Le Yiddishland newyorkais: la mémoire enracinée (The Yiddishland New Yorker: the Ingrained Memory)

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Annie Ousset-Krief


More than two million Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the USA between 1880 and 1910. Most of them settled in New York City, in the immigrant district of the Lower East Side. As they were uprooted, they tried to recreate a new version of their shtetl, the villages in which most Jews had been forced to reside in Eastern Europe. The Lower East Side thus became their new Yiddishland, their home, where most institutions were modeled after the original ones. Though American Jews had already provided for most necessary institutions like synagogues or schools, what they had established did not match Russian Jews’ habits – besides the fact that Yiddish played a major part in their lives, and was totally ignored by most American Jews. Thus the new immigrants built their own synagogues, schools, and mutual benefit societies. Yiddish culture was vibrant, thanks to Yiddish theatre and the Yiddish press that flourished for decades. Today, though most Jews left the Lower East Side long ago, there remain a few synagogues and shops that have become the symbols of an everlasting Jewish identity, traces of a cherished past, marked by hardship but also the joy of having finally found freedom after centuries of persecution. The Lower East Side has become the place where part of American Jewish history took place, and as such, is a sacred place. Hasia Diner called it the ‘Jewish Plymouth Rock’, underlining the idea that it is the foundation of the American Jewish community, that combines both American and Jewish identities. Jewishness in Europe has been wiped out in many countries, and the descendants of these Russian immigrants can no longer turn to their ancestors’ European ‘home’. It is the Lower East Side that plays the part of the alte heime (the old country), and as such, makes up part of their identity. Memory and identity are deeply rooted in the ‘sacred geography’ of the Lower East Side.

Article Details

Geographies of Identity Special Issue January 2015 (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biography

Annie Ousset-Krief, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

English Studies department Associate Professor