Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Island Within

Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.

Ludwig Lewisohn is nearly forgotten today, but in his day he was a literary celebrity. He was so well-known, in fact, that his marital scandals—multiple divorces, accusation of bigamy, flight to Europe with a 20-years-younger woman, second wedding interrupted by an hysterical jilted lover—made national headlines. Through it all he kept writing, publishing 35 books by the time of his death in 1955. A passionate champion of Zionism and sexual freedom, Lewisohn was equally zealous to promote “Jewish self-realization.” His novel The Island Within (1928), based on Lewisohn’s own Jewish reawakening, was a polemical summons for American Jews to return to their “native tradition.”

Born in Germany in 1882 to “Jews of unmixed blood” (in his own words), Lewisohn was raised as a Methodist in Charleston, South Carolina. After being told by his graduate advisor at Columbia “how terribly hard it is for a man of Jewish birth to get a good position,” he abandoned his dream of becoming an English professor and became a writer instead—novelist, critic, autobiographer. A journey to Palestine in 1925, taken on the advice of Chaim Weitzmann, caused him to embark upon “the great study” of Jewish civilization, and among the first fruits was The Island Within.


The novel leads one Jewish family through four generations to an overwhelming question: “Why not, since one was a Jew and had to live Jewishly, get—in vulgar but sensible parlance—the maximum good out of one’s Jewishness, one’s racial poetry, one’s ancestral history?” The Levy family story begins in Vilna in 1840 with a melamed or Hebrew-school teacher who has a “dark secret.” Despite belonging “to the order of the learned and the holy,” he is “dry of heart,” with neither glow nor fervor to his prayers. Mendel longs for the forbidden knowledge of nature and geometry.

When he is offered a job as a traveling agent for a rich and secularized brandy distiller, Mendel accepts in order to have the means to give his wife a velvet dress and “maybe in time a silver menorah for the Sabbath!” The job leaves him no time for reading and study, however, and he grows nostalgic for “his little school, for the icy evenings in the library of the synagogue, for the warmer contacts and argumentative exercises of the beth hamidrash.” Worse yet, his son Ephraim leaves yeshivah, “the Talmudic university,” shaves off his earlocks, discards the “long coat of the orthodox,” adopts the latest German fashions, and goes to work for the distiller, marrying his daughter and rising to become his “right-hand man.” Ephraim sees no reason to regret his actions. “Were not new Jewish voices coming out of the west?” he asks. “Could not one be a European and a Jew?”

The pattern is set by which the Levys slough off the Jewish religion. The first half of The Island Within chronicles the first 75 years of the process. Ephraim’s son Jacob immigrates to the U.S. and establishes a thriving furniture business, becoming more German than American, because German culture signified the romance of modernity: “But this, too, was, though he did not know it, a kind of Americanization.” It is his son Arthur—Ephraim’s grandson, Mendel’s great-grandson—who is the first thoroughly American, the first thoroughly modern, man in the family. His very name represents how far the Levys have progressed in abandoning their “ancestral consciousness.”

The second half of the novel is devoted to Arthur’s story. A cool and aloof rationalist, Arthur trains to become a Freudian psychiatrist, imbued with the highest principles of science and morality. He quits the staff of a Hospital for the Insane over the abuse of patients (“God — damn — interfering — KIKES,” a colleague seethes upon learning of his complaints); he opens a private practice in New York. Around 1918 or 1919, Arthur Levy meets Elizabeth Knight at his cousin’s apartment. A beautiful young journalist who is active in the suffrage movement, she is the daughter of a Campbellite preacher. Elizabeth describes herself as a “lost soul.” Arthur should run like the wind, but instead he marries her. They have a child together before he finally admits to himself that theirs is a mésalliance.

The problem, as Arthur explains to Elizabeth, is that they belong to different kinds:You’re saved, Elizabeth, because you live in a stream of tradition that is native to you. The stream changes. You don’t believe what your father believes. The intellectual processes and assents are different. But the stream is the same. You are an American Protestant. Your divergences from your ancestors are normal divergences within the native tradition of your race and blood and historic experience. But I and many like me have tried to live as though we were American Protestants or, at least, the next best thing to that. And we’re not. And the real American Protestants know we’re not. And so we live in a void, in a spiritual vacuum.Arthur goes on to say that there is no human being “who isn’t outwardly and inwardly some kind of a human being.” There is no being human without classification; or, as the multiculturalists might say, without identity. Lewisohn’s language is, at least in part, the clumsy idiom of his day: “race and blood.” (Not that our day is any more coherent on the subject.) But the remaining part of Lewisohn’s language is provocative and promising. The kind of person that a person is is determined by her “native tradition”—the stream of ideas in which she is baptized—and the “historic experience” of others of her kind. Whether she is Christian or Jewish, for example, is more important than whether she is shy, outgoing, fun, mean, immature, dramatic, or nice.

While Elizabeth lives in a “stream of tradition that is native to [her],” Arthur has nothing of the sort. His family has succeeded in uprooting him from Jewish tradition—and not only him, but an entire population, which had sought the “protective mimicry” of blending in with their Christian neighbors rather than leading Jewish lives. “Jews like himself who denied any tradition or character of their own,” he reflects, “were really trying to do a thing that was unhuman, that no one else was trying to do.”

And so Arthur “goes back to the Jews,” although neither he nor Lewisohn are clear on just what the going back involves. He separates from Elizabeth, and decides to accompany a fact-finding commission to Rumania “to investigate the condition of the Jewish communities there,” but after that? Will he undertake to master a Jewish language? Study the Talmud? Emigrate to Palestine? His plans are unclear. Stephen S. Wise called Lewisohn’s novel an answer to the assimilationist ideology of the melting pot (an early anticipation of multiculturalism’s “salad bowl” of ethnic identities), but other than the simple act of identification, his return to the Jews is entirely negative, a mere rejection of his long effort to assimilate into the Christian majority and deny the fact of his Jewishness. “I didn’t have to resurrect the Jew,” Arthur tells his wife. “I just put away a pretense—a stubborn, hard, protective pretense.”

His brother-in-law makes a far more promising choice. After briefly leaving his wife and daughter, Eli returns and asks to be taken back. But only if Hazel agrees to “move to a Jewish neighborhood” and “have some more children” and “be a Jewish wife same as her mother or mine.” If she promises to do that, she will never have again anything to complain about him. “And I want my children to be brought up as observant Jews, same as I was,” he adds, “no matter what they believe.” Hazel even suggests that they “join a nice congregation.”


When it was published in 1928, The Island Within seemed like a revolutionary document. The New York Times book reviewer John Chamberlain wondered if it were the best novel of the decade. That would be the decade of The Age of Innocence, An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and The Sound and the Fury. No matter how interesting it is in the history of Jewish ideas, though, the honest truth is that The Island Within is not much of a novel.

Lewisohn starts each new section of the book with a sermonic essay written in the tones of a pundit (“Big business and the theory of cultural solidarity, Henry Ford and Nordic supremacy, have always been united on the ground of practical politics”). And though it contains many interesting sociological details of Jewish life in America before the Great Depression, for much of its length The Island Within is a narrative only in the sense that one stage of the family history follows an earlier in chronological order.

Finally there is the style. Lewisohn’s deepest literary influences were the German romantics, and they show. His central terms are vague evocations of deep, nearly inarticulate feeling. His celebrations of sexual fulfillment and the nobility of “creative expression” are embarrassingly ornate, as if Lewisohn consigned them to the decorative arts. As Alfred Kazin astutely said in On Native Grounds, Lewisohn’s rhetoric was “self-indulgent” and carried “to the point of self-ridicule.” It is difficult to wade through the oracular dicta to reach the good sense at the heart of his thinking.

And even as a significant moment in the history of Jewish “return,” The Island Within is ultimately disappointing. Lewisohn could not imagine moving to a Jewish neighborhood, joining a nice congregation, and asking his wife—one of them, at least—to be a Jewish mother. Half a century after Lewisohn’s novel was published, thousands of young American Jews would arrive at crossroads similar to that of Arthur Levy’s, rediscovering and celebrating their ethnic origins as part of a nationwide search for “roots.” Most had never heard of Lewisohn, although he might have taught them (if nothing else) that their happiness depended upon reenrolling in the Jewish people. For what to do next, however, they would have to consult another source.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bread Givers

Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.

Books for women have been a distinct and popular variety of Jewish literature at least since the early seventeenth century, when Ts’ena Ur’ena, a Yiddish “woman’s Bible” embellished with amazing tales and pointed lessons, started its ascent to become the most widely read Jewish book for the next 300 years. In America, the first writer to tap into this deep well was the Polish-born Anzia Yezierska (ca. 1882–1970). Her 1925 novel Bread Givers, frequently misinterpreted as a feminist attack upon Jewish patriarchy, is in fact the most successful attempt ever undertaken to reproduce in another language the half-serious, half-sensationalist brand of popular Yiddish fiction.

It is easy enough to understand why Bread Givers should have earned a reputation as a Jewish Room of One’s Own. Yezierska tells the story of the four Smolinsky sisters, each of whom “let go her chance of fixing up her happiness because of Father’s unforgiving pride.” Except for Sara, that is. The youngest of the four and the book’s narrator, she slips the paternal yoke and eventually realizes her modest ambition “to make myself for a person and come among people.”

The father, Reb Moisheh Smolinsky, is a batlen, the Hebrew-Yiddish term for an unworldly man who devotes all his time to the study of holy books. His villainy consists in expecting his daughters not only to support him but to endure his preaching when they drag themselves home after a day’s work. “More and more,” Sara laments, “I began to see Father, in his innocent craziness to hold up the Light of the Law to his children, was a tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia.”

The father exercises his tyranny by chasing off the daughters’ suitors. Bessie, the eldest, known as “the burden bearer” for supporting the household on her wages from a clothing shop, brings home the head cutter who earns “six, sometimes seven dollars a week” and dreams of becoming a manufacturer, like David Levinsky. Generously he declares to her father that he wants Bessie “like she is, without a dowry.”

“Why don’t you ask me first what I want?” cried Father. “Don’t forget when she gets married, who’ll carry me the burden from this house? She earns me the biggest wages. With Bessie I can be independent. I don’t have to grab the first man that wants her. I can wait yet a few years.”Rejecting the cutter, he weds Bessie instead to an elderly widower, a fish monger with six children. Soon she finds herself working in his store, her thin arms covered with “gummy scales,” fighting for her life with “the bargaining yentehs.”

The pattern (and the heartbreak) is repeated twice more. Mashah, called “Empty-head” because she “lived in the pleasure she got from her beauty as Father lived in his Holy Torah,” is adored by a young pianist from a wealthy family, while Fania is wooed by an impoverished Yiddish poet who inscribes lyrics in her honor. All their father sees in them are “a meshumid [apostate] who plays on the Sabbath” and a “schnorrer [beggar] who writes . . . love letters on wrapping paper.” Arranging matches instead with two men he imagines to be rich and suitable husbands, he is proven wrong in both cases.

That leaves Sara, called Blood-and-Iron for the stubbornness of her will. She does not wait around for Father to marry her off. “You made the lives of the other children!” she shouts in his face. “I’m going to make my own life!” And so she does—finding work as a presser, saving money for college, and returning home with the prestigious credential of a schoolteacher.


It is small wonder that Yezierska’s novel, turning on the contrast between the self-redeeming Sara and her “life-weary” older sisters, might appeal so strongly to a feminist like the one who praised it for recording “the destructiveness of a culture in which women are ‘Bread Givers,’ serving men so that they may serve God.” And despite the hyperbole, there is reason to be grateful to them, because it was feminist critics who sponsored the novel’s rediscovery and reprinting in 1975, fifty years after its original publication. Yet the saga of a father’s tyranny and a daughter’s liberation is not a political statement, not a critique of women’s place in traditional Judaism, but a plot, a means of parceling out dramatic scenes to move readers to fear and pity.

Although arranged marriages were a fact of life in medieval Jewry (“Parents were never censured—indeed, they were praised,” writes the late historian Jacob Katz—“for arranging a match for daughters of thirteen and fourteen and sons of fifteen or sixteen, and even for marrying off their children at such young ages”), by the first quarter of the twentieth century they had become more a literary than a social convention. So, too, with the figure of the tyrannical father. Toward the end of Bread Givers, Reb Moisheh dissolves in self-pity: “With all I have done for my daughters—the morals I soaked into them, the religion I preached into them from the day they were born—yet they leave me in my old age, as they left King Lear. . . .” The comparison is apt. Reb Moisheh Smolinsky is a tragic and memorable figure, oversized and raging like Shakespeare’s great king. But when it comes to actuality, Sholem Aleichem’s no-less-stylized portrait of hapless Tevye and his daughters’ quest for fulfillment offers a truer insight into modernity’s impact upon a Jewish father’s authority.

According to a recent critic, Bread Givers “comes out of a tradition of ethnic immigrant literature, documenting the experiences of European Jews in New York City in the beginning decades of the twentieth century.” Reader, rejoice: Bread Givers provides documentary evidence of nothing. The novel has its feet planted solidly in the Yiddish tradition of farvaylung-literatur (entertainment literature), which from the very beginning, as in the novels of I. M. Dik (1808–1893), never strictly separated the sheer delight of storytelling from moral didacticism.

Abraham Cahan’s Rise of David Levinsky has been called the first Yiddish novel in America, although it was written and published in English. The title more deservedly goes to Yezierska’s 1925 masterpiece. Far more effectively than any other American novelist—and that includes Henry Roth and Bernard Malamud—Yezierska, who was born in Russian Poland and emigrated to the United States around the age of twelve or thirteen, captures the rhythms of Yiddish syntax. Her English is a first-generation English: the sentence structure bends under the weight of her native Yiddish. The recovery of Yiddish in later English-language writers is strikingly different: while the vocabulary may reach for Yiddish, the syntax remains natively English.

But Yezierska’s mame-loshn (mother tongue) is Yiddish. Not only do her characters speak with a Yiddish inflection. The narrative voice also slips into a Yiddish lilt. The principal difference is in the use of prepositions, which will be immediately recognizable to anyone with ultra-Orthodox friends who grew up in Brooklyn with Yiddish as a first language. We stayed by them rather than with them, a Yiddish speaker will say. But the word-order also betrays the non-native speaker of English. “How could I come into their homes,” Sara asks when she is away at college (Yezierska herself attended the University of Wisconsin), “exchange with them my thoughts, break with them bread at their tables?” An American, who grew up monolingual in English, would defer the phrases with them till after the nouns.

In its language and literary background, Bread Givers may just be the most Jewish novel in American literature. And it helps to know that a little preaching, about women’s place in Judaism if not about Jewish law, is a conventional and expected feature of a ripping good Jewish yarn. But you need not mistake Reb Moisheh Smolinsky for an actual Jewish patriarch to be vastly entertained by Anzia Yezierska’s lively and inspiriting novel.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Fugitive

Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.

Popular Jewish fiction in America began to absorb other Jewish literary models at a surprisingly early date. Ezra Brudno’s novel The Fugitive, published in 1904 by Doubleday, Page, is a pioneering American example of what Alan Mintz calls the “novel of apostasy.” A sprawling first-person chronicle written in the style of 19th-century Hebrew fiction and autobiography, it recounts an Eastern European childhood of poverty and persecution, a narrow and harsh early Jewish education, the arrival of sin (represented by sex and Spinoza), and the scrape with modernity that ends in an irreversible loss of faith. Brudno also tosses in a blood libel, the influence of the Jewish Enlightenment [Haskalah] and Zionism, and the first account in English-language fiction of a pogrom.

Ezra Selig Brudno was born in Volozhin, Lithuania—home of the famous yeshivah—in 1877. Descended from a distinguished rabbinical family (his great-grandfather had studied with the Vilna Gaon), he emigrated to the U.S. as a child, attended Yale and Western Reserve Universities, and practiced law in Cleveland where he became an assistant district attorney and was known as a Progressive Republican.

The theme of The Fugitive can be summarized as “Once a Jew, always a Jew.” The protagonist, Israel Abramovitch, becomes an orphan when his father is lynched for the ritual murder of a Christian child and his mother soon dies of grief and exhaustion. After a fire destroys his native shtetl, Israel becomes a wanderer. Beaten unconscious by Lithuanian swineherds, he is taken in and nursed back to health by a Christian magistrate, only to be sent packing upon discovery with the magistrate’s blonde daughter. A brief spell in the yeshivah at Javolin (a phonetic anagram of Volozhin), cut short when “forbidden books,” including Spinoza’s Ethics, are found in his room, leads to his forming the ambition of becoming a doctor. Embarking on his studies in Kiev, he runs into the magistrate’s daughter and undertakes to convert for her sake.

But Israel’s plans are disrupted by the May 1881 pogrom, which destroys the city’s entire Jewish district. Concluding that Russia holds no future for him, he heads West, eventually finding his way to America. Once there he labors in a sweatshop, gets himself arrested as an anarchist, and finally goes to work for a Christian missionary who puts him through medical school in return for literary services. In New York he is again reunited with the magistrate’s daughter and marries her—without benefit of conversion.

Unlike Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal, The Fugitive is not a romance of intermarriage. Rather, Israel and his girl have passed beyond Christian-Jewish enmity into what, in a dream-vision, he has glimpsed as a joint “symbolism of the innocent blood.” Just as the martyred Jesus is “the symbol of His people,” so too are the victims of blood libels and pogroms the symbols of the Jews. For Israel to marry an innocent Christian girl is thus not only to find happiness but to accept his own symbolic status as a Jew.

If a modern reader is unlikely to warm to Brudno’s vision (“Side by side[,] the life of the Crucified and the life of my race among the nations”), the reason may be that the Kiev pogrom is the most powerful scene in the novel. “The street,” writes Brudno, “was filled with gesticulating, brawling peasants, who gave vent to volleys of oaths as only descendants of Tartars know how, and rapaciously attacked Jewish shops and dwellings.” A piano is pushed from a second-story window. On the floor above, a peasant leans out, swinging an infant by its feet and shouting, “Catch it! Catch it!”:

    “Ho! ho! ho! ho!” cheered hundreds from the crowd below. “Throw down the Jewish brat!”
    With the exultation of conquest the screeching babe was flung high in the air, like a ball, and it came down upon the pavement with a splash of blood that bespattered the bystanders.
Two rioters drag an old man by his feet down the road, “the Jew’s white hair sweeping the stones of the pavement and painting their sharp edges red with flowing blood.”

Israel himself is a victim of this pogrom, nearly killed in trying to prevent the rape of a Jewish maiden. Two months later, convalescing in the home of a friend, he hears about Zionism for the first time. His friend explains why he has decided to leave Europe for Palestine:The nations that teach love in the name of the crucified Jew do not practice it. They never practice it. The Crusaders, the auto-da-fé, the Russian knout, the German press—they are all pursuing the same end in the name of Christian brotherhood.And yet, though his “conscience and self-esteem as a Jew” have been “aroused by the recent massacre,” Israel cannot join his friend, turning his face instead to the New World.

In short, Brudno seems to have conceived his book as a piece of propaganda for cultural assimilation. But in undermining its thesis with starkly contrary evidence, as well as in its ease with Jewish religion, Jewish sources, and Jewish idiom, the novel’s effect outruns its conception and establishes its lasting importance as a precursor to such better known (and more accomplished) works as The Rise of David Levinsky and Call It Sleep. Not incidentally, The Fugitive also serves as a useful reminder of a perennially relevant fact: Jews in the United States have never been terrorized by blood libel or pogrom.

Other Things Being Equal

Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.

When was American Jewish fiction born? The credit usually goes to Nathan Mayer’s Civil War novel Differences, published by Bloch in 1867. But a more likely date is 1892, when the Christian-owned house of A. C. McClurg released the first American novel written by a Jew, on a Jewish subject, but aimed at a general audience. Other Things Being Equal is a romance of intermarriage. Its author, Emma Wolf, 27 at the time of publication, was a wheelchair-bound San Franciscan and the spinster daughter of a well-to-do tobacco merchant from Alsace.

While Differences made small impact and is nearly impossible to find today, Other Things Being Equal was so popular that it remained in print for more than two decades. The first edition went through six printings between 1892 and 1901; in 1916, Wolf revised the text and McClurg republished it. Hundreds of readers wrote to thank her for having “untangled a knotty problem.” She would later say she had no idea how many marriages her novel was responsible for.

Wolf’s theme is announced in the novel’s opening pages. A family cousin asks the main character why her parents “mix so much with Christians.” The reply: “Fellow-feeling, I suppose. We all dance and talk alike; and as we do not hold [religious] services at receptions, wherein lies the difference?” The Jews and Christians of her class—San Francisco’s fashionable, gilded class—“have had the same schooling, speak the same language, read the same books, are surrounded by the same elements of home refinement.” And since class is stronger than religion in America, wherein indeed lies the difference?

Other Things Being Equal contests the notion that there is any. Ruth Levice, a tall girl with a “pure Madonna face” and something “almost Oriental” about her, is the 22-year-old daughter of a rich San Francisco merchant. As the novel opens, her mother has exhausted herself through arduous social obligations, and the worried family has summoned Dr. Herbert Kemp, a 35-year-old specialist in nervous diseases with the “highest reputation for skill.”

On his visits to oversee her mother’s “food and rest cure,” Kemp chats with Ruth about this and that. One time the talk turns to the Jews. Kemp expresses admiration for the “race.” Ruth thanks him: “I am proud of many Jewish traits,” she says. But Kemp is confused. He has noticed that, while Jews “hold the balance of power in the musical and histrionic worlds,” they “do not seem to have made much headway in the other branches of art.” She replies with a parable about a Rose of Sharon, which faded when removed from the Holy Land. When the pious watered it with tears of ecstasy, however, the “petals sprang up, flushed into life.” Ruth repeats the moral she has learned from her rabbi: “In the light of toleration and love, we too have revived, we too are looking up.”

Kemp is touched. And so the “peculiar, inexplicable feeling of mutual understanding” grows between him and Ruth, which gradually deepens into love. (Wolf’s chief narrative problem is filling the time while it does so.) Finally, at a summer resort in the mountains, he asks her to marry him. “If you really want me,” she says without hesitation.

But her father is not so eager. “Child, you are a Jewess,” he says, and “Dr. Kemp is a Christian.” (A Unitarian, to be exact.) “What difference can that make,” she asks, “since we love each other?” She has never considered the religious gulf as anything more than a “mere passing shadow.” Asking her to think about that gulf now, her father urges to ponder “every sacrifice, social and religious, it enforces.” But, she counters, has not he himself taught her “to look upon my Christian friends as upon my Jewish”? And does he not admit Dr. Kemp to be “irreproachable from every standpoint?”

Mr. Levice is not an Orthodox Jew. He is a Reform Jew, but not merely an adherent; he is a propagandist for Reform. It is far too late in the day to summon the force of religious law. And as for mere outward “forms,” Ruth observes, “you, Father, have bred in me contempt for all but a few.” Still, she assures him that she is not going to renounce her native religion, even as her husband-to-be has no intention of renouncing his. Mutual respect will be the rule. As the “irreproachable” Dr. Kemp himself tells her father, “[I]f my wife would permit me to go with her upon her holidays to your beautiful Temple, no one would listen more reverently than I.”

The compromise they propose would become familiar in later decades as the Jewish rate of intermarriage soared: a little bit of Judaism, a little bit of Christianity, and everybody is happy—or, at least, nobody is offended or expected to do very much. In 1892, however, the idea was unthinkable to organized Judaism. Even the Reform movement continued to oppose intermarriage, although upon what grounds was unclear.

On his deathbed, Mr. Levice comes around and blesses the union, reciting birkat habanim on the head of his future son-in-law. It is the one and only time in the novel that Wolf drops into a Jewish idiom.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is that it is addressed simultaneously to two audiences: those Christians for whom a certain lack of cultural refinement is “the inevitable mark of the [Jewish] race” and those Jews for whom objections to intermarriage are one of the “minor forms” of Jewish life that “are slowly dying out and will soon be remembered only historically.” On the latter point, Wolf makes no pretense of neutrality.

For Jewish readers, the vilification of traditional Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage will be most striking. The contemporary reviewer for American Jewess, a magazine which described itself as the only one in the world “devoted to the interests of Jewish women,” clearly understood this as the novel’s claim to originality:It is perhaps for the first time that an American writer ventures in a romance to attack the racial and religious prejudice of the Jews, trying to establish a closer social relationship between Jews and Gentiles. This is done by pure and simple motives, without violating existing faiths. Matrimony is freed from religious environments and placed plainly on social grounds. . . . Orthodoxy finally yields to the power of humanity. Without sensationalism or sentimentality the climax of the story is reached. Jewish religious scruples crumble into dust when attacked by the strong impulses of the human heart.What is less obvious is what Wolf actually values about Jewish life. She finds Jewish housekeeping too strict for her tastes (“as if at any moment a search-warrant for dirt might be served”); faults “Jewish etiquette, or rather Jewish espionage,” for not permitting an unmarried woman to appear in public unescorted by a man; is impatient with the habit of “Jewish people with diseased imaginations” to construe “every remark on the race as a personal calumny.” Although her characters describe themselves as “intensely Jewish” and swear they will die as Jews, their Jewishness consists of little beyond heated but vacuous declarations of identity, and much criticism.

Ever since feminist scholars rediscovered Other Things Being Equal, it has been treated as a proto-feminist novel about a woman who risks social ostracism to seek her freedom from the bondage of custom. It is hardly that. As a work of fiction, it owes more to literary convention than to political courage. As a novel of ideas, its value is as a testament to just how deeply the ideology of romance, of love as sufficient reason for tossing aside other responsibilities, had penetrated the consciousness of some significant number of American Jews well over a century ago.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Rise of David Levinsky

Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.

In American literature, Leslie Fiedler once quipped, nothing succeeds like failure. But among American Jewish writers, something like the reverse is closer to the truth: nothing fails so miserably as success. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the first classic of Jewish fiction in America.

Written by Abraham Cahan, editor of the Yiddish daily Forward from 1903 to 1946, The Rise of David Levinsky adopts the rags-to-riches formula of Horatio Alger’s wildly popular books for boys, but with a twist. David Levinsky comes to America a penniless immigrant and rises to success as a cloak-and-suit manufacturer “worth more than two million dollars”—only to find his life empty and insignificant. He fails to complete his education, fails to marry, fails to create a home for himself in his new land. He advances in the garment trade only through his “personation” of more successful men; deep inside, in the privacy of his soul, he experiences himself as a fraud.

How did this happen? The novel opens in the Russian “Pale of Settlement,” and its early pages conjure the atmosphere of poverty, violence, and zeal for learning that characterized the lives of Jews there. Much of this ground had been covered by Ezra Brudno’s earlier novel The Fugitive, but Cahan’s treatment is livelier and more exacting. Indeed, early reviewers praised the Russia section as perhaps the best part of the novel.

When his mother dies at the hands of antisemites, David is thrown upon charity. He distinguishes himself as a student of Talmud—Cahan may have been the first to propose that talmudic study explains why “our people represent a high percentage of mental vigor”—and a rich benefactor rewards him with free room and board. He promptly falls in love with the daughter of the house, who wants something better for him than Talmud. She raises the money to send him to America, where he hopes to become an educated man.

Once in the Promised Land, David takes work in a sewing shop to earn money for college, but his life is changed forever—he is “led astray,” he later says—when he accidentally spills a bottle of milk on a pile of silk coats. Abused by his boss, David plots revenge by stealing the company’s designer, whose “Americanized copies of French models had found special favor with the buyer of a certain large department store,” and starting up a garment business.

To get a drop on the competition, David lets his skilled tailors take Saturdays off instead of Sundays. In gratitude, the Sabbath-observant Jews are willing to work for lower pay. Such “cheap labor,” which he candidly admits is his “chief excuse for being” as a clothing manufacturer, gives him “an advantage over the princes of the trade.” When the Cloakmakers’ Union goes on strike, David makes a pretense of joining the industry-wide lockout but clandestinely permits his tailors to keep working, picking up the orders that other manufacturers have left unfilled. “What was a great calamity to the trade in general,” he reflects, “seemed to be a source of overwhelming prosperity to me.”

Thus David Levinsky’s rise, accomplished by cheating the competition and exploiting labor. Small wonder he will conclude his life story by declaring that, for all the “thrilling sense of my present power” when compared with his “days of need and despair,” nevertheless his “sense of triumph is coupled with a brooding sense of emptiness and insignificance,” and the “lack of anything like a great, deep interest.”

Although the book purports to be Levinsky’s autobiography, Cahan is at his best when he instructs his narrator to step back from his own story and become a street-level observer of Jewish immigrants, reporting the strange customs they adopt in turn-of-the-century New York. He transcribes, for example, the “uncouth language” of the Jewish pushcart man firing a “volley of obscenities at a departing housewife who had priced something on his cart without buying it.” He narrates the comic struggles of native Yiddish speakers in night school, butchering English in a hopeless effort to master “real Yankee utterance.” Newly wealthy Jews who parade their munificence in synagogue before their former Russian neighbors; unhappy Jewish housewives who dream of romance and squirm with guilt; affluent Jewish vacationers in the Catskills who rise to their feet at the American national anthem, “offering thanksgiving to the flag under which they were eating this good dinner, wearing these expensive clothes”; Yiddish writers “of two opposing schools” who quarrel at the top of their voices in a Bohemian café: through portraits like these Cahan’s book delivers a continually fascinating first-hand report of a lost place and time. The Rise of David Levinsky has been called the first Yiddish novel in America, even though it was written and published in English. It would be more accurate to call it the first Russian novel in America. Cahan adapts the tradition of Turgenev’s and Tolstoy’s realism to the American Jewish scene.

In the end, however, Cahan’s novel is driven less by sharp-eyed realism or a keen novelistic imagination than by a fixed idea, and is the poorer for it. Although he himself was an entrepreneur, building up the Forward to a circulation of 275,000 at its peak, Cahan neither understood nor appreciated business success. That starting a business and getting it to succeed requires not just hard work and luck but courage and real talent—“aptitudes,” in the words of the economist Joseph Schumpeter, “present in only a small fraction of the population”—is entirely alien to Cahan’s philosophy. He could not believe that, for a businessman like David Levinsky, the garment trade might itself be a “great, deep interest.” A lifelong socialist, Cahan was committed to the view that by definition any capitalist venture was exploitative, a means of legalized theft. His novel is a socialist roman à these, relentlessly pursuing its set-in-concrete ideological theme that private ownership destroys the soul.

On thematic grounds, The Rise of David Levinsky is barely distinguishable from Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, which preceded it by a year. But as Ruth R. Wisse has written, Cahan’s novel served as the model for many later works of American Jewish literature “in which the hero’s emotional sterility is the predictable price for his financial satiety.” Levinsky is a familiar type of Jewish success story, embarrassed if not made ashamed by his “satiety.” What the novel shows is that, if antisemitism is the socialism of fools, the long Jewish love affair with radical politics has been the socialism of shlimils.

David Levinsky’s inner failure earns neither the novelist’s nor the reader’s imaginative sympathy. Instead, what arouses that sympathy, and redeems the novel, are the loud streets teeming with the Jews whom Levinsky has left behind—many of them, no doubt, consoling themselves with fantasies of socialist revolution. Perhaps better than any other book, The Rise of David Levinsky depicts a Jewish world in which the losers are more successful and emotionally alive than the winners, on the page if not in life.