by Noah Becker
Research for this piece was conducted in the archives of the New York Public Library. Thanks to Jane Ira Bloom and Evan Leslie for their coordination efforts and production assistance.
Castle Garden is a reflection on the lives of Jewish immigrants who migrated to New York in the 19th and 20th centuries, drawing parallels between their experiences and the struggles that immigrants face in America today. The piece explores themes of assimilation, such as learning a new language and adopting a new culture; self-rejection and shame, as products of perpetual feelings of remoteness; the importance of family, community, and nostalgia for the homeland; and the painful idea that for many, immigration is not itself the escape: The real escape begins upon arrival, when one's identity as an immigrant becomes that which they desire to shake off.
Castle Garden was New York's, and America's, first large-scale immigration processing center, predating Ellis Island by about 40 years. It is both symbolic of a time before "birther" politics and general xenophobia had taken hold in America, when many still viewed immigration in a positive light; and of the unwelcoming environment for immigrants since, for at least the last hundred years. From their experiences there, Yiddish-speaking Jews coined the term kesselgarten to describe any situation that was disorderly, clamorous or confusing—an accurate reflection, some might say, of American politics and public discourse on immigration issues today. Castle Garden addresses and explores these historical experiences and evolutions of attitude.