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Becoming American: Jewish Women Immigrants 1880-1920

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Barbara Schreier offers a fascinating insight into how the dress, customs and attitudes of Jewish women escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe altered as part of their assimilation as Americans.

They don't wear wigs here'. These were Yekl's words of greeting to his wife, Gitl, rejecting her protestations that she wanted to spruce 'herself up for the big event' – on her arrival in America in Abraham Cahan's story of Yekl, A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896). At the end of her long journey from Russia, Gitl puts on the sheitel (wig) not only to honour the Sabbath but to celebrate her long-awaited reunion with Yekl. The symbolism, however, is lost on her Americanised husband. During their three-year separation, he has frantically embraced the customs of his new home, changing his name to Jake and rejecting his heritage. The image of his bewigged wife is a painful reminder of the past he is trying to forget. From the moment that Gitl steps off the boat at Ellis Island, Jake begins his relentless criticism of her dowdy appearance. Much of this anger is directed towards Gitl's 'voluminous wig of a pitch-black hue'.

In both their oral and written accounts, turn-of-the-century immigrants reported that American clothing and appearance were among the first symbols they adopted as a sign of cultural intermingling. Wearing fashionable clothing was second in importance only to learning English in their quest to become American. Indeed, some prospective émigrés, after hearing about the differences in American styles from friends and relatives, began to make sartorial adjustments even before they left Eastern Europe. Mary Antin described the significance of this gesture in her autobiographical novel, The Promised Land, (Boston, 1912) Mashke's father who has come to America, writes to his wife in Russia urging her to 'leave her wig in Polotzk' when she comes to the New World as a 'first step of progress'. And Rose Cohen wrote that her aunt brought her a 'very pretty pair of black patent-leather slippers' to be worn when she arrived on American soil because 'shoes more than any other article of clothing showed the 'greenhorn'.

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