LOSING AND REGAINING JEWISH RUSSIAN AND MEXICAN RELIGION AND CULTURE
New York City is one of the many destinations in the world where people come to immigrate and start with life all over again. It is perhaps the promise of the better life which lures people to cross geographical boundaries if only to be able to settle in New York. With lives lived under difficult and oftentimes harsh circumstances and with the opportunity to come to New York and relocate there for good, it appears that it does not take a genius to compel one to immigrate. The idea of migrating to New York stems from the thought that New York City boasts of a life surrounded financial opportunities while being completely surrounded by a bustling population which gives meaning and life to the City. Jewish Russians and Mexicans have long composed a considerable size of immigrants to New York in the past decades. It is no longer a mere assumption that these two distinct groups of individuals now comprise a chunk of the labor force of New York City. Part of the reason to this is that the settlers would have to earn themselves a living decent enough to at least feed them for a day.
It is worth considering that when Jewish Russians and Mexicans have settled in New York City, it appears that they have lost their previous religion and culture. More importantly, these groups of people have also appeared to have adopted the religion and culture of New York City. It can be said that there are many reasons behind this phenomenon, and that the reasons do not come simple enough. The reasons dwell somewhere between the complex and the irreducible because the individual reasons overlap and compound.
This paper focuses on the loss of the Jewish Russian and Mexican religion and culture and the eventual, albeit gradual, regaining of what was lost, as well as the different factors which largely contribute to the these processes.
On Losing Religion and Culture
As Kevin Keogan (2002) pointed out in his article, there are a considerable number of Russians and Mexicans living in the New York City locality and that these two groups belong to the top ten ethnic groups living in the City (p. 226). On the other hand, Brian Godfrey (1995) noted that the “global and financial and managerial roles” of New York City as well as its “deindustrialization and corporate relocation” have created social areas that have become “polarized” (p. 436). The economic flourishing of New York City decades ago, especially during the post World War era, has brought abut significant changes and improvements in the City. That being said, the status of New York City after the Second World War has gained a larger position largely because of its robust market and ever-increasing economics (MacPherson, 1997, p. 52).
In the case of Jewish Russians, their population in New York City grown steadily in the past decades (Keogan, 2002, p. 226), which inevitably brings about several reasons why this is so. It has been pointed out that the improvements in Ne w York City has also caused a polarization among locals and immigrants (Godfrey, 1995, p. 436). This is precisely because the locals who were born and who lived in the City were not able to fully accept the immigrants as individuals who they can share the resources of their City with. On the contrary, it can be said that the arrival of the Jewish Russian immigrants translated to more competition for the locals. Thus, having polarized social areas which separates the immigrants from the locals has been one consequence.
The very idea that immigrants translated to competition meant that none of the ‘competing’ parties would eventually kneel before the other as a sign of submission. On the contrary, Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants had to stand on their own feet and compete with the New Yorkers with the resources of their city, from resources publicly provided for by the state government as well as the resources from private entities. With these several groups struggling for a better slice of life in New York City, it can be said that the competition was more than about acquiring resources but survival.
Indeed, a key to being able to survive in a foreign and an unfamiliar territory is the ability to adopt to the demands of the times and the requirements of having to deal with the people in that territory while not giving-up one’s self or one’s resources. As Nathan Kantrowitz (1969) observed, “the ability to survive in a city such as New York City calls for the ability to adopt or the ability to embrace the culture of New York City as if it is one’s own (p. 226).” This ability to survive entails having to give up something in place of another so that one will become easily ‘habituated’ with the territory and be able to move around like a local member of the City. Some of the things that people like the Jewish Russians and Mexicans had to give-up were their religion and culture.
Adapting to the New York City environment indeed called for the suspension or the abandonment of one’s earlier religious and cultural inclinations. This is for Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants to be able to learn the religion and culture of New York City without having any second thoughts. That is, while the longing for one’s original culture and religion remains in one’s mind or memory, one chance is that the person should let go of these previous inclinations and embrace totally unique and different cultures and religion. But how is it possible for people like the Jewish Russians and Mexicans to be able to ‘suspend’ or ‘abandon’ their religion and culture when they have grown with them through the years long before they transferred to New York City?
The answer to the question rests on the idea that, while it is true that the first and older generations of Mexican and Jewish Russian immigrants may have not been able to abandon their previous inclinations in life, it is nevertheless the case that their children would have to grow up in New York, study there and perhaps even get a stable job in City. These immigrants, after settling in the City, do not move away from the City after a couple of months. While it may be the case that some of them may have left New York after a short time, most of these immigrants opted to stay. Evidence to this is the fact that their numbers did not dwindle through the years but rather increased primarily because they had their families there and had their children, and their children’s children, and so on (Reitz & Sklar, 1997, p. 233).
Thus, the succession of their generations in New York ensures that they their population will not dwindle down to decreasingly small numbers over the years. Rather, the opposite observation can be said especially since these immigrants are compelled by the circumstances to adapt to their environment and adopt the various social, cultural and religious elements of the city. This is further observed when these immigrants begin to socialize or open themselves with the rest of the people (Hein, 1993, p. 45).
More importantly, abandoning their culture and religion so as to be able to ‘learn’ and live with a foreign religion and culture is one of the ways for the immigrants to easily adjust and thrive in the community. This is primarily because avoiding discrimination, prejudice and bias and, consequently, learning to mingle with the local folks are just few ways for them to survive. By ‘blending’ with their new found society, they may appear to be just like the local folk at least to a certain extent, thereby limiting the chances where they are discriminated against, especially in the workforce.
The Jewish Russians and the Mexicans essentially had to lose their religion and culture for them to be able to become ‘one’ with the New Yorkers of their time. Otherwise, they would feel very much different with the rest of the City. Becoming ‘one’ with the City would most likely be a difficult task as it entails losing one’s religion and culture albeit temporarily. It can be said that doing so can be a way for these immigrants to ready themselves in establishing their groups for their future generations. After a few years or decades where they have already established a firm hold of the City, then these immigrants may have already found their place in the bustling crowds of the New York metropolis.
Regaining what was ‘Lost’
It can be said that even though the Jewish Russians and Mexican immigrants in New York City were able to adopt the religious and cultural elements of the City, they were able to ‘resurrect’ their own religion and culture through the years. It can also be said that these immigrants have survived the tens of years which went before them primarily because they were able to adopt and to familiarize themselves with the City like home (Blank, 1998, p. 38). These are the very same reasons which resulted for the immigrants to regain the religion and culture that was temporarily lost through their early years of stay in the City.
The Jewish Russians and Mexicans ‘temporarily’ lost their culture and religion so as to survive their formative years of staying in a totally foreign territory. But this temporary ‘losing’ of their religion and culture is something which does not mean having to totally forget their religion and culture for these things “cannot be forgotten in their entirety” (Hirschman, 1978, p. 1180). Rather, the factors of culture and religion are deeply embedded into the human memory right when a person is able to understand his environment and accept the things that one learns in the formative stages in life (Portes, Parker & Cobas, 1980, p. 202). Thus, it can be said that there can hardly be a thing as a permanent ‘forgetting’ of one’s culture and religion which one grew up with.
What about the children and the children’s children of the immigrants who gradually accepted the foreign religion and culture? Were they able to retain the culture and religion of their parents given the fact that they were born and grew up in an entirely different society unlike the kinds of societies their Jewish Russian and Mexican parents grew up with? The possibility of children having knowledge of their culture and religion and being able to revive these factors in them amidst living in a foreign society rests on the fact that their parent immigrants found ways to sustain their religion and culture in simple ways. For instance, the early immigrants from Russia and Mexico settled in distinct places where they were able to establish their own neighborhood (Tubergen, Maas & Flap, 2004, p. 710). By having their own ‘societies’ within the larger New York society, the Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants have accorded themselves with the possibility of having the means to revive their religion and culture in at least two ways.
One way is for the settling immigrants to communicate with their fellowmen on a daily basis, having informal gatherings every once in a while thus still being familiar with their identities at least for a brief period while they are not working in the busy metropolis. Another way is for the settling immigrants to establish their cultural and religious infrastructures in the long run. Through the course of time, the Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants were able to establish their own spaces for their religion and their culture. As far as religion is concerned, the Jewish Russians were still able to practice their religion through the years although a number of them were also able to convert into another religion. The same can also be said about the Mexicans, especially with the preservation of their own culture although a number of them were also able to assimilate the other cultures in New York.
The children and the children’s children of the immigrants were also able to grow up with the cultural and religious interactions of their parents with their communities in New York City. Further, it has also been noted that the Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants were able to provide for their children education both inside and outside their homes. That is, while their children went to learning institutions in New York City, they were still taught by their parents at home about their culture and religion (Erdmans, 1995, p. 180). Thus, the children of the immigrants and their children’s children were able to ‘revive’ the culture and religion which was temporarily ‘lost’ by their parents as they were compelled to adapt themselves to the conditions in New York City and adopt the religious and cultural forces in the foreign territory.
Immigrant societies in New York City
The groups of immigrants which continuously and gradually flocked to New York City over the years were able to maintain their religion and culture precisely because the immigrants who lived in their communities brought with them items from their countries which reminded the early settlers of their identities. That, of course, is based on the observation that the early settlers did not anymore decide to return to their countries and instead decided to live in New York City and stay there for the rest of their lives. Moreover, the improvements in technology have also hastened and eased the way for the immigrants to communicate with their relatives back home. Through the years, communicating to the relatives of Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants back in their home countries has been made more efficient through the internet and other mobile communication devices.
In effect, either the relatives of the immigrants were attracted to follow their relatives in New York City or opted to stay at their home country. Nevertheless, the advent of technological tools for communication paved the way for the immigrants to establish communication with their relatives back ‘home’ in a more comfortable position, thereby refreshing the thoughts of these immigrants about their culture and religion. As they lived in their respective communities in New York City, revitalizing their culture and religion through communication can never be as difficult as it used to be.
The kinds of communities that the Russian Jewish and Mexican immigrants lived-in were communities that reflected the type of societies which they came from. For instance, Jewish Russians lived in communities where they interact with their fellowmen in an environment which resembles their cultural and religious upbringings. Although outside of the circle of their communities the larger New York society is entirely different, the immigrants who lived in the City through the years were “able to distinguish the differences between their identities and the culture and religion beyond their communities” (Linton, 2002, p. 62).
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there are also some immigrants who have largely adopted the diverse religion and culture of New York City because these immigrants reside in places out of their communities and rarely communicate with their relatives back in their home countries. Yet even though these immigrants have adopted a foreign culture, it can hardly be pinpointed as to what exact culture they were able to assimilate primarily because New York City is a bastion of many different cultures. More importantly, New York’s workforce is evidence to the observation that the City is home to distinct people coming from distinct cultural and religious backgrounds (Batteau, 2000, p. 727).
Thus, it can be said that while some Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants have adopted a foreign culture in New York City, it can hardly be identified as to what culture exactly the immigrants have assimilated because there is hardly any distinct New York City culture.
Immigrant communities offered things beyond mere sanctuary and relief for the Jewish Russians and Mexicans in New York City. These communities provide cultural and religious reinforcements for the immigrants not only in the form of infrastructures. The more important cultural and religious reinforcement for the immigrants in their communities are the immigrants themselves who settled in one community the presence of people of their own kind in the communities provide the interaction vital for the preservation of their religion and culture. In a community of immigrants, difficult times are easily addressed because the immigrants are there to help one another.
Indeed, even though immigrant communities provide things beyond mere physical sanctuary and relief, these provisions are perhaps the most immediate needs of the immigrants in a foreign territory. A place to stay for immigrants in New York City is a very basic need, quite apart from the material necessities such as food and clothing. These elements are significant to be met by immigrants who are not well-off in life.
For the families of immigrants in New York, the immigrant community provides them with a place to rear their children in an environment that as is as close to their home countries. This is because immigrants still display signs of remembering and longing for their distinct culture and religion, and one way to materialize these signs is to teach their children about their heritage (Rumbaut, 1994, p. 590). It can be said that these immigrants have never totally abandoned their cultural and religious heritage simply because they still teach their younger generation about their cultural and religious backgrounds. It is the case of the preservation of culture and religion amidst a constantly changing environment such as New York City.
Inside these immigrant communities, there is also a small crowd of business ventures which cater and appeal to the cultural identities of the Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants respectively. For instance, Mexican immigrants have entered into small scale business ventures such as small restaurants and pubs which serve native Mexican delicacies. There are also Mexican immigrants who venture into the clothing business within their communities by selling clothing items which display the Mexican identity.
Jewish Russian immigrant communities in New York have also established ways to practice their religion within their communities (Logan, Zhang & Alba, 2002, p. 305). They have the autonomy to practice their Jewish practices within their community, thereby preserving their religious beliefs in the latter years after their early years of immigrating to New York City. The very fact that there are still Jewish religious traditions being practiced to this day in the City implies that their religious beliefs have never been totally lost. On the contrary, their beliefs have survived the harshest of times after the events during the Second World War (Poston, Martin & Goodman, 1992, p. 102).
These economic and religious practices have reinforced the cultural identities of both Jewish Russians and Mexican through the years. It can also be said the other way around—the cultural practices which have resulted from these economic and religious practices have also reinforced the religious and economic practices of both Jewish Russians and Mexicans. It is their ability to continue thriving and giving value to their cultural and religious identities and practices while addressing the need to mingle with an entirely foreign culture and society. It is their ability to differentiate the foreign culture from their own which allowed them to still have the capacity to give due significance to their own Jewish Russian and Mexican identities. It is their ability to group together as a community and mingle with one another in these immigrant communities which accorded them the capacity to separate and distinguish themselves from the rest of the New York City crowds.
In essence, the early Jewish Russian and Mexican immigrants were faced with the challenge of adopting the foreign culture and religion and adapting to the foreign environment while temporarily losing their identities in order to survive. By doing so, they were able to establish their own communities for their children and their children’s children and the other immigrants who soon followed through the years. In the decades that followed, these immigrants were able to revive their culture and religion in New York City and even venture into business which, consequently, added to the reinforcements to their religious and cultural identities.
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