Obviously, most of the readings we are doing this semester focus on one of two topics: either the experience and circumstances of New York immigrants as a whole or the experience of a specific group of immigrants. And while some of the readings, such as the Madonna of 115th Street, do in fact address the relationships between the first generation immigrants and their children born in this country, most of the readings don’t continue tracking the experience in depth past one or two generations. When reading the third chapter of Foner’s book, I did find it interesting to learn details and statistics about where the first generation immigrants worked. However, I think it is also very intriguing to think about what happens three or four generations down the road.
After all, the nature of being a New York is such that even if you are not an immigrant yourself, chances are that your grandparents or great-grandparents were. Foner goes into great detail about how the Russian Jewish immigrants largely entered the garment trade because of their skills and the economic opportunity that they were faced with when they arrived in New York City. Similarly, Foner tells of the various industries in which Italian immigrants tended to find work, such as the construction industry. However, how do the work experiences of those immigrants affect their grandchildren and great-grandchildren? In other words, how were people like me, a descendant of Jewish immigrants who worked in the garment trade when they immigrated to New York City, affected by their ancestors work experience several generations later?
Well, last semester I read a very interesting book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers: The Story of Success, which spends an entire chapter addressing this exact issue, and I would like to share one idea that Gladwell expounds upon at length. To keep it short, basically Gladwell asserts that the steadfast, hardworking nature that Russian Jewish immigrants embodied through their work in the New York City garment district influenced the work that their children and grandchildren would eventually do over time. In fact, he showed that there was a very common progression that took place among the descendants of the Jewish garment trade workers. Often, after two or three generations, their descendants had extremely high rates of becoming professionals, especially doctors and lawyers. And while this probably is in large part due to a natural economic progression over time, Gladwell asserts that the immigrant experience that the Russian Jews had in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, specifically the ones in the garment industry, influenced them to instill in their children certain values that would lead to their grandchildren successfully achieving high levels of education and integrating into professional careers. Specifically, Gladwell writes that the immigrants who worked in the grament industry ingrained in their children the idea that if they work extremely hard, their efforts would pay off and they would be able to see the fruits of labor through success in the careers. While I may not have related Gladwell’s idea as eloquently as he did, I hope this added something to the discussion.
One question that I do have for the class is: how do you think that the jobs that immigrants have today will influence their grandchildren? Do you think their descendants will follow a similar pattern to those of Russian Jewish immigrants, and why or why not?