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Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 [Hardcover]

by Daniel Soyer
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

June 30, 1997 0674444175 978-0674444171 First Edition

How did the vast number of Jewish immigrants from different regions of Eastern Europe form their American ethnic identity?

In his answer to this question, Daniel Soyer examines how Jewish immigrant hometown associations (landsmanshaftn) transformed old-world communal ties into vehicles for integration into American society. Focusing on New York--where some 3,000 associations enrolled nearly half a million members--this study is one of the first to explore the organizations' full range of activities, and to show how the newcomers exercised a high degree of agency in their growing identification with American society.

The wide variety of landsmanshaftn--from politically radical and secular to Orthodox and from fraternal order to congregation--illustrates the diversity of influences on immigrant culture. But nearly all of these societies adopted the democratic benefits and practices that were seen as the most positive aspects of American civic culture. In contrast to the old-country hierarchical dispensers of charity, the newcomers' associations relied on mutual aid for medical care, income support, burial, and other traditional forms of self-help. During World War I, the landsmanshaftn sent aid to their war-ravaged hometowns; by the 1930s, the common identity centered increasingly upon collective reminiscing and hometown nostalgia.

The example of the Jewish landsmanshaftn suggests that many immigrants cultivated their own identification with American society to a far greater extent than is usually recognized. It also suggests that they selectively identified with those aspects of American culture that allowed them to retain emotional attachments to old-country landscapes and a sense of kinship with those who shared their heritage.

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Editorial Reviews


In a carefully researched and highly readable account, Soyer presents a detailed discussion of Jewish landsmanshaftn (hometown associations) from their origins in East European Jewish communities to their development and transformation in New York City during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Soyer's examination of New York's landsmanshaftn demonstrates convincingly that the maintenance of these distinct ethnic associations not only coexisted with but actually facilitated immigrant acculturation. (Beth S. Wenger American Historical Review)

Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York challenges accepted interpretations of historical dynamics of acculturation. By recasting immigrant small town associations as major players on the Lower East Side certainly equal to the radical intellectuals and union organizers who dominate Howe's account--and by giving their members speaking parts in the drama of becoming American, the book convinces us of the extent to which Jewish immigrants authored their own lives. Writing from the bottom up, Soyer provokes us to rethink the dimensions of the immigrant experience and its construction. His deep familiarity with both American and Jewish culture, his sensitivity to the nuances of organizational expression and his vision of the complex processes of social change that create ethnic identity make the book compelling reading...[T]his is social history at its best. (Deborah Dash Moore Journal of Jewish Studies)

Soyer brings to his task not only fluency in Yiddish but also finely honed skills as a historian. It may well be the best work on the American Jewish immigrant experience since M. Rischin's pioneering treatment of Jewish New York, The Promised City...This book richly deserves the prizes it has won and should be of great interest to all scholars of modern Jewry, religious transitions in modernity, and the problem of immigration. (Michael Berkowitz Religious Studies Review)


As ethnic and immigrant history, this is a marvelous accomplishment. This book will add much support to the argument that American ethnicity is dynamically flexible and situational and has as much to do with the nature of American society generally as it does with, in this case, the Jews. (Lawrence H. Fuchs, Brandeis University)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (June 30, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674444175
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674444171
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,560,496 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mutual Aid as Metaphor March 15, 2001
By chronicling the history of the landsmanshaftn in American consciousness, Soyer successfully argues against the idea that Americanization was a process imposed upon from above; rather, that Americanization was pursued independently by Eastern European immigrants, thus granting them agency. The changing economy, increased industrialization, and growing populations as well as anti Semitism in Russia and Romania forced Jews from across Eastern Europe to migrate to New York. It was in America that the Jewish immigrant populations first came across ideas of fraternal orders, mutual aid societies and other democratic systems, thus transforming the structure of their own societies. In America, Jews learned the importance of voluntary organizations in perpetuating culture. The landsmanshaftn came to incorporate fraternal rituals by binding members and giving them a sense of shared experience, simultaneously reconciling loyalties to native lands with a newfound American identity. The landsmanshaftn differed from other societies in that their central concern was religious observance. Through informal contracts and advertisements, the landsmanshaftn grew rapidly. At first renting rooms in tenements for meetings, eventually the landsmanshaftn would rent meeting halls to perpetuate themselves as "defenders of Old-World religion" (page 50). While using religion as a framework, the landsmanshaftn's primary mission was Americanization. While they differed from each other in respects to the amount of influence of fraternal lodges, ideological orders and independent societies, the landsmanshaftn all shared the same disciplinary structure and membership criteria. Read more ›
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