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June 15, 2011
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v2.1 Reference

Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear

Letters from Jewish Migrants in the Early Twentieth Century

Between 1875 and 1924, more than 2.7 million Jews from Eastern Europe left their home countries in the hopes of escaping economic subjugation and religious persecution and creating better lives overseas. Although many studies have addressed how these millions of men, women, and children were absorbed into their destination countries, very little has been written on the process of deciding to migrate. In Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear: Letters from Jewish Migrants in the Early Twentieth Century, author Gur Alroey fills this gap by considering letters written by Eastern European Jews embarking on their migration.

Alroey begins with a comprehensive introduction that describes the extent and unique characteristics of Jewish migration during this period, discusses the establishment of immigrant information bureaus, and analyzes some of the specific aspects of migration that are reflected in the letters. In the second part of the book, Alroey translates and annotates 66 letters from Eastern European Jews considering migration. From the letters, readers learn firsthand of the migrants' fear of making a decision; their desire for advice and information before they took the fateful step; the gnawing anxiety of women whose husbands had already sailed for America and who were waiting impatiently for a ticket to join them; women whose husbands had disappeared in America and had broken off contact with their families; pogroms (documented in real time); and the obstacles and hardships on the way to the port of exit, as described by people who had already set out.

Through the letters in Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear readers will follow the dilemmas and predicaments of the ordinary Jewish migrant, the difficulties of migration, and the changes that it brought about within the Jewish family. Scholars of Jewish studies and those interested in American and European history will appreciate this landmark volume.

About the Author

Gur Alroey is professor of Jewish history in modern times at the University of Haifa. He is also author of The Immigrants: The Jewish Immigration to Palestine in the Early Twentieth Century, The Quiet Revolution: The Jewish Emigration from the Russian Empire in the Early Twentieth Century, and "Homeland Seekers": The Jewish Territorialism Organization (JTO) and the Zionist movement, 1905–1925.


"Students of history and the social sciences, as well as amateur genealogists, will appreciate the one-act dramas contained in the letters Alroey has rescued from obscurity. These letters ground historical events in a concrete reality, give faceless statistics individuality and suggest stories behind names on ships' manifests."—Adam Rovner, Forward

"At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, millions of Eastern European Jews found migration the antidote of choice to poverty and persecution. Those intending to depart wanted questions answered and anxieties calmed. Their welfare and that of their families was at stake. They wrote letters to immigration bureaus established by Jewish philanthropic organizations. Gur Alroey's translation of sixty-six of these letters opens a fresh window for scholars and students on this modern day exodus. His volume will find a special place on the book shelves of all those engaged with the Jewish migration experience."—Alan Kraut

"Thanks to the author's thoroughness and willingness to examine not merely conditions in the Old Country and in the New, but also the interstitial, sometimes intangible moment in between, the insights that can be gained from this captivating and informative book will benefit both scholars of Jewish history and the general reader."—Sonja Mekel

"Will benefit both scholars of Jewish history and the general reader."—Sonja Mekel, H-Net Reviews

"Alroey unpacks the great Eastern European Jewish migration to America (and lesser in number, to Palestine) through what scholars are always complaining is missing: the voices of the 'ordinary' women and men who went through the process."—Hasia R. Diner, Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at Nyu

"Gur Alroey´s Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear dramatically expands our understanding of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience by providing the reader with a firsthand glimpse of the trials and tribulations facing migrating Jews from Tsarist Russia. Through an evocative and never-before-published collection of letters penned in Yiddish and Hebrew by Jewish migrants, Alroey enables the reader to see the political, emotional, financial, and psychological dilemmas faced by Jews as they ventured overseas to start their lives anew. Moreover, these astonishing primary documents also offer up an intimate view of gender relations in marriage as husbands went ahead of their wives and children to secure a better future; and at times, as many wives feared, to break free from the shackles of family life."—Rebecca Kobrin, Knapp Assistant Professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University

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