Author Archives: Gerald Sorin

About Gerald Sorin

Gerald Sorin's most recent book, Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane, is now available. Gerald won the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in History for Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent.

Writing Biography: The Historian’s Challenge, Part 2

Can biographers really know their subjects fully? Was Mark Twain right when he said that “a man’s real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself?” And what about Freud who went even further: “Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishment, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had.”

Well, if biographical truth is not to be had, if a self is actually unknowable, can we at least analyze the work of the artist or the writer or the activist as a clue to the meaning of the life? Here a biographer is challenged by the postmodernists or deconstructionists who argue for “the death of the author,” and who see texts and even behavior as totally independent entities, neither of which tells us anything about their human creators. Not surprisingly, I take a somewhat different position. I acknowledge the existence of authors. Of course, the writing of any particular author may not be – and very often is not – autobiographical. Indeed, biographers, or general readers for that matter, who concentrate on ferreting out the self-referential, often miss the satisfaction of immersing themselves in the creative imagination of the writer. In any case, for me, authors are neither absent nor entirely inscrutable. Why otherwise would I have undertaken a biography of so prolific a writer as Fast, whose early writings seemed to have moved an entire generation of Jews in the direction of political liberalism, or of Irving Howe, who in his literary criticism and teaching fought fiercely against the “death of the author” school?

Of course, all of us remain partially hidden and variegated, and in cases like Howe or Fast, perhaps even more complexly so. In writing about these men then, I make no claim to definitiveness nor do I use a narrative strategy that projects a unified persona. Fast, for example, presents a case of extraordinary social mobility, a man who became wealthy writing more than 150 stories, 20 screenplays, and nearly 100 books, several selling in the tens of millions of copies; but he also forever carried within himself characteristics and memories of having been a poor street urchin. Moreover, Fast was not only a writer, but a brother, father, husband, son of immigrants, a Jew, a Communist, an “unfriendly witness,” a prisoner, and a Hollywood personality.

Writing Biography: The Historian’s Challenge, Part 1

For historians, writing biography presents a number of challenges. One of the more important comes from scholars who tend to classify biography as “an inferior type of history.” For example, three years ago the American Historical Society staged a roundtable on “biography as history,” invitations to which included the following: “For a long time historians have been ambivalent about the genre of biography…. Many are skeptical of the capacity of biography to convey the kind of analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”

But we biographers, even those such as myself who want to write cross-over books accessible to the educated lay public, don’t simply chart the course of a life from womb to tomb; we examine our subjects in dialectical relationship to the multiple worlds they inhabit, social, political, and cultural. My two subjects, Howard Fast and Irving Howe, for example, rose from immigrant poverty to eminence and wealth, and in Fast’s case immense wealth. Both were also political activists, and literary figures. And both bore the privileges, burdens, and complexities of being Jewish. Both were also involved, directly and indirectly, with events important to shaping the world of the twentieth century. It would have been next to impossible to neglect social context in biographies of these men.

Biographers are also often accused of voyeurism and sensationalism. Indeed, perhaps as acts of self-defense, several women and men of note have written their own biographies or memoirs – Howe wrote at least one, depending how you count; Fast, two – conceivably as a way of making one’s own case before a prosecutorial or gossip-mongering historian/biographer might appear on the scene. Elsa Morante, the Italian writer and wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, left a warning for biographers: To expose “the private life of a writer is gossip,” she said, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.” Janet Malcolm, the controversial American journalist goes further, characterizing biographers as burglars, parasites, and obsessive stalkers who trespass and injure. (more…)

Yiddish Theater in New York

Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Many of the institutions created by Eastern European Jews became vital elements in the new transitional culture. Outstanding in this respect was the American Yiddish theater, which also had its origins in the Old World. Performances and skits by Jews were developed in the 1870s as part of a Jewish cultural revival and were centered in the active secular Jewish cafe life of Iasi, Romania, where Avram Goldfadn, the father of Yiddish theatre, held sway.

By the early 1880s many impoverished Yiddish theater companies were performing in wine cellars scattered throughout the larger cities of Eastern Europe.

yiddish theatre in new york

King Solomon by Josef Kroger
at Thalia Theatre, 1897

But actors suffered harassment from both czarist government officials and Orthodox Judaism. Numerous theater peo­ple, including Goldfadn’s troupe, immigrated to the United States after 1883, when the Yiddish theatre was banned by Alexander III in the despotic aftermath of the assassination of Alexander II.

Growth & Development in the New World

In effect, Yiddish theater arrived in New York City in its infancy and was nurtured there at the turn of the century by its greatest audience — the largest, most heterogeneous aggregation of Jews in the world. In the early years in America, the Yiddish theater overflowed with “corrupt and foolish versions” of the European repertoire as well as “vivid junk and raw talent.” It took hold in the public mind only after many trials. But with the emergence of playwrights like Jacob Gordin and actors like Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky and Jacob Adler, larger and larger audiences were attracted.

Judaism Across America

Reprinted with permission from A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920.

(Johns Hopkins University Press).

Most discussions of the American Jewish experience have centered on New York City. This focus is justified because the great port and immigrant center, as early as 1880, sheltered 33 percent of American Jewry. Outside of New York, too, the American Jewish experience was essentially urban.

By 1920, New York City’s share of American Jews was 45 percent–its Jewish population was greater than the total populations of most American cities. Chicago and Philadelphia together accounted for 13 percent of American Jewry, and seven other large or midsize cities in the East and Midwest accounted for an additional 14 percent. More than 72 percent of American Jews resided in major cities, and their experiences were often strikingly similar from place to place.

But Jewish life in every city was not identical. Could Jewish experience in newer, smaller, Midwest Chicago, for example, have been the same as in older, larger, East Coast New York? Or could even a long-established coastal city like Philadelphia, with its quarter-million Jews making up 11 percent of the city’s population in 1920, produce the same Jewish history as New York, whose over a million and a half Jews accounted for 26 percent of the general population?

More pointedly, did Jews in mid-sized cities have the same experience as Jews in major urban centers? Surely Jewish life in even smaller cities had a different quality and texture. There is much to ask about regional differences too. Jews living in the South or the West and in small towns throughout the United States experienced a different America from those in the large northeastern cities.

The larger the city immigrant Jews settled in, the more likely their community would resemble the Lower East Side of New York: Yiddish-speaking Jews living in large concentrations and working among people very much like themselves. Immigrants in the smaller cities and towns of the interior, on the other hand, were far less dependent on the garment industry and the ethnic economy, generally, and more likely to be self-employed. They were also more dependent on the English language and more likely to have cultural interchange with Gentiles.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that the American interior was a breeding ground for assimilation. Sometimes the opposite was true. The very isolation of the immigrants outside the urban corridors of the Northeast or Midwest, in places like Sioux City, Iowa, or Springfield, Massachusetts, moved them to band together more tightly and to promote Jewish association and consciousness.

Certainly the religious congregation, where one could find comfort and guidance, still had a strong hold on the immigrant who left the East, particularly those in smaller cities and towns. Here Jews were not only inclined to become members of shuls out of their needs for spirituality and continuity but were expected to conform to the American practice of attending religious services “like everyone else."

Yiddish Press

Reprinted with permission from
A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II
Johns Hopkins University Press).

In New York City, the hub of the Yiddish-American universe, over 150 Yiddish dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, festival journals, and yearbooks appeared between 1885 and 1914. Some 20 dailies came into existence during that period, and for a time, at the turn of the century, as many as six competed simultaneously for readers.

Religion, Politics, & Literature

The Tageblatt, founded in 1885, represented the Orthodox religious point of view. The Morgen Journal was also Orthodox and was the first (1901) truly successful Yiddish morning paper. The 1890s saw the beginning of the Forvarts (Jewish Daily Forward), a socialist paper, which, under the guiding hand of Abraham Cahan, became the largest Yiddish newspaper in the world. In the same decade the Freie Arbeiter Shtime was born, representing the anarchists. Even the weekly La America (1910-25), a Ladino paper for Sephardic readers, printed a Yiddish column to attract advertisers in the greater Eastern European community.Jewish Daily Forward- Forvarts

Almost all Yiddish periodicals carried literary pieces. Translated tales of adventure and romance, like The Count of Monte Cristo and Don Quixote, were very popular. Readers even took the time to struggle with translations from Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Zola, and to try to follow the original Yiddish work of I. L. Peretz and Mendele Mokher Sforim.

But “all could take instant delight in the homely tales of Sholom Aleichem” and feel the pathos of Morris Rosenfeld’s “sweatshop lyrics.” Zalman Libin’s portraits of life in the tenements and sweatshops and Jacob Gordin’s naturalistic sketches were featured in the more radical journals. Buttonhole maker David Edelstadt–who for a short time edited the Freie Arbeiter Shtime–and Morris Winchevsky, who published the first socialist pamphlets to appear in Yiddish, also wrote labor poems for the press and won a wide readership.

A group of poets called Di yunge (the young ones)–Mani Lieb, Moishe Lieb Halpern, H. Leivick, and others–were linked for a time by their desire to write poetry that was not ideological. The majority of Di yunge were still shop workers, but they wanted to develop a freer, more personal poetry that would liberate them from what poet Zisha Landau called “the rhyme department of the labor movement.” And they, too, made their first appearances in the Yiddish press.