Jewish Immigrant Literature

Yiddish-speaking Jews put faith in the language of their new country and left an indelible mark on American letters.

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Between 1881, when brutal Russian pogroms impelled the Jews of Eastern Europe to head west, and 1924, when the Immigration Act drastically limited the number of Jews who could come to the United States, more than 2.5 million Jews arrived in the country.

Having come to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, how was the greenhorn Jew to acclimate him- or herself to American life? How much of the European Jewish life would be maintained? And how, precisely, would the competing identities of American and Jew be balanced, and sustained? The slow, and at times shockingly fast, process of adjustment to a new country, and a new way of life, became the subject of American Jewish literature for decades.

Jews had been immigrating to the United States since the colonial era, but it was not until the Russian pogroms of the 1880s, which drove Eastern European Jews in enormous numbers to the country, that the process of making a home in a new country became a central concern of American Jewish letters. Many of the immigrants settled in the cramped tenements of New York City, particularly those of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Lower East Side was a place unto itself, its pushcart businessmen, its squalid apartments, and its mix of old-country religion and new-world license symbolic of a place both recognizable and shockingly unfamiliar.

Polish-born Anzia Yezierska (c. 1880-1970), perhaps the best known of this generation of Jewish writers, was both a product of these circumstances, and the mirror that reflected them back to an audience composed in large part of Americans not personally familiar with life in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Yezierska’s short stories, collected in the volume Hungry Hearts (1920), and her novel Bread Givers (1925) are both depictions of the grim circumstances of the Jewish ghettos, and her canny use of the immigrants’ language—part English, part Yiddish, part greenhorn hodgepodge—gives her work a solid grounding in reality. Later, Leo Rosten, writing under an Anglicized nom de plume, Leonard Q. Ross, penned a minor classic of dialect humor, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), whose hilarity stemmed from Rosten’s similarly adept use of Jewish immigrant malapropisms for comic effect.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.