Jewish immigrants first arrived in North America in the 17th century, before the United States was the United States. However, it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century, particularly after 1880, was there a large, distinct Jewish presence in the United States. After 1848, many German Jews came to the United States and began to integrate into American life. Despite, or maybe because of their integration, anti-semitism began to rise in the following decades. By the 1880s, Jews, many of whom felt that they were accepted in the new world, began to face discrimination including being denied service at hotels and other places of leisure including sections of the beach at Coney Island.

Another factor was a new wave of Jewish immigration. Between 1880 and 1920 over two and a half million Jewish immigrants came to the country. the overwhelming majority of these new Jewish immigrants were from Eastern European countries under Russian control or influence. While there was a revival of Jewish intellectual life in Eastern Europe at the time, many of those city dwellers stayed in Europe, those coming to the U.S. were often quite poor and fleeing persecution and violence.

Despite rising anti-semitism, many saw hope in the United States.  A Jewish folksong from the time captured the promise of a new life across the ocean. The lyrics noted:

As the Russians, mercilessly

Took revenge on us.

There is a land, America

Where everyone lives free.

(As quoted in A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki)

The reality is that life was not easy in the United States either. Many Eastern European Jewish immigrants found their homes in run-down tenements in neighborhoods alongside other recent immigrants, particularly Italians. Their stories are eloquently captured in the literature of the time, including the in work of Anzia Yezierska. A free copy of her book Hungry Hearts can be downloaded here from Project Gutenberg.

However, life in the U.S. was often preferable to the extreme hardships of life under the Russian Czar. The short film we created to accompany Immigration and Identity: Jewish Immigrants and the Bintel Brief is a useful piece to use with students to provide a historical background for this lesson.

Lesson Overview: This lesson introduces images and artifacts, created by late 19th century and early 20th Jewish immigrants to the United States that celebrated the opportunities for Jewish immigrants in the U.S. and encourage fellow Jews in Eastern Europe to emigrate. These images are contrasted with an anti-Semitic cartoon from the same period.

Essential Questions:

  1. Why do people leave their homes to migrate? 
  2. What does integration look like?
  3. How do images from media influence the way people think about migration and immigration?
  4. What can we understand about immigration today by studying the past?

Lesson Activities:

  1. As a warm-up, ask students to reflect on the prompt “Why would someone migrate to a new country? What might they lose? What might they gain?” After allowing students to share their responses with their peers in groups, pairs, or as a whole class, transition to the next part of the lesson.

Some Jewish immigrants encouraged others to join them in the United States. Their sentiments were expressed in letters and postcards that they sent to relatives, in music, and in information booklets produced to educate those considering making the journey to the United States. Below are three images that can be viewed as a whole class, or at tables. We encourage structuring the viewing project with this simple three-step routine:

  1. What do you see? This should be a list, described as objectively as possible.
  2. Analyze the image. In other words, what messages are being sent in the composition and arrangement of images?
  3. Finally, develop an interpretation of the overall message. The interpretation should build from the details in the image as well as the analyses in step

Note: all images in this lesson were made available through the Library of Congress. LOC.gov

A Jewish New Years Card Printed in This postcard from 1909 features a drawing by Jacob Keller depicting Jewish immigration to America. On the right (east) is a group of traditionally dressed Jews carrying their meager possessions while the symbol of czarist Russia hovers above. The richly dressed, smiling Jews of the west welcome their eastern brethren as does the Statue of Liberty. Overhead, a bald eagle carries a ribbon with a Hebrew quote from Psalms 17:8 – “and shelter us in the shadow of Your wings”. Printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Solomon Smulewitz (1868-1943) and J.M. Rumshisky (1879-1956). “Zei gebensht Du Freie Land” [Long Live the Land of the Free]. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1911. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress. For additional information, follow this link. 

Cover of the journal The Jewish Immigrant. Vol. 2, no. 1. (January 1909) published by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The verse on the right reads: “Open the gates of righteousness for me” (Psalms 118:19). The verse on the left reads, “Open the gates and let a righteous nation enter” (Isaiah 26:2).

After pairs or groups report on the interpretations of their image, consider the motivations of those that created them.

  1. Why might these pieces have been created?
  2. Who was their audience? What did they want them to feel? What did they want them to do?
  3. Based on what you know about history and immigration, how do you think these messages would have been received by their audiences? What other responses might they have provoked in others?

As an extension, use the same protocol to examine this anti-Semitic cartoon from 1909, approximately the same time as the other images were created.  Please review it to decide whether you believe the image is appropriate for your students.

Anti-semitic cartoon published in a U.S. newspaper in 190

Ask students: 

  • What message was the editorial cartoonist trying to send? Who do you think was their intended audience? What did they want them to feel? What did they want them to do?
  • Consider using Project Zero’s See-Feel-Think-Wonder thinking routine to interrogate this anti-Semitic cartoon.
  • How do students’ explain the difference in tone and in the message between the various images?  

Wrap up: To conclude the lesson consider using this routine to help students connect what they have explored with their own experiences and the experiences of others.

  1. Consider how the material in this lesson relates to another text they have studied or read. What is it? What is the connection?
  2. Consider how the material in this lesson related to themselves. Based on the material and discussions, what personal connections do they make between the content and their own lives?
  3. Consider how the material in this lesson connects to what is going on in the world today? What connections might you make between these images and discussions about immigration in our time?

Note: Educators may choose to pair this lesson with additional material about Jewish immigration, or material about other histories, or current events. Follow the links for additional resources.