The Immigration Experience
They are our grandparents, our relatives, our friends. They
are the immigrants. They came from all over the world for many
reasons, such as, religious persecution and racial tension, but the
largest reason for coming to America was for freedom. The freedom to
live where we want, to own property, to take part in the government
and most importantly, the freedom to be treated like a human being.
Coming over was extremely difficult. For some, there were
good, seaworthy boats, but most boats were overcrowded, dirty, and
disgusting. For Jews, the passage was extremely difficult because of
the non-kosher ship food. People were pushed together like cattle.
Most people became seasick. From one account came descriptions of
unsanitary bathrooms. This, surely, must have been torture, but,
hopefully, most immigrants found the dreadful trip to be worth the
freedom at the other end.
Ellis Island, also, was far from sanitary. The people would
break down into lines, and walk by a doctor, trying to hide any
physical problems. Children over two had to be able to walk by
themselves. If the doctor noticed anything wrong he would use a piece
of chalk to show the person required further inspection. If, this was
indeed the case, the person would be set aside in a cage.
Another test was that of sanity. An interpreter would ask each
person a few questions just to find a sensible answer to test mental
stability. The last and most feared doctor checked for disease by
lifting the eyelid. He scared children, and probably spread more
disease than the people he checked. From an eyewitness account, his
gloves were not sterile, and he did not change or even wash them
between examinations. I, myself, found this disgusting, and dangerous.
Then, immigrants filed into lines by nationality to be
questioned. The questions scared many people. Should they tell the
truth or lie. Which answer would make sure that they could stay in
Later, for Jews, help came. A group called the "Hebrew
Immigrant Aid Society," (HIAS) told them to tell the truth, and helped
them through the period between leaving the boat and getting settled
in the west. Some officials were corrupt, and allowed bribes. This
makes me wonder, if this was the land of freedom and justice as it had
been claimed. Through the ordeal, one thing is certain. All of the
immigrants passing through Ellis Island were scared and confused. It
was one feeling that most of these people would probably be exposed to
for the next few months.
There were many restrictions. People with certain diseases
would be sent back. Laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, would not
let certain nationalities into America. In the early twentieth century
it was decided that Japanese people would not be allowed into America.
This was surely not the land of liberty that had been promised by our
forefathers. One of the nationalities traveling to America were Jews.
They were treated somewhat differently. This was probably because
many of their countries would not accept them.
The first Jews in the new world were Morranos from Spain. They
fled their homeland because of the inquisition. They traveled from
Spain to South America, and then to New Amsterdam. They, at first were
rejected by Peter Stuyvesant, but petitioned the Dutch West India
Company of Amsterdam, Holland, and, eventually were let into the
colony. Stuyvesant was determined to make life hard for the Jews, and
therefore denied them the right to build a synagogue. Luckily, for the
Jews, the colony was soon to be taken over by the British. Under
certain British naturalization laws, the Jews were able to build a
synagogue in the colony.
Jews in Savannah were accepted, but only to a degree. This was
because of Samuel Nunes, a Jewish doctor who helped to stop a disease
that had already killed many people. Even then, Jews were given land
away from the main town. In the American Revolution Jews did not take
any specific sides. Some believed that the freedom that they had
gained under the English rule would be lost. Other felt that the taxes
were too high and joined the Patriots.
Later, in the Civil War, Jews took sides as everyone else.
Their location meant everything. Jews in the north sided with the
Union, and Jews in the south sided with the Confederacy.
Unfortunately, a law was passed by Congress forbidding Jewish
Chaplains in the Union army. Congress later passed a law stating that
chaplains had to be "ministers of some religious denomination," which
included Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis.
Then, more trouble came for the Jews. Ulysees S. Grant ordered
that all Jews in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee were to be
removed. Fortunately, Lincoln cancelled the order as soon as he found
out. Later, between 1880 and 1925, many Jews came to America to escape
anti semitism. One of the acts of anti-semitism was church supported
violence against Jews in Eastern Europe (before World War I), which
was legal. There were also laws which discriminated against Jews. In
Russia, a czar had been assassinated, and Jews were blamed out of fear
of a revolution. This caused a flood of immigrants into the United
Most of America's famous people are descended from immigrants
if they are not immigrants themselves. People, like Albert Einstein, a
famous physicist, and Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State, and
helped to open up negotiations with China, were Jewish immigrants.
People like Bob Hope, who was born in England, have contributed richly
to our culture. Charlie Chaplin, also from England, was a silent movie
America is made of many different cultures, all of which have
contributed to the American way of life. Jews contributed doctors and
lawyers. Japanese are computer and business contributors. Koreans are
well educated and have been involved in many professional, technical,
and managerial careers. African Americans have contributed music,
science, literature, entertainment, and many other things to our
culture. Our culture is derived from many different ones, and cannot
be broken down into which group contributes what because each group
has done so much.
All this proves that Americans are not just one people. We are
individuals from different cultures. We are different, but we are all
"Asian Americans" Grolier's Online Encyclopedia. 1991 ed.
"Chinese Exclusion Act" Grolier's Online Encyclopedia. 1991 ed.
"Ellis Island" Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. 1986 ed.
Fallows, James. "The Mind of Japan" U.S. News and World Report 2
December 1983: 36
Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York and London: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1976
Interview with Mollie Greenblatt, Brooklyn, New York 1991
Interview with Nathan Laks, Elizabeth, New Jersey 1991
Kenvin, Helen Schwartz. This Land of Liberty - A History of America's
Jews. West Orange, New Jersey: Behrman House Publishers, 1986.