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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Among the writers Cahan imported from Europe for employment at the Forverts was the novelist Israel Joshua Singer, later best known as the older brother of Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. I.J. Singer had already written his classic novel of European Jewish life, The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), when he began work on a multi-generational family novel whose latter sections are set in America. The Family Carnovsky (1969)--its family name perhaps serving as inspiration for the title Philip Roth gives to his character Nathan Zuckerman’s novel Carnovsky--echoes its predecessor in its narrative sweep, and in its sense of family stories playing out over the progression from father to son to grandson. The Family Carnovsky ends on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the dreams of European Jewry seemingly go to die in empty consumerism and the abandonment of millennia of tradition.

Jewish writers, many of them from New York City, kept returning to their old neighborhoods for inspiration, charged by their own memories and the lives of their friends and neighbors. Sholem Asch's East River (1946) plumbed the depths of Manhattan’s far East Forties, documenting the clammy interactions between Jew and gentile. And Henry Roth, only rediscovered by a substantial audience in the 1960s, wrote Call It Sleep in 1934, drawing on his Lower East Side childhood. The book is purposefully limited in its scope, preferring to keep to a child’s perspective, allowing readers to philip rothintuit the matters Roth’s youthful protagonist cannot yet grasp. His Lower East Side is a place of shame and fear, though occasional hope. Roth, in Dickstein’s analysis, “portrays the world of the ghetto through the prism of the family romance.” The world of Call It Sleep is sweet and unbearably savage, a romance and a tragedy all at once. Re-emerging in the 1960s, Roth would serve as an inspiration to the Jewish writers of postwar America.

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Saul Austerlitz

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