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Lives of Immigrants, Seen Through Letters

May 31, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman, JE Feature
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It was 1908, and the young man was forlorn. The 25-year-old had been in the United States for 16 years, and wanted to marry his girlfriend. But he was worried about an old superstition that a woman who has a dimple in her chin -- as was the case with his girlfriend -- will lose her husband early and tragically. Unsure where to turn, he took an anonymous step toward clarification: He penned a letter to a newspaper advice column.

Nearly a century later, the young man's heartfelt plea became one of several sources for a brief performance based on immigrant life in the United States, played by Marjorie Goldman, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. She took on the roles of six different men and women, with all of her material drawn from letters to the Yiddish-language Yiddish Daily Forward's advice column, the "Bintel Brief" (or "bundle of letters").

For the museum's program, "HIStories, HERstories, YOURstories, OURstories," Goldman acted as the lovelorn young man, a woman concerned about her new mother-in-law and a New Yorker wondering if he should be hiding his heritage on the eve of World War II.

The letters spanned half a century, from the early 1900s up to the mid-1950s. "How to be an American was one of the things that showed up frequently in the letters," said Goldman, and that dilemma still exists today.

The paper's founder, Abraham Cahan, was intensely concerned with helping newly arrived immigrants acclimate to American society, which was one of the key reasons he instituted the "Bintel Brief" column in his New York City-based paper.

Yet the letters didn't only deal with issues of culture; they also delved into matters universal to any family, from raising kids to getting married, said Goldman. "Anyone who is a parent or child can relate to those things."

During the course of her performance, the 50-year-old Philadelphian also inhabited the character of a young man in 1939, who wrote to the Forward for advice on whether or not to read the Yiddish newspaper in the subway. His brother said he should not, while he questioned the supposed need to hide his identity.

Goldman has been performing such stories for more than a year to audiences of school students, tour groups and numerous organizations, usually in the Congregation Mikveh Israel sanctuary attached to the museum or out in the community. She speaks directly to the audience, soliciting advice and lamenting the woes of her character.

Immigration continues to be a contentious issue in the United States, she noted, from the halls of Congress to the streets of small towns, and the tensions created by assimilating into the melting pot are nothing new.

"The issues have not gone away," she said, "the characters have just changed."

While she addresses crowds both young and old, she finds that when she talks to seniors, "it's very nostalgic for them."

'Past and Present'

Some even remember reading the letters from the advice column in the Forward, said Rob Levin, the museum's education director. "For some people, these are their experiences."

For students, Goldman added, they can relate to their own experience of becoming part of a different culture: "Everybody's just trying to fit in."

Once they realize the program is not a staid lecture on history, said Levin, they become very engaged. "When they make the link between the past and the present," they really get into it.

The program was presented as part of "American Jewish History Through the Arts," the museum's celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month -- a slate of presentations throughout May to highlight the American Jewish experience.

The events "try to provide a number of different experiences through different media that will show the expanse of the American Jewish experience," according to Levin.

The roster included a showing of the film Gentleman's Agreement, starring Gregory Peck as a journalist exposing anti-Semitism, and the exhibition "Forshpeis!" -- Yiddish for "appetizers" -- "A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana."

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