Assimilation is the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation,or the state of being so adapted.
With that being said, New York City’s lower east side should have been considered its own country, with the amount of different people that had arrived from all around the world. And each new person that did arrive to this foreign place, had to adjust to a completely different life. In the film Hester Street, Gitl and her six year old son arrive from Europe to reunite with her husband, Yekl. Who now calls himself Jake. I think this is the first example of adapting to a new country, in which you change your name, and I believe that once you step foot in a new country, everything changes.
Jake immediately adapts, cuts off his hairs, and shaves his beard which is not traditional for Orthodox Jewish men. And he goes straight to work, and makes money and becomes involved with Mamie, another immigrant who came at the age of 16 and adjusted quickly as well. Jake has immediately given up all his roots, and acknowledges himself as an American, or a ‘Yankee’. Gitl, on the other hand, does not adjust so quickly. She refuses to show her real hair to anyone who is not her husband, and wears a traditional dress that does not reveal anything. It even seemed like she was uncomfortable talking to Bernstein, because he was not her husband and it seemed disrespectful. Gitl does not assimilate as fast as Jake wants her too.
Bernstein has not been in Lower East Side for very long, but he has chosen not to assimilate. He has his traditional yamaka, he has a beard and hairs, and he reads and studies the Torah. He’s not married, but he chooses not to be involved with just any girl, he believes in a traditional wife who shares his beliefs. He is much different than Jake, and doesn’t adjust easily with how different life is in America.
In general, the Russian/Jewish traditions and values of the ‘Old Country’ are far different from the ones in America. In the ‘old country’ life is simple, and you stick to your roots and there are no questions or hesitations. In America, a student can become a teacher without anyone’s approval. The idea is that you can be anyone you want to be and you can believe anyone you want to, and there is no punishment. In the beginning, Jake and Mamie are introduced to a new immigrant who has just arrived and is clearly shaken; they do not speak Yiddish immediately, and Mamie makes it a point that she “almost forgot” what it’s like to speak it. Jake only speaks Yiddish because the immigrant obviously doesn’t understand English. And same goes for when his wife arrives although he makes a point to make sure that she’s going to learn English right away.
Since we are discussing assimilation, I thought I would write my own input on how it has affected my family.
Personally, it is extremely difficult to stick to your culture and your roots in America, because no one else follows what you follow and I learned that growing up with immigrant parents. It’s rough to go to school and participate and be social when you’re not accustomed to what the “norm” is in the United States are. Living in a small town in Florida, I knew that it would be different for me. I would bring food to school and people had no idea what I was eating, because my mom came from Poland when she was 30, and cooked traditional polish meals. Stuffed cabbage and white borscht was far different from your average peanut butter and jelly. In the polish church, the priest was supposed to put the Host (bread) on your tongue, you were not allowed to touch it whatsoever. In American catholic churches, the priest put the bread right in your hands.
I do have to add that it wasn’t so difficult for me as it was for my mother, who to this day will still ask me what a word means. I’ve adjusted, as has my entire family. But I will repeat myself when I say how difficult it is to grow up in America, with parents who are not from here. (As a side note, my father came here from Mexico when he was 18 years old, and became Ramon instead of Refugio, which was his given name. He explained that it was easier for people to pronounce.)