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Immigrant In Each of Us - 2003-02-10

English Feature #7-37169 Broadcast February 10, 2003

Most American schoolchildren learn in their history classes, in a general way, about the succeeding waves of immigrants that came to the United States. But the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington came up with a novel program to help sixth-graders understand in a more personal way what it means to be an immigrant. We have more on this in today’s edition of New American Voices.

The program, entitled “Immigrant in Each of Us”, required each sixth-grader that attends Hebrew Sunday school in the Washington area to identify an immigrant relative and find out as much as they could about how, and why, this person came to America.

“We had to research an ancestor that traveled from Europe or Russia or somewhere to Ellis Island or another port on the U.S. coast. And to prepare for it we had to figure out like everything about them – what they did, and how much money they brought with them, and what else did they bring besides money, and why did they come, and did they have a job waiting for them, and stuff.”

Eleven-year-old Eliana Eitches was one of the 700 or so Hebrew School sixth-graders who on a recent Sunday gathered at a fairgrounds outside Washington for a simulation of their immigrant ancestor’s experience on arriving at Ellis Island in the year 1910. (Ellis Island was the gateway through which 22 million immigrants entered the port of New York between 1892 and 1924.) The kids dressed in clothes that might have been worn by immigrants in 1910, carried bundles, and for that day assumed the identity of their relative from long ago.

“I’m Hyman Braverman, and I’m running from the czarist army because I blew up a barrack. It was me and my brother. We’re going to New York. We have cousins in New York… And the czarist army won’t even try to come, cause they have no clue where we are.”

Each child was issued a “passport” – the facsimile of an actual 1910 identity card printed in English, Russian, German and French. Each received a small bundle of paper “rubles”, the Russian currency of the time. The new immigrants also received a “newspaper” called Der Yiddisher Emigrant, with copies of articles that actually appeared in a newspaper of that name in the early 1900s. Among the articles was one, for instance, with the headline “Warning to Young Ladies”. It began, “Beware of any person who gives addresses, offers you easy, well paid work, or even marriage. There are many evil men and women who have in this way led girls to destruction.”

The first hurdle the sixth-graders, as new immigrants, encountered on arriving at Ellis Island was a medical inspection. To show how confusing their first contacts on a new continent must have been for new arrivals, the “doctors” – in actual fact, teachers or parent volunteers – spoke brusquely, and in languages the kids didn’t understand.

Doctor (speaking German): “Say ‘ahh”. Say “ahhhh”. Stick you tongue out. Speak English. What is your name? Your name? In America we all speak English, ja?”

After passing the medical inspection, the children were directed to a table where they could exchange their rubles for fake American greenbacks. Eliana Eitches saw this as an opportunity for unscrupulous people to take advantage of the new immigrants.

“They obviously would have been cheated out of their money, because they wouldn’t know the currency, like somebody might have given them, like, bottle caps, and they wouldn’t know, because it just might be American currency for them.”

With their new American dollars in their hands, the young immigrants bought train tickets to take them to their destination outside of New York. As the kids crowded around the ticket counter, the ticket sellers were not all that patient and understanding.

Ticket seller: “Could you people who don’t know our country, please take a step back. We wait in lines here. Where you going? Then go, go. Come on, come on, next in line, next, next, next.”

Having completed the formalities of arrival in a new land, the immigrants exited in the port of New York to the strains of familiar Old World music playing to welcome them.

The simulation of the immigrant experience didn’t end there, however. Years pass, and the next event awaiting the immigrants is naturalization as American citizens. The children sat on folding chairs in rows to simulate a courtroom, facing a lectern flanked by two American flags. The swearing-in ceremony was designed to be as authentic as possible.

Clerk: “Oyez, oyez, oyez, all rise for the honorable Judge Jonathan Habert, presiding for the circuit court of New York. All be seated.

Judge: I’m very proud of the accomplishments that you have made since arriving in America. When you first arrived in this country you didn’t know the language, the customs, or even how you would be earning a living. All you had were your dreams and determination that your lives, and the lives of your family, would be better here in America than what you left behind.”

The Judge administered the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, and led the group of newly-minted American citizens in singing “God Bless America.”

This spring, the Immigrant in Each of Us curriculum will take Washington area Hebrew school sixth-graders to New York to visit the real Ellis Island, which has been turned into a museum of immigration.

“Sound of God Bless America”