In my paper I would like to compare two books which are written by women immigrants and which belong to the same historical period. These are “The Promised Land” by Mary Antin and “Out of the Shadow” by Rose Cohen. The authors, sharing the common cultural space, also share similar experiences and face similar problems. Although they have completely different destinies and live in different places, they might have more in common than it could seem at a first glance.
Both of them have to deal with the problem of immigration and adjustment from the Old World to the New, conflict of generations and the need for acceptance. They face the problem of assimilation and changes in their family life, they must learn the new language. They deal with the world of Gentiles and have to choose their path in relation to the Jewish tradition. They strive for education and America gives them the opportunities which they didn’t have in their native country as women and Jews.
Both write their autobiographies in English, the language of their new country. Mary Antin shows how well she mastered English. She became an English writer, the language of her book is rich and, unlike her speech, it has no accent. Rose Cohen began writing her account in an English language class. It was a kind of exercise which helped her master the language.
They both came from what is today Belarus. It was the time of the mass exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe. One third of the Jewish population tried to escape poverty and pogroms coming to America.
The trip was very hard. The fathers were often first to emigrate and women and children had to make the trip alone. (Diner 2003, 44).
Rose Cohen and her mother were driven over the Russian border in a cart as bags of flour. Mary Antin and her family had their passport taken away from them. When emigrants reached the German border, they had to bathe, be examined by a doctor and were fumigated. They had to spend weeks in quarantine before the actual trip by sea, which also lasted weeks. The poor immigrants travelled in steerage, were seasick and when they arrived, they had to pass medical exam and feared they might be sent back home.
Mary Antin may be called the luckier of the two. She became the prototype of the American Jewish immigrant and her book is read in colleges throughout the United States till today. Lisa Muir states that “unlike Mary Antin with her initial enthusiastic observations of America, coupled later with feelings of full assimilation in The Promised Land, …Cohen, are at first underwhelmed and even repelled by New York City and its citizens.” (8).
I think it happened because Antin had opportunity to go to school and this is what gave her the source for enthusiasm. Being able to study as a Jewish girl made her happy. She benefited from her parents’ decision to emigrate from Russia. She was at last given the opportunity to study:” …wealth came in the form of new dreams and opportunities…The Promised Land promised her the chance to at last attend cheder, even if cheder was now called Barnard College.” (Rosenfeld, 138). The education for Mary came through the sacrifice of her sister.
Rose had to work and help support her family so that her brother could go to University. Her life was not a child’s life, she worked from dawn till night in the sweatshops.