The Immigrant Experience: NYC Events Celebrating New Americans

By Troy Segal

Would you be brave enough to leave your homeland and travel thousands of miles to a strange new place — on the chance you could better your lot? These upcoming NYC events, talks and exhibits all deal with aspects of the émigré experience, saluting those who braved a brave new world on these shores.


Helena Rubinstein with African mask, c. 1935. Helena Rubinstein Foundation archive, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, Special Collections. Photograph by George Maillard Kesslere.

Life Stories: Once upon a time, there was a humble farm boy who emigrated from Norway to the U.S., made a fortune in the gold rush, and ended up founding a great center of learning — namely, the University of California at Berkeley. Hear this true-life fairy tale, which unfolds at Scandinavia House: The Nordic Center in America on Oct. 27 … Helena Rubinstein’s life reads like the quintessential American success story: Daughter of a poor Polish shopkeeper, she emigrates to the U.S. and becomes a successful business woman/household name. Curators of the Jewish Museum lead a guided tour of the exhibition Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power, which examines the life, career and art collection of the formidable cosmetics entrepreneur, Nov. 3.


Captured on Film: The Pilgrims — the original American immigrants — and the 70-year history of Plymouth Colony come under the filmmaking eye of Ric Burns (above; New York: A Documentary Film) during this discussion, sprinkled with clips, Nov. 1 at the New-York Historical Society … Goodbye doesn’t mean forever: After prospering in America, some immigrants returned to the old country, to visit those who stayed behind. An array of home movies taken by Polish Jews during such reunions in the 1920s and ’30s has been arranged by artist/filmmaker Péter Forgács into a multimedia exhibit, Letters to Afar, which just opened at the Museum of the City of New York (thru Mar. 22) … More Jewish-themed Forgács films are being screened during a daylong retrospective on Nov. 2 at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which co-sponsored the MCNY show, culminating in an evening discussion with the filmmaker himself.


Fictional Recreations: A new novel, Chinese Yankee, unfolds the amazing-but-actual biography of Thomas Sylvanus, aka Ah Yee Way, a runaway Chinese slave who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. Author Ruthanne Lum McCunn elaborates, Nov. 8 at the Museum of Chinese in America … Want to know what life was like on the Lower East Side, where so many immigrants congregated? You can ask actors impersonating three generations and nationalities of newcomers “residing” at 97 Orchard Street, nowadays the site of the Tenement Museum, during interactive tours Nov. 16 & Dec. 21.