Although I am by no definition a specialist in Jewish history, my undergraduate teaching has always incorporated the work of scholars researching Jewish migration. Beginning in the 1990s, my undergraduate teaching shifted from US history toward world history and thus away from courses with titles like “Immigration and American Diversity” and toward courses with titles like “Migration and Mobility in Global History.” This shift required me to draw from changing corners of Jewish Studies.
In the fairly conventional course on “Immigration and American Diversity” that I taught under varying titles in Europe and the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s, I selected two groups’ migrations to exemplify each of three main waves of immigration into the United States. For the second wave of “new immigrants,” arriving in the United States between 1880 and 1930, I usually encouraged students to explore and contrast the homeland experiences, migration patterns, and urban adjustment challenges of Jewish and Italian immigrants. Often enough, New York City provided a concrete focal point. As Nancy Green noted in her study of comparative methods in immigration history, this “converging comparison” tended to result in rather sharp contrasts of the groups compared, and students almost always imagined it was culture that drove the differences. The best students recognized other influences—for example, how the temporary and heavily male Italian labor migrations led to different family and work patterns than those found in Jewish family and refugee migrations. Comparison of Jewish and Italian migrants also revealed antisemitism and antiradicalism as differing and overlapping dimensions of American racism and xenophobia. Especially in the 1990s students pondered the origins of the very different gendering of Jewish socialist and Italian anarchist activists. At the same time, the comparison of two groups in one city meant that commonalities—in the form of clustering of Yiddish-, German-, and Italian-dialect speaking groups, and forms of institution building, such as newspapers—also came into focus.
Once I began teaching world history and undertook the writing and editing of a series of books on the world-wide migrations of people originating in the Italian peninsula, I found myself turning instead to the rich, interdisciplinary, and at times more theoretical work on Diasporas within Jewish Studies. Here, what Green called “diverging comparisons” became more salient, as did opportunities to explore the changing typologies and much longer temporality of the Jewish Diaspora, from early, biblical notions of exiles and to Zionism, Diaspora nationalism, and state building. Case studies of the Jewish Diaspora provided both an opportunity to explore critically Diaspora historiography (with graduate students) and a unique series of provocative comparisons (to Greeks, Africans, and Armenians) with undergraduate students.
Donna Gabaccia is professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book, Gender and International Migration: From the Slavery Era to the Global Age (co-authored with Katharine Donato, Russel Sage, 2015), received an honorable mention from the American Sociological Association’s Section on International Migration’s Thomas and Znaniecki Award.