"My Future Is In America: Autobiographies Of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants", translated and edited by Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer (New York University Press, in conjunction with YIVO, March 2006)
Based on the 1942 contest for best immigrant autobiography about "Why I Left the Old Country, and What I Have Accomplished in America," the memoirs were chosen from over 200 entries and translated from Yiddish. This book is "a 'must read' for anyone interested in immigration, American history, or the Jewish experience in America," notes Beth S. Wenger, Katz Family Professor of American Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania. "Cohen and Soyer have done a masterful job of collecting and translating these gripping immigrant narratives."
This book helps us understand the lives and struggles of the immigrant generation. The writers, who arrived in America from the 1890s to the 1920s, include manual workers, shopkeepers, housewives, communal activists, and professionals who came from all parts of Eastern Europe and ushered in a new era in American Jewish history.
In their own words, the immigrant writers convey the complexities of the transition between the Old and New Worlds. Many of them had struggled for literacy to gain this small foothold in the historical record. Now their stories have been published.
Almost immediately Max Weinreich, YIVO research director in the 1940s, realized he had a problem. Most of the immigrants who read of the contest did not think that their lives were important enough to record for posterity. He received many letters with the comment, "I'd like to write my autobiography, but I don't know how, and I haven't done anything of significance."
Weinreich responded to each letter with words of encouragement He assured his correspondents that their lives were deeply important, that, in fact, every life and every detail was so significant that historians of the future would not only read their stories, but also study them closely to understand both the epic struggles of a generation and the textures of daily life.
"Reading Max Weinreich's words about 'historians of the future' fifty years later, as I studied the autobiographies very closely, was a profound experience for me," explains Cohen. "I had the sense that he had been imagining me decades before I was born, somehow even calling me to these materials. I felt such a strong affinity ... and appreciation of his work ... And I completely agreed with him: Yes ... Tell me everything, and don't leave anything out!" Cohen goes on to note, "If Max Weinreich and YIVO hadn't reached for these wonderful storytellers, put tremendous time and energy into listening to them, and taught them how to write down their lives, cajoling and even coercing them into doing it, then we would not have this treasure."
Cohen has set up a web site, which offers more about the book and snapshots of the writers included in My Future is in America. You can visit myfutureisinamerica.blogspot.com to find out more about the book, and the YIVO immigrant autobiography collection.
"Everything about the project is about making connections among people, past, present, and future," Cohen tells us.
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