- Orphans and Prodigies:Rediscovering Young Jewish Immigrant "Marginals"
Many recent understandings of historical consciousness have lavished a great deal of attention on the construction of the historical record as a semantic and cultural artifact.1 Insofar as "narrative" becomes culturally embedded as "memory," it is the socialized and presumably common experience that is privileged over the singular or idiosyncratic experience. An invitation to rethink American Jewish history from the point of view of "youth" and its role in cultural change, however, is a call to rethink the whole notion of collective memory. Examining the American Jewish past through the experience of youth allows us to view it from the perspective of the border-territories of society, where less is assumed about the collective social experience and about those who speak for its coherency.
A youth-culture perspective on Jewish immigrant history in America, for instance, might involve delving into the loss of parental authority in immigrant households; the maintenance or weakening of linguistic and religious norms in the face of the "external" culture's imprint on young people's experiences; the intervention into such matters by socializing institutions (public schools, the social services sector, institutions like the Educational Alliance and its counterparts outside New York City); or the valorization of youthfulness and independence in modern American culture. These and other similar issues represent a specific instance of "crisis and re-adaptation," a perspective deployed by veteran scholars of intergenerational relations such as Glen Elder. Elder viewed his research on American youth in the Depression era as a corrective to understandings of social change that were based solely on stable, "normative," and gradual development within pre-existing social institutions. Elder, in turn, cited the much older collaborative work on immigrant households done [End Page 135] by the University of Chicago's William I. Thomas and Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki (The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 1920), that "made a convincing case for studying [the dynamics of social change and personality adaptation] at points of discontinuity or incongruence between person and environment." Similarly, other recent scholars have underscored the importance of "pivotal historical events that can abruptly alter the . . . matrix for young people's development."2
Jewish immigrant youth, seen as a special social category, is perhaps suited more than most to approaching the history of Jewish immigration. Nearly all migrant streams possess a relative bias toward the younger age cohorts, which is a significant contributing factor for understanding migration history. For the Jewish case this is rather more important than for some other groups, since Jews coming from eastern Europe to America included more children and had a lower median age than other immigrant groups.3 Indeed, a good deal of attention has been paid to intergenerational issues in Jewish immigrant and second-generation households.4 [End Page 136]
That having been said, it must be emphasized that such broad categories as "youth" and "second generation" are themselves overdetermined. Even within a generational cohort with a strongly defined style or "character," derived from the events it has experienced, there are significant differences in the subjective experiences of individuals, just as it is impossible to isolate the experiences of younger people from those of their elders in any given historical period. It will simply not do to overessentialize the notion of "youth" as a cohesive concept. Here I would strongly agree with social historian John Modell, who placed historical change first and birth cohort in a secondary role, in delineating his theory of generational development:
[P]erceptions, values, and understandings that arose [out of altered historical circumstances] were not unique to particular cohorts. Yet environment did not impinge uniformly on people of different ages. . . . My commitment is to understand the life course as a series of individual decisions that are not determined but are nevertheless structured by external phenomena.5
Therefore, in this essay I take the life-histories approach, focusing particularly on the stress attendant upon the arrival and subsequent adaptation of young people in a new culture. This approach, as it has been utilized by some recent scholars, is a way to counterbalance conventional narratives of the Jewish immigrant household and its progeny. It allows us...