Museum of Family History

Visit                   Site Map                  Exhibitions                  Education & Research                  Multimedia                  About the Museum                  Contact Us                   Links


   Living in America
   The Jewish Experience



Life in the United States was not always what Jewish immigrants had imagined before they emigrated from their native land. Many would soon find out that the streets were not really paved with gold. They would discover that if they were to succeed in the "golden land" and create a better life for themselves and their family, they would have to work very hard. Most who arrived at Ellis Island first went to live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where, at one time, 540,000 people lived in very overcrowded conditions, often in tenement buildings, in an area of the city no larger than one-and-one-half square miles.

Not every ship passenger who arrived at Ellis Island with five dollars in their pocket. There were a minority of Jews who began life in the States with a good amount of money that they had brought from back home. Many of this small number were able to parlay their savings into the formation of a successful business. Most however, especially those who came over during the second wave of immigration, were poor, semi-skilled Jews who perhaps had learned a trade back home. There were many who found work in the U.S. as tailors, toiling for years in front of their own sewing machine doing work 'piecemeal.' There were also seamstresses and dressmakers, butchers and bakers and merchants of goods.

There were various obstacles that often blocked the path to success for many who came and those who wished to come to the United States. When immigrants looked for work, jobs were often hard to come by, especially those with good wages, respectable hours and proper working conditions. Also for many years there existed an anti-immigrant sentiment. Many of those who were already U.S. citizens feared that the great wave of immigrants would take jobs away from them. This fear had political ramifications and would greatly influence immigration law.

Of course, the Great Depression affected most everyone, regardless of religion or ethnic class. Family life was difficult and the pressure to earn a living was great. This was especially true for the husband/father, who at that time was generally the primary wage earner of the family. Often, the children would need to work to make money to help support the family, sometimes even having to drop out of school to accomplish this. The drastic downfall in the economy that was caused by the Depression made it very difficult for many of those to earn enough money to improve their living conditions, to move out of the overcrowded Lower East Side for less crowded, more 'rustic' areas such as Williamsburg or Brownsville in Brooklyn.

In this permanent Museum of Family History exhibition "Living in America: The Jewish Experience," topics relating to Jewish family life will be discussed. The hope is that a proper portrait of the Jewish American, both young and old, can be drawn, from the early days of immigration to the present.

During the first half of the twentieth century especially, the Jewish family was often was mired in conflict. Such discord would often exist between parents and their children, between a husband and his wife, where old world values and the desire to live by these values often clashed with the culture and demands of the society they were now living in. Many, not just those American first-born, wished to fit in to this new American culture and enjoy the freedoms that it provided. This would cause a conflict with those who wished to maintain a traditional way of life. Though this conflict did exist, many parents still hoped that living in the U.S. would afford their children greater opportunities and a chance at financial success. Within this exhibition, you will read and also hear through short audio clips testimony of some of those who lived through these difficult times.



Copyright Museum of Family History. All rights reserved.