly of their labor to allow Antin the chance to attend school.

Within six months, she had completed the first five grades; one of her teachers was so impressed with her talent that only a few months after Antin enrolled, she sent an essay the girl had written (entitled "Snow") to an educational journal, which published it. Antin's literary prowess came to the attention of several board members at the Hebrew Industrial School, a training institute for immigrant boys and girls, who introduced her to Lina Hecht, a German Jewish philanthropist. With Hecht's help, a translator and publisher were found for the letters Antin had written in Yiddish describing the family's emigration. The result, From Plotzk to Boston, was published in 1899 when Antin was only eighteen, with an introduction by Israel Zangwill, the distinguished British Zionist (Plotzk being a printer's misspelling of Antin's birthplace).

Because of this astonishing success and the intervention of her German Jewish mentors, Antin's family allowed her to enroll at Boston Latin School for Girls, a public preparatory school for Radcliffe College. Antin also became active at Hale House, the South End settlement sponsored by the literary notable Edward Everett Hale, who joined Mary's coterie of admirers.

Even more important to her was Emma Lazarus's sister Josephine, who became acquainted with Antin after reviewing From Plotzk to Boston. Lazarus became Antin's friend and mentor. The two women shared a spiritual sensibility: together they probed the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, questions of immortality and the soul. Taken with the younger woman's insights, Lazarus urged her to continue writing. Encouraged by such friends Antin prospered, even as her family, its fortunes continuing to decline, was forced to move from one desperate tenement to another. Unable to master English or maintain a steady income, Antin's father became bitterly disillusioned. Contemplating her mother's and sister's constant labors, Antin was reminded again of the "treadmill horse" of shtetl days; only she had escaped the hardships that afflicted the family even in the promised land.

While Antin's narrative acknowledges her family's poverty, she emphasizes her own success as the product of talent and America's "open workshop"; she writes that only a "certain class of aliens" could make use of her new country's freedoms. "I had only to be worthy and it came to me . . . my friendships, my advantages and disadvantages, my gifts, my habits, my ambitions--these were the materials out of which I built my after life. . . ." Ignoring the economic forces that exploited immigrant workers, Antin never joined the protests that other immigrant women helped initiate. Instead she emphasized her own rise as an individual in the Gentile world: "Steadily as I worked to win America, America advanced to lie at my feet. . . . I was a princess waiting to be led to the throne."

Focusing on her own intellectual and moral worthiness, Antin glosses over her sister's contributions to her success, stating only in passing that the true "glory" belonged to Frieda. She also minimizes the unusual connections to the philanthropists who helped her. At least one Jewish reviewer resented Antin's portrayal. "To me," wrote Harry Saltpeter in The Menorah Journal in 1919, "[Antin] reveals herself as a smug, parvenu snob of the East Side, the sycophantic protégée of the nice and respectable persons who patronized her, a person to whom the East Side existed as inspiration for her writing moods."

Yet most reviewers focused on the apparent universality of her story rather than on the exemplary and privileged achievements of Antin as heroine. "The argument for immigration . . . is implicit in every chapter of 'The promised land,' " wrote the New York Times critic. Few noted its ambiguities regarding questions of class relations or ethnic and religious attachments.


Like many immigrants who quickly Americanized, Antin had given up her religious customs almost immediately. For the God of her fathers, she substituted a worship of American heroes like George Washington. Later she believed that she might not have been so ready "to put away my religion" if its truths had not been cloaked in "motley rags of formalism." At the time, though, she felt "absolutely, eternally, delightfully emancipated from the yoke of indefensible superstition"; this was for her the essence of Americanism.

In hindsight, however, Antin recognized the high cost of the family's liberation from tradition (even her mother--an Orthodox woman for whom religion was "interwoven with her soul"--gave up Judaic practices within half a dozen years). Without a system of American ethics to replace the family's religious orthodoxy, "chaos took the place of system; uncertainty, inconsistency undermined discipline," and the Antin family, "formerly united and happy," disintegrated.

In her book, Antin wondered whether her father regretted his early, violent rejection of Judaism, and in later years, missed his heritage and community; she asks "to what, in short, his emancipation amounted." Did her family's abandonment of its faith mean that, in the interest of Americanism, they had forever alienated their descendants from Judaism? Such a trajectory was double-edged: while assimilation was the most "hopeful" course for the Jews, and the most inevitable, Antin felt at the same time that "nothing more pitiful" could be written in the annals of the Jews.

Readers may have passed over this cautious note because the "official" story in The Promised Land is one of celebration and optimism; Antin's concerns about religious decline and the debilitating effects of poverty on immigrant families appear as ambiguous subtexts. The central narrative of the book describes the emergence of "I, a new being," a self "absolutely other" than the heroine whose development she recounts in the memoir--the young Russian girl ("she") who is gradually transformed into an American. But Antin's authorial voice stands outside this story of Americanization, revealing that despite her chronicle of triumphant change, Antin continued to see herself as other, an immigrant aware of the struggles of her impoverished neighborhood, a Jew worried about her family's loss of faith, a woman unsure of future possibilities for her gender.
At the beginning and end of the book, Antin acknowledges that she is split off from her authentic, historic self, and indeed, that she wants to distance herself from history overall. "The Wandering Jew in me seeks forgetfulness," she writes, although she admits that "I can never forget, for I bear the scars. But I want to forget . . . I want to be now of to-day." Only by recording and reinventing her story could Antin expunge her ethnic heritage, her foreignness, her family's poverty: the enormous pain of transition. Unable to obliterate memory, it is through storytelling that Antin can abandon the past.

Antin ends her book by portraying herself as a "human creature, emerging from the dim places where the torch of history has never been." Such a person, embodying Antin's vision of herself as a contemporary intellectual woman, born in the "Middle Ages" and living in the twentieth century, was not "tied to the monumental past, any more than my feet were bound to my grandfather's house below the hill . . . the past was only my cradle, and now it cannot hold me, because I am grown too big."

She concludes this reverie on a note of high romantic rhetoric, calling forth the "shining future" she saw in America. Yet this vision comes out of Antin's frank admission of how painful it is to be "consciously part of two worlds"--Russia and the United States, Christian and Jewish, her old and new selves. Rather than assimilating her past to her new identity, she constructs an American persona that can move forward only by disconnecting from the past. Invoking the image of the Ancient Mariner who told his tale in order to be rid of it, Antin tells her tale--"for once, and never hark back any more. I will write a bold Finis at the end, and shut the book with a bang!"

Antin's words reveal her almost desperate wish to jettison the albatross of memory that weighed so heavily upon her and from which she was not yet free. But in her real life, as opposed to her representation of it in The Promised Land, it was not so easy to say "finis" to the past. For the next several decades, Antin wrestled with the problem of living her life according to her vision of herself as "an American among Americans . . . a daughter of Israel and a child of the universe," a woman of the present not tied to history.

In 1901, when she was twenty, Antin had married Amadeus William Grabau, a geologist whom she had met on a field trip he was conducting for the Boston Society of Natural History. Eleven years Antin's senior, Grabau, the son of a German-born Lutheran minister, dazzled her with his research into evolution. Science now replaced the theological bent that had, since childhood, made Antin question the mysteries of the universe. But her marriage to a non-Jew displeased Antin's supporters; in a letter, she admitted that although she hadn't "changed [her] faith," all of her devoted friends fell away.

The couple moved to New York, where Antin took courses at Barnard and later at Teachers College; in 1907, she gave birth to her only child, Josephine Esther, named after Antin's beloved friend Josephine Lazarus and her mother, Esther Weltman Antin. Lazarus's death in 1910 spurred Antin to begin writing her autobiography, as Lazarus had urged. She published its first installments in The Atlantic Monthly in 1911. The publication of The Promised Land the following year brought Antin immediate success. Reissues as well as fees from lectures Antin gave on such topics as "The Responsibility of American Citizenship," "The Civic Education of the Immigrant," and "the Public School as a Test of American Faith" assured her a substantial income for several years after the book's debut.

In 1914, Antin published her third and last book, They Who Knock At Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration. At a time when the sentiment for restrictions on immigration was growing, the book was a passionate plea for the continuation of unrestricted admission to newcomers, arguing that the ethics of American democracy as well as the Ten Commandments demanded an open door policy. In calling her work a "gospel," Antin indicated that the subject of immigration was of vital concern to Christians as well as Jews; she also unwittingly revealed her drift away from Judaism.
Antin never tempered her support of assimilation, arguing that in the United States, where cultural tolerance, social equality, and freedom of choice held sway, more narrowly based ethnic and national group identities were throwbacks to an archaic age. Yet Antin's fervent Americanism did not conflict with Zionism. However much Jewish life became absorbed within American life, she insisted that the "community of sentiment," "culture," and "memories" of the Jewish people could survive as emblems of Jewish nationality. Influenced by her mentor Josephine Lazarus and her good friend Jessie Sampter, a Zionist writer, Antin urged all Jews to work for the creation of a national homeland, an idea then unpopular with most middle-class Jews.

Antin had more difficulty maintaining unity in her personal life than she did among her varied public concerns. The agonies of World War I split the Grabau household, with Antin lecturing around the country on behalf of the Allies and Grabau supporting Germany. As Antin's daughter Josephine recalled, "We fought the World War right in our house in Scarsdale. Mother was for the Allies and Father was for the Germans. Mother hung the Allied flag out her study window and Father put the German flag out his study window. They fought the war upstairs and downstairs, into the attic and into the cellar. It was too much for me and I fell apart. They saw what they were doing to me and finally agreed to separate for my sake."

After the Grabaus separated in 1918, William Grabau left for China, where he taught paleontology until his death. Josephine was sent to boarding school, while Antin's sister Frieda, who had managed the Grabau household after her own arranged marriage broke up, moved in with another relative. Despondent about the rising xenophobic trend in American life and the breakup of her marriage, Antin suffered from recurring physical ailments and an apparent nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. After more than a decade of depression and wandering, she wrote to a friend in 1930, "I have so little mastered the art of tranquil living that wherever go I trail storm clouds of drama around me." Unable to find a home, she journeyed from one rehabilitative facility for nervous invalids to another, often following the spiritual ministrations of such gurus as Shri Meher Baba, an Eastern mystic. After a few years at the Austin Riggs Psychiatric Center, she wound up at the Gould Farm in Monterey, Massachusetts, a Christian restorative community for the mentally ill. Antin lived there periodically from 1922 until her death in 1949, becoming a fervent follower of "Brother Will" Gould and his wife Agnes, and their philosophy of Christian love.

Though Antin wrote only a few essays in the remaining quarter century of her life, she collected a vast amount of material for a proposed book on Will Gould, intending to relate his life and work to the story of Jesus and the Christian community through the ages. That she never completed the book was a source of pain and embarrassment to her, an indication of her "long ordeal of nonperformance." Near the end of her life Antin explained to Agnes Gould that her decades-long "silence and inactivity" were products of the "deep soul sickness" and "loneliness" that were much worse than all the "external illnesses" from which she suffered.

Even at the Christian home, where Antin was both patient and sometime secretary, she turned "Jew on occasion," describing herself as a "Jewish member of the staff" and showing sensitivity to references to Jews. For Antin, there was no inconsistency between affiliating herself with Will Gould's philosophy of Christian brotherhood and identifying herself, when necessary, as a Jew. "One current of continuity runs underneath all the abortive phases of my life," she explained while in her fifties. "From childhood on I have been obliged to drop anything I was doing to run after any man who seemed to know a little more than I did about God . . . I most want to write about: how a modern woman has sought the face of God--not the name nor the fame but the face of God--and what adventures came to meet her on this most ancient human path." That Antin would boldly declare her ambition to encounter God's visage, which according to Hebrew Scripture was seen only by Moses, indicates the distance she had already traveled from Orthodox Judaism, creating her own defiant spirituality . . .


Copyright© 2000 by Olaf Olafsson

The Journey Home
by by Olaf Olafsson

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385720416
  • ISBN-13: 9780385720410