World of Our Fathers
by Irving Howe
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 714 pp., $14.95
You can change your religion but not your grandfather, said Ludwig Börne, who should have known. This, presumably, is the wisdom prevailing behind the torrents of nostalgia inundating the American Jewish community. When the Jewish Museum a few years ago mounted a lavish exhibition about the lower East Side, droves of college-educated, Bloomingdale’s-outfitted people came to Fifth Avenue to stare dreamily at the photos of pious, bedraggled Jews who looked as if they had come from another planet. More recently the same audience turned Hester Street into the sleeper of the year. But it is mostly in the printed word—Jews will be Jews—that the fashion is to be found. Publishers pour out a profusion of memoirs, novels, studies, and handsome photographic albums that undoubtedly make their way to any number of suburban coffee tables and bewildered Bar-mitzvah boys.
Into this hectic recherche du temps perdu comes Irving Howe’s book. Perhaps its most refreshing strength in this climate of rampant Jewish sentimentality is its utter lack of any. Howe is not one of those uneasy Jews who at the first whiff of herring or flicker of a Sabbath candle break into prose poetry. (His manner recalls Chekhov’s reaction to Tolstoy’s romanticized muzhiks: “There is peasant blood in my veins and you can’t bowl me over with peasant virtues.”) He knows what made his fathers great and what made them small, and his sobriety is itself an eloquent act of homage.
World of Our Fathers, let it be said at once, is a masterly social and cultural history, a vivid, elegiac, and scrupulously documented portrait of a complicated culture, from its heroic beginnings to its unheroic end. Fully conversant with the literature on America’s Jews, Howe has generously supplemented it with the little-known writings of journalists and memoirists, and studded his narrative with those evocative petits faits significatifs without which social history would be only a slightly less dreary branch of sociology. Never once does he lose sight of his hero, dos kleyne menshele, the little man; the compassion in his scholarship has a strong Orwellian ring.
Beginning in the 1880s, and for several decades following, roughly two million Jews made the perilous journey from the Pale to New York. As Howe depicts it, the most distinctive feature of their life on the lower East Side was its intensity, the seemingly inexhaustible energies realizing and dissipating themselves in those cramped, clamorous streets. There all the pent-up desires of an age-old exile appeared to be finding release, among them many which had had to remain underground in the firmly ordered Jewish society of Eastern Europe. But in the teeming and still formless world of the disembarked immigrants, anything seemed possible, as strangers in a strange land struggled to lift themselves out of their wretchedness, belatedly claiming their share of unexplored experience and expression.
The intellectual vitality of these slum-dwellers was also astonishing. With the Torah and the Talmud they brought Das Kapital and …