Rose Cohen on the World Beyond her Immigrant Neighborhood (ca.1897/1918)

Rose Cohen was born in Russia in 1880 as Rahel Golub. She immigrated to the United States in 1892 and lived in a Russian Jewish neighborhood in New York’s Lower East Side. Her, she writes about her encounter with the world outside of her ethnic neighborhood.

Although almost five years had passed since I had started for America, it was only now that I caught a glimpse of it. For though I was in America I had lived in practically the same environment which we brought from home. Of course there was a difference in our joys, in our sorrows, in our hardships, for after all this was a different country; but on the whole we were still in our village in Russia. A child that came to this country and began to go to school had taken the first step into the New World. But the child that was put into the shop remained in the old environment with the old people, held back by the old traditions, held back by illiteracy. Often it was years before he could stir away from it, sometimes it would take a lifetime. Sometimes, too, it happened as in fairy tales, that a hand was held out to you and you were helped out.

In my own case it was through the illness which had seemed such a misfortune that I had stirred out of Cherry Street. But now that I had had a glimpse of the New World, a revolution took place in my whole being. I was filled with a desire to get away from the whole old order of things. And I went groping about blindly, stumbling, suffering and making others suffer. And then through the experience, intelligence and understanding of other beings a little light came to me and I was able to see that the Old World was not all dull and the new not all glittering. And then I was able to stand between the two, with a hand in each.

The first thing that I can recall after I came from the hospital, is a feeling of despondency. The rooms seemed smaller and dingier than they had been. In the evening the lamp burned more dimly. And there was a general look of hopelessness over everything. It was in every face, it was in every corner of our dull home as well as in all the other homes that I saw. It was in every sound that came in from the street, in every sigh that I heard in the house. I saw the years stretching ahead of me, always the same, and I wept bitterly. I had never been so aware of it all.

In the shop where I found work now it was as at home. As I looked at the men I could not help comparing them with those other men. To the little insinuating jokes and stories I listened now, not with resignation as before but with anger. “Why should this be? Why should they talk like that?” And I was filled with a blinding dislike for the whole class of tailors.

But I did not give my entire thought to what I saw about me. As the days passed I became aware that I was waiting for something, for what I could scarcely say. Away in the back of my head there was this thought, “Surely this would not end here. Would this be all I would see of that other world outside of Cherry Street?” And I waited from day to day.

In the meantime I filled up the days at work with dreaming of that other life I had seen. I thought a good deal about that fine old man the minister. His words and his voice had remained fresh in my mind. Of course I must not breathe a word at home about him, about the New Testament. This necessity for secrecy soon led to other little secret thoughts and actions. It soon occurred to me, “Why should I not read the New Testament if I want to? Why should I not do anything I like? If four months ago father thought me old enough to get married, then I am certainly old enough now to decide things for myself.” So I stopped consulting mother and began to do little things independently. It was not hard to do this for during the three months I had grown away from home a good deal and now with the thought of my experience in which they had no part, every day I was slipping away little by little.

Mother noticed and her eyes looked troubled but I did not understand their meaning. Father had tightened the reins of authority and I only tried the harder to writhe myself free. My only thought now was of myself and the world outside of home and Cherry Street. But underneath all this perversity and selfishness I can see now, as I look back, a deep longing to see, to know, to understand.

Source: Rose Cohen, Out of the Shadow (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918), 246-248. Available online via Google Books (