Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Tribute to Immigrant Women

I couldn't choose just one female ancestor to write about so I thought a tribute to all immigrant women would be nice. Each of these women left behind a familiar life and headed into the unknown in hopes of a better life for their families. In most cases they did find a better life, for others, life was just as difficult. I'm grateful that my ancestors chose to make their journeys because, if they hadn't, most probably would have ended their lives in a ditch or a pile of ashes and I wouldn't be sitting here today.

When I hear the word immigrant, I picture those late 19th century and early 20th century photos we've all seen on the Ellis Island website. Crowds of people aboard a ship or being hustled through the processing center before being allowed to enter the US. I always scan the faces in those photos looking for familiar faces. I've never found one. Some of these women were young ladies traveling with their parents or maybe with cousins, helping out with younger children. Others were young adults, like my grandmother Peshe Bergzon at 19, who travelled with her brother to meet up with their father in New Jersey. Of course there were the mothers with small children in tow coming to meet their husbands who had already found a place for them to live. Also, there were the older women, like my ggg-grandmother Rachel Kantorowitz at 55, a widow travelling with her daughter and grandchildren.

Their journey wasn't finished just because they arrived in the US. Even though they were reunited with husbands, fathers, or other family, they now had to navigate the assimilation maze. It wasn't always easy to hold on to religious and cultural customs in this strange land. Most of my ancestors came from small towns that were predominantly Jewish so it was easy to keep Kosher and close businesses on Saturdays. The US is a predominantly Christian nation and, with the exception of certain cultural neighborhoods, businesses had to be open on Saturday and closed on Sunday.

It was the job of the husband/father to earn a living and provide a place to live. It was the mothers job to hold the family together, teach the children to be good people and pass along family traditions. For some families, the entire household was uprooted every few years as they needed more space for new babies or less space as older children married and left home. Usually the move was only a few blocks away but it was still an upheaval, especially if young children were involved.

How much a woman was "Americanized" depended on her age and where she lived. In the cultural ghettos in the big cities, it was easier not to learn English and to maintain family traditions. The older immigrant women in my family had no need to learn more than a few words of English because their lives revolved around their Yiddish homes. This resulted in bilingual children who spoke Yiddish at home and English in the outside world. With each generation, the use of Yiddish diminished. I only know a few of the mainstream words like bagel and schmuck. In the small towns, being different meant you stood out so immigrants were more likely to assimilate into their surroundings. Some Jews even went to far as to go to church and celebrate Christmas (without formally converting) just to fit in.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to these women.

These are the immigrant women in my direct bloodline (at least the ones I know about):

>Rachel Kantorowitz nee Lutzki, ggg-gm, arrived 1906 widowed at age 55
>Rebecca/Rivka Lutzki, nee Kantorowitz, gg-gm, arrived 1906 married at age 39
>Lena Belinki, g-gm, arrived 1906 unmarried at age of 19
>Dora/Dobrusha Bergzon nee Jablon, g-gm, arrived 1931 married at age 51
>Peshe Bergzon, gm, arrived 1929 unmarried at age 19
>Sara Zembovsky/Zambursky?, g-gm, arrived 1904-1905 unmarried at age 19-20
>Sheine/Jenny Schneider, g-gm, arrived 1928 married at age 40

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