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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The subject of the immigrant was an immensely rich one, borne by the native optimism of American life and a counterbalancing pessimism regarding the place of the immigrant—and the Jew in general—in American society. Was it possible for the Jewish immigrant to find his place in America? This was the theme of Abraham Cahan’s towering 

abraham cahan

novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), which spanned the gap between Europe and America in the figure of its eponymous hero. Cahan, a pioneering Yiddish-language journalist and the editor-in-chief for many decades of the Forverts (Forward) newspaper, made Levinsky the symbol of the immigrants’ progress from want to comfort. But David Levinsky, penned in English, is hardly a simple story of triumph. Its protagonist, having received much of America’s copious bounty, is unsure, at the very end, if he has been blessed or punished. Mary Antin approached the same question from a differing perspective, writing about her own journey from Russia to Boston, and her life as a writer, suffragette, and advocate for Jewish immigrants like herself. Antin was so persuasive as an advocate for women's rights to vote that none other than Theodore Roosevelt credited her with convincing him of the justice of the cause. Antin’s memoir The Promised Land (1912) meant its title literally, painting a portrait of America as a land of plenty.

These Jewish writers were not just reflecting the circumstances of immigration; they were often changed by it, too. Mike Gold—originally Yitzhak Granik but borrowing his pseudonym from a Civil War veteran—was a novelist and Communist activist, and his book Jews Without Money (1930), the title alone a pointed barb, offers, in the words of critic Morris Dickstein, an array of, “brutal snapshots of street and tenement life… a series of dreamlike memories leading to a final awakening.” This awakening takes the form of a quasi-religious fantasy of violent uprising: “O workers’ Revolution, you brought hope to me, a lonely, suicidal boy. You are the true Messiah. You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit.”

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Saul Austerlitz

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