Students learn about the effects of immigration on American history and culture with a variety of resources for each grade level.
To the Discussion Leader
The time is the early 1900s, and the place is the Lower East Side of Manhattan where more than 350,000 Jewish immigrants lived within two square miles. In eighteen months of diary entries, twelve-year-old Zippy Feldman shares her joys and pains as she and her family adjust to life in America.
Through Zippy's older sister, Tovah, young readers learn about the abuses of workers in the sweat shops and the resulting union movement. Through Papa Feldman they'll see dreams come true when his talents as a violinist are recognized and he plays with the symphony in Carnegie Hall. Mama Feldman offers readers the image of an immigrant with one foot in the old world and one in the new. Mama is the family's link to the past — tradition, religion, celebrations.
Zippy's diary is an album filled with verbal snapshots of the Jewish immigrant experience, including pictures of the old world with Cossack soldiers and their pogroms to destroy the Jews, the Yiddish theater, and family photos of an unsuccessful matchmaker and a sister who falls in love with a gentile. You'll find portraits of crowded tenement living with people sleeping on the roof to escape the heat. And there are pictures of family celebrations and religious traditions from Rosh Hashanah to Hanukkah.
"My name is Zipporah Feldman, Zippy for short. I am Jewish. I am twelve... I weigh eighty-nine pounds on the kosher butcher scale... I am coming to America. No, not coming. I am finally here. And I am just now starting this diary... I am writing it in Yiddish, but I swear on the blessed memory of my grandmother that a year from now I shall be writing in English." Zippy writes these words on September 1, 1903 as she and her mama and sisters wait on Ellis Island to be admitted into the United States.
Within hours of her arrival, however, Zippy is not sure if this new country will be worth the wait or the effort. The home her father proudly leads them to is a narrow, foul-smelling tenement apartment with a shared lavatory in the hallway. Zippy's situation and her outlook continue to deteriorate as she begins school. "I have never felt more completely lost. And humiliated, far beyond blushing. Why? Because they put me in... the first-grade classroom... This is what they do for immigrant children who don't speak English." Within days, however, Zippy's mood soars when another girl — even taller than she is — arrives at school. Together Zippy and her new friend, Blu Wolf, vow that they will be in seventh grade with the other twelve-year-olds by the end of the year.
Later, Zippy reflects on some of the changes she has seen. Tovah, her oldest sister, is head of a union and obsessed with protecting the vulnerable immigrants who slave in Manhattan's sweatshops. Miriam lives up on 110th Street and is married to Sean O'Malley, the handsome young Catholic who lit the family's lamps on the Sabbath. Mamie, a young woman who has befriended the Feldmans, is one of a hundred killed in the Diamond Shirtwaist Factory fire. And to top it all off, Mama, the greenhorn, is partners in a thriving clothing business and Papa is once again performing with an orchestra. Some of the greatest transformations occur within Zippy, however, as she develops her skills as an actress.
Throughout her diary, Zippy remains hopeful even though her life is filled with endless and frequently painful changes. Old friends, old habits, old traditions pass away only to be replaced by new ones. "I think this is a very strange sort of story. It begins with an ending, the ending of our life in Russia, and it ends with a beginning... Sometimes one cannot tell the beginning from the ending and this is not necessarily bad for if one really knew one might not have the courage to go on... I am sure there will be many more beginnings and endings and I hope I shall never be quite sure which is which."
Thinking About the Book
- Why did Jewish immigrants like Zippy Feldman and her family leave their Russian homeland to come to America? What were pogroms? Why did the immigrants think of the United States as the Golden Country?
- What did you like most about Zippy's mother and father? What did you like least about each of them?
- Tovah works hard to start a union so that factory workers will be treated better. What are some examples from Zippy's diary that show the poor treatment of workers in the sweat shops?
- Religious traditions and celebrations were a very important part of the Feldman family life. Why do you think they were so important?
- Kathryn Lasky, the author of Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, A Jewish Immigrant Girl, tells us that her own Jewish immigrant ancestors really valued education and learning English. Does Zippy Feldman have that same passion for learning? Explain.
- If you had a chance to change one thing in this book, what would it be and why?
- Imagine the difficulty of starting school and not understanding anything the teacher or the other students say. Discuss the way you would feel on your first day in that school, then write a diary entry from your point of view.
- Jewish traditions and celebrations are an important part of Zippy's life and her diary. Have each member of your discussion group find out about one of the following and report back:
- Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen is a book about a Russian Jewish immigrant girl who comes to America. It was made into an award-winning video. Read the book or watch the movie of Molly's Pilgrim and compare Molly's experiences with Zippy's.
- In Zippy's diary, Mamie is killed in the Diamond Shirtwaist Factory fire. This fictional disaster is based on the actual Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in which 146 workers died. See what you can find out about this tragic fire.
- Kathryn Lasky has written two books in the Dear America series dealing with the immigrant experience but at very different times in history. Read the first book, A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, and compare it with this one. Which book did you enjoy more? Why?
- What parts of Zippy's life are the same as yours? What is different? Make a Venn diagram comparing your life to Zippy's.
- One of the great photographers of the early 1900s was Lewis Hine. He used his pictures to show people the poor working conditions and dangers children were exposed to in the sweat shops. Look at Hine's photos in a book such as Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor by Russell Freedman. Do the pictures help you see why Tovah felt her work as a union organizer was so important?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.