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When Shall We Find Time to Learn?

Seeing Immigration as an Infinite Learning Continuum

Shannon Evans 2/24/12 ENG 417: Literature of Immigration

When Shall We Find Time to Learn? Seeing Immigration as an Infinite Learning Continuum When addressing the concept of what it is to learn many often think of it in the concrete, physical, sitting in a desk, type of learning, but in many ways it is so much more than that. Real impactful learning is often figurative, thorough, deep, analytical, and often a metaphysical process. Many can attest to the fact that growing and experiencing life in different ways gives us just as much knowledge, if not more, than a classroom. Another way into gaining more wellrounded incite is through accessing the experiences of others; to take advantage of their wisdom and realities as a second hand experience for ourselves. One of the most common ways to do this is through books. While reading Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives and Anzia Yezierskas Bread Givers the reader learns synonymously with Riis and Sara Smolinsky because they attach themselves onto their quest for knowledge and information. Through Riiss expose one gets an insightful overview into the sad, dirty, cramped tenement villages. Everything in his account is laid out on the table; an honest, true record of journalism that investigates both the differences and commonalities within distinctive ethnicities in the late 19th century. Whereas Sara is living in Riiss world but gives the spectator lessons from the other end of the spectrum. Yezierska writes Saras story to be a personal, sympathizing, and relatable. Riis gives the reader the plain unedited facts that are important to know as Yezierska takes that knowledge and pulls at your heartstrings by attaching it to a face, a familys struggle. Together they work to give one a sense of the Jewish immigrant experience with Riis as an outsider, and Sara as an insider. Through their eyes one can also see their blatant biases and prejudices. A reader has a choice to blindly ignore, accept, or investigate their claims. Often to get the most enriching experience one should delve

into controversy to try and understand how and why Riis and Yezierska criticize the Jews/immigrants. Does it help to validate them or does it result in doubt and questioning? Does Yezierska have more credibility than Riis for being a Jewish immigrant? These are all questions the learner must take their own stance on but providing evidence and examples can help them weave through their thoughts. One thing that is positive is Riis sympathy for a sweet faced Italian girl who cannot read or write but works at the tenement sweater shops for $1.50 a week (128). Sara shows through her journey up the Americanized ladder that there can be another path, a difficult but worthy one. And even though she is Jewish, Riis would certainly be proud and humbled as if it were that little Italian girl. It comes full circle when noting that knowledge is Saras way out of her depressing existence as it is the observers way in. In Bread Givers, Sara shows how she has to struggle to learn. It is rare to see an immigrant, a Jewish girl none-the-less, make it out of Hester Street. She is frustrated by others lack of enthusiasm and refusal to acknowledge that education is a gift. She says They didnt hunger and thirst for knowledge, they werent excited about anything they were learning, so it jarred on them that I was so excited (150). Sara is convinced that education is one of the only ways to rise in the world, and gain a sense of American values. Her goal is seemingly selfish and foolish in accordance to old world values. She is an example of the rebellious youth, who values success and happiness over religious satisfaction and economic settling/ starvation. Sara lives the life of the shtetl long enough to realize it is not a life she (like her sisters) can willingly accept for a lifetime. Saras individual education and willingness to learn is an empowering advancement and serves as a great example, yet Riis doesnt feel education and learning English could solely be a cure for the impoverished as a whole. He asserts Little chance on this ground for the campaign of education that alone can bring the needed relief; small wonder that there are

whole settlements on this East Side where English is practically an unknown tongue, though the people be both willing and anxious to learn (124). Riis goal is to show how the injustices of tenement living are to be blamed partly on the overwhelming influx of immigrants but mostly on our nations structuring, therefore blaming greedy Americans for creating the structural problems. Even if immigrants could fight their adversity and educate themselves there are still many ways American society can inflict its prejudices. Therefore in Riis opinion a solution has to stem from where the problem began. We see that in Bread Givers many of the immigrants, like Muhmenkah who gives Sara the herring for free (52), do the best they can in supporting each other. This is a testament to Riis claim The crowds and the common poverty are the bonds of sympathy between them (115). Without enduring a similar experience the stubborn Americanborn citizens do not have this empathy needed to see the inhumanity they have partially caused. They need to learn sympathy in order to create laws and ordinances that can catalyze real change. Even though Riis can see this, he stills hold some very American principles. He thinks since Americans had to accept the immigrants into their country that they need to do their part as well. He alleges Its keynote evidently is the ignorance of the immigrants. They must be taught the language of the country they have chosen as their home, as the first and most necessary step. Whatever may follow, that is essential, absolutely vital. That done, it may well be that the case in its new aspect will not be neatly so hard to deal with (134). Riis shows how he is committed to justice, but both sides (the Americans and Immigrants) need to give and take in order to excel. It is hard to tell if he is more for cultural pluralism (different

groups keeping their distinct cultures but living together peacefully), or for assimilation (blending/acceptance in having many cultural influences). Sara unlike Riis is pretty straightforward with her thought and beliefs but Riis needs a little more navigating, he is not black and white. Regardless of his intentions Riis remains to be in some ways right. In order for Jews to make their way in America they must be open to learning, and not just in learning school or English. Both of those things are important but also they need to learn to not avoid all parts of assimilation as if its the plague. Keeping customs, traditions, and ways of life are one thing but to box oneself off from any other type of lifestyle can be both damaging and selfish. Reb Smolinsky is a perfect example of what will happen if one refuses to adjust or learn anything in their new world. As generalized and somewhat bigoted of a statement as it sounds, Riis claim that They are out of place in this hive of busy industry, and they know it. It has nothing in common with them or with their philosophy of life, that the world owes the idler a living. Life here means the hardest kind of work almost from the cradle. The world as a debtor has no credit in Jewtown (105) actually reigns true in some cases. Jewish people who are very religious like Reb think that the earth/ God will provide for them; work, industry, money and even well-being do not precede their Holy Torah. The Smolinsky girls will never understand (and rightfully so) the novelty of grounding all your hope and faith in something spiritual amidst all their suffering. Even when they are on the brink of starvation and homelessness Reb refuses to go and work. A fact the landlady must embarrassingly announce Hear him only! The dirty do-nothing! Go to work yourself. Stop singing prayers. Then youll have money for rent! (50). What happens next (Reb slapping the landlady) shows just how American social institutions cannot penetrate Judaisms strict culture, the rule to never lay a hand on a woman doesnt apply in Rebs world. This is an

example of where cultural pluralism cannot take place because the Jewish ideals impede on Americans ways of life. Reb is unfamiliar with a woman openly voicing their lack of respect for his godly ways. In their mutual respects Reb and the Landlady are both astounded by their disparities. Although Reb is a very unlikeable character it is his steadfast stubbornness that perpetuates and transpires itself in Sara. Ironically, they use their relentless efforts in complete opposition of one another (Reb to keep his Jewish way of life versus Sara striving to learn to become more American) but this stubbornness helps Sara to simultaneously move on and eventually understand and accept her father. This headstrong persistence that characterizes Reb is also seen as a stereotype in How the Other Half Lives. Riis notices So, in all matters pertaining their religious life that tinges all their customs, they stand, these East Side Jews, where the new day that dawned Calvary left them standing, stubbornly refusing to see light (112). Unfortunately Reb Smolinsky personifies this perception proving that this is true in some cases. Throughout Bread Givers every person tries to get through to him that in order for his family to survive he needs to participate in American peddling or factory work. His utter blind refusal only helps Christians to argue that Jews are so stuck in tradition that they will never see the truth. This point relates very much to the final instances of Bread Givers when Sara thinks He looked at me, and in that look I felt the full force of his unbending spirit. Can a Jew and a Christian live under one roof? (222). Reb is seemingly just as stubborn as he always was until he remarks But if youll promise to keep sacred all that is sacred to me, then maybe, Ill see, Ill think it over (222). Unlike the previous Riis quote, Sarah is not asking him to convert, rather she wants him to merely accept and learn to cohabitate with people unlike himself. After he says this previous sentence Sara is crushed and convinced he remains unchanged. He is clearly rude and unappreciative but even just his

consideration of Saras offer shows he has changed marginally, albeit not a complete transformation by any imagination, but he is beginning to accept that others live differently than him which is a step in the right direction. Cultural pluralism is something that can only exist if all different people can focus on a common goal of living together peacefully. This instance of Reb proves that even people who are consumed with the old world can take steps towards goals of their new world. The situations one experiences while reading Riis and Yezierska are ones of morals, religion, ambition, poverty, prejudice, and reluctance. A reader gets to learn about immigration through both a historical and personal sense. Whether Saras life is something we can relate to firsthand or not it is safe to say that now the audience possesses the tools for better understanding, relation and acceptance. One can learn so much about the world, their beliefs, and themselves from opening their eyes to the stories of knowledge and growth of others. This is a message Riis and Yezierska can hold true; it will remain to be timeless.


Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914.

Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Persea, 2003.